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Friday, June 09, 2006

Interview with Northwest Film Forum co-founder Jamie Hook

Filmmakers Jamie Hook and Deborah Girdwood started the Seattle film production organization WigglyWorld Studios in 1995. Over the next few years WigglyWorld expanded, acquired film screening capabilities, and eventually became the Northwest Film Forum (NWFF). At present NWFF is a Seattle cultural landmark that screens art, independent, and foreign films and assists filmmakers in creating their work. For a lengthy history of NWFF, go here. Hook is engaged in film production projects in New York City at the moment. Earlier this week I interviewed Hook through e-mail regarding NWFF, regional filmmaking, his controversial year in Minnesota, and his future plans.

Sujewa: Jamie, you are credited with co-founding the mighty & awesome art/indie/foreign movie theater Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) in Seattle, can you please elaborate on that & tell us about what things were like - film screening wise - in Seattle prior to the coming of the NWFF & also can you tell us about the actual process of starting NWFF - what exactly did you have to do?

Jamie: The NWFF was borne of frustration: At the time (1994) Seattle had no real filmmaking organization that focused on that oh-so-unpopular notion of helping people working in the filmic medium make ART. There were access orgs, but their missions were all confused, wrapped up in this notion of access to democratic tools of expression, blah blah blah and I was interested in, simply, film as art. 911 Media Arts was typical of those organizations where the administrators came before the artists on whose backs they build their case to exist, and I found it downright humiliating. So I started NWFF out of frustration with that. SO many great organizations are borne of that feeling: from WigglyWorld to Dreamworks, spite can be a great engine.

The whole exhibition end of NWFF came later (prompting the name change, the original sin of NWFF) and in some ways became the tail that wags the dog: WigglyWorld was always about putting the filmmakers first, and making art was meant to be the heart and soul of it. I was very aware of organizations which support art but not artists: you find a lot of them in provincial towns like Seattle, where you can import a whole season of work from other places, and thereby not have to support your own people. And WigglyWorld, albeit in an immature way, strove to buck this trend, and grow local artists, and support them in our own theaters, fuck what the status quo thought. If we could have it be good enough for ourselves, that was success on our own terms-end of story. Naturally, the venture was riven with idealism.

So WigglyWorld was really borne of three people: Myself, Deb Girdwood (my wife at the time) and filmmaker Gregg Lachow, who was sort of the conscience of WigglyWorld-though he had just moved to NYC and couldn't actively help us build it. We applied for and got a grant, read books from the library about how to found a non-profit, and just went for it. The vision was articulated, for a studio that valued collaboration, that respected the vulgar process of art no less than the product, and that used cinema and exhibition as an inspirational and educational tool for artists first and foremost. Along the way we attracted a live theatre element too.

Sujewa: I was in Seattle last month and I fell in strong like with the city and NWFF. The venue has very tall ceilings, nice wood floors, 2 excellent theaters w/ good seating & good projection & good sound, etc. & pretty good taste in movies (Love Streams played while I was there, and Calvin "K Records" Johnson popped in to play some music). Is NWFF very unique or are there similar venues (that you have seen) throughout the country?

Jamie: There are lots of great theatres coming into and out of being at any given time all over the world: from someone's cafe to the Coolidge Corner. What was and I hope still is unique about the NWFF was it positioning cinema not as the end in itself, but as the tool of inspiration and audience education with which to build a community whose primary goal was the creation of original films. I wonder if that as the organization continues to mature, that (production) aspect will be subsumed under the larger mission to run a successful organization, and therefore limit the admittedly reckless act of filmmaking in order to stabilize the place.

I am proud of the Film Forum's exhibition success, but it has come at a price, and that price is the vibrancy and scope of the productive activities the organization can embrace. Like a child who dreams of being an astronaut when he grows up settling for being a bus driver, you trade dreams for stability at somepoint. And that is not necessarily a bad thing: provided you use your stability to further good ends it can be a great thing. But it is a slippery slope, and I only hope that the relative ease of running a film center never fully eclipses the foolish and difficult goal of making a new sort of cinema in a new way.

Sujewa: Did NWFF accomplish the goals that you set for that project when you started it? Did it make filmgoing in Seattle better? Did it make life better for local indie filmmakers?

Jamie: The NWFF fulfilled my expectation. If there was a limit, it was that what I imagined-which I would say the NWFF succeeded in becoming-was not very big. By which I mean, I thought, "wow- I could make $600 a month working at my own theatre-Whoa!" Now I see that it would be better to make $6000 a month working on a time machine, or an anti-doomsday device-both of which are really just other words for great art. I learned a shitload at NWFF and hope and believe that I empowered more than a few filmmakers and other artspersons (programmers, administrators, etc.) to imagine a different future and have faith in their ability to implement a piece of it.

