Seattle Hosts the Nation's Biggest Film Fest, and Local Talent Stars

Seattle International Film Festival showcases our growing population of cinema talents.
screen gems Left to right: Screenwriters Lindy West and Ahamefule J. Oluo with Charles Mudede, director of their film Thin Skin, at SIFF Cinema Egyptian Theatre. Mudede, The Stranger’s film editor, has screened his own films at SIFF, Sundance, and the Ca

With the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) just around the corner (May 18–June 11), thoughts naturally turn to the glamorous visiting stars and world premieres at the country’s largest film fest. But let’s not neglect the “S” in SIFF. There’s always a showcase at the fest for local auteurs and productions, now called Northwest Connections.

The queen of our local movie scene is, of course, Lynn Shelton, whose fourth feature, Your Sister’s Sister, was the first local film to open SIFF. That was in 2012, and her success—and mentorship—has helped spawn a new wave of local indie filmmaking talent. Some of those talents you will see at SIFF this year, or the next. In the meantime, Shelton told us, she just shot a top-secret flick, which is likely destined for a big fall Oscar-campaign-launching festival like Toronto’s or Telluride’s—and likely to be seen at SIFF 2018.

While we wait for that, on the eve of the 43rd annual SIFF, here are five of the most exciting auteurs to watch on the local film scene (and as a bonus, a rising young actress who stars in two of their movies). Klieg lights are soon to follow them all.

Ahamefule J. Oluo, Lindy West & Charles Mudede

Best Known For
Trumpeter and composer Ahamefule J. Oluo wowed Seattle audiences with his acclaimed autobiographical musical stage show, Now I’m Fine, first presented at On the Boards in 2014. Lindy West, who is married to Oluo, is a journalist—formerly of The Stranger—and author of last year’s well-received Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. (A New York Times review described West as “one of the most distinctive voices advancing feminist politics through humor.”) And Mudede is the erudite Stranger writer and screenwriter of two films, Zoo and Police Beat.

Why They're Important Now
Oluo and West are penning a screenplay for a planned adaptation of Now I’m Fine, collaborating with Los Angeles–based comic Hari Kondabolu, an old stand-up pal of Oluo and Mudede, who’ll direct the film.

About The Film
“I don’t come from the film world at all,” says Oluo. But, he says, laughing, he also had no experience with the stage world before Now I’m Fine, and no stand-up comedy experience before honing some of that “so painful, it’s funny” life experience at open mics. (This is how he met Kondabolu, who still tours regularly through Seattle, where he once lived.) West helped him refine Now I’m Fine for its reprise at The Moore Theatre last year. Of the film adaptation, Oluo says the comedy will remain, despite the raw emotions that are part of the story, from a brutal year when Oluo was pummeled with divorce, horrific illness and the death of the Nigerian father who abandoned his North Seattle family when he was a child.

“We’re looking at a five- to six-week shooting schedule. In a perfect world, we’re shooting late spring, early summer,” says Oluo. The cinematographer will be Zia Mohajerjasbi, who shot Macklemore’s “The Town” video. Oluo will play himself, among an ensemble of characters. The film is tentatively titled Thin Skin, a reference to Oluo’s past medical crisis. “All this is all new stuff,” he says of the project.

Film is also new to West, who’s leaping in with the charm and gusto that propelled her from being an intern at The Stranger to a globally known writer for London’s The Guardian. “I’m kind of falling into that world by accident,” says West, who is also developing Shrill as a half-hour television series for Brownstone Productions, co-run by actress and director Elizabeth Banks (recently the director of Pitch Perfect 2), who optioned the book. West is cultivating her pitching and writing chops; casting for a potential pilot hasn’t been announced. For Oluo’s film, her role is “to make sure the female characters are well-rounded and realistic” and to supply jokes, honed by her Twitter gift for one-liners. “It didn’t feel like a struggle [to adapt the story],” she says. “The bones were already there.” 

