Photo by Jerry Gay
Christopher King recently won an award for his script, "The Tina Modotti Project," about the life and times of photographer and political activist Tina Modotti.

Local middle school teacher wins award, teaches kids how to make movies

Christopher King, a media literacy teacher at Whitman Middle School, has just won not his first, not his second, but his third award in a row for screenwriting.

This year he won second place in the 2012 Pacific Northwest Writer's Association Literary Contest for his script, "The Tina Modotti Project," co-written with Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Beristain. In 2011, King won 2nd place for his script, "Little America," and in 2010 he won first place for "Jade."

Though King will never stop writing in any case, he said it is always nice to be recognized for his work. So far, he has only written screenplays, and has never delved much into short story or book form.

"I like writing, but I don't know if I have a novel in me. I think visually, it just comes more naturally to write in screenplay form," he said. "It probably stems from the fact that I started out as a camera person at a school."

King came up to Washington in 2007 to teach the TV Production/Media Literacy program at Whitman Middle School, a program which he made from scratch. It is one of few middle schools to offer any kind of video program, and King said it feeds directly into Ballard High School's video program, which has pushed many students out into a career for filmmaking.

King said he first started going to school for filmmaking mostly because he didn't like studying business, which he did in France. He always had an interest in film, he said, so he decided to transfer to American University to pursue what would become a lifelong passion.

One thing led to another in his life. He started out as a cameraman for Washington Independent Television as a stringer to cover various events at Capitol Hill and around Washington D.C. He became a part of many interesting events, he said, including marches on Washington and Senate meetings.

He got his first big break on the mini-series, "Winds of War," which was based on the book of the same name by Herman Wouk. He then spent a number of years in Los Angeles, working on sets, writing and teaching language arts for six years at a middle school.

It was then, at the behest of a friend, that he moved up to Seattle to teach media literacy at Whitman Middle School, both for a change of pace and for a chance to teach something closer to his own career, he said.

King's focus these days seems to be more on his middle school students, who have far surpassed his expectations of what he thought normal middle schoolers were capable of.

"I've been really surprised how media savvy they are coming in, and also how talented a lot of them are," he said. "Some of them are really, really good filmmakers. And they're only 14."

The webpage for the Whitman Middle School media literacy program is a testament to the success his students have seen as filmmakers. A long sprawling list of screenings and awards won at various festivals, including the Annual Young People's Film & Video Festival, Images of Youth Film Festival, Annual Middle School Media Fest and the FutureWave Shorts program in the Seattle International Film Festival. A selection of videos can be seen on the website as well.

King joked about how good some of his students were and expressed how sure he is that they will go on to be great filmmakers.

"I have no doubt that -- I'm thinking of a couple students in particular -- that one day … I'll probably be sending my script to them."

As for "The Tina Modotti Project," King paired up with Beristain, who has worked on such movies as S.W.A.T., Blade Trinity, The Ring 2 and There Be Dragons.

The film is based on the life of Tina Modotti, a photographer, actress and political activist who died in 1942 at the age of 46. Beristain came up with the idea and asked King to help write the screenplay, which they have fine-tuned for the past few years now.

"He's been wanting to do Tina Modotti's story forever. He knows everything about her," King said.

The film follows Modotti's life from when she became a photographer while in a relationship with Edward Weston, who was considered one of the great 20th century photographers, to when she became an involved activist as part of the Mexican Communist Party and then International Workers' Relief organizations -- and to the day she died.

King said that there is an important shift in Modotti's character when she becomes more politically involved and must decide whether to use her art for political means. One of her earlier photos, "White Roses" -- which looks exactly as it sounds -- sold for $200,000, King said. Her later works, however, showed a more politically-influenced streak.

The story is told in a nonlinear fashion, King said, starting on the day of Modotti's death and working through her story through conversation and flashbacks.

"We were trying to do something a little different by starting with her last day and going back and forth. and I think it works."

Because Modotti was an artist, art plays a big part in the movie, King said.

"It was a pretty magical time as far as art. During that time in Mexico art came to the streets and to the people, and that's when a lot of the famous muralists started working," he said. "Art was … not confined to museums."

King said that he believes the movie would have a dearth of good roles for women and that the role of Modotti would be an attractive role for actresses. When asked if he and Beristain had thought of anybody to fill the role of Modotti, they both agreed that Penelope Cruz would be good for the part. But at this point, King said, it's much too early to tell.

At the moment, King and Beristain are more concerned trying to secure funding for their film.

"The hard part is these days, trying to make a period piece like this is really, really a hard sale, because it just doesn't fall into the 12-15 year old male demographic."

Still, King said that he is hopeful that it will be picked up. If it is, it will be his first screenplay to turn into a movie, which is something he said he has always wanted to see.

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