And I don't mean to sound ungrateful for the tremendous success and support heaped on the organization: on the contrary, I was blessed with arriving in Seattle when I did, and bumping into so many folks who gave me their belief, and I am sincerely thankful. But people outgrow things, as things outgrow them. I don't think the NWFF could sustain my current dreams-mostly because Seattle itself has shown itself to be a bit circumscribed as regards its own faith in its own artistic population. And that is what I was getting at in Caveh's blog. Seattle is a great place to learn, and a great place to develop, but I am not yet convinced that it is a great place to thrive as an artist. It seems reactionary in that regard, where New York seems secure. It's like the classic observation: only inWorld Class cities do you never hear people talking about creating "world class" institutions or products: It is a given. IN Seattle, everyone is constantly talking about creating "world class" art, food, transportation systems, etc. And that is reactionary. The attitude should be more of one where making it Seattle class automatically confers world class status-anything less is drawing limits.

Sujewa: Judging by your recent comment at Caveh Zahedi's blog & from our brief e-mail conversation, it seems that you have become disillusioned with DIY/indie/regional film production & exhibition projects such as NWFF. Can you talk a little (or a lot) about why you feel the way you feel now about NWFF & regional filmmaking?

Jamie: Adressed a bit above, but to elaborate: ultimately, ambition is important to a community. And while there are always winners in the great American "Indie-film" Success Lottery who validate the idea of regional film, it's pretty hard to build a community on the basis of winning a lottery. I advocate for a greater sustainability over time of a community dedicated to specific aesthetic goals, and that implies a) money, and b) access to the means of production and distribution. I was able to assemble both those things in a smallish way in Seattle, and certainly WigglyWorld succeeded in transforming Seattle filmmaking by that formula, and in providing a shelter for a local community.

The problem, I see, is that the limits of Seattle itself began to bind. Meaning that, the city itself, not believing that it could effectively become a third estate in independent film (as Austin so clearly believed and effectively made manifest) allows their fruit to wither on the vine. Case in point? There is a huge, vastly under-utilized facility, Sand Point, owned by the city and perfect for filmmaking. But in its typical inoffensive way, Seattle refuses to take the plunge and convert it, not realizing that in order to grow, you must give things up: Give up the illusion of a "Multi-use cultural venue" at Sand Point, and gain a dedicated Film center that could turn the tide of runaway production to Canada, of declining or aging local filmmaker ranks, of many ills. That is just one example: the corporate reticence to fund filmmaking is another, as is the declining share of artist funding dedicated to unfettered filmmaker fellowships.

It is all just money, and money is not a thing: it is a state of mind. So it is a failure of imagination on the part of Seattle, compounded by an unfortunate tendency of that population to want to avoid conflictat all costs (Mayor Nickels oft-quoted "Seattle Way" being a shorthand for timidity). In the 90s, when Seattle was burning white-hot, people felt uncharacteristically risk-friendly. Now, they are once more risk-averse, not remembering that the seeds of future success depend on taking risks in the present. Hell, even Paul Allen's Vulcan Pictures/Clear Blue Sky - which has more money than anyone reading this and everyone they could possibly know ever will have has consistently decided to "play it safe", with crap like the decidedly LA-based "Hard Candy"-hardly a vote of confidence on the part of a Seattle Prince for his own people.

As for Seattle as a poster-child for Regional filmmaking: Don't get me wrong: as much as anyone, I want film to remain diverse, visually, intellectually, etc. The problem is, I see that most of the diversity now is actually driven from the center: in Seattle, you find just as high, if not higher, proportion of folks who are simply aping Hollywood and Indiewood genre pictures: Thrillers set in Espresso shops and Romantic Comedies about Environmentalists are stock in trade for Seattle filmmaking: and that is not worth supporting just because the setting is different.

It is vital that America re-envision the landscape of independent film. But that task requires the highest levels of artistic commitment one can muster, backed by significant financial and institutional resources (significant, but still microscopic compared to Hollywood Standards). And like I said, the artistic commitment can exist anywhere, but without the support, it withers. Seattle and Minneapolis and the like have the art part down: I am not for a second questioning that. And indeed, I am proud to have done my part to help it. It is the support system beyond that that lacks. And my hunch is that it exists in New York (don't know about LA), because most things exist in New York.

Sujewa: If I wanted to start a venue like NWFF, what are the top 10 things that I need to do/worry about/take care of?

Jamie:
1. Think big.
2. Put artists first: always remember that you depend on them, not the other way round.
3. Make sure to pay yourself well.
4. Don't compromise for any amount.
5. Work with a partner you trust: two heads are better than one.
6. Don't be afraid to not know: but make sure you have a plan to find out.
7. Don't be a prima donna: do you homework, file your taxes, make sure your books are clean, keep your desk neat, remember to wash behind your ears, don't lie, etc. etc.
8. Don't be intimidated by money or people with money. Imagine rather that they are just like you but 25years down the road.
9. Don't do what others are doing.
10. ALWAYS KEEP YOUR FAITH!!!!

