In 2017, Michael Kleven and Elke Hautala received their first grant, an Artist Trust Grants for Artist Projects (GAP) award. On August 9, their new documentary Khu.éex and the Spirit of Funk will screen at the Neptune Theatre in Seattle as part of the 2018 Nights at the Neptune program presented by Seattle Theatre Group. This series of six free performances brings people together to showcase local artists’ work as it relates to race and social justice.
Together Michael and Elke form Heartstone Studios, where Elke specializes in producing, organizing, and story editing and Michael focuses on directing and the technical aspects. Before becoming filmmakers he was an actor/dancer and she a singer/actor. They both experienced a mid-career change, pivoting from working as performing arts and going back to school to pursue their passion for sharing stories through film.
I interviewed Michael and Elke to learn more about how they met, their collaborative work, and what projects are coming up next for Heartstone Studios.
How did you two begin working together?
Michael: Elke was introduced to me by one of her family members David Reyes, who I had directed back in film school [at Seattle Central].
Elke: After graduating in 2013 [from the University of Washington’s Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) program], I was lucky to have been introduced to Preston Singletary by David, my cousin’s husband. Their children played baseball together.
Michael: Preston, who as the consummate artist is always seeking out new collaborators, had mentioned to David that the work with Bernie [Worrell] might be worth documenting. So it was really David who got things rolling.
What led to you folks collaborating with Preston Singletary?
Elke: We began working with Preston the same time that Michael and I met on the short film that we created, A Modern Creation Story, about a seven-foot tall glass totem pole.
Michael: That was our first big project with Preston. You can find that it on YouTube here. Truly monumental.
Elke: After that project finished, Preston mentioned that he was potentially interested in doing a longer documentary. Also, we had begun filming the occasional promotional piece for both his glass art and his bands.
Michael: We did some early shoots with Preston and a group he organized that is sort of a sister group of Khu.éex’ called Little Big Band.
Elke: Everything kind of developed naturally and organically from a mutual respect for working together and an incredible admiration for Preston’s art in all forms. He’s not only a multi-talented renaissance man but also a true creative collaborator and organizing force. He’s one of the most humble guys you’ll ever meet.
Could you tell us more about Khu.éex: The Magic of Noise?
Elke: Khu.éex’: The Magic of Noise is a unique documentary film that follows the journey of one Seattle band as they explore their cultural backgrounds, push the boundaries of music, and create a communal experience for many different audiences.
Michael: Khu.éex’ is a Seattle-based Native American rock/funk/jazz band co-founded by Preston, funk legend Bernie Worrell, along with a few others. We’ve been following the band in all its permutations since 2014.
Elke: “Khu.éex’” means potlatch in Tlingit, which is essentially a sharing of culture. This film seeks to both entertain and educate as it deals with themes of loss, spirituality, activism, and the intersection of both Native American and African American cultures through music.
Michael: It’s really a profound musical journey, both in terms of the seven albums they created together and the adaptation and evolution of Tlingit and Northwest Native musical and storytelling traditions.
Elke: The band and the film show how Native American culture is living, vibrant, and constantly evolving. They are illuminating subjects that have not had a voice and celebrating the visceral, communal experience of how we are all one spirit.
Michael: Their music is really transformative. I feel like how the funk elements dovetail with the shamanistic elements perfectly. You can see why Bernie devoted the final years of his life as a music innovator to this group. It is a capstone on his musical legacy and hopefully our film helps capture that story.
How has receiving a 2017 GAP award impacted your careers as artists?
Elke: We have been truly humbled by the range of support that has come along with our partnership with Artist Trust especially Martín Sepulveda and Nights at the Neptune.
Michael: As your readers likely know funding for documentary filmmakers can be very hard to come by. Elke likely knows the specifics of the story better then I do, but I can say that we have been scouring the interwebs for potential sources of funding.
Elke: First, we were able to shoot one incredible day jam packed with interviews, eight total, the most we’ve ever done in a day at Preston’s studio of almost all of the band members in Khu.éex’. That level of support allowed us to hire excellent local crew to help us too. We feel very strongly about supporting all of our fellow Seattle artists however and whenever we can – filmmakers, crew, actors, musicians, visual artists etc. Next, the screening for Nights at the Neptune, and its accompanying publicity, is allowing us to take not only the work of our company but also our careers to the next level of visibility.
Michael: It’s very important that we are able to move forward with this film. Of the three documentary films I am currently directing or co-directing, I feel that this one may be the most impactful and have the greatest chance to reach a broader audience. That would have a huge impact on my career as a documentary film director. I’m known locally mostly for my work as a sound mixer, which I love. Branching out into a new area is always a risk. The GAP award has helped me to take that chance.
