The Pacific Northwest (PNW) is home to beautiful vistas, intriguing characters and fascinating stories, so it only makes sense that it would also be rich and fertile ground for film and television. In David Schmader’s new book “Filmlandia!,” the former editor and staff writer for The Stranger dives into the world of PNW cinema, covering blockbusters and hidden gems filmed in the region, from silent 20th-century movies to familiar modern-day franchises.
The most entertaining part of reading “Filmlandia!” — aside from its vibrant humor and illuminating film facts, plus the fun illustrations by Ashod Simonian — is the conversational tone Schmader sustains throughout. In the spirit of continuing that conversation, I sat down with Schmader to discuss all things “Filmlandia!,” covering themes of censorship, representation, history and, most importantly, discovering and exploring films. After all, the only thing more fun than watching movies is talking about them!
Real Change: Seattle is a tricky place for outsiders to talk about, much less create art about, without lived experience. You write a lot about films that get it right, but you don’t shy away from calling out ones that don’t. What films represent Seattle best? What film misrepresents Seattle the most?
David Schmader: The one that always pops in my mind is “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” They really get that weird light, that daytime light we have here, indoors, where it’s like … it might as well rain, but it doesn’t rain. It’s just gray; the whole day is the same. Noon looks just like 4 p.m. They have these interior scenes during daytime, and I’m like, “That’s exactly it!” Even at the brightest time of the day, you’re gonna want to turn a lamp on inside because we don’t have enough sun to spare.
There’s a smaller movie called “The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle.” That one felt very much like a local thing, where they didn’t use any big hallmarks like the Space Needle or a fish flying through the air. You know how Seattle has those weird rocky beaches or that thing where you can take a left when you’re walking on a street and all of a sudden you’re climbing the steepest street you’ve ever been on? That happened a couple times, where I was like, “Oh! That feels like Seattle!”
The biggest flub is [getting the lingo wrong]. There’s a Drew Barrymore movie [“Mad Love”] where she talks about her friend going to the UW. She says, “He goes to the UW!” [pronouncing it “u-double-u”]. Never say anything past “dub.”
Part of the fun of reading “Filmlandia!” is the diversity. There are films and shows from completely different eras and genres, and I love that your focus was on assembling a pop culture lineup based primarily on geography. The result feels so exhaustive and complete that it raises the question: Was there a film or a show you deliberately avoided while compiling this collection? You talked about disqualifying films (like “50/50”) due to not being filmed in Seattle, but I’m curious if anything didn’t make it in due to content.
No, my main regret is the movies that I missed [“Prospect,” for example, which was put on Schmader’s radar by the mother of an actor in the film after the book’s publication, and “M3GAN,” which came out immediately after the book went to press]. My main thing was, it had to be filmed here, and it had to be a movie made for public consumption in the marketplace.
Is there a movie you wish had been filmed here? Or better yet, absolutely should have been filmed here?
“50/50” feels like such a Seattle movie. We’re a cancer-care capital of the world, and that opening scene. … That one I wish was really from here, and the next season of “The Last of Us.” It’s taking place here, but they’re filming it in Vancouver. Seattle loves the hell out of that show. Within the past three months, the Seattle Film Commission has started — it’s this new organization that’s devoted to getting us the kind of production incentives that make people actually film here — so hopefully we won’t be giving away so many movies in the future.
When you’re watching a film set in the PNW and totally believe, the entire time, that it was filmed on location, only to realize, after the fact, that it was actually filmed in Vancouver (hello, “Loudermilk”!), do you feel conned by the deception, impressed by the magic trick or both? Your term for this, the “Vancouver Switcheroo,” is pure gold.
Both — a little stunned, because I got tricked but also … good job for tricking me!
Your sense of humor is part of this book’s charm, and it makes revisiting and discovering these films feel fresh and entertaining. It’s hard to write about entertainment and have the writing itself become entertainment. Were your insights and synopses born from your immediate reaction to watching these films, or did you sit with them for a while before writing each installment?
A little bit of a combination. I took notes while I was watching them, so I could remember specific things that made me think or feel something, then I would turn that into entertaining little chunks on their own. Step one: watching the movie and taking notes, and then, after stewing on it, realizing “what did that leave me with?”
There are some gems in this collection, such as “Beacon Hill Boys,” that are virtually impossible to stream, rent or buy. Could we be doing more to preserve films? How can we prevent films from fading into obscurity? (I’ll add here that independent and foreign films are most likely to be rendered invisible and inaccessible with time.)
I feel like Scarecrow Video does so much, and it’s becoming more like a library/museum as physical media gets more rare. I feel like the next step might be a digital library, if there were someplace where you could check [films] out digitally and stream from the library or something like that … but for the most part, thank God for Scarecrow!
Your book is a celebration of the art on screen that has shaped, defined and captured life in Seattle, Portland and the Northwest. It is a joy to see films that take risks and tell “unconventional” stories featured throughout this book, side by side with mainstream titles. While I read this book, I found myself thinking at times about how deeply sad it is that we’re experiencing a movement in certain parts of the country that is aiming to censor and ban art. As a fellow reader, writer and film-lover, how do you feel about censorship? How can we address the threat it poses to a free and vibrant culture?
It’s horrifying, and when you talk about that, I’m like, “Oh! They haven’t gotten to movies yet.” Biden just started a task force for anti-censorship; they’re considering it an actual threat to democracy, which is what you should do! We need to fight back. It’s shocking.
Let’s end on a more positive note. Some great upcoming films will be set in the PNW, notably the next project from LAIKA, based on the novel “Wildwood” by Colin Meloy. Any titles you’re really looking forward to?
I’m friends with a few Seattle filmmakers, and their COVID-era productions are now getting releases. I’m very excited about Megan Griffiths’ new movie, “I’ll Show You Mine,” which just got bought.
We need this: conversations about film and art. That’s how we get exposed to everything. I’m excited for what’s coming up for the PNW as an area that is so rich in talent and ideas and innovation. This is an amazing place to create art and be an audience member.
Now it’s your turn to be an audience and find your new favorite film! If you’re obsessed with movies, love reading about them or are just curious to learn more about art in the PNW, check out some of the titles in “Filmlandia!” You’re bound to be surprised by the stories, filmmakers and characters you’ll encounter in what is sure to be the most comprehensive guide to the PNW’s cinematic landscape for years to come.
Illustration © 2023 by David Schmader. All rights reserved. Excerpted from “Filmlandia!” by permission of Sasquatch Books.
Read more of the Aug. 9-15, 2023 issue.