Sujewa: Where can I learn more about starting my own art/indie/foreign movie theater?

Jamie: The same place you learn how to overthrow the government or buld a time machine: the library.

Sujewa: What happened in Minnesota? An anonymous e-mailer said you "DESTROYED a 40-year-old Minnesota film organization in just eleven months working there, through gross and obscene mishandling of funds". Feel free to take as much space as you need to fully explain the Minnesota Film Arts situation. In articles about that situation (such as this one) that I've seen so far you get a line or two for an explanation, but I suspect that the full story about Minnesota is a long one.

Jamie: It is always easier to blame someone from outside than to criticize yourself: the fate of a passive-aggressive town. As regards Minnestoa, I quote the facts: 1. I did fail to submit a $25K per year grant. it was my fault, and I have never denied it. 2. My budgets showed a revenue shortfall of some$30K, and were presented to the board in Sept. 04. The board was expected to raise the balance. AS of Sept.05, they had not done so. I resigned when we ran out of money, with the board's approval. 3. The board of MFA does not raise a penny. One member, Tim Grady gave his own money, but was subsequently bitter about it and used it as a leverage point. 4. When I left,the organization had about $7k of debt, and was running two theatres with a staff of 4 well respected people. Four months later, the organization was, according to the board, $100K in debt, and all of the employees had quit. In the interveneing time, the board was the "director" of the organization. 5. The film festival broke records for attendance and earning in my year there. I did spend more on the festival, as I had told the board was my intent from day one. (In fact, as a c-grade festival in a town that strives to have a-grade arts, I think the festival needs signnificant investment over the next several years. For a festival to BOAST about "13 sell-outs!" over 250 screenings is ridiculous when Vancouver, Seattle, Toronto, etc. boast 75% sellouts. 6. The board has no accountability to anyone other than themselves. There are no term limits, no legal minimum in the bylaws (the state mandates 3) and no official membership (the "membership" in the film arts is merely for money). 7. Only three of the seven boardmembers attended our opening night film, and when I asked them to move 10 tickets each to friends and family ($20 for a film & party) the board refused.

I had a miserable time with that board, and am glad to be gone. I am somewhat sorry for Minneapolis, but in the end, they get what they deserve: The city should stop being passive and either beef up the festival, or abandon it and start a real film festival. For a board of a $1 Million non-profit to raise not a penny is a joke. My subsequent board raised $25% and participated 100% in all events.

The problem is at the top. I was not at the top, therefore, I was not the problem. I regret my errors, but I am proud of my successes, which were many.

Than again, it is Minnesota. As everyone there is so proud of reminding themselves and each other: "flyovercountry."

Sujewa: What are ya up to in NYC these days?

Jamie: I am founding a new FOR PROFIT film production company with my old partner Gregg Lachow, that takes all of the lessons we learned from The Film company and WigglyWorld and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International film Festival (which I ran) and the Seattle Jewish Film Festival (which Gregg ran), and combines them into a company that takes up where we left off at WigglyWorld. It will be WigglyWorld but imagined at a much larger scale. If it is less idealistic, it is also more effective: a worthy tradeoff. And it still has artistic conviction to burn. IN our first year, we produced the Slamdance grand jury prize winning "We Go Way Back" as well as Guy Maddin's new film: extrapolate from that, and you get the picture. It will be based in New York. We will launch in September, and begin production on a 5-film slate in January, 2007.

Thanks Jamie!

- Sujewa

3 comments:

amir motlagh the humanzee said...

good read...i understand your position now "Jamie" on the regional filmmaking comment on Caveh's blog earlier...i have never denied the fact that being in the art centers helps ones ambition..in fact, in some film communities i have run across, success is frowned upon, although i doubt that to be the case privately. this raises the interesting idea of the internet as a means of connection and communication between the small town kids and the big dogs. in some cases, like fine arts, the solicitation of the work and subsiqeunt(sp) career might be maintained without a move to the cultural centers if one wishes..i myself move between LA and Orange County so i get the taste of the small and large. It is easier to work on art for me in Orange County, but all the meetings and such happen north. But i think that it is easy to lose your scope, your vision in the bigger cities because you are forced into the modern and the moment, and derivitism is just a glance away. Maybe the same the other way around. Just some thoughts.

N.P. Thompson said...

great piece, Sujewa, gratifying to read. And Jamie's diagnosis of "the Seattle way" is quite accurate.

filmic said...

Jamie is mostly brilliant at spending other people's money and playing pseudo-intellectual games to get at your wallet and time. He'll ignore you if you're not relevant, like you if you have money, and hate you if you "threaten" him with any degree of genuine talent.

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