Alumni Spotlight: Tristan Seniuk

Submitted by Yuko Mera on

Major: Cinema Studies (with honors)
Year of Graduation: 2008
Favorite Movie of All Time: Ghost Dog – The Way of the Samurai
Occupation: Film Director, Editor, and Colorist

“Cinema Studies at UW provided a great foundation and a strong sense of world cinema to build upon as a director.”

We asked director Tristan Seniuk about how he got started, about his latest film Float (, and about majoring in Cinema Studies at UW.

Do you remember what the first film in your life was?
         I have an early memory of seeing Rob Reiner’s film, The Princess Bride. Nearly every Thanksgiving, my mom, brother, and I used to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Northern California, and at some point over the long weekend we’d watch The Princess Bride. My brother and I were allowed to watch most of the film, except for the scarier scenes like the one in the fire swamp with the R.O.U.S. (Rodents of Unusual Size).

How did you come to make films?
         When I was in 5th grade, my dad showed me the film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, by Werner Herzog. I’d seen a lot of films by then, mostly Hollywood affairs – Apollo 13, The Mask of Zorro, Top Gun – that gave no sense of how they’d been made. But in watching Aguirre something shifted for me. I saw outside the framework of the story and saw that the filmmaking process itself was just as much a part of the final product, that the director was on the same journey as the characters. That’s when I decided this is what I wanted to do.

When you’re making films, or while you’re editing, do you have a certain audience in mind?
         Yes and no. When I’m directing, I put myself first and think about the audience second. There are so many fires to put out, so many unexpected interferences, that if you don’t put your own vision first, it’s easy to get lost along the way. That said, you absolutely have to think about the audience, because the film is for public consumption.

          At some point in all my projects I have shown the work to others for feedback. While I may not personally agree with that feedback, it’s important to get because everyone connects with film in a different way.

Where did Float come from, and what made you want to make this film?
          I was a kid who grew up on hip-hop and track jackets in a north Seattle neighborhood called Lake City in the early 1990s. While only a short drive to downtown, Lake City may well have been hours away in terms of culture and identity. Known for its used car dealerships, pawn shops, strip clubs, and dive bars, Lake City has always had an unsavory stigma attached to it. A transient neighborhood with relatively high crime rates for a relatively crime-less city, where low income renters live side-by-side families who have owned properties for multiple generations, Lake City has a strange mix of colorful characters all moving to the beat of their own hustle.

          Years later, I started to see that Lake City was really a special place, rife with fascinating and surreal characters living outside the Seattle norm who needed further exploration. This outsider experience was furthered when I began to date my partner, Voleak Sip, a Cambodian refugee who immigrated as a baby with her family to North Seattle in the mid-1980s. The stories she told me about her family's experiences in the late 80s and early 90s, especially those involving an older brother who had fallen in with some shady characters, sparked strong visuals in my mind and when mixed with my own experiences of 90s North Seattle, planted the seeds for a film project.

         The film was originally conceived as an expansive feature incorporating a wide range of Lake City personalities stretching beyond the South East Asian community, but we kept circling back to this self-made hustler character, Rocky, who had been inspired by Voleak's brother. There was something about his desire to assimilate into American culture (largely learned from hip hop and BET), and a fervent but misguided determinism to make it, that kept bringing us back to him. So we decided to scale the project back to a short film and focus on a week in his life. Over the course of scaling down and eventually casting the film, its location also changed to the South Seattle communities where Asian and SE Asian families are more concentrated.

“Casting diversely is possible, you just need to find and give people opportunities.” 

Can you say more about the casting process?
         Authenticity and truth have always been very important to me, and the same was true with Float. We knew that the way to make Rocky’s world convincing was not just meticulous production and costume design but an equally careful treatment of dialogue, much of it consisting of era slang, natural speech, and the untranslated Khmer language spoken in Rocky's household.

         While Asian cinema has always been a strong force in world cinema, Asian American, and in this case SE Asian American portrayals have been incredibly marginalized, with most roles regulated to typecasting and bit parts. So with Float it was very important for Voleak and I to directly engage with the Seattle SE Asian community in our casting process, since we knew finding actors in a more traditional casting agency way would be difficult. We didn’t know if we’d find our actors here in Seattle or have to search nationally, but we were able to fill out our cast with people of SE Asian heritage who closely resembled their characters. Nearly every person that we ended up casting had not only never acted before but had never even been on a set, so everything was fresh. This freshness I think translated well, because no one came with a predetermined idea of how they should “act” for the role. Many of the cast members were just playing themselves or variants of people they personally knew or had grown up around. The fact that the film was written to rely more heavily on visuals and body language, and less on dialogue, also played in our favor. This naturalism on screen is perhaps the aspect of Float that we’re proud of most, and audiences have really connected with it. Casting diversely is possible, you just need to find and give people opportunities.

What was it like taking Float to film festivals?
         You go through a process akin to applying for college, sending off applications to festivals all over the place, each with their own fee, which adds up fast, and then you just wait. And wait, and wait. Finally, notifications start rolling in. You open the first one and it’s a rejection, and then another rejection, and then another. You start to think, “Wow, maybe what I made is actually terrible, all that effort a complete waste…” But just when you’re ready to just release it for free online and cancel the rest of the applications, you get in to a festival.

          I think we were rejected by 30 festivals before we were accepted into our first one. But we only needed that one to get us out in the world. Soon after that, other acceptances came in (more rejections, too). Float premiered at a wonderful festival in Eugene, on Asian American social justice, called DisOrient. Since then, it has played in festivals all over, from New York City to Spain to Guam, Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, and Thailand.

          I’ve tried to attend as many of these festivals as I can. As nerve-wracking as it is to sit amongst a fresh audience, it has been incredibly rewarding to see how people react to the film, because they’re seeing the world you’ve created for the very first time. We’ve also been fortunate to have had an incredibly positive reaction to the film everywhere we’ve screened, and even picked up a few awards along the way.

         By attending the festivals, I’ve met lots filmmakers, programmers, and audience attendees, and we’ve continued to stay in contact, so it’s also an important way of creating a network.

What are you working on now?
         I split my time between script development and commercial editing. Wherever Float screened at festivals, we were asked if we’ve considered adapting it into a television series. That hadn’t crossed my mind, but it kept coming up, which showed there was a demand. So I’m scripting it out into a ten-part first season.

         I’ve also got a couple of other completed feature-film scripts with very different subject matter that I am trying to push forward into the next stage of development, to fund them. And in between writing, editing, and coloring, making commercials pays the bills.

How has your training in Cinema Studies affected your development as a filmmaker?
         I watch lots of new films, but I often look back to films from the past for inspiration. Cinema Studies at UW provided a great foundation and a strong sense of world cinema to build upon as a director. It introduced me to many of the filmmakers who would shape my own perspective and visual style. Having this breath of films to study has been incredibly beneficial, because you come to see there’s a whole spectrum of style, ideology, craft, and execution.

Advice for new CMS majors?
          Stay humble, do your work, and keep pressing forward. Filmmaking is a career based on connections, you need them if you want to be successful. Connections can come from the most unlikely places, so always have an ear and an eye out to the world around you, not just the film community. This is perhaps most true when it comes to funding. Be crafty, too, because a dollar in creative person’s brain can stretch a lot further than it does for someone who can’t think outside the box.

          Filmmaking is just as much physical as it is cerebral. If you want the crew to respect you and believe in your vision, then you have to work alongside them. Be the first person to set and the last one to leave. When you are the director it may seem like you are at the top of the ladder, but really you’re the base.