Legend has it that when settlers came west by covered wagon more than 150 years ago, those seeking fame and fortune headed south to California, while people seeking seclusion and autonomy ventured north to Oregon. So while movie fans in the rest of the country may associate Portland with its most famous director, Gus Van Sant (or to a lesser extent transplanted indie auteur Todd Haynes), the heart of the city’s filmmaking community is comprised of proudly independent artists charting courses far removed from the radar of Hollywood.
Portland is the city where internationally acclaimed video and performance artist Miranda July got her start, as well as noted experimental and documentary filmmakers like Matt McCormick and Vanessa Renwick, not to mention up-and-coming artists such as Nick Peterson, Trevor Fife, Rebecca Rodriguez, and the documentary-making trio known as archipelago. Local filmmakers, especially those devoted to more unconventional fare, have created a sense of community in the Rose City, screening each other’s works and helping out on one another’s productions. "You realize when you go to other cities, even New York, how psyched people are about Portland," says McCormick, who in addition to making acclaimed shorts like The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal and The Virotonin Decision, has for years operated the Peripheral Produce screening series. "We’re all part of this self-generated machine, and that’s the thing that transcends Portland."
Besides filmmaking, McCormick coordinates the Portland Documentary and Experimental ("PDX") Film Festival, which has attracted artists from around the world to Portland, some of whom compete in the corresponding Peripheral Produce Invitationals, named for McCormick’s longtime screening series of the same name. In addition, both short and
feature-length works by a variety of independent artists both local and international are screened annually at the Longbaugh Film Festival (www.longbaugh.com), sponsored by local alternative weekly newspaper Willamette Week. There’s also the Northwest Film and Video Festival, offered by the Northwest Film Center (www.nwfilm.org), which is easily the biggest resource for film students and watchers of eclectic art films. And Zonker Films, an independent collective of filmmakers and performers, puts on the Portland International Short Short (PISS) Film Fest.
Despite the acclaim and interest the PDX Fest has garnered, McCormick may be even more excited about ramping up his line of Peripheral Produce DVD releases (www.peripheralpro duce.com). The last several years have been a period of significant creativity for underground film and video artists, but only a smattering is easily accessible for purchase on video. McCormick envisions Peripheral Produce acting like a small, iconoclastic, indie music label such as Dischord Records or K Records, only for visual artists: a kind of brand name that people can trust to provide content of a certain personality, integrity, and stimulation. And as those who have attended past Peripheral Produce shows in Portland or on tour elsewhere know, that personality walks a careful tightrope between challenging and entertaining fare. "You usually don’t say avant-garde and fun in the same sentence," McCormick laughs, "but that’s what I want Peripheral Produce to be."
In addition to Portland’s annual festivals, there are also numerous screening series that happen throughout the year. Filmmaker Morgan Currie doubles as AV Alice, organizer of collective shows highlighting work by female experimental filmmakers. Local microcinema The Know (www.theknow.info) is a haven for both local and touring underground visual artists, while another microcinema, Broadcast, offers a monthly film/video version of open mike night. Same goes for DV8, a local rock club that doubles as a film screening venue. And The Cinema Project (www.cinemaproject.org) specializes in classic avant-garde fare from Stan Brakhage to Jon Jost, that one might normally find onscreen only at special venues like the Museum of Modern Art.
The Northwest Film Center also sponsors the Northwest Crossings series, presenting video and film works from local and visiting artists on a quarterly basis. Operated by the Portland Art Museum, the NWFC is a valuable source for affordable equipment rentals and also leaves one screening night each quarter open to anybody who wants to show their films. "We have a responsibility to nurture young filmmakers," says the Center’s Thomas Phillipson. "It’s a source of pride that the Film Center is where so many filmmakers get a camera in their hands for the first time, or learn to edit their work, or to hear from more experienced filmmakers about their work."
In recent years the fledgling economy, including the nation’s highest state unemployment rate for a time, has hindered the local film scene. But because those making smaller, underground fare can take advantage of a considerably lower cost of living than other West Coast metropolises like Seattle and San Francisco, they’re not as affected by the economy as businesses and middle-classers with mortgages.
What’s more, as Oregon has begun to lose out to Vancouver, BC as an affordable place to film, government has become proactive in creating incentives for productions of all sizes. Last year Governor Ted Kulongoski made a personal appeal to the legislature not to eliminate funding for the Oregon Film and Video Office, the Arts Commission, and the Cultural Trust. Beginning next year, the state will offer a film incentive rebate bill to those who shoot here. And Portland’s city council recently approved a series of $750 grants to young artists between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-four. "The market is a lot tighter and more challenging these days," says the Oregon Film and Video Office’s Liza McQuade, "but the more people feel supported, the more they’ll want to be here."
Indeed, there is no shortage of films to have been made here in recent years, such as big-budget Hollywood fare like William Friedkin’s The Hunted, Van Sant’s Cannes-winning Elephant, and Gore Verbinski’s The Ring—not to mention his follow-up, The Ring II, which recently began principal photography in Oregon. The city also has long been a popular location for shooting car commercials, because a diverse array of geographic locales—beaches, snow-capped mountains, farmland—are all available within an hour or two drive.
The prevalence of these higher-budget productions happening with some degree of regularity allows Portland to retain a community of technicians who can call the city home year-round, resisting the more fast-paced and higher-cost lifestyle of Hollywood while still maintaining careers in the industry. "Our crew base is excellent," McQuade continues. "Producers and directors who come here to shoot really like the fact that so many of these people have worked together so many times before and have a rapport with each other." Thus, it’s possible to trust that a local crew can act as a cohesive unit, which is a precious commodity on location when millions of dollars are at stake.
What’s more, the fact that local crew members can sustain enough work to make a living in Portland lends itself to the vibrancy of local artistry. It’s a common occurrence for local film and video artists to earn their living working on, say, a Honda or Alpo commercial by day in order to make movies with off-the-shelf mini-DV cameras and Final Cut Pro by night.
"There’s a really strong film community developing here, maybe even like what happened with music in Seattle in the early ’90s," says Daniel Yost, who co-wrote Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and returned to Portland two years ago after working in Hollywood for several years as a screenwriter. "I got tired of just taking money for movies that wouldn’t get made or were never quite what I wanted to write as opposed to what other people wanted me to write. So I decided to start making my own movies."
Recently Yost wrote, photographed, and directed the feature Shooting Nick, which combines the road movie genre with the guerilla style of films like The Blair Witch Project. The film was made for only about $500 and shot in four days using a DV camera and edited on his iMac. "It’s almost like writing a novel these days," Yost says of the production process. "And I think it’s only going to get better when eventually we get to true high definition at a consumer level. Ultimately, within a very short time, people are going to be able to go out and make movies that compete with Hollywood for very little money."
In the year ahead, look for offerings from numerous Rose City film and video makers, such as McCormick’s documentary Tugboats: Workhorse of the River; a feature by Miranda July (who has since relocated to Los Angeles) called Me and You and Everyone We Know; Renwick’s years-in-the-making documentary about wolves, Critter; a twelve-years-in-the-making film by Bill Daniel (Renwick’s frequent collaborator) called Who is Bozo Texino; a compendium of as-yet-untitled short films about thermodynamics by archipelago; acclaimed animator Chel White’s new short, Magda, as well as a compilation DVD of his collected works; two new shorts from Nick Peterson; and the feature-length Coming Up Easy by Rebecca Rodriguez, known previously for making a series of irreverent internet shorts.