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Seattle history captured in ’70s and ’80s Hollywood movies

It was 30 years ago next week that production began on one of the most critically acclaimed Hollywood movies ever filmed in Seattle, featuring exterior shots of the city on the cusp of its tech and “grunge” makeover.

The Fabulous Baker Boys,” starring real-life brothers Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges as an aging lounge piano act, and Michele Pfeiffer as the singer who revives and then (spoiler alert!) implodes their career, was released in October 1989. It garnered four Oscar nominations, and writer/director Steve Kloves went on to a long career, including writing most of the Harry Potter screenplays.

It’s a great film, with smart dialogue, and obvious chemistry between the actors. But what about that local history visible in between the belting-out of “Feelings” and “Makin’ Whoopee” and over the shoulders of the Brothers Bridges and the dazzling Ms. Pfeiffer?

Though he hasn’t yet tackled “Baker Boys,” a Seattle man has launched a project called “Then and Now Reshoots” to document these inadvertent historical Hollywood glimpses into Seattle’s earlier years.

Three reshoots

So far, Jesse Nickell has made three mesmerizing “Reshoot” videos and posted them on YouTube. Each video is about eight minutes long, and features a split screen with original footage from a vintage Hollywood film shot in Seattle occupying the upper half, and new footage shot by Nickell from the same perspective and with the same, or close-to-same, camera moves, in the bottom.

The movies he’s chosen so far for the “reshoot” treatment are all from the 1970s, and include action/spy pic “Scorchy,” starring Connie Stevens; cop drama “McQ,” starring John Wayne; and gritty romance “Cinderella Liberty,” starring James Caan and Marsha Mason.

Why spend so much time on an esoteric project like this?

“That is a good, big question,” Nickell said by phone earlier this week, with a slight chuckle. “I became interested when I watched ‘Cinderella Liberty.’ I didn’t even realize [the story] took place in Seattle until I was watching it, so it was kind of surreal seeing Seattle in the ’70s.”

Nickell says he’s a film fan, and seeing Seattle in a vintage Hollywood film “opened my eyes … there’s a lot of history, locally, that I can see in a way I haven’t before.”

While “Now and Then” photography (sometimes called “Then and Now”) is nothing new, and has been popularized locally for decades by Paul Dorpat and others, Nickell says that motion picture footage allows for a deeper level of understanding.

“I feel like the movies are more successful at making me feel like I understand what it was like back then, if that makes any sense,” Nickell said. “[Film is] just a better time capsule than I feel photos are.”

Jesse Nickell

Jesse Nickell is 40. He was born in Seattle, raised in Tacoma, and returned to Seattle as an adult. He worked for years in the tech industry, but now has some time on his hands, and is making the most of it to try something new.

“I’m between jobs right now, which is actually one of the reasons that I’m starting to focus on this,” Nickell said. “I did work at Nintendo over in Redmond for over a decade, and before I get back into the tech industry, I kind of just fell into this hobby. I wanted to teach myself video editing and [I] combined that learning path with that hobby.”

In addition to the three videos he’s already posted, Nickell is also working on a “reshoot” for the 1960s psychodrama about suicide prevention called “The Slender Thread,” and the pickpocketing comedy “Harry In Your Pocket.” The former film includes a score by Quincy Jones; the latter film includes a cameo by then-Seattle mayor Wes Uhlman.

So far, Nickell has insisted that the films he “reshoots” must be of a certain vintage.

“I want to make sure I’m going back at least 30 years, it’s kind of a line I’ve drawn for myself,” Nickell said. “I’m not as interested in doing something like ’10 Things I Hate About You,’ where everything pretty much looks the same today. It’s not as interesting to me.”

Even the older films, Nickell says, can sometimes end up revealing things that are remarkably unchanged nearly 50 years later.

“A lot of that early footage in ‘McQ,’ downtown by the viaduct, a lot of those buildings have barely been remodeled,” Nickell said. “In some cases, you can see some of the same damage and lines and cracks in the same exact bricks.”

“That whole area is very similar to what it was like then,” Nickell said. “Of course, that’s about to change with the viaduct going away.”

Nickell’s process

Nickell says he’s streamlined his production process along the way, and that his third video was much less time-consuming than his first. He also says it’s generally fairly easy to research where the original films were made, and come up with a list of shots to re-shoot.

But this isn’t always the case.

“I put a couple hours into figuring out a single inside shot in ‘McQ,’” Nickell said. “It was just a shot where he’s walking down a hallway and into a room. But I figured it out through forums on Reddit.”

Nickell says he posted images from “McQ” along with questions like, “Does anyone recognize outside this window?”

“[Then you’ve got] a couple dozen people speculating and maybe one out of 10 of them is onto something [and that person] recognizes a building far in the background outside that window,” Nickell said. “Then, using Google Maps, you pinpoint it, [and] figure out what floor it was on from the general angle of what you’re seeing across the street.”

And where was that the “McQ” mystery shot made?

“It turned out to be in the Smith Tower, which was odd because there was no external shot to show you that,” Nickell said. “So it’s interesting to me that they shot inside a landmarked building without really showing the audience that that’s what they’re doing.”

Nickell says it was a lot of work for a five-second piece of film, but it was worth it because it was “interesting to unravel that mystery.”

Nickell plans to return to paid work sometime next year. Until then, he’s got more “reshoots” planned in Seattle and wherever the road might take him when he leaves town in a few months.

“I have no goal in mind except to make more of these videos and travel before I go back to work,” Nickell said. “I’m going to travel hopefully across the country … that’s the goal. In the meantime, I’m going to try to do as many Seattle videos as I can fit in before I leave.”

Who knows? He might even give “Fabulous Baker Boys” the reshoot treatment.

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