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Fashion x Film: Behind the Scenes at SIFF

If you’re like us, you’re always on the lookout for fresh sources of inspiration: art, music, magazines, food, movies—anything can spark a new outfit, a new obsession or your next night out.

That’s why we get excited every summer when the Seattle International Film Festival (better known as SIFF) rolls around. The largest event of its kind in the country, this year’s SIFF consists of more than 450 feature films, shorts and documentaries packed into 25 days of cinematic bliss—with topics ranging from a Keira Knightley musical to the legend of Yves Saint Laurent.

We’ll be bringing you updates on stylish films throughout the fest, which commences May 15. To kick things off, though, keep reading for an exclusive Q&A with the festival’s directors and a look behind the scenes at SIFF headquarters (located a convenient monorail ride away from our Seattle flagship store).

Before we get started, here’s SIFF’s 2014 trailer—a visceral blast of cinema history that cuts to the heart of film’s immersive power.

Your hosts: SIFF Managing Director Mary Bacarella and SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence.

THE THREAD: Congratulations on SIFF’s 4oth anniversary! Could you tell us how the festival first got started?
CARL SPENCE: It was started by two guys that came down from Canada, and they actually started at the historic Moore Theatre. They turned that into a cinema in the mid-1970s, and they renamed it the Egyptian Moore. And out of that, they started the international film festival. The first festival was roughly 18 films.

THE THREAD: Things have come a long way—you screen hundreds of titles during the festival now, in addition to operating multiple theater locations around Seattle, year-round.
CARL: The audience has grown exponentially. We actually have the biggest audience of any festival in the United States. There’s San Francisco and Los Angeles Film Festivals that have smaller audiences. The New York Film Festival is an amazing festival, but it only has about 30 films, and it’s very specific. Even Tribeca doesn’t have that kind of reach, so Seattle has this crazy audience and this thirst for film.

Neatly labeled. You’ve got to be organized to run a festival with 150,000 attendees.

THE THREAD: Besides being the largest, what do you think sets SIFF apart from other festivals?
CARL: We like showing all types of films. We definitely love our genre movies as much as we love our high-art, experimental films. We like to laugh, and we like to cry.
MARY BACARELLA: We hear from filmmakers that the reason they like to come to Seattle is because we really engage with film. We ask questions. We want to know more. We’ll go to films for 25 days straight, and they really appreciate that. When they come here, people really want to know about their film. They want to know about their process, and they want to know about their stories.

THE THREAD: One example of SIFF embracing all genres is that the sci-fi classic Alien world-premiered here. Any other highlights that our readers might find surprising?
CARL: The first festival had Rocky Horror Picture Show as a sneak, before it had really been seen anywhere, and the studio didn’t really know what to do with it. The Empire Strikes Back premiered here with a midnight screening—followed by 3am, 6am and 9am screenings—and all of them sold out! One of my favorite filmmakers is Richard Linklater, and his first film, Slacker, premiered here. Mel Gibson was here for the world premiere of Braveheart on our opening night one year. That was the first time it had been seen, and that film went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The Notebook opening our film festival I thought was pretty great—with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. Some people loved that movie, some people hated it—but most people remembered it.

Film-inspired festival posters line the walls.

THE THREAD: As SIFF grew over the years, it’s expanded to multiple venues all over Seattle—at which you screen films year-round, in addition to during the festival. Tell us about some of those historic theaters.
CARL: [In the ’80s], the festival and the cinema moved from the Moore to a new space: the Masonic Temple [built in 1915] up on Capitol Hill on Pine Street, which they renamed the Egyptian. They used to do boxing and other kinds of things in there, and they created a theater out of that space. So that was created by the Festival. It’s been closed for a year, but we’re going to be re-opening it for the festival, and we’re still exploring if we’re ready to re-open and establish that as a year-round venue for SIFF.

“The Uptown [in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne neighborhood] closed in 2010. It had been a movie theater since 1926, so it’s only been closed for one year of its entire existence—other than when they remodeled and added two screens in 1989, I think. It closed down in 2010, but we worked behind the scenes to see how we could re-open that theater [and did so in 2011]. We’ve gone full bore there and it’s really exploded.

L: Inside the upstairs projection room.
R: This year’s poster: “You will be returned home safely, but forever changed.”

