Bothell native Joe Lia was sure he wanted to be a filmmaker after shooting his first movie for a Skyview Junior High video-production class.
Putting his work before an audience is what sold him, he says.
Lia, 27, will have plenty of spectators when his first feature film, “Sweet Thing,” premiers during the Seattle International Film Festival this year.
The first screening takes place at 9 p.m. June 7 at the Harvard Exit Theater, with a subsequent showing at 4:30 p.m. June 9.
The movie also plays June 13 at the Boston International Film Festival.
“Sweet Thing” is an edgy, coming-of-age story about two college-aged girls who struggle to find themselves during phases of experimentation.
“I think it’s going to hit a certain niche,” Lia said. “People from 18 to their mid-20s will like it and still identify with that sort of wanderlust and not knowing what you’re doing.”
Lia wrote the story at the age of 22, after graduating from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television as a production major.
“Watching the movie now is like opening a journal from my past and being a little bit embarrassed,” he said. “It might be a little trite and youthful, but the filmmaking is good, and it stands up.
“It’s nicely paced, the music is good and it looks beautiful. If there’s one fault, it’s that I wrote it when I was 22.”
Lia shot most of his film on Whidbey Island and in Seattle.
“I chose to shoot up here because I wanted a different look, and this is like no other place in the world,” he said. “It’s beautiful, I knew tons of people and I could shoot in interesting locales that nobody else knew about.”
Lia used his connections to find filming locations, such as his mother’s neighborhood on Whidbey Island, his sister’s house at the University of Washington — where a party scene takes place — and his father’s workplace along the docks of Ballard.
He also tapped Bothell High graduate Beth Ison to play lead character Jody.
Lia and Ison performed together in Bothell High theater productions under the guidance of the school’s former drama director Duane Eichoff.
“I remember Beth being really, really good in high school,” Lia said. “I went away to film school, but kept in touch with her. Six years later, she was the only one still doing this stuff.”
Ison currently does stage acting, and is a founding member of The New Space Theater company, based out of Shoreline. “Sweet Thing” marks her first performance in a feature film.
Lia has done a few others. He played lead roles in the independent films “Shamelove,” “FAQ’s” and “The Shadows.”
His natural place, however, was always behind the lens. He was making movies from an early age with his family’s camcorder, creating genre spoofs that starred his family and friends.
“I always knew he was going to be a director,” said sister Amy Lia. “We had these two family friends, and Joe would always make us do movies. We liked doing it, but Joe was always the one controlling things and putting us in our spots.”
Lia continues to work for “Survivor,” and will be flying to Africa for the show after his film plays in Boston.
He’s also making plans for his next project.
“I want the next one I do to be entertaining,” Lia said. “This last movie was a character piece, and it’s really about an internal struggle. I want to do something more external with my next film. I want people to have a really good time when they see it.
“Hopefully I’ll make some connections at these festivals, and someone will give me money to do it.”
Lia funded “Sweet Thing” with his own money. He didn’t specify how much it cost to make the movie, but did note that the first $10,000 he put away after two years wasn’t even enough to cover production expenses.
The overall project took four years to complete.
“I learned things that are impossible to learn in film school,” Lia said. “There were times when all my money was gone, and I didn’t think we were going to finish. It’s been like a four-year-long adventure, and I guess this is the fun part now.”