Portland's got the mountains and rivers, big buildings and rain-slicked streetscapes, too. But what's put the city on the movie-industry map has much more to do with a full-throttle, indie spirit fueled by industry devotees who seem not to care much about fame, fortune or the whims of the outside world. A deeply personal passion...
All through Gus Van Sant’s latest movie, “Paranoid Park,” the poster boy for the Rose City’s film community makes his soulful connection to the town he calls home perfectly, poetically clear.
There are lingering images of the bridges that link downtown Portland with its eastern districts across the Willamette River.
There are montages of the young skateboarders who populate the movie as they curl through tubes and jet off concrete precipices in gauzy slow motion at what is, in reality, the Burnside Skate Park — under yet another of the city’s bridges.
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And there are all those adoring close-ups of the boyish teen star, Gabe Nevins, whose melancholy mug, often shot at an arresting pace of just 100 frames per minute, fills almost every scene of this 85-minute film not dedicated to those evocative backdrops.
“Paranoid Park,” like Portland itself, is gritty and gorgeous, edgy and mellow.
But it’s tough to peg the movie to any genre, just as it’s initially tough to pinpoint exactly what makes Portland a film-industry town set apart from Seattle or Vancouver, whose city-meets-nature environs have made them more well-known backdrops for out-of-town movie and television productions.
Portland’s got the mountains and rivers, big buildings and rain-slicked streetscapes, too. But what’s put the city on the movie-industry map has much more to do with a full-throttle, indie spirit fueled by industry devotees who seem not to care much about fame, fortune or the whims of the outside world. A deeply personal passion for the medium drives them as much or more than the commercial viability of their work.
Who, after all, would have expected Nick Peterson’s “yellow,” a quirky romantic musical shot with a live orchestra on the Portland set, to make millions at the box office? The director, after all, works at a library to make a living and shares a house with two other people.
But when the film debuted at Sundance, the director was hailed as one of the leading young filmmakers in the region — with none other than Van Sant extending high praise.
Van Sant may be the director most closely associated with the city since his early, Portland-centric films “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho” helped make stars out of Matt Dillon, Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. But the talent pool of filmmakers who direct with heart and brainpower, if not tons of money, runs unusually deep for a city of 540,000 people.
Even as far back as the 1970s, when many young filmmakers were cutting their teeth making TV commercials — another big business in Portland — the city was known as a center for innovation in, of all things, animated films, with Claymation pioneer Will Vinton at the forefront in both fields.
So how do bittersweet movies about misfits and more accessible fare featuring characters made of clay — Vinton created the hugely successful California Raisins — complement each other? They don’t. And nobody in Portland’s hybrid creative community, which is remarkably lacking in self-consciousness or boundaries, seems to care.
Thomas Phillipson of the venerable Portland-based Northwest Film Center, which organizes the city’s international film festival and more offbeat series, comes close to capturing the local industry’s essence.
“The area where Portland is really strong is ‘superindependent films,’ ” he says. “Or un-dependent. Independent doesn’t come nearly low enough to the budgets we’re talking about.”
A prime example is a 2006 movie by Portland’s James Westby, “Film Geek.” “The film looks like it cost 10 cents, but a lot of the jokes are gold,” a New York Post review praised.
“It’s more the people who are using film as an expression of their art,” says Phillipson, whose organization hosts the city’s top filmmakers in classes for pros and amateurs alike. “To me, it’s the same thing as starting a little band that never intends to tour the United States. They do it for the expression. Art for the art’s sake — period. That feels uniquely Portland to me.”
WHEN THE NOTED experimental and documentary filmmaker Matt McCormick talks about completing projects on a budget of just $40, it sounds like a joke.
But the 35-year-old’s experience with budgeting tight, while letting his creativity run wild, has garnered him widespread recognition as well. The Village Voice named his documentary, “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal,” one of the top 10 movies of 2002.
Set far from the moviemaking powerhouses of Hollywood and Vancouver, Portland’s film community is brashly forging its own mist-shrouded path with aid from the film center and nonprofit groups like Film Action Oregon.
But maybe it’s precisely because of Portland’s relatively small size and lo-fi, misfit values that so many filmmakers have easily found their niche here.
“There’s just something about the communal vibe here,” says McCormick. “It’s just constantly invigorating. And you don’t get bogged down by the sort of trials of the big city.”
McCormick had just graduated from college in New Mexico in 1995 when he visited Portland on a road trip. He attended an event at the film center that drew what he considered a huge crowd for an artsy function.
“I was like, wow, if this was happening in Albuquerque, like 10 people would show up,” he recalls.
McCormick relocated to Portland a month later, washing dishes to support himself and his projects. Portland, he discovered, was an affordable place to live, as well.
