Seattle director Megan Griffiths on her new film “Lucky Them”
Thomas Haden Church and Toni Collette in Megan Griffiths' "Lucky Them," now screening at SIFF
The number one question director Megan Griffiths gets asked in the Q&As that follow festival screenings of her latest film Lucky Them is this: How did you get [Very Famous Actor] to be in your film?
Very Famous Actor has a small but hugely-important cameo in Griffiths' movie about a female rock journalist (Toni Collette) in search of a musician who has dropped off the face of the earth. That musician also happens to be her ex-boyfriend, whom she is not over — even though it’s been 10 years.
Very Famous Actor plays the musician and we finally meet him at the very end of the movie in a scene that’s painfully familiar to anyone who has ever suffered a broken heart. (Watch how Collette exquisitely transmits both heartache and shock.)
“In this context, when you’re not expecting to see [Actor], it’s like Oh!" explains Griffiths. "It gives you that very weird feeling." The very same weird feeling that Ellie (Collette) experiences. "Just to have any approximation of what she’s going through," Griffiths continues, gives Lucky Them audiences "a slightly better filmgoing experience.”
So even though The Actor’s name is out there (see IMDb), and Griffiths knows that dropping it would help draw audiences to her film, and she’s fine with me saying who it is . . . why ruin the experience?
“I want the movie to succeed,” she says. “I just want people to go to it.”
And you should, because this is Griffiths’ highest-profile project, cementing her national and even international reputation as an intelligent filmmaker. (Lucky Them world premiered to a standing ovation at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival.) Plus, Griffiths is a homey, one of us.
“The [NW] people, the scenery, the weather, even in its moods, they all feed me creatively,” says Griffiths, who has lived in Seattle for the past 14 years. “I just like being in this space. I don’t feel like I’m fed that way when I’m in New York or in LA. I’ve spent significant time in both places, but it’s always a relief when the plane lands in Seattle.”
Griffiths is 39. She lives in Ballard. When I ask her to choose a “very Megan Griffiths” location for our meeting, she picks the Puerto Rican restaurant La Isla. She’s a huge fan of their tostones cups with salsa, a dish she craves if she’s out-of-town for too long. She arrives in jeans and a baseball-style T-shirt. (It's actually the crew shirt for her movie).
“I’m headed to a Mariners game tonight," she offers. "My first!”
She wears a lucky charm around her neck, a dog tag engraved with a jagged scrawl that looks like an audio file. Which it is. The scrawl represents a sentence recorded by Griffiths. She explains: “I found a journal that I had been writing in when I was in college (University of Idaho), and I found an entry where I wrote: I am going to be a filmmaker. It was one of those things where it was earlier than I would have thought that I would be that decisive about making that choice. So I consider that date an anniversary of sorts and this is me (she shows me the dog tag) saying that date.”
Lucky Them is Griffiths’ fourth feature film, although she’s played various behind-the-scenes roles on several other movies over the years. At SIFF 2012, she earned praise and buzz for Eden, a harrowing look (and very good film) about a young woman kidnapped into the sex trade.
“Eden was released theatrically but it did most of its business in the VOD (video on demand) world,” she says. “Getting people to go see it was the hard part. Honey, do you want to go see a movie about human trafficking? It’s a very worthwhile, very valuable film, but I do realize it’s not for everyone.”
Lucky Them is different, says Griffiths. "People will feel like it’ll be fun. Let’s see Toni Collette. Let’s see Thomas Haden Church." (The Sideways actor — pictured below — plays a very funny, aspiring filmmaker who accompanies Ellie on her quest).
“It’s a comedy,” says the filmmaker, which is a departure for Griffiths. “There’s a part of me in all the other films, but Lucky Them is closer to my personality. It’s just more light-hearted.”
Griffiths first got a hold of the Lucky Them script during SIFF 2012. (The project had been in the works for about 10 years). She met up with director-friend Colin Trevorrow, whose film Safety Not Guaranteed was being screened. Griffiths had already seen Trevorrow's film so on screening day, they hung out at The Mecca on Lower Queen Anne instead. “He was talking about projects and he said there’s this one that Joanne Woodward is executive producing and it’ll be really good for you. Can I send you the script?”
Griffiths really liked what she read.
A few days later, she was on the phone with writer-producer Emily Wachtel, suggesting they set the story in Seattle instead of New York. “It really felt like a Seattle story,” Griffiths says.
When the producers came to town a few weeks later, Griffiths took them to Belltown and to a stretch of the Pike-Pine corridor on Capitol Hill. Both locations, as well as Pioneer Square, feature prominently in the film. There’s also a whole host of Northwest music (Head and the Heart, Pickwick, Damien Jurado).
The film is dedicated to Paul Newman, Woodward’s late husband, who saw an early version of the script and loved it. Woodward also has a cameo; she’s the voice of Ellie's landlord. “She was the hardest person to direct because I really felt I had no business directing Joanne Woodward,” Griffiths says laughing. “She’s an Oscar winner. She’s amazing. She’s also this ray of sunshine.”
“I got to do all sorts of things on this movie,” Griffiths continues, including working with The Actor who didn’t come on board until 10 days before shooting wrapped. She never thought it would happen. “We had a backup plan in place. We shot the day after the Oscars last year and I was super sick. I got up and as we were driving [producer] Lacey Leavitt said, ‘Are you nervous?’
“It just felt so improbable that he’d be arriving to our little movie set in Carnation [for that climactic scene]. He’s in a very small class of people whose face is known everywhere.” And then she quickly adds: “Which is no disrespect to the caliber of the other actors.”
Part of what attracted Griffiths to Lucky Them was the Ellie character: She’s sexual, she drinks, she’s 40. That’s a character Griffiths doesn’t see much of on screen. “She’s certainly not a unique character in the world that I know. She’s just a unique character in the world of cinema.” Collette, says Griffiths, nails Ellie, playing someone who is damaged, who is gorgeous, but who is not unassailable.
Griffiths is 4 for 4: fourth feature film, fourth film with a female lead. It’s not that she goes out of her way to find these films. "It wouldn’t break my heart if I only ever did female protagonist stories," she says, "but I wouldn’t want to limit myself.”
Which is also how she’s envisioning her dream career: Work all across the genre spectrum without shaking off her indie roots. “The Steven Soderbergh model is the one I aspire to," she says. "He’ll just do things that he wants to do, something he’s interested in. If I could have a career anywhere near his, I’d be stoked.”
And content, Griffiths points out, if Seattle could remain home.
Thomas Hayden Church photo courtesy of KeyArt.