Elke: Ultimately, we want to be able to obtain national and even international distribution for our projects. We want to be able to continue to make content that can make a difference especially in these challenging times but also make a living as filmmakers and creatives.
Michael: It’s always been a goal of mine to receive funding from your organization, what with your reputation as a group who helps artists develop. It’s a big step for our film.
Elke: This GAP award means the world to us. Not only is it the first official grant we received for Heartstone Studios but also it has allowed us to evolve our careers, work, and goals on multiple levels. We’re really looking forward to screening and sharing all our hard work on August 9. STG Presents and Nights at the Neptune is the perfect way to create that multimedia experience that we’re so excited to share; it will both educate and entertain. Khu.éex’ will be performing live too!
How do you envision the future of filmmaking?
Elke: In one word, diverse. I envision the future of filmmaking as encompassing diversity in a whole range of levels. An inclusion of many more minority voices creating content with a broader reach. I would love to see more widely distributed content with storylines, themes, educational content, and representation in areas that haven’t been explored or have been underexplored.
Michael: I hope that future filmmakers will never lose sight of what makes a great story. Study the old masters, study other forms of art, learn from the best around you, and innovate so that what you create can build upon what has come before and make it greater. Technology is just a tool the artist uses to create.
Elke: I also envision diversity on a more technical level – an embrace of VR, AR, short form, and interactive content. It’s an exciting time to be not only a filmmaker but an audience member as well.
Michael: These past ten years have been a time of transformative change in filmmaking. Ten years ago most films were still shot on film and most videos were not what one would call aesthetically pleasing due to the small sensor chips and noisy imagery. Now we are at a time when the tools are all relatively affordable. The elements of storytelling have not changed nor have the need for talented individuals in a variety of positions on a production.
What were some of the challenges that you have encountered as artists?
Elke: I think one of the biggest challenges that all artists face in Seattle these days is how to make a living and stay in the city, especially with raising a family. Work/life balance is a tough one especially as a mother working in the entertainment industry. I have a 2.5-year-old son and pursuing my passion while also making a living can be challenging. I’m incredibly lucky to have a supportive spouse with a decent income. I’m not a night owl but I’ve had to carve out a lot of late nights to edit while my little man is asleep!
Michael: I began my professional life pursuing a career as an actor in film and theater. Due to certain challenges I found that this was an untenable direction for me. I’m sure many can relate. I never gave up completely. When the opportunity to attend film school happened I jumped at it. Sal Tonacchio and Sandy Cioffi, my two main instructors, were both hugely influential. I was able to purchase a small introductory filmmaking package with a few lights, microphones, lenses, and DSLR camera. I began shooting and editing videos for local small businesses and eventually landed a gig as a sound mixer for a local short film. Doing sound allowed me to become more established in the local film industry. The videos for small business allowed me to become comfortable directing a shoot, interviewing, and editing. Your early work may not pay much and may not be very glamorous. But it is the foundation for who you will become.
Do you have any advice for artists looking to take their art career to the next level?
Elke: My advice for my fellow artists is to take chances. Go for that grant or competition because you just might get it and if you don’t, you’ll have some valuable lessons to take to the next one.
Michael: I think the key to taking your art to the next level is to develop relationships and partnerships with other outstanding individuals. None of us can do this alone. We are stronger together.
Elke: Don’t play it safe with your art, try pushing the boundaries. Skerik the saxophonist from Khu.éex’ has a beautiful quote in our documentary about just that. He said, “My dad died last year and I realized that life is just incredibly short. Don’t be unhappy doing something that’s safe that you think is going to take care of you because even that might not work out.”
Michael: Never give up. Never be too hard on yourself. It’s okay to step away and it’s okay to reinvent yourself.
What projects are next for you?
Elke: We’re finishing post-production on our Dutch Holocaust survivor documentary I Missed My Train by early Fall with plans for festival and educational screenings next year.
Michael: It’s a remarkable story of his survival as a young child during the war.
Elke: We’re currently in talks with a new education center in The Hague for a special debut screening of that project in Spring 2019.
Michael: After that, I don’t know. Maybe a film about the end of poverty? We still have a lot of filming to do for our documentary about Preston Singletary, the glass artist.
Elke: This film on Preston deals with themes of Native American representation plus cultural evolution. We’ll be doing the final filming for that piece this fall. Lots of exciting stuff going on for Heartstone and we can’t wait to share it with the world.
Learn more about Heartstone Studios on their website.