“You can’t do that in New York anymore,” says McCormick, who now makes music videos and commercials to help subsidize his more experimental works. He’s trying to raise $500,000, a massive sum for a Portland indie filmmaker, to produce his first full-length feature, “Some Days Are Better Than Others,” which he describes as “a kind of sad comedy.”
To outsiders, maybe Portland is the new Soho, the new Chelsea, the new Brooklyn. There’s always a creative hothouse on the horizon. But the longevity of Portland’s blossoming is striking.
Even when filmmakers hit the big time, they never stop feeding the creative mill in Portland. Back in 1977, one of Van Sant’s own superindie flicks, “One Half of a Telephone Conversation,” played at the Northwest Fest at the film center. Three decades later, he’s a Cannes Palm D’Or winner and was so busy in San Francisco directing Sean Penn in a biopic about the ’70s gay politician Harvey Milk that he wound up having to skip the Portland premiere of “Paranoid Park.”
But while internationally famous for works ranging from his dark Portland films to Oscar-nominated “Good Will Hunting,” he still exports the local penchant for eccentricity and risk. That artistic and moral daring is what gives a scene in Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy” such bite: In it, the drug thief Bob, played by a young Matt Dillon, visits Tom the priest, played with raspy aplomb by an aging William S. Burroughs. He presents the ailing old man with a bag of prescription loot.
“God bless you, my son,” Tom the priest says in a beatnik drawl. “May you go to heaven.” Tom the priest pours the pill bottles on his bed and picks up one filled with the powerful painkiller Dilaudid, which is just his thing. “This should earn you an indulgence,” the practically salivating priest tells Bob, before conspicuously setting the painkillers on a copy of the Bible.
Van Sant’s largely unintended role as quiet spokesman for this iconoclastic Portland aesthetic helps draw others into the fold.
“Knowing that he was from here was a real confidence boost in deciding to move here,” McCormick says.
Filmmaker Todd Haynes wrote Oscar-nominated “Far From Heaven” and his most recent movie, the surreal Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” after moving to Portland and adopting it as his hometown.
Director and actor Warren Pereira, 32, also has flourished in this climate with oddball shorts that explore relationships in a roving, stream-of-consciousness fashion. He lives in the city’s hip Pearl District, so the neighborhood has become his de facto movie set. Pereira’s film “Lovely Coffee,” in which a couple with issues sort it all out over a fine cup of joe and later hang out at Sip & Kranz lounge on Northwest 10th Avenue, boasts a clean, modern and expensive look. But it was made for just $70,000.
Pereira says he’s able to do this by employing the city around him in creative, and free, ways. He has some acting experience so he casts himself in certain roles — one less actor to hire. And pretty much any other job that needs doing, Pereira does it.
“I go get the coffee, I pick up the actors from the airport,” he says. “I pick out all the wardrobes for the films.”
As is true with so many Portland filmmakers, less money somehow translates into more creative risk-taking and a reliance on personal inspiration.
Likewise, if you were to use one expression to describe the work of, say, Portland’s Andy Blubaugh, “intense” would be fitting. His film “Scaredycat,” about how people respond to irrational fears, was made (mostly with fellowship money) after a group of teens randomly attacked him several years ago. “What I’m trying to do in my work is to create personal films that are about something larger than me… to connect with the larger idea through my experiences.”
Now 28, Blubaugh says his current project, “The Adults in the Room,” stems from a relationship he had as a youth with an older man.
The film Pereira is working on, “Salt and Silicone,” is already stirring up controversy over its subject matter — a woman’s breast-implant surgery, told from her ambivalent boyfriend’s point of view. He plays the boyfriend.
Why does Pereira go there?
“I don’t have the budget now to do a massive crane shot or an action scene,” he says. “If I tried to do ‘Bourne Identity,’ it would look like a joke. But you don’t need a big budget to do an intellectual film set on a street that’s free.”
HERE’S HOW you become the lead in a Gus Van Sant movie.
The tall and lanky Nevins, who plays Alex in “Paranoid Park,” and some friends decided to attend a casting call for extras needed in the director’s new film.
“We were just joking around,” the floppy-haired, novice actor says at an after-party for the Portland premiere of the film. “They ended up bailing on me, so me and my mom went down there.” Neither had a clue what the movie was about; in fact, Nevins had never even seen a Van Sant film.
Nevins got a callback, and the next week he was meeting with the director, where he showed off some skateboarding moves as a way of proving himself.
Van Sant never let on that he wanted Nevins to play the leading role. So it must have looked strange when the famous director showed up at Nevins’ home in suburban Milwaukee to get to know him better.
“He sat on my bed and he was like, ‘Where are your jeans?’ ” Nevins recalls. The two went through Nevins’ closet and picked out clothes that could serve as his wardrobe in the movie. Van Sant took the pile with him.
“I only had, like, two pair of boxers for two weeks,” Nevins says with a laugh.
It was only later that he found out he would star in “Paranoid Park,” a movie with a constantly shifting interplay of mystery and clarity, guilt and innocence.
