CHS Interviews: Hill filmmaker turns to the crowd to make her bid for SIFF

Wonder Russell is an actor/producer who lives on Capitol Hill and is putting the power of crowdsourcing behind a project she hopes will be her big break. Only three days after listing her project at Kickstarter.com, Russell had more than met her original goal of $2,500 to finish production of her short film, Connect To.

CHS traded a few e-mails with Russell, and here is what we learned.

First things first — how’d you come to be an actor, and what brought you to Capitol Hill?

I’ve been on and offstage since I was 2, and I love it. My great grandmother was a stage actor, my great aunt Jane [yes, that Jane Russell] is still acting, and my whole extended family are constant performers — absolutely wacky and overwrought. Only in the last few years living in Seattle, though, did I have the opportunity to knuckle down and work hard at it — taking classes, working constantly in film and theatre. That’s why I moved to the Hill after short stints in Queen Anne and the CD. I was doing a few back to back plays at Balagan and Annex theatres, and it made more sense to be able to walk to my “second job” and live amongst my people.

I’ve been focusing on films recently but I still get recognized from Big Love, that I did at Balagan. I think in general, three captive brides killing their grooms amidst nudity and cake is hard to forget. Some folks may have also seen me wearing pink and pleather in Perfect 10, a feature film that premiered at SIFF last year, created by Capitol Hill dynamic duo Lindy and Kris Boustedt.

Alisa Tyrrill sets up the slate for the next shot

Give us a feel for the life of this film: where did the idea for Connect To originate, how was it made, and what’s next for this project?  

Connect To grew out of a scene with my friend Lisa LeVan. It was our homework for Steven Anderson (who’s worked with Halle Berry among others) class. Steven is based in LA but raised in the Pacific NW, and still comes to Seattle every 3 months to put on extremely intense workshops. I’ve been studying with him for several years now, and when Lisa and I performed the scene in class, we knew it was something special. Steven put the bug in my ear that it would make a great short film, since he knew I was looking for a project. 

Back in Seattle I was totally committed to the project but it was a chicken-or-egg scenario: raise the money and get it made, or just figure out a way to do it and hope for the best? I couldn’t wait any longer, I felt like time was running out and I ended up just flat out making it happen by any means necessary. I reached out to every artist and filmmaker I’d ever worked with and slowly assembled a crew of extremely talented people volunteering their time. For positions I couldn’t fill that way, I asked for recommendations, met new folks over phone and Facebook, and told them about the project. My boyfriend and I spent many hours over many days in the car every night after work, driving around looking for locations and trying to talk people into letting us film there. I had an online bake sale and begged for help in return for homemade lemon bars from everyone I knew. I tried my hand at story boards (I sucked) and shot lists (I made them too long), handled script revisions, tracked down props off of Craigslist, rented equipment I’d never even heard of, cast Extras (aka bribed them with beer), pitching the project to film schools in order to entice P.A.s, and scrambled to find new people for crewmembers when we had last minute cancellations. More than once I felt like I was losing my mind, but I was absolutely driven to see this project through, with the highest possible quality.

CONNECT_TO KICKSTARTER EPK from LEOBRANA MEDIA LLC on Vimeo.

It all came together, shooting 13 pages in 2 days: no small feat. We were lucky — we got it done November 20-21, the weekend before all the snow fell and Seattle came to a halt.

Since then, the project has been in post-production, going through lots of edits, composing the music, finding the right tone for color correction, creating titles, and finishing sound design. If film production is the visible tip of the iceberg, post production is the rest of the iceberg — more massive than you think and quite capable of making or breaking your project. All these elements are conspiring to make Connect To the most winning version of itself possible, so we can submit it on the verylastpossibleday to SIFF via Withoutabox. Then, we all take a break.

 

It’s great to see artists reaching out to their supporters directly and offering neat thank-yous in return – how have people responded, and what sort of nifty goodies are you giving people who help fund this?

Fundraising is hard, and even harder in a recession. This is a fairly new trend that grew out of crowd-sourcing: the notion of micro-financing a project via little amounts from many donors, rather than one large investor — like Harvey Weinsten. If you’re playing in the big leagues, your rewards are going to be in the box office, ideally. But through sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, the whole idea is that you’re involving people in the creation of your film.  It’s about inspiring each other. It sounds corny but that’s what I look for in the art I support, and I doubt that people would support art/music/film that didn’t make them feel uplifted, challenged, or moved. It’s even better when it’s in your neighborhood or city — there’s a friendly bit of conspiratorial ownership that goes along with it, like Yeah. We made this. We’re damn proud of it.

Kickstarter urges you to reward your backers, but how you do that is really up to you. I looked at a lot of campaigns all over the world, and the ones I felt compelled by were really unique or beautiful. I wanted people to feel truly appreciated and excited about what we were making together. I involved local attractions like Hotel Max, made props from the film available, offered a role in my next film, and everything from hand-written postcards to high fives and tea parties. We’ve got the usual swag, like posters and stickers, and things directly from the film like our original soundtrack, the film itself, a signed copy of the script, etc. 

My absolute favorite is the poems we’re composing based on themes backers suggest. We’ve got everything from poems on bacon to Jack Shaftoe that Lisa LeVan is writing, and they’re hysterical. I can’t wait to film them and send them out. Not surprisingly, this seems to the be the most popular option.  I tried to keep it diverse, fun, and “weighted” enough that people will hopefully be delighted by what they receive. I think this style of film funding can learn a lot from non profits from KEXP who understand what a humbling position it is to basically ask for patronage. 

What does Capitol Hill offer, as far as advantages to local filmmakers?

Are you kidding? Capitol Hill is the nexus of arts in Seattle. It’s weird, vibrant, sketchy, awesome, dirty, desperate…even in spite of some gentrification…and obstinately independent. There are coffeeshops who will show your short film, there’s NWFF, which is a huge resource for filmmakers and artists, and the best of the fringe theatres. It can also be pretentious, over-precious, and just gross, but those are also some of the things I love about it. Perfection is boring.

Lisa LeVan (left) and Wonder Russell (R)

 

I recently became a member of NWFF, which is a short walk from my apartment, and ended up running into a director for whom I’d auditioned over a year ago. I love those moments. I also joined Women in Film since they met so conveniently at Barca.

I live about 2 or 3 blocks from filmmakers Kris and Lindy Boustedt (Perfect 10) which has been great. They’ve been huge resources of information, and Kris is the editor and post-production supervisor on Connect To, so it makes coordinating our efforts that much easier. I get to do things like walk to Harvard Exit to watch all of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. It’s glorious to even have that option.

There are a ton of actors on the hill, besides myself, and I hope that putting my own art “out there” opens new doors to people I haven’t met yet. It’s an entirely new world once you decide to stop waiting for other people to cast you. (Of course, I still want to be cast ….cast me!)

When and where can we expect to see your film?

We are submitting Connect To to SIFF and a host of other film festivals nationwide. It’s my ardent hope and desire that it has a healthy festival showing. Competition is tough, though, so if we get turned down, we’ll release it on the internet and probably do a showing in conjunction with other locally made shorts.

Wonder & Co. are still fundraising to cover the costs of the film and travel to film festivals.  You can help them out right here and secure your own special reward.

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