Seattle's Own "Christmas Story"

Local filmmaker Sue Corcoran makes a holiday movie in Seattle’s own backyard.
Brangien Davis  |   December 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Sue Corcoran on location in Leavenworth last March

“Make the world you want to see” is a refrain that runs through Ira Finkelstein’s Christmas, the new family holiday movie directed and cowritten by Sue Corcoran.

It also happens to be a theme that carries significant personal resonance for the Seattle filmmaker. In the comedy, Ira Finkelstein—a California-based, Christmas-obsessed 11-year-old Jewish boy—is on a mission to experience the snowiest, most reindeer-filled holiday possible.

As Corcoran says, “The story is near and dear to my heart.”

Corcoran grew up Catholic in an Irish and Italian neighborhood in Chicago, but felt very attached to the Jewish family that lived next door. “They were like an extension of our family,” she recalls. As a kid, she understood why her neighbors sometimes felt like outsiders—particularly around the holidays—and remembers wishing everyone could celebrate the spirit of the holidays together. The seed of Ira was planted.

But it wasn’t until many years later—after Corcoran moved to Seattle (in 1993) and graduated from The Film School (in 2004), after she started her own media production company, Von Piglet Productions (in 2006), and after earning multiple awards for directing and producing—that Ira began to sprout.

Whip smart and witty, Corcoran radiates confidence, even as she confesses, “I’m not a super-indie person”—a veritable blasphemy in the local arts scene.

“It’s important to remember that ‘independent’ isn’t a film aesthetic,” she clarifies. “It literally means making a movie outside the studio industry.”

Corcoran goes on to explain, “I’m part of the independent film scene in Seattle, but I just don’t do super-low-budget, mumblecore films. Others here do that really well. It’s just not me.” Her plan with Ira was to make a polished, artful, accessible television movie—independently.

In 2009, Corcoran brought the concept for Ira (along with four other ideas) to the American Film Market (AFM), an annual gathering of independent film industry executives.

“Ira was the one they latched onto,” Corcoran says. But the potential distributors she met with had one question: “Does it have a dog?” She answered, “I love dogs!” and added two to the script.

Last year, Corcoran asked screenwriter Douglas Horn to write a first draft. Corcoran wrote a second draft and passed it to longtime Seattle artistic collaborator Angie Louise, who rewrote it once again. “After the third draft,” Corcoran says, “I knew it was good enough to move forward.” All that was left to do was to raise nearly $1 million, hire the actors, secure locations, and film and edit the movie.

“I wrote a business plan,” says Corcoran, “on what a film like this could bring in, and how could we make all our money back.” She held fundraising house parties, “turning over every rock” for potential film supporters. Coproducer Jane Charles brought in the first investor, with $200,000, and the team began auditions.

A vocal supporter of all types of local filmmaking, Corcoran wanted to shoot in Washington (despite the fact that Ira didn’t qualify to receive funds from the now-defunct Washington Film Incentive).

Much of the movie takes place in the fictional “Christmastown, WA,” which was played by (where else?) Leavenworth.

When the team first scouted the area, the ground was brown and muddy. But in something of a Christmas miracle, it began snowing just after the cast and crew arrived in early March, and kept snowing all 14 days of the shoot.

“Leavenworth is a tourist town,” Corcoran notes. “They get it. All the stores kept their decorations up for us, the city replaced burnt-out light bulbs…and 500 people showed up to cheer on a fake parade.” The local approximation of Florida was a bit tougher—especially in April, on 47-degree days. But Alki made for a more-than-adequate stand-in.

During the Leavenworth shoot, Elliott Gould signed on to play Ira’s Florida-retiree grandfather—a big win. “He took a huge leap of faith,” Corcoran marvels. David DeLuise followed soon after (as Ira’s endearingly ambitious dad). The entire shoot was completed in 28 days. Bruce Monroe, musical director at the 5th Avenue Theatre, composed the score in a mere three weeks.

There was just one problem: The fundraising goal hadn’t been reached. The shooting had wrapped, but people still needed to get paid. A friend suggested ZINO Society, a Seattle firm that connects investors with entrepreneurs.

Last June, Corcoran threw her Santa hat into the ring at the ZINO Entertainment Investment Forum. Ira was awarded “Best Investment Opportunity,” beating gaming startups and mobile-app pitches. The necessary dollars arrived, and then some. “So many people wanted to give me money that I couldn’t take it all,” Corcoran says—a sentence perhaps never before spoken by an independent filmmaker.

At press time Corcoran was returning to AFM, shopping Ira to television studios and hoping to get picked up as a holiday movie to run annually on TV, in the tradition of another well-known holiday movie about making the world you want to see. “I tried to make a Frank Capra movie,” she says, “with lots of laughs.”

 


Ira Finkelstein’s Christmas
Produced by Sue Corcoran, Susan LaSalle and Jane Charles
Directed by Sue Corcoran
Watch the trailer below and stay updated on the movie’s air date at ira-finkelsteins-christmas.com

Untitled from Von Piglet Productions on Vimeo.

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