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Thursday, April 7, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gamble pays off for young Ballard filmmaker

Special to the Seattle Times

It's not unusual for young, aspiring filmmakers to finance their first features with credit cards, wages from a day job or investments from family members. Nineteen-year-old Jesse Harris had a different plan.

In 2003, while a junior at Ballard High School, Harris persuaded his parents to give him his college savings to make a film.

"At first my folks were skeptical," Harris says, relaxing in a state-of-the-art studio that is part of Ballard High's well-regarded Video Production Program.

"But they saw that it would be a really good experience for me, even if the film was a flop."

The result, "Living Life," a touching, 88-minute drama shot in Seattle about a dying adolescent's final months, opens at the Metro tomorrow. The film's distributor, 3-year-old, Los Angeles-based Filmmates, plans to carefully market it as a tweens-and-up family movie in select cities.

Harris graduated from BHS last spring, but he's still comfortable in his alma mater's video production facilities, where he made short works under the guidance of the program's instructor, Matt Lawrence.

"Bigger and bigger projects"

But Harris had the filmmaking bug long before his teen years.

"I started making films when I was 8 or 9, borrowing a neighbor's VHS camera, making little detective stories, stuff like that," Harris says. "I've always made movies on my own, but it was also cool to do stuff in school, with people my own age."

Some of Harris' BHS video peers worked on the crew of "Living Life," but the film was professionally produced outside the parameters of school.

"Each year I was making bigger and bigger projects, and I won some awards," Harris says. "I thought, why not just make a real movie rather than go to film school?"

Harris wrote "Living Life" when he was 16, getting advice on the script's sometimes thorny relationships from wise friends. A doctor at Fred Hutchinson helped him better understand the ravages of cancer in young people. "Living Life's" hero, Jason (Benjamin P. Garman), is under treatment for the disease.

"I didn't know anyone who has gone through what Jason goes through," Harris says. "Some of the family issues are based more on my life."

The story finds Jason bonding with an estranged grandfather (Dick Arnold) while hiding his illness from a girlfriend (Mara Hansen). The former helps distract Jason from his pain by teaching him an old-fashioned magic act, which Jason then performs for hospitalized youngsters.

"I used to do magic shows for sick kids at Swedish Hospital," says Harris. "Swedish remembered me and let me shoot there. That was lucky. We couldn't afford to build sets."

Harris says most of his budget was spent hiring an experienced crew. The effort paid off: The film's somber hues, smart-camera placement and a penchant for shooting scenes for graceful cutting all suggest advanced directorial thoughtfulness. Those strengths offset less assured, occasionally amateurish moments.

"I got a really good cinematographer (Randall Peck)," says Harris. "We shot on video and transferred it to film. We thought a lot about what to do so the footage wouldn't look like video. We used different lenses, screens, stuff like that."

Harris shot "Living Life" in the summer before his senior year, then worked every day after school preparing a rough cut.

"It took awhile because my time was taken up with schoolwork," Harris says. "But I was able to make the film my senior project."

Filmmates acquired a tape and called mere hours before Harris' graduation ceremony with an offer to buy "Living Life."

Since then, Harris has been in L.A., polishing the final cut. He and Filmmates are contributing some profits to the Living Life Foundation, which will give money to the Swedish Cancer Institute, among other charities.

Harris is currently writing a psychological mystery set in San Francisco. But as he poses for a photographer in the halls of Ballard High — blushing and trying not to laugh as old schoolmates tease him — he looks like he's still growing into the role of up-and-coming filmmaker.

Tom Keogh: keogh@aol.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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