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Originally published Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 6:45 PM

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Filmmakers Lynn Shelton and Linas Phillips have a chance to shine at Sundance

Seattle filmmakers Lynn Shelton and Linas Phillips journey to Park City, Utah, to show their work at the Sundance Film Festival, a major showcase of independent film. The festival runs from Jan. 21-31.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sundance Film Festival

Thursday-Jan. 31, Park City, Utah (festival.sundance.org).

On the Internet

Watch a trailer for "$5 Cover: Seattle" at vimeo.com/7585404.

"$5 Cover: Seattle"

HERE'S A LIST of local bands appearing in Lynn Shelton's upcoming MTV series, which will be shown in part at the Sundance Film Festival:

Champagne Champagne

Corespondents

GOD

The Lights

The Maldives

The Moondoggies

Sean Nelson

The Spits

Tea Cozies

Thee Emergency

Thee Satisfaction

Weekend

Whiskey Tango

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It's that time of year again — the time when moviemakers, producers, buyers and cinephiles turn their attention to snowy Park City, Utah, and the Sundance Film Festival. The country's leading showcase of independent film runs Thursday-Jan. 31.

Filmmakers with Seattle ties will be there, though it would be hard to top last year's showing, with three Seattle-related feature films in the festival lineup. One of those, Lynn Shelton's low-budget comedy "Humpday," turned into a major Cinderella story. Audiences loved the movie, critics praised it, and distributors fought over it. It was one of the first films to achieve national distribution at the festival.

"It's just been a total life-changer of a year," Shelton said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she's working on sifting through the next round of potential projects. "It was a little surreal at times."

Shelton is back this year with a project whose roots lie in last year's festival. David Gale, executive vice president of MTV Films, was seeking someone who could write and direct a series of narrative films featuring undiscovered Seattle bands for the network's "$5 Cover: Seattle" project. Gale wanted to build on the inaugural "$5 Cover" series based in Memphis and written and directed by Craig Brewer, who shot to fame with his movie "Hustle and Flow" at Sundance in 2005. When Gale heard about "Humpday," he tracked Shelton down at the festival to offer her the job.

Each of the 13 "$5 Cover: Seattle" narratives focuses on a different Seattle band, ranging from the country-blues Moondoggies to the tropics-influenced hip-hop of Champagne Champagne.

The network's financial backing gave Shelton more security — and a bigger budget — than she had with "Humpday." "It was by far the biggest production I'd ever worked on," Shelton said. She will show a sample of the result on Saturday at Sundance's New Frontier on Main venue. (The series will likely air this spring on MTV; dates are yet to be announced.)

For Linas Phillips, an independent filmmaker who lived in Seattle for four years before leaving in 2008, the journey to this year's Sundance all started with an online ad for a reconstructed Volkswagen van. Feeling at loose ends, he was deciding whether to move back to his native East Coast when he fell in love with what he calls an "eccentric vehicle, the bizarre love child of Herbie (of Disney fame) and Pimp My Ride, with a small helping of Christine" — in other words, quintessential Northwest road-trip transportation.

The Volkswagen gave him an idea. He scraped some money together, hired a cinematographer, shot background footage before he left Seattle, then set out to capture his 10-day cross-country move to New York.

In the resulting fictional film, "Bass Ackwards," a character (also named Linas) hits the road when he is forced to move from Seattle to his parents' house in Boston.

Phillips had filmed a previous journey in a 2006 documentary: "Walking to Werner" chronicled Phillips' 1,200-mile walk from Seattle to film idol Werner Herzog's home in Los Angeles.

This time, he went beyond documenting himself and the people he met along the way and began building characters and scripting events. "I didn't want to just repeat myself with the one-man's-journey sort of thing," he said.

The result is a combination autobiography and narrative feature that Phillips hopes will evoke the trials and unexpected joys of cross-country travel — "those synchronistic little experiences and meetings that happen that kind of have a profound effect on you," he said.

Aside from the main characters (who play the fictional Linas' friends and a possible love interest), the film is populated by nonactors, often people Phillips met on the road. Sometimes it was as simple as walking up in bars and starting a conversation.

"I'd say, 'Hey, could you be in a scene with me, play a girl I'm flirting with?' " Phillips said, admitting it sometimes felt "kinda creepy."

Some of those encounters happened in Seattle, as when he got permission to film a real wedding. "It's amazing what people will do if you have the shamelessness to ask," Phillips said.

His film will be screening in the festival's new Next category (set up to showcase low-budget movies). He's already set up an on-demand DVD distribution plan to sell his movie to the public immediately after the festival.

"What's exciting is that more people will see my work, and hopefully it will be easier to make my next film," he said. "We're trying to do, in a humble way, what Sundance is trying to make happen for these films."

Amy Lillard Dee, executive director of Washington FilmWorks, says that kind of strategy is increasingly appealing for filmmakers without big budgets — or much hope of getting a major distribution deal during a tight economy. "The microbudget stuff is where the filmmaking industry is at, in a lot of ways," Dee said.

Other festival films also have Seattle connections. For example, Seattle cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke, a longtime collaborator with Shelton, worked on "The Freebie," also screening in this year's Next category. "The Freebie" was produced by Mark Duplass, who starred in "Humpday" and also helped produce "Bass Ackwards."

Dee, whose state-supported office helps filmmakers in Washington with funding and other help, says the connections reflect the nature of Seattle's film community: small but supportive and tightly knit. "It's incestuous in the best possible way," she said.

Christy Karras: christykarras@gmail.com

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