Northwind Arts Center in downtown Port Townsend played host to another medium of visual arts on Nov. 18.
With the Port Townsend Police Department’s permission, the sidewalk of Water Street …
Northwind Arts Center in downtown Port Townsend played host to another medium of visual arts on Nov. 18.
With the Port Townsend Police Department’s permission, the sidewalk of Water Street adjoining Northwind was shut down for drone filming, while the inside of the art gallery was bustling with camera operators setting up their equipment, actors getting made up and running through their scenes, and extras patiently waiting for their cues.
The movie being made is “She the Creator,” and that day’s filming, which extended to 1 a.m. on Nov. 19, was but one of the area shooting locations selected by director Juliette Wallace and her cast and crew. Other Port Townsend sites included Manresa Castle, the Ann Starrett Mansion and the Hastings Building, with additional filming taking place in the Buena Vista Cemetery in Port Gamble, as well as some private locations.
“A shoot on any given day can run anywhere from eight to 16 hours,” said Wallace, who currently resides in Poulsbo, but has lived all over Washington, where she was born and raised. “We shot 25 days total, in all the locations combined, but there were many days of setup and takedown that were not included in that 25-day bracket.”
The majority of the film was shot in the Hastings Building, whose space required the most time for setup and takedown.
“When we arrived, there was nothing in the building, so we had to clean it, and fully furnish it in every room we worked in, to make the space look lived in by an artist,” Wallace said. “Throughout the course of the film, our character’s reality begins to become altered, so we were constantly changing the environment within her apartment during shooting.”
Wallace loved shooting in Port Townsend, which she described as “a magical place” to which she’s been drawn throughout her life.
“It’s a place where serendipitous happenings seem commonplace, and I knew it was the perfect place for us to shoot a film all about art and magic,” Wallace said. “There were so many kind locals who were genuinely interested in our production, and all of our locations were supplied by truly amazing people, who believe in the arts and preserving historical places.”
Making that movie magic happen has required Wallace and her cast and crew to navigate some practical challenges, from the limited power supply and lack of heat in the Hastings Building — “We had a generator and splitters, but it was still a process” — and the hours that were available to shoot in Northwind, which is a functioning art gallery, which meant the art being shown changed during the course of filming.
“We had to find ways on the fly to block our actors around the work, and to reorient the space to be able to put a camera in the center,” Wallace said. “We had a fair amount of people attempt to walk in during our first shoot there, thinking the gallery was open!”
For Wallace, these occasional inconveniences were worth it, because she believes the spirit of Port Townsend made her film richer.
“History is always worthwhile to preserve, and there’s a certain beauty and timelessness the old buildings have that is worth preserving, without doubt,” Wallace said. “Locations can be characters in themselves in a film, and the characters in these incredible spaces spoke for themselves on screen. You just can’t build a set like the Hastings.”
Wallace’s own history as a filmmaker began with producing indie underground films, before she started directing in 2015, building a resume that includes narrative shorts, music videos, “a collaborative and experimental miniseries” and some documentary shorts, all of which led up to her first narrative feature.
“All of the work I’ve done has been completely independent, to the fullest extent of that word, and always based around a strong collaborative community of creators and friends,” said Wallace, who eschews what she sees as the more mainstream world of film production, in favor of working “completely on our terms, and on essentially no budget.”
Pre-production for “She the Creator,” a modern drama, began nearly a year and a half ago, and production itself has consumed the past four months, but the film’s origins extend back even further into the past, since the story was first written by Wallace’s mother, “when she was my age,” shortly after she’d been sent to a Washington state prison on a life sentence.
“An artist herself, it was a powerful story that resonated deeply with me,” Wallace said. “I knew that someday, I wanted to represent it in the medium of film. We worked closely together to re-envision the through-line of the story, and from there, I developed and wrote the full-length screenplay. It was a powerful reclamation of my life and my lineage, to address a story that my mother wrote at my age, and apply my life experiences, while still retaining hers.”
“She the Creator” is about Lilith Halm, an agoraphobic painter who struggles to navigate the art world from the confines of her apartment while her young and enamored caretaker, Kat, becomes overly invested in furthering Lilith’s art career. As the boundaries of their professional relationship begin to blur, Lilith loses sight of the lines between reality and dreams, as she spirals deeper into the world of her own creations.
“Lilith is a character that, to me, represents the artist inside us, who gives everything to her work, to the point of her detriment,” Wallace said. “To explore this concept was one that gave me an incredible amount of perspective as I crafted this film. Relating to Lilith, I had a constant reminder to check in with myself, before my work.”
Lead actress Bernadette Cuvalo, who was born in Los Angeles but raised in Bremerton, met Wallace in early 2017.
“The day we met, she turned to me and told me she wanted me to play the lead in a film she’d been developing for years,” said Cuvalo, who had participated in numerous short films since she began acting in 2002.
That film turned out to be “She the Creator,” in which Cuvalo plays Lilith Halm, her third starring role in a feature film.
Cuvalo was so captivated by the story that she began communicating with Wallace on a regular basis, and after Cuvalo moved back to Los Angeles in the summer of 2017, she met Wallace’s mother, Veronica, who was released from prison on parole in 2003, and now has a home in L.A.
The summer of 2018 saw Cuvalo spending a lot of time with Veronica, as they discussed the themes of the film, and even rehearsing early versions of the script, and later that year, Cuvalo visited the Pacific Northwest for an initial promotional shoot.
Cuvalo visited one more time, in the spring of this year, for additional promotional shoots and finally, in August, she began principal photography with Wallace.
In spite of the long shooting hours on Nov. 18, Cuvalo deemed the Northwind Arts Center “a breeze” to shoot in.