THE THREAD: It’s really interesting to get a look inside the projection room. Can you tell us a little about this equipment?
CARL: We can still do old-fashioned film, reel to reel. That’s the way it has to go now—most theaters had a platter, [which meant] the projectionist could just set it, and it could just run. This [method] means you actually have to be here; every 20 minutes you have to switch reels. So there’s an art to showing a film so that the audience doesn’t notice. That’s the only way you can really do it now, because if you have archival prints, studio prints, this helps preserve them—because when you have to build up in a platter, you have to cut it and tape it, and that causes damage to the film every time. So, because we have reel to reel, we’re still able to show films on 35mm from archives from around the world and from studio vaults. We’re approved so that they’ll lend us their prints.

“And then our digital projector is off to the side—95% of everything now is all on this one. It’s a little easier, because it’s controlled from a laptop. So instead of making sure the projectionist builds the reels up and puts it all in the right order, now we just have to make sure we have the right digital key, and it’s not corrupt.

The makeshift computer stand on Carl’s desk.

THE THREAD: How do you go about choosing what films will be shown at each year’s festival?
CARL: There are probably 5,000 features that are created in the world each year, so we have an extensive process to track films and then distill that down to films that we actually want to find out more about. We have a team, sort of like a pyramid, with pre-screeners, screeners and programmers. Each film needs to be seen by more than one person, because it’s very subjective—someone could hate something that someone else likes, so you need to try to find a balance. We also have advisors in other countries who are experts in that area, whether it be the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America—as well as a loose network of friends within the industry of filmmakers, producers, distributors. We also have an open submission process.

Anyone else reminded of high-school science class?

THE THREAD: How does the submission process work?
CARL: It’s actually a huge process, because we had close to 4,000 films submitted this year. Anyone can submit a film, as long as they follow the rules and the deadline and submit it with all of the proper materials. We get films submitted from all around the world. Sometimes it’s the most brilliant way to find a film. Especially if you’re in the thick of it, watching film after film after film—you can get really worn down, and then you see something that brings you to life and really excites you.

THE THREAD: With so many films out there in the world—the possibility for stumbling upon something unknown seems pretty real.
MARY: Because our festival is 25 days long and we get to show as many films as we can, sometimes there are films that you’ll see here that  you’ll never see again. And that’s a real treat for the film-going audience.

Carl surveys the massive calendar that maps out the packed schedule at SIFF’s many venues.

THE THREAD: Tell us about the paths that led each of you to working at SIFF.
CARL: The first festival I was involved in was 1994. I left for a little bit, to work in San Francisco and Palm Springs, but I’ve been back here full-time for the last 10 years as the Head of Programming and Artistic Director. I’ve always been a film fanatic, whether it be growing up at the video store, studying film in school or just going to movies. It’s been a lifelong passion. I’ve made some films as well, but I’m not a frustrated filmmaker. I actually enjoy just finding films, watching them and sharing them with other people. And I really like putting together events—there’s something going here on every week [year-round]. I was looking over the schedule this week, and we have a screenplay reading, a documentary about the Galapagos Islands, The Grand Budapest Hotel, even a whole weekend of musicals. So there’s this whole world that we’re able to inhabit within the confines of our cinemas.
MARY: I haven’t been here as long as Carl. I’ve only been here for 15 months. This is my second festival, and I came from the Space Needle, where I was the Vice President of Brand. I also opened the Chihuly Garden and Glass. We were a sponsor of SIFF for 15 years. I love SIFF and I love movies…so when this job became available, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a cool job, I’d like to do that.’ And here I am.

L: An early rendering of a previous year’s SIFF poster. Click to enlarge.
R: Machinery in the projector room. Is your exhaust on?

THE THREAD: With so many films to sift through, how do you decide? What is the distinguishing factor of a festival-worthy film?
I like big studio films as much as I like small films. It’s all about the story. A story can be told really well with $500 or even $10—and it can be badly filmed with millions of dollars. So we’re really looking to find great stories to share. The story is really the essence of what makes a great film.

THE THREAD: How do you think fashion, film and culture are related?
MARY: I was having dinner with some filmmakers last night, and we were talking about this. Personally, my favorite film is Annie Hall, and the fashion in that film—what Diane Keaton wore—has taken me through my entire life. For some reason, as a kid, it resonated with me. It was the culture of New York City. I grew up in a smaller town in Michigan, and that was what I wanted to achieve: to become Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.

