Local Spotlight: Bret Fetzer


“As a teenager you think, if only I can grow up, then everything will change for the better — and it does get better, but not because the world changes, it’s because you do.” 

When we work with relatively the same profession everyday we think we’ve got the system down and we know the ins and outs; but what about the related subjects that intertwine with our roles? Having the opportunity to grow within the related profession is a fantastic way to expand your talents. Writing screenplays, plays, and short films for over 30 years, Bret Fetzer has had his plays produced around the U.S. and a production in Chile. Fetzer’s short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines and collected in “Petals & Thorns” and “Tooth & Tongue”. He has written film reviews for well know companies like Amazon.com, Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger. But, his writing doesn’t stop there –Fetzer wrote the narration for the documentary “Le Petomane: Fin-de-siecle Fartste”. More recently, Fetzer has opportunely directed a playful autobiographical feature-film, “My Last Year With the Nuns”. The subject of the film, Matt Smith tells his tale of his 8th grade self and his friends roaming the heavily Catholic Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle in the late 1960s. Smith and his friends would wander from church and school, to the Seattle Times newspaper shack, where the edge of the racial “red line” was drawn to enforce the era’s prejudice, providing a rare forum where different racial kids come together for a few minutes each day before returning to their segregated streets and lives.

Q: How were you introduced into the subject of the film, Matt Smith, and his memories?

Bret Fetzer:  I’ve known Matt Smith for over 30 years — I first met him when he was collaborating with another performer, Ed Sampson, as Stark/Raving Theater; they performed many, many times at On the Boards in the 1980s and ’90s, doing wildly theatrical stuff that they developed out of improvisations.  When they stopped collaborating, Matt wanted to experiment with autobiographical storytelling, and I’d already directed some other solo shows, so he asked me to work with him.  The first piece we did was called HELIUM, about several years he spent in Japan teaching English…which sounds quaint when put that way, but was really a series of crazily funny stories about cultural confusion and sexual obsession. We enjoyed working together — Matt appreciated that I was able to give him feedback on the narrative without trying to rewrite it in my own voice.  So the next project we launched into was MY LAST YEAR WITH THE NUNS, which was a series of stories about his 8th Grade year of Catholic school — stories that he’d basically been honing ever since.  We wove them together into a monologue that got rave reviews; it was his first big hit as a solo performer and pretty much cemented our desire to keep working together.  Over the next couple of decades we created three more monologues, one autobiographical, one a sort of freewheeling comedy routine about child-rearing, and one that’s a fiction piece but written in a similar style to his autobiographical pieces.  This last one, ALL MY CHILDREN, is his funniest work and we’re working on turning that into a film as well.

Q: What’s it like filming a feature-length movie in Seattle? Can you tell us about the work ethics and creative freedom within the city?

BF:  Well, I’ve never made a movie in a different city — I’ve only made one movie! — but there’s a camaraderie in the Seattle film scene that I suspect is not common.  It’s partly because the scene is small and, really, no one’s making any money, and anyone who really wants to make money leaves and goes to L.A., so the people who stay have made some kind of peace with not making a lot of money but they still want to make movies.  So it’s more light-hearted, more cheerful, more in it for the fun of it all.

Know where your personal talents and other collaborators’ talents lie. It’s important to respect your position and give appreciation and gratitude to every person on your team. If you know you have snagged a filmmaker who is well known or on the rise and making a name for themselves, then express the joy you feel to have them be a part of the crew. We’re all in the film industry for a reason. Understand where your fellow filmmakers’ ambitions stand.

Q: What are some of your thoughts when selecting your team? Not only on-set crew, but when choosing editors, publicist, marketing sales rep, executive producers, etc.?

BF:  A lot of that was also in the hands of the producers, mostly Michael Seiwerath, who came to us with all the film world connections that I didn’t have, which is one of the main reasons I haven’t made a movie before, even though it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. (I got sidetracked into theater, which is a lot less expensive to do and so more accessible.)  Basically, Michael proposed people, and we’d look at the work they’d done and meet with them, and because Michael is a smart and thoughtful guy, they were all fantastic.  The linchpin for the whole movie, though, was our cinematographer, Ben Kasulke — who’s a bit of a rising rock star in the world of cinematography and we were really lucky we were able to nab him between much better-paying projects.  Ben is not only hugely talented; he naturally becomes the foreperson of the crew and sets a really collaborative and convivial tone for the set.  I suspect on every set, someone falls into that role; it may not always be the cinematographer, but there’s going to be someone that isn’t the director that the rest of the crew will take cues from, cues that may not even be wholly conscious.  From now on, I’m going to looking for that person on every crew I work with — I’m going to keep my antennae alert, making sure that when my senses tingle, when I see that particular kind of charisma and innate leadership, that this person has qualities I want my set to have.  Because total assholes can be charismatic too, and if you’re stuck with someone who’s going to be snide or cynical and will cultivate those qualities in your crew, you’re screwed.

Q: What is your marketing and distribution plan for this movie?

BF:  Honestly, that’s a question for our producers, Michael Seiwerath and Jennessa West.  I really like making things — I was involved with this movie from pre-production conceptualization through to editing and all that post-production finesse — but I’m terrible at marketing them.  I always hope that if what I make is really good, it will attract attention to itself by virtue of its really-good-ness.  Which is completely naive. And I know it’s naive — I’ve been around a while and I’ve seen a lot of really brilliant work created by truly talented people get completely ignored.  I know you have to promote, you have to market, you have to sell — but I just don’t have the temperament to do it.  Matt’s much better at it than I am. And fortunately, we have FANTASTIC producers who are all over the marketing and distribution. I can’t express enough gratitude to them.