Straight Outta Seattle: Accepted by the world’s top film school at the University of Southern California, actress-turned-filmmaker S.J. Chiro chose to launch her career in Seattle instead, won SIFF prizes and had the only Seattle feature film at SXSW in 2017. Her first film, "Lane 1974," is based on a memoir and is playing the festival circuit. Photographed at The Egyptian

S.J. Chiro

Best Known For
Her stage work as an actress and director at Annex Theatre and other stage companies.

Why She's Important Now
Breakthrough talent Chiro began making short films a decade ago (all but one was seen at SIFF). Her first feature, Lane 1974, was shot last year in Seattle and Sonoma County, California, and will be screened at SIFF 2017. The drama debuted this past March at Austin’s SXSW Festival, an increasingly prestigious perch for movies as well as musicians.

About The Film
Based on Clane Hayward’s memoir The Hypocrisy of Disco, the film concerns a 13-year-old heroine raised by northern California hippies in the ’70s, as Chiro was. “It resonated so deeply with me,” says Chiro of Hayward’s peripatetic upbringing. “Her family was very nomadic. I’d always wanted to talk about my childhood. I do call it a coming-of-age story.”

Director Chiro, based in Ballard’s Sunset Hill, also wrote the adaptation of Hayward’s book; the final script incorporates elements from both Chiro’s and Hayward’s childhoods. Lane is the name of her heroine, who is 13 in 1974—with Watergate, Nixon and the Vietnam War as the fractious backdrop. Lane’s estranged parents epitomize the era’s “last burst of optimism and willingness to rebel.” During such familial and political tumult, “Lane dreams of being able to fit in with the mainstream of her generation,” unlike her peacenik parents. If you liked The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Captain Fantastic, chances are you’ll like Lane 1974

Ubiquitous Griffiths: After working as assistant director on breakout films by Seattle’s Lynn Shelton, Charles Mudede, and others, Megan Griffiths won eight directing prizes at SIFF, SXSW and festivals in Milan and San Diego. Her sixth film, "Sadie," comes out this fall. Photographed at The Egyptian

Megan Griffiths

Best Known For
Producing half the movies made in Seattle; directing three prior, stubbornly indie features, including Lucky Them, starring Toni Colette, which played at SIFF 2014 and was released nationwide.

Why She's Important Now
An indispensable Capitol Hill producer and go-to font of filmmaking knowledge, Griffiths directed her first feature, The Off Hours, in 2011. Every one of her features since has also played at SIFF, and she’s in postproduction on her sixth, Sadie, due to be released this fall. Kiwi wonder Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures, Togetherness) plays a mom with a husband off at war and a 13-year-old being shaped by violence on screen and in society.

“I’m interested in the influence of adult actions on young brains,” says Griffiths. “I tend to be interested in the darker side of human nature.” Her father’s military deployment is naturally weighing on Sadie, as does what Griffiths calls “the lack of empathy in our world right now.” The film is set in the present, though not specifically contemporaneous with the Trump presidency.

Griffiths also says that Sadie has a generic small-town backdrop, far from our blue-bubble metropolis. Out there in rural America, when it comes to tough talk or violent imagery, “Young men are encouraged to lean in,” says Griffiths. “It’s sort of expected that girls respond differently.” But, she adds, Sadie is “not your typical preteen.” Lest you think Griffiths is all about the dark stuff, she and Lynn Shelton have collaborated on a comedy script—presently on the back burner—based on a true-crime episode aired on This American Life (“The Incredible Case of the PI Moms”), about a bunch of suburban soccer moms who form a detective agency. Ira Glass is a producer. We can’t wait. 

The star of Megan Griffiths’ Sadie is the same one featured in S.J. Chiro’s Lane 1974: Sophia Mitri Schloss, 14, who attends Shoreline’s Evergreen School and already has 21 IMDb credits, including TV’s Portlandia, Grimm and The Kicks. “She’s a prodigy,” says Griffiths. “I would definitely track her.” Chiro adds, “It’s a huge role. She’s in every single scene [of Lane 1974]. She is brilliant.” And another up-and-coming Seattle film talent to watch—at SIFF and beyond. 

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