With films from over 70 countries annually, SIFF is truly an international entity.
Something tells us these clocks might be off, though.

THE THREAD: Carl, same question—fashion, film, culture.
CARL: I think the two things that influenced me the most in my life have been 1) spending a year abroad as a student in Japan—just going to school with everyone else, being the only American in the school, experiencing a different culture and looking back at my own country and culture from the outside—and 2) film. I’ve experienced so much through film, that it’s given me a completely different outlook in terms of various cultures and people—it’s definitely provided me a lot more information than I could have just by traveling. Traveling helps too [laughs]. It’s cliché, but it allows you to travel the world without leaving your domicile, or your place that you know. Every film that you see has style, culture, food, sound, music—sensory things that you can get from the big screen. A film has to have all those aspects to combine and tell the story well.
MARY: It has to give you a sense of place, and where you are, and a sense of the story—it has to encapsulate all of that, and fashion is a part of it.

SIFF’s headquarters, nestled near the Space Needle in Downtown Seattle,
houses a functioning theater—and concession stand—as well.

THE THREAD: What are some of your favorite movies of all time?
CARL: Early Lars von Trier—Zentropa is one I really like. Bernardo Bertolucci’s films are pretty amazing, including The Last Emperor. Blade Runner is one that had a big impact. Star Wars was another—I don’t know who wasn’t affected or changed by Star Wars, whether you saw it when it came out in theaters, or you saw it when it came out on home video. Fellini. There are a lot of French filmmakers that I really like, from Patrice Leconte, to more modern and contemporary—François Ozon, he’s made a lot of crazy movies, some shocking ones. Or even Catherine Breillat. And then filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze—I love [Jonze’s movie] Her. It was one of my favorite movies of this past year. That movie was extraordinary. He had a lot to say in that film; it wasn’t just entertainment. He was making a point.

A detail from the theater’s projection room. Authorized personnel only!

THE THREAD: Mary, same question—favorite films.
MARY: Well, I’m a huge Woody Allen fan. Anything Scorsese does, I’m a fan of. It’s interesting—I mentioned Annie Hall earlier, and then Taxi Driver was another movie that I had to see as a kid [laughs]. I must have been a very odd child. GoodFellas. Starting out—the Marx Brothers. That’s really what got me going with film. When I was a really, really small kid, I was introduced to the Marx Brothers by my dad, and I just loved them. They influence fashion—Groucho Marx’s look, to this day, you know who that is. He’s an icon. I’m a big Coppola fan; I’m a Fellini fan—I guess it must be the Italian in me [laughs]. But the thing with me is, it doesn’t matter; it just needs to be a great story. It doesn’t have to have special effects. I don’t even care who the actors are—although I love great actors. It’s all about the story and the characters—because in the end, all we have is the story. That’s how we can understand each other: by telling our stories.

L: An eye-catching program from Palm Springs’ film fest.
R: Vintage Liz.

THE THREAD: Now for the tough questions. What’s your go-to movie snack?
MARY: Dots and buttered popcorn.
CARL: Red vines, popcorn…Dots are good, but they stick to your teeth. Popcorn in a stainless-steel bowl is nice. I like the old tubs of popcorn—because the bags they have now are so rustle-y.

THE THREAD: In addition to showing films year-round at your various venues, SIFF offers film education opportunities. Could you tell us more about those?
CARL: We have a public program called Crash Cinema and Crash Kids—where they come in the morning, we provide some story elements and sort of a foundation for a film, and then they go out and make it, edit it, and at the end of the day, eight hours later, we have a screening where they can all show their films and see them on the big screen. We’ve done that with schools [coming here], and we also have a youth program where we teach classes in the schools.

Spotted: actor/musician André Benjamin holding Carl Spence’s son.

THE THREAD: What highlights are you looking forward to during SIFF 2014?
CARL: We always anticipate our opening-night film, because it’s sort of the big kick-off, and it’s also our biggest screening. It’s usually at McCaw Hall—we’ve opened in the past at The Paramount, the 5th Avenue, Benaroya Hall. Those are the only locations that really work for our opening, because we need 2,500 to 3,000 seats. And then we have a party for 3,000 people following it. There’s a mad rush when the movie first ends…And then it sort of dissipates into a really great, laid-back, celebratory energy. We usually kick people out around midnight or 1:00. So it’s a lot of fun.

