Director Shaun Scott Offers an Historic View from the Seat of the Seattle Empire
It's Saturday night in the U district, and I stake out a spot at Flowers restaurant 10 minutes early for my interview with Shaun Scott. Eight of those minutes go by before I realize that he's the guy sitting just 12 feet to my right at an adjoining table.
The 27-year-old director's never seen me before, and in the only photo I've ever seen of him (a 2009 PR shot), Scott's bespectacled visage stares back at the camera with deadpan nonchallance. That photo sits at total odds with the alert person across the restaurant from me, as he good-naturedly but intently scrutinizes the patronage. Once his identity clicks, I walk to his table to introduce myself, and I soon learn that sitting down to chat with Shaun Scott pretty much means hitting the ground running.
A former New Yorker who moved to Seattle at the age of 10, Scott balances the upbeat verve of an athlete (he's a big basketball fan and former junior-high track star) with the insights and second-nature courtesy of a seasoned show-business professional. We blaze through a 90-minute dinner talking about everything from the highlights of TV's golden age to the pitfalls of learning to write narrative screenplays on the fly. But the crux of our conversation hinges on his debut feature, Seat of Empire, highlights of which will screen at the Grand Illusion Cinema Saturday night. Faults and all, the documentary offers a heady and visually-resplendent view of Seattle's first century-and-a-half.
Seat of Empire was born in 2009, when Scott was finishing up his history degree at the University of Washington. The Mayor's Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs called on individual artists to commemorate the centennial of the 1909 Alaskan Yukon Pacific Exposition, and he leapt at the opportunity. "They mentioned specifically that they were looking for films that had something to do with that centennial," he says, "So here I was, just getting out of school with a history degree. I knew about all this stuff, so I figured I might as well swing the bat at that point."
In its unexpurgated three-hour-plus form, Seat of Empire takes on no less than the entire history of Seattle over the last 160 years, covering the Denny Party's fateful arrival at Alki in 1851 and running all the way to the completion of the city's Light Rail system in 2009. Scott eschews the cozy neutrality of flat factoid regurgitation by detailing the city's growth from myriad angles. The experiences of native Americans, Filipino immigrants, women, and many of the region's key political figures (Chief Seattle, legislative dynamos Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson) comprise some of the threads that figure in the movie's dense evolutionary tapestry. Scott also gathered an amazing array of found footage (some of it well over a century old) for inclusion in the film.
That footage forms the backbone of Seat of Empire, and it offers quietly-riveting glimpses into Seattle's past. Amidst a bustling 1930s city square, a Bartell's Drug Store peeks out; long-extinct trolley cars run hither and yon alongside Model Ts on Seattle bridges; and flapper-era couples pose and flirt at a costume party (a dapper caucasian guy in demeaning blackface offers the only hint that we're looking at someone from 80-plus years ago). Even the more recent color footage yields revelations: glimpses of a spanking-new Highway 99 and a 1970s-vintage view of the Seattle skyline from I-5 look at once familiar and utterly alien. In contrast to the war-footage-proclamation montages that glut most historic documentaries, Scott "focused in on the things that seemed kind of commonplace, but they're not," he says.
"My first influence as a filmmaker wasn't any of the big-name classic directors. It was Ken Burns," he adds. "The first thing I ever looked at, where I said, 'I think I can do that,' was [the Burns mini-series] Jazz." Seat of Empire acknowledges that debt and often shines brightest when Scott simply lets images play, unencumbered by narration and backed by music (local bands Pocket Change, the Josh Rawlings Trio, and Threat of Beauty, among others, contributed original music to the soundtrack). "The music was everything," Scott says, and during post-production he was enthralled by "what happens if you just let the most visceral form of communication in film—which is just pairing sound with image, with no words—take over. Sometimes, it's just a matter of getting out of the way and expressing yourself more as an editor than as a writer or narrator."
A love of Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour also informed Scott's work. "Just that idea of a personal retelling of a national story, or a municipal story, was huge," he says. "Seeing that in school, for me, led to all kinds of aesthetic possibilities I wouldn't have seen before. That's why I felt comfortable personalizing the narrative in so many places; because I had seen that done."
You can't accuse Scott of sitting on the sidelines, viewpoint-wise. In Seat of Empire he sometimes lets his passion get the best of him as a narrator (E.g. "With this frame of mind, one can—in the same day—donate to charity, slaughter an Indian, save a baby, torture a Filipino, say marriage vows, romance a whore, drink a 12-pack, then go back to recycle the beer bottles—all in the name of being whoever you are"). But he frequently tempers his righteous narrative indignation over the Sins of our Forebears with a healthy dose of self-examination. "I always try to make it a point to bring up the enormous human, fiscal and political costs that went into creating these things that we all [currently] enjoy," Scott says, citing Seattle's early 20th-century regrade projects as an example. "The Regrades are interesting, because it's like a 'Would you give it back?' scenario," he says. "Knowing what you know about raw-sewage paint jobs, about segregated real estate, about all of those things; there's still the undeniable reality that we wouldn't be living here if not for those Regrades. Would you take all that progress back? I don't know how to answer that."
Amazingly, the movie was essentially a one-man project ("Finding the footage, making the contacts with the Seattle Municipal Archives and MOHAI, the editing, a lot of the sound engineering...[and] all of the narration was me," Scott says.). But Scott's two films since Seat of Empire (2010's documentary on consumerism, Waste of Time, and the nearly completed narrative feature 100% Off) find him ceding some of the burdens of creation to a small crew. That re-allocation of labor has done nothing to slow down his creative momentum. "For some reason, I...enjoy doing films so much, and I'm so devoted to [making] them, that it feels like borrowed time, even though it's not," he says with a chuckle. "It feels like, if we don't go through this [filmmaking] on an annual cycle, something is going to happen. Like the world is going to end!"
Photo of Shaun Scott by Chantal Andrea.