by Robert Horton
I’m a Seattle native, and I think a lot about the importance of civic memory, especially in the rush-rush-rush of the booming metropolis that Seattle has become. We must hold on to the people and the places that made this town what it was. So anybody who loves film in Seattle should pause to consider the contribution of Dan Ireland, who died on April 14 in Los Angeles.
Dan and Darryl Macdonald came down from Vancouver, B.C., to open the Moore Egyptian Theatre in Seattle in 1975. But they didn’t just “open” the theater. They dolled it up, taking the Moore, a 1907-era palace long in decline, and slapping an Egyptian motif all over it. The idea was slightly cool, slightly corny, more than slightly camp—a signature blend for the duo. They started the Seattle International Film Festival in 1976, moved operations to the next incarnation of the Egyptian, on Pine Street, in 1980, and built SIFF into the gonzo party it is today. It can be argued that the festival hasn’t topped its run in the 1980s, when it became known for launching foreign titles and American indies (though nobody called them that then) and played host to a fabulous roster of visiting filmmakers.
Dan and Darryl were the public faces of SIFF, as well as the guiding spirits. Dan was also a public face in Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind (1986); if you look closely—okay, you don’t have to look that closely—you can see him mugging in a scene at a bar. Dan set out for Hollywood, becoming an executive and a producer (he worked on John Huston’s The Dead  and a run of mostly daffy Ken Russell projects, like Lair of the White Worm ) and then a director himself. His debut as a director, The Whole Wide World (1996), remains a passionate and heartfelt look at relationships and the tricky business of creating art.
Through all those years, Dan kept ties to Seattle, and re-appeared at SIFF with regularity. He kept making movies, and expressing his enthusiasm for the cinema in a variety of ways, including his geeked-out intros for the Trailers from Hell website. I think it’s especially cool that through all of the experiences he had, he remained a bubbly film freak. His Facebook page had its share of notices about professional experiences and his cat Shelley Winters, but also series of posts about discovering (or re-discovering for the umpteenth time) a nugget from the cinematic past. These posts were completely and engagingly sincere. Not long before he died he posted effervescent appreciations of Victor/Victoria, The Best Years of Our Lives, Five Easy Pieces, and Doris Day. He was a great cheerleader for film—he’d accomplished a lot, but the man who founded a film festival was always there.
One of Dan’s Facebook posts in the last week of his life was a photograph of the Egyptian Theatre, which was accompanied by a list of movies that found early life (in some cases world premieres) there. The post read in its entirety:
“The Theatre that Darryl and Dan built. The World Famous Egyptian! Home of the Seattle International Film Festival, launching pad for The Road Warrior, Blood Simple, Kiss Of The Spider Woman, Mona Lisa, Soldier of Orange, Choose Me, Ran, Kagemusha, Risky Business, Another Country, My Beautiful Launderette, El Norte, The Stuntman, The 4th Man, Apartment Zero, One False Move, Chain Of Desire, Gallipoli, Braveheart, Diva, The Whole Wide World and a host of other amazing films! And still going strong! Go EGYPTO! Go SIFF!”
It’s great that he didn’t just stop at a half-dozen or so representative titles. In this case, the list really does go on.
I didn’t know Dan well, but always enjoyed talking to him. In 2003 I interviewed him for a piece I was doing on his film Passionada, a lovely look at the Portuguese-American community in New Bedford. We talked about the film, and his very deep commitment to getting it right. But he also just liked talking about movies, comparing notes on stuff we’d both seen lately. I don’t remember the titles of the movies we talked about, but his enthusiasm was boundless: “Robert, I saw (Film Title X), and it BLEW ME AWAY.” He probably said that a half-dozen times in the course of an hour. He meant it every time.
Robert Horton is a film critic for Seattle Weekly and the Everett Herald, and a longtime contributor to Film Comment. He teaches film at Seattle University and is approved as a candidate in the Fulbright Specialist Program. His Twitter handle is @citizenhorton.
Come see the special tribute to Dan Ireland section, now up at Scarecrow Video!