Local Sightings Film Festival: An I-5 Road Trip and Other New Movies Debut

Coming full circle, as it were, the opening-night feature for this year's Local Sightings Film Festival was made possible by a fortuitous encounter at the 2007 fest between aspiring local filmmaker Michael Harring and visiting director Joe Swanberg. The latter, known for establishing the "mumblecore" genre with LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs, listened attentively as Harring pitched him his script. Harring, who had only a few shorts and a music video under his belt, just wanted a little feedback. But Swanberg, it turned out, was itching to act, not just direct. When Harring asked if Swanberg would read the script, Swanberg replied: "For the part?" "Sure, if you wanna do it," Harring stammered back.Three months later, they were filming up in Oak Harbor and down in Kernville, Calif., with two other mumblecore stalwarts: Justin Rice (Mutual Appreciation) and Tipper Newton (featured in both Swanberg's titles above). As with any shoestring production, the locations and funding came from sources close to home. Or in the home."We basically started at my parents' house in Oak Harbor," says Harring. The primary location, a motel in rural Kernville (east of Bakersfield), was owned by his aunt and uncle. Members of his family appear in the film. As for the financing, "I spent all my savings, anything I could scrounge from friends. My parents loaned me some money that I still haven't paid back."Making its local premiere at 7 p.m. Friday, The Mountain, The River and the Road is typical of a first-time indie filmmaker's struggle. Harring took cinema-studies courses at the UW, later interned at SIFF and Atom Films (a casualty of the dot-com collapse), then spent three years clerking at Scarecrow, which offers its employees free rental privileges."I considered that to be like grad school," says Harring. "You could take out eight movies at a time. I watched one or two a night, typically." Beyond his fellow clerks' collegial give-and-take as to what sucks and what's an unrecognized classic (as Tarantino did with his fellow VHS clerks back in the day), his customers' oddball viewing choices helped his own taste expand, he says.After making a few shorts in Seattle, then kicking around the film business in L.A. for three years, Harring returned here in 2006.Though The Mountain might sound like mumblecore, Harring resists the term. "I was already writing this when I saw The Puffy Chair," his 2005 introduction to the genre. The Mountain is "an itty-bitty road-trip movie," says Harring. "You leave who you are and become more open. You lose the whole destination thing." Describing the vibe he hoped for from his crew during the 18-day shoot, he says, "the two movies I pointed to were Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter," both by minimalist cult director Monte Hellman, considered a god at Scarecrow.We meet the movie's protagonist, Jeff (Rice), as he's being kicked out of the home. A postgraduate slacker and aspiring writer (as we later learn), Jeff is greeted by his garrulous buddy Tom (Swanberg) for a proposed road trip to Austin. The two don't get very far. Their Toyota Tercel breaks down in Kernville, and Tom is summoned back to Seattle by an irate girlfriend. This leaves Jeff to stew in solitude and strike up a conversation with cute motel clerk Kat (Newton), as the road-trip formula shifts to shy romance.Like most mumblecore movies, The Mountain, which had its national premiere at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham, Ala., last week, isn't terribly eventful and will try the patience of many viewers. It wears its itty-bittiness on its sleeve, alluding to road-trip and rom-com conventions more than acting upon them. Much of the film consists of Jeff sitting in his motel room or wandering around Kernville, with Kat as his sometime guide. What happens seems almost happenstance, and those events become part of the film's unhurried texture.The Tercel, for instance, really did suffer a catastrophic breakdown, which Harring then filmed in the middle of the night while Swanberg and Rice ad-libbed the situation. The wordless montage sequence is actually quite lovely, an interlude within an interlude. Mood, not incident, is where the movie is strongest. Jeff is at a point of suspension in his 20-something years, a would-be writer who's been living at home with his parents, just as Harring did while writing The Mountain. "There's a part of me there, but I wouldn't say it's auto-biographical," he adds.Harring will attend the screening on Friday, which will be followed by the traditional Local Sightings launch party. Eight other features and docs with Northwest roots will be screened over the following week, along with dozens of short films. A $1,000 top prize—and a guaranteed one-week run at NWFF—will be bestowed by a trio of judges including Medicine for Melancholy director Barry Jenkins. Who knows—maybe he'll act in your film, too.bmiller@seattleweekly.com

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