THE THREAD: Tell us about Jimi: All Is By My Side, the Jimi Hendrix biopic that you’ll be showing on opening night.
CARL: It’s directed by John Ridley, who won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave. This movie is all about Hendrix’s formative years, prior to him emerging as this famous icon—in New York, and mostly in London. Linda Keith, who was Keith Richards’ girlfriend, sort of discovered him, connected him into her world, dragged him over to London and introduced him to people in a place where he could flourish and find his own voice, without the restrictions of the American music scene, which was very segmented and very boxed-in. André Benjamin [aka André 3000 of Outkast] stars as Jimi Hendrix.

More of those glorious SIFF posters from years past. The bottom one appears to date back 30 years.

THE THREAD: SIFF is known for hosting events with special guests. Who do you have lined up this year?
CARL: Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is the Oscar-nominated lead actor in 12 Years a Slave, is one of our tribute guests this year. He’ll be here for an in-person tribute as part of the showing of a new movie he stars in called Half of a Yellow Sun. Chiwetel also directed a short film that we’ll be showing as part of that event. So we’ll be having a whole evening on Monday, May 19, where we’re going to present him with the festival’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Acting. We’re going to screen his short film and this film that he stars in, and following that, we’ll have an extended conversation with him, with some clips and sort of a look at his career. We’re also showing Serenity [the Joss Whedon sci-fi movie, on May 18]. Chiwetel is the villain in Serenity, and it’s rumored that he’s going to be the next Bond villain—so it just seemed like a nice sort of segue.

Twenty minutes between switching film rolls—plenty of time to make a celluloid lampshade.

THE THREAD: Any other special tribute events?
CARL: On Friday, May 16, we’ll be premiering The Fault in Our Stars—a major release based on a best-selling novel, starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort and Laura Dern. We’re going to be honoring Laura Dern, so she will be here, and we expect the rest of the cast will be here to honor her with us. We’re looking forward to that—there will be a screening of The Fault in Our Stars with a reception following. And then, the next day, we’ll have a Laura Dern tribute presentation, in which we’ll have a conversation with her, and also show one of her previous films, Wild at Heart with Nic Cage—the David Lynch film. Which is also a connection to last year’s tribute guest! Because [frequent Lynch collaborator] Kyle MacLachlan was here last year. It was great—he’s an amazing guy. He’s from this area. He went to school here. He makes wine now, so we got to drink his wine.
MARY: [MacLachlan] has got a big following, between Twin Peaks, Portlandia, Sex in the City. Everybody loves him. He’s really nice. He does his wine with Eric Dunham who’s from Walla Walla – Dunham Cellars. Eric is a very prominent wine maker, goes to Japan, goes all over the world with his wine. Kyle’s wine is called Pursued by Bear—it’s a line from Shakespeare.

L: SIFF staffers mugging for the camera at a past event.
R: A closer look at that war-room wall. Click image to enlarge.

THE THREAD: During the course of SIFF’s 40 illustrious years, many a notable guest has passed through. Could you name a few?
CARL: We’ve had some great guests over the years, from Dennis Hopper to Bernardo Bertolucci—to way in the early days, Ann-Margaret. Peter Sarsgaard wasn’t as well known at the time, but when he came, we did sort of a ‘rising star’ with him, and he was really amazing. [His wife] Maggie Gyllenhaal was here, and they were so free and open—just here to enjoy the city and enjoy the festival. Anthony Hopkins decided that we didn’t have to fly him up here because he wanted to drive with his wife, in his convertible car, and have a nice road trip up to the film festival [laughs]. Ben Kingsley was here. Spike Lee and Francis Ford Coppola were here in the same year, which was interesting—sort of polar opposites, but great. Ewan McGregor was amazing. Gary Oldman was here for a tribute evening around the time SIFF re-opened the Uptown Theater, so that was great to have 500 people pack the Uptown right after we took it over. Quentin Tarantino came here one year and did a ‘School of Tarantino’ and showed his favorite schlocky, obscure Westerns. He did a whole talk—you couldn’t shut him up. It was great.

Your seat awaits! Stay tuned for more coverage coming soon from our partnership with Seattle International Film Festival. We think you’ll enjoy an inside look at some of the most inspiring films being created today, whether you live in the Northwest or not.

Need something to wear to opening night? Start in Designer Collections.

—Justin Abbott
Photos by Angela Sumner