City visions: A new breed of dreamers, including Frazer Bradshaw (director of "Everything Strange and New," above), is making narrative filmmaking in the Bay Area a reality. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFIFF52: New Narrative Trend for Bay Area Cinema

Michael Fox April 21, 2009

The Bay Area has been a breeding ground for documentary filmmakers for decades, but it’s rarely been regarded as fertile territory for directors of independent narratives. On the evidence of the quartet of locally produced dramas in the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival—opening night attraction La Mission and My Suicide, Everything Strange and New and (Untitled) in the "Cinema by the Bay" section—a revision of our perceptions may be in order.

The benefits of working in the Bay Area are often apparent right on the screen, as with Peter Bratt’s Mission-set La Mission, but sometimes they’re entirely behind the scenes. "The advantage of being a Bay Area filmmaker is I get to live in the Bay Area," says Jonathan Parker, director of the Manhattan-set art-scene satire (Untitled). "There is absolutely no advantage in terms of the business. In fact, it’s probably a detriment. The business and financing is entirely in L.A. and a little bit in New York."

But, Parker adds, "Living in the Bay Area has a profound influence on my writing, in that I am removed from the industry where everybody breathes the same air and rehashes the same formulaic story ideas, which are charitably referred to as ‘high concept.’"

The Marin-based Parker doesn’t work in a vacuum, mind you. His writing-producing partner, Catherine DiNapoli, is here, and for (Untitled) he availed himself of key local talent such as cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko, sound designer Richard Beggs and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, whom Parker had met as a student at Stanford and persuaded to contribute his first-ever movie score.

Stanford film grad David Lee Miller also worked with Bay Area collaborators, notably co-star, co-editor and co-writer Gabriel Sunday and co-writer and producer Eric J. Adams, both of Petaluma, and S.F. producer Todd Traina. Miller describes My Suicide, an aggressively imaginative portrait of a high school student set off by the hypocrisy of "our over-connected yet disconnected society," as a NorCal/SoCal project, for his team developed and shot the film and raised the money in both enclaves. "I really don’t believe making an independent film one has to necessarily choose between L.A. or San Francisco," Miller asserts.

But the Bay Area has its own unique attributes, Miller points out. "We did all of our best documentary shooting in Petaluma and San Francisco," he recalls. "We found the teenage mind-set in the Bay Area is more political, honest and rebellious than in Southern California. That dynamic helped us articulate the message of the film and even led to the creation of fictional characters based on documentary subjects, all of whom were discovered in the Bay Area. People are more willing to pour their hearts out here, and engage with you, instead of trying to exploit you."

That apparently even extended to the folks writing the checks. "Our film is a suicide prevention film at heart, and Bay Area investors got that," Miller reports. "I can’t tell you the number of personal stories we heard from investors who were one, two or three degrees of separation away from the suicide of a loved one."

As a further testimonial, Miller says his son Jordan, who co-created the story and co-edited the picture, fell in love with Oakland and moved there during postproduction. East Bay filmmaker Frazer Bradshaw seconds that emotion, channeling Oakland’s soul into his prosaic-cum-profound slice of everyday life, Everything Strange and New. "It’s the place, the Oaklandness as it exists, that was the biggest contribution that Oakland made to the project," he declares.

"The primary advantage to shooting in the Bay Area," he continues, "is the community of people who are in it for the sake of the film and the filmmaking process. There’s very little overt competitiveness, and instead there’s a lot of joyful commitment to the art. While that’s something you can find in any film community, in the Bay Area it comes with a lot of highly skilled, creative people but without the desperation for ‘success’ that I’ve noticed in L.A. Unlike L.A., where you find poorly skilled, work ethic-less, grumpy people filling some of the vast number of jobs, [here] the community and amount of work is so small that there’s simply not room for people who aren’t both good and pleasant. Rarely do I work with Bay Area crew that I don’t love working with."

Given Bradshaw’s unequivocal enthusiasm for making movies in the Bay Area, it comes as no surprise when he says, "I’m not sure there are any disadvantages that are even really worth mentioning, they’re so inconsequential." At the same time, the Sundance vet has a clear-eyed view of what it means to be a Bay Area director—one that his cohorts in the SFIFF would undoubtedly agree with.

"I think, both nationally and internationally, the Bay Area is a respected source for good independent filmmaking," Bradshaw says. "I don’t think that weighs heavily for festivals, distributors, etc., however, because at the end of the day your film has to be good, no matter where it’s from."

Notes from the Underground

Miles Montalbano’s politically and emotionally astute local feature, Revolution Summer, which graced the 2007 SFIFF lineup, comes out this week on DVD courtesy of Vanguard Cinema. … South Bay filmmaker Alejandro Adams screened his feature Canary last week at the Migrating Forms series at Anthology Films in New York City. … Jay Rosenblatt’s Beginning Filmmaking, chronicling his young daughter Ella’s year-long endeavors with her first camcorder, premieres May 28 on HBO. … Bay Area Women in Film and Television has changed its name to Bay Area Women in Film and Media. The new Web address is

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