Q: Where are your budgets being focused on throughout the stages of production?

BF:  This is TOTALLY a producer question.  Honestly, I have almost no idea what we spent on any particular aspect of the production.  I have a grasp of the overall budget, and there were certain things that I dealt with — like persuading the church that we used to let us film on their altar — but it was Michael and Jennessa who told me how much money I could offer them.  I didn’t even try to get my fingers into all that.

Knowing the means and taking advantage of the resources available is an opportunity that we have to secure. There is energy around us – tools are willing to jump at the chance to be used. Organize you talents and see if any can serve another purpose to your project. Reach back in the past – maybe there was something missed or changed over time. It’s okay to be nervous, but don’t let those nerves take over because it’s a great opportunity to explore the familiar and unfamiliar. Also, take that logic and turn it around; just relax and collaborate with former relationships and see where that goes. Reach out and change the project’s format creatively.

Q: What were some of your thoughts and ideas when you were beginning to shoot? How have some of those thoughts changed after release?

BF:  I knew, from the start, that I didn’t want this to be a conventional filmed performance.  There have been some great movies that are basically filmed theatrical performances — I’m a huge fan of ‘Swimming to Cambodia’, among others — but I felt this story needed to step out into the larger world to really succeed.  And I’d also seen a number of movies made from solo shows that tried to become some hybrid of storytelling and multi-character drama — such as Mike Birbiglia’s ‘Sleepwalk with Me’ and Josh Kornbluth’s ‘Haiku Tunnel’ — and in both of those cases, I thought the strongest elements where when the narrator just turned to the camera and talked.  That’s where the fundamental rhythms of the original material were allowed to crackle and pop.  So I wanted to preserve that sense of voice, but take it out of the theater as much as possible — though I still thought that some portions of the story were going to be best served by happening in a theater, where the blank space of the empty stage would allow some of Matt’s character work — where he jumps from one character to another — to happen more fluidly.

But now, I wish I’d gone further and taken it out of the theater entirely. The scenes in the theater aren’t deadly, because Matt’s such a dynamic and engaging performer, but they definitely lose energy in comparison with the scenes where Matt is telling the story surrounded and framed by the location where the story actually took place.  I wish I’d pushed myself to find a cinematic solution to some of the narrative sections that seemed problematic outside of a theater.

Of course, that would have probably added a week or more to our shooting schedule and it might not have been possible.  So…sometimes you’re just stuck with what’s possible.

If you do what you love, it’ll never be work. Doing something new and unfamiliar can be a fun growing process. Even if your new project isn’t working out, you will grow and learn no matter what. Build the confidence and create the push to get your self and your talent out there. You might have a different eye for things that you never thought you would. There’s always the great prospect of seeing things in a different way – creating a liberating feeling that keeps you going even more.

Q: What was one of your most favorite experiences while making this movie?

BF:  I enjoyed every moment of it, truly.  Which is not to say I wasn’t scared — I was doing this for the first time, this thing that I’d been thinking about all of my life, and what if I sucked at it?  But the moment we started, I loved it.  Even standing around waiting for the lights to get tweaked, waiting for a plane to pass so the sound would be clear, I just ate it up.  And as much pleasure as I took in shooting the movie — sometimes what I’d conceived worked beautifully, sometimes it didn’t work at all and I had to come up with a different solution on the fly, both sides of that filled me with delight — when we got to the editing, it was even better.  Working with our editor, Sean Donavan, was so much fun. Sean’s incredibly sharp and his rough cut of the movie was already 80-90% there, but collaborating with him to get that last 10% as right as possible was pure pleasure.  Then adding in the animation sequences by Clyde Petersen and the music by John Osebold — you’re watching something that’s pretty good suddenly get better than you ever thought it could.

Q: What was one of your most difficult moments during production? How did you get through it?

BF:  Uhf.  The worst moments were always about running out of time.  We only had one day on several locations, and we were cramming in all the set-ups and sometimes things got rushed.  There are scenes that I watch and all I can think is, if we’d only had a little more time!  If we could have done two more takes of that moment, or if we could have squeezed in one more set-up that would have made the edit just a little more fluid!

Q: After the credits are rolling, what would you like your audience to take away from watching “My Last Year With The Nuns”?

BF:  Hmm.  I’d like them think about how awful and how awfully funny adolescence is, and how the world of teenagers is a weird fun-house mirror of adulthood.  As a teenager you think, if only I can grow up, then everything will change for the better — and it does get better, but not because the world changes, it’s because you do.

Q: What advice would you give to a fellow filmmaker when creating a feature-length movie?

BF:  Once the camera and sound are rolling, give it a few seconds before you say action (or go of whatever you say); and when the scene has happened, let the camera keep going for a few seconds before you say cut. Your editor will thank you.

And enjoy it.  Very few people get to make movies.  You’re incredibly lucky.  Enjoy your luck and recognize your luck.  I don’t care how talented you are, you still need a lot of luck.

Matt Smith with director Bret Fetzer

Matt Smith with director Bret Fetzer

See trailer below and for more information about My Last Year With the Nuns click here