By JODEE TAYLOR
TRAVERSE CITY -- Rich Brauer admits he goes about his business differently than other filmmakers.
"I use locations and resources I know I can get my hands on, then I write a story around that," said Brauer, who will be named Michigan Filmmaker of the Year at today's opening ceremonies for the Traverse City Film Festival.
"It allows me to tiptoe into neighborhoods," he said.
Brauer knows his locations -- he's lived in Traverse City for 32 years. He's currently working on his 10th movie; half have been collaborations, the rest on his own.
"The cool thing about Rich is that he never left town," said John Robert Williams, a film festival co-founder and board member. "He's telling the Michigan stories and integrating the Michigan settings."
Williams said it's "amazing" the work being done in northern Michigan through Brauer's studio on Union Street, whether it's recording Julie Kavner's voice for her role as Marge on "The Simpsons" or providing equipment to film a trailer for a Michael Moore movie.
"People can't believe Rich has a total setup here," Williams said. "And he's genuinely nice. He's not the haughty filmmaker. He's not a legend in his own shower."
The Michigan Filmmaker of the Year Award will be presented as part of today's opening ceremonies, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. in front of the State Theatre. A street party will be held from 5 to 8:30 p.m. on Front Street, between Park and Cass streets.
Stephen Ballance, professor emeritus at Northwestern Michigan College, remembers Brauer as a student in Ballance's photography class in the early 1970s.
"I walked into the darkroom -- which is supposed to be dark -- and Rich was using a slide projector to project a picture of seagulls onto the wall," Ballance said. "I hadn't seen anyone use that technique and I certainly hadn't taught him that, but it worked. He knew the enlarger would only get the picture so big and those seagulls were far away, so he blew them up and had a nice, grainy picture of birds."
Ballance said "Barn Red," a 2004 production starring Ernest Borgnine, likely is his favorite Brauer film.
"I liked the story, probably because I grew up around farms," Ballance said. "But I also liked the way it was photographed. I like his ability to capture light and his framing. You can probably trace that back to his background with still photography."
Brauer also was the director of photography for Jeff Daniels' "Escanaba in da Moonlight." Brauer said he saw the play -- twice -- at Daniels' Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, then contacted Daniels to push for a movie.
They pair also worked on Daniels' "Super Sucker."
"We've had a lot of adventures together," Brauer said of Daniels.
Brauer said he was "caught off-guard" by the Filmmaker of the Year Award, but heard festival founder Michael Moore "had been thinking about this a long time and now seemed like a good time."
Williams said it helps that Brauer "tells a Michigan story."
Today, Brauer is casting for "Fitful," which he'll film in Manistee in the coming months and plans to release around Christmas. It's the story of "a woman who works for the National Historic Trust and has to spend the night on a dark, creepy ship where she learns something about herself," he said.
It's the first film he's made that takes advantage of tax incentives that Michigan offers filmmakers.
"All of a sudden, everyone is getting how fun this is," Brauer said. "I've been swimming upstream for awhile. We're the remote outpost and people can't believe we're here, but they're getting it now."