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Islander is in demand on the Seattle film scene
By ELIZABETH SHEPHERD
In the past couple of years, Eric Frith’s work as a film editor has taken him to the tropical highlands of Rwanda, the snowy peaks of the Himalayas and the salmon-studded waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska.
But he’s been to all these places, and more, without leaving the cozy confines of a small studio in the backyard of his home on the island’s west side. Instead, film directors and others in the industry have frequently journeyed to Vashon to spend time with Frith in the studio, sitting by his side as he works his special magic to help them tell their stories of far-flung places.
Frith, a tall, goateed 46-year-old man with sharp blue eyes that peer out behind stylishly sensible glasses, has become one of the most sought-after editors in Seattle’s red-hot independent film scene. The controlled chaos on his desk reflects that.
“You can see where my feet have worn a place on the floor under there,” he said on a recent misty morning, as he pointed to his workstation — a desk filled with papers, disks, two large computer monitors and a laptop. “I wind up working right here 80 to 90 percent of the time.”
More décor in the studio hints at his other passions — there are stacks of paperback editions of books by literary giants, and a guitar rests comfortably against an old, upright piano. A small gas fireplace provides heat to the space, and two comfortable leather chairs give it a manly vibe.
Working at home on Vashon, Frith said, gives him time to spend with his wife and soon-to-be 9-year-old son, the opportunity to make music with a local band, Fendershine, and grounds him in what has increasingly become a demanding career. He’s lived on the island since the late 1990s.
Frith’s job is one of the most important in the film industry, and it’s a complex one. According to another editor, Walter Murch, the career is something like “a cross between a short-order cook and a brain surgeon.”
Editors look through hundreds of hours of footage shot on location and then piece the film together into a coherent whole — trimming, shaping and adding music, narration and other elements along the way. It’s a job that requires close collaboration with a multitude of other film artists, but most importantly, directors.
Frith is best known as an editor, but he has also worked in the film industry as a director, producer, writer and story consultant.
This year, four films that Frith has edited are playing in the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). And luckily for islanders, another of his recent films will play at 9:30 p.m. Friday at Vashon Theatre as part of Vashon Film Society’s monthly art film series.
That movie, the documentary “Finding Hillywood,” is about efforts to build a film industry in Rwanda in the wake of the genocide that happened there 20 years ago. It was a hit at SIFF last year and an award-winner on the international festival circuit.
The film’s director, Seattleite Leah Warshawski, and Frith will attend the screening on Friday and stay for a question-and-answer session with the audience after the conclusion of the film.
Frith said he was honored and inspired to work on the film.
“To witness the birth of a film culture, and to see people who have never gone to a film before see one in their own language — that’s powerful stuff,” he said. “It’s about the power of film to heal an individual and to heal a country.”
It’s the second time this year that Frith has attended a hometown screening of a film he has edited. In April, the film society showed “Eden,” a film directed by Megan Griffiths and edited by Frith that is an intense, spellbinding movie based on a survivor’s true story of human trafficking.
Both Warshawski and Griffiths have high praise for Frith’s contributions to their work.
“Eric had a huge part of shaping the film,” Warshawski said. “He was really patient, and he has a great sense of story — he gets emotional about it, and he fights for what he believes in and won’t let you get away with mediocrity. It’s a hard balance to find — between speaking up for what you believe in and just going to work and following orders. Eric speaks up.”
Griffiths also credited Frith with helping her bring her vision for “Eden” to fruition, and in the process, being a supremely easy person to work with.
“Someone told me that Eric has a heart of gold wrapped in chocolate, and that’s true,” she said. “He’s really talented as an editor, and he gets to the emotional core of what he is doing.”
Frith’s career in film began by happenstance, when he was given a job helping out at his college television station.
At the time, Frith was an English major with a focus on creative writing at the University of South Carolina at Columbia.
“I was thrown into a program that had me working on a coaches’ show,” he said. “Someone literally pointed at me, and said, ‘You’re on Camera two.’”
Frith’s interest in film and video production continued after college, when in 1994 he moved to Seattle, a place where he says he “came for a while and stayed forever.”
Frith, whose voice still holds a trace of friendly twang formed during his years growing up in Arkansas and South Carolina, found a home in the creative community of the Northwest.
In his early years in Seattle, Frith took classes at the influential Seattle nonprofit 911 Media Arts Center and eventually became a teacher there. By the early 2000s, he had joined Byrd Productions, a company founded by his wife, Holly Taylor. (Taylor has since left the company and now is a mental health counselor with a private practice in Tacoma.)
In 2005, Frith made his first big mark as an editor on the Seattle independent film scene with “Heart of the Game,” Ward Serrill’s riveting documentary account of the challenges faced by Darnellia Russell, a tough, inner-city prodigy in girls’ basketball. The film won multiple prizes and went on to be distributed by Miramax and Dream Entertainment.
Frith said he has learned his craft step by step.
“I am the product of many projects, learning from each one, learning from people I’ve worked with, getting to know some of the formal history on my own by reading about the craft,” he said. “But it is also based in storytelling and communication, managing the flow of information, when you present it and how. For better or worse, I seem to have a propensity for those skills along with learning from many, many, many hours of editing. I’ve spent so many hours just doing it and doing it and doing it.”
Many of Frith’s most recent films, including those showing at SIFF this year, are documentaries or about issues that are timely and provocative.
A new documentary feature, “The Breach,” both edited and co-written by Frith, will have two “work-in-progress” screenings at SIFF and is due out later this summer.
The film, by director Mark Titus, is about salmon preservation in Bristol Bay, Alaska. It’s a place where Pebble, a huge multinational company, wants to build the continent’s largest open pit copper and gold mine at the headwaters of two rivers that feed the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery.
Another documentary at SIFF, edited by Frith, is “Song of the New Earth.” That film tells the story of Tom Kenyon, a scientist and shaman on a mission to integrate modern science and ancient mysticism through the power of sound. Scored by islanders Jason Staczek and Ian Moore, the film follows Kenyon on journeys from his home in the San Juan Islands to Tibetan nunneries, from cathedrals and caves in southern France to the gilded symphony halls of Vienna.
Frith’s contributions to this year’s SIFF are rounded out by two narrative short films — “The Hero Pose” and “From the Sky.” Both are dramas about fathers and their children, but “From the Sky” also delves into the timely issue of drone warfare in the Middle East.
Frith said he’s not out to only make films with meaty social content, though.
“The shows I’ve worked on — what a gift,” he said. “It’s not my goal to just do socially oriented films. But it feels good to work on something you can get behind, socially and emotionally. These films have maybe cracked open a little something. That’s the part of it that makes me feel I’m doing something worth a damn.”
— Elizabeth Shepherd is the former arts editor of The Beachcomber.
“Finding Hillywood,” edited by Eric Frith, will screen at 9:30 p.m. Friday at the Vashon Theatre. To find out more about Eric Frith and his work, visit www.byrdproductions.com.