“They were very accommodating,” Cuvalo said. “The large sculptures that were featured in their front gallery were actually a perfect fit with the aesthetic of the scene we were there to shoot, and with our entire film in general. It struck a beautiful balance of simplicity, with its broad, white walls, and intricate detail, provided by the artwork which existed there already.”
Because the second floor of the Hastings Building had been uninhabited for so long, and “electricity and water were not readily available to us,” Cuvalo acknowledged that “we definitely had to think on our feet, in order to keep the work flow going, and to keep the crew comfortable.”
The Hastings proved to be the cast and crew’s longest cumulative shoot, at around 15 total days, and Cuvalo expressed her gratitude to the owners for allowing them to set up shop for so long.
“The fact that we got the opportunity at all was truly a gift,” Cuvalo said. “It’s a very special place, and the community cares a lot about it. Our presence inside generated a lot of curiosity. It was exciting for us.”
Like Wallace, Cuvalo considers the Port Townsend settings of the film to be supporting characters.
“The Hastings was perfect for our needs, and for the look of the film, down to the hinges on the doors,” Cuvalo said. “The details are beautiful and charged with a sense of mystery. And the Ann Starrett Mansion was the perfect visual complement to the Hastings. Again, every detail both inside and out is exquisite, and perfectly suited to the look of our film. Because of these wonderful gifts from the community, our work is going to be incredibly visually stunning!”
Cuvalo noted that Manresa Castle not only hosted a fundraiser for the film, more than a year ago, but allowed the film to shoot its final scene on its final day of production there.
“Never, at any of these locations, did we feel that we were being loomed over,” Cuvalo said. “These people had faith in us. They trusted us to take care of their beautiful spaces. What a wonderful feeling.”
Part of what’s made this lengthy process so worthwhile for Cuvalo has been the opportunity to explore a dynamic that she believes is not often addressed earnestly or in depth.
“There’s a good reason that artists are often associated with madness,” Cuvalo said. “But it’s typically discussed glibly, at best. Discussing the struggle of the artist can amount to little more than the butt of a joke, but it isn’t a joke. Madness exists in the smallest places. It can be barely perceptible. It can go undetected. And this story shines a light on this discussion in a way that I haven’t seen before.”
Far from glamorizing this experience, Cuvalo sees “She the Creator” as depicting it as confusing, lonely and disturbing.
“People can lose sight of themselves through the process of creating, and they can come dangerously close to the edge, when they least expect it,” Cuvalo said. “It can creep up on you. Madness isn’t something that hits you over the head. It slowly sews itself into you, thread by thread.”
Port Townsend resident Michele Soderstrom befriended Wallace at the Artists’ Edge art supply store in Poulsbo, where they met as coworkers, and Wallace told Soderstrom about “She the Creator” about a year ago, so when the call went out for extras on Facebook, Soderstrom saw it as a chance to support her artist friend.
“I believe in what she’s doing, and in her hard work, pouring her soul into something she believes in,” said Soderstrom, who helped spread the word that Wallace needed more extras.
For the Nov. 18 shoot at Northwind, Soderstrom arrived in the attire requested by Wallace’s wardrobe person, and appeared alongside another artist friend, who was also an extra, as gallery staff.
“We shared ghost stories between takes,” Soderstrom said. “Rose has known Juliette for much longer than I have. Standing around was the biggest challenge, but that’s common for every film set I’ve been on; hurry up and wait.”
Soderstrom described Northwind Arts Center as “a very comfortable space,” and she enjoyed seeing her own art on the walls along with the work of her artist friends.
“There were plenty of snacks,” Soderstrom said. “Food is always abundant on film sets.”
While Soderstrom has worked on film sets previously as a makeup artist, in which the biggest challenge was maintaining the continuity of makeup between takes, she had not acted in a play or film in the past.
“I did become interested in stage makeup during high school,” Soderstrom said. “After cosmetology school in Seattle, and special effects film and theater makeup school in Toronto, I landed the best gig ever for 20 years, with the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker in Seattle.”
Soderstrom worked on a handful of short films in Seattle during the 1990s, and even gave herself a black eye once, with makeup, for a job interview.
“I do enjoy making my friends look wounded during Halloween,” Soderstrom said. “Advice I would give to any aspiring extra or bit player would be to bring a book or sketchpad on set to keep busy with, be patient and stay in your lane. Everyone on set has their own job description for a reason.”
“Next up, we have post production!” Wallace said, before explaining that this process covers the editing, sound design, music composition and special effects, and leads into the marketing, distribution and festival circuit touring.
“We intend to have some private premieres in 2020,” Wallace said. “it’s our hope to achieve global reach, and have the film shown as many places as possible, including educational screenings.”
Wallace also hopes this will serve as a launchpad for Bioluminescent Films, the “collaborative entity” behind the making of “She the Creator’.”
“We are a femme and queer-focused group of creators, who come from a variety of backgrounds and experience levels,” Wallace said. “It is our mission to dismantle the current film world as it stands, and recreate it from the inside out, one film at a time. The best way we see to do that is to work as collaboratively and communally as possible, and to not have to settle for the whims of corporate executives and producers. Our goal is to establish a familial filmmaking environment that can stand on its own, focused on love and creating over anything.”
Whatever progress Wallace and her cohorts are able to make, she does not intend to forget Washington state or the Pacific Northwest.
“This area holds a special place in my heart,” Wallace said. “I feel an immense respect for the land, and I feel very grateful to be living in such an abundant and peaceful area. It’s a highly creative and powerful place to create in, and I’ve met some of the most incredible and gifted people, that have made this area my home.”
For more details, visit bioluminescentfilms.com/she-the-creator.