Despite the film’s dreamy but deliberate pacing, Nevins insists the shoot was more organic and in many cases improvised.
“We’d use the script as more of a guideline,” he says. “We’d just feed off each other. Gus liked that a lot.”
Van Sant’s movies “are so, like, weird and experimental,” Nevins observes, now that he’s actually seen some of the work.
“Paranoid Park” debuted last year at the Cannes Film Festival with Nevins and other Portland cast and crew in tow. Nevins landed himself in Teen Vogue last fall. Lacking any formal business contact information, the magazine managed to track him down on his MySpace page, and kept in touch through his mom’s e-mail address.
A star was born, Portland-style.
PORTLAND ITSELF has become a star in the Hollywood film industry, for both scenic and financial reasons. There’s no doubt that the producers of films requiring moody light and copious precipitation love it here.
Earlier this year, production began on the teen-vampire flick “Twilight,” directed by Catherine Hardwicke. The book from which the film is adapted is set in Forks, Wa., reputed to be the rainiest town in the United States. The Portland area was used as a stand-in.
Beyond scenery, there are serious financial incentives to shoot in Portland, says Marc Butan, president of 2929 films, which recently produced the upcoming movie “The Burning Plain,” starring Charlize Theron, in Portland and on the Oregon coast.
Oregon offers a 20 percent rebate on movie-production expenses and a 16.2 percent rebate on production payroll costs for movies with budgets of at least $750,000, an attempt to chip off some of the lucrative Hollywood film business that once went to British Columbia, back before the Canadian loonie reached near parity with the U.S. dollar.
Butan’s company is set to shoot scenes from an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” in Oregon this month.
Oregon isn’t the only state trying to compete in this new market. Washington and Michigan, which offers a whopping 40 percent cash rebate on production costs, also pay out cash in return for local movie-production jobs.
Film-production spending of all types in Oregon — at around $500 million — has risen 300 percent over the past five years, and much of that is due to the incentives that took effect in 2005, says Steve Oster, executive director of Oregon’s film and TV office.
“We are seeing $10 in direct spending coming into this state for every dollar we put into the (rebate) program,” he says. “The overall economic impact is twice that.” And, he says, it’s almost an instant return on your money. “You don’t see that kind of turnaround in other industries.”
PORTLAND OFFERS more than great surroundings and rebates, though. True to form, the city is emerging as a major player through homegrown efforts that exploit the city’s ample creative talent.
Enter LAIKA/house, the Portland animation house that was spearheaded by the legendary Will Vinton but recently bought out by Nike’s billionaire chairman, Phil Knight. Vinton departed the firm soon after.
Knight’s son, Travis Knight, is an animator at the studio, which until now specialized in commercials.
The company is building a sprawling new campus outside of town in a bid to do for the Willamette Valley what Pixar did for Silicon Valley: Create blockbuster animated features that kids, as well as highbrow movie buffs, can love.
“Phil has two significant interests in life — one of those is sports and the other one is movies,” says LAIKA chief Dale Wahl. That love has translated into a hiring boom at LAIKA, from 150 employees a couple of years ago to more than 500 today, and heavy investment in computer-animation technology, adding to Vinton’s clay, stop-motion ideas.
The studio is filming the animated version of the children’s book “Coraline” in a warehouse outside the city. Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”) is directing, and child actress Dakota Fanning is on board to voice the title character.
Wahl says the film will be shot stereoscopically, making it the first truly 3D film using stop-motion animation, where puppetlike figures are moved and shot ever so carefully over weeks and months to create seamless action. Each frame will contain two overlapping images just a pinch apart, exaggerating the sense of perspective when viewed through 3D movie glasses.
And why is LAIKA going to all this trouble?
“What we want to be known for is trying new things, being different, willing to take risks,” Wahl says. “If we’re successful at that, maybe 10 years from now, when you’re watching Ebert and Roeper, or whoever it is, they’ll say, ‘Hey, here’s another new film from LAIKA, and man, you never know what they’re gonna do next.’ “
VAN SANT KEEPS his Portland fans guessing how he’ll showcase their city and landmarks next. In “My Own Private Idaho,” River Phoenix’s character looks across a lonely, golden landscape in eastern Oregon. Snowy Mount Hood broods on the western horizon as clouds streak past its summit, a Van Sant visual trademark. In his odder movies, the director seems to be trying to tell us a secret with his images, but he never gives it up freely.
The kid, a narcoleptic prostitute who longs to reunite with his family, utters these aching lines as the camera pans away from him: “There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road. I mean, exactly like this road. It’s a one-of-a-kind place, one of a kind, like someone’s face.”
The same might be said of Portland’s film community.
Through movies, the city is putting its weird, captivating face forward, evidently with no more than a desire to be its own, stubbornly intimate, one-of-a-kind place.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Tim Jewett is a freelance photographer based in Portland.