Sunday, June 4, 2017

Trajectory - A Repost of a 2014 Interview with Hammer to Nail

A Conversation With Megan Griffiths (LUCKY THEM) by Michael Tully
June 4, 2014

Megan Griffiths has been deeply embedded in motion picture production for over a decade, yet after directing her first low-budget feature upon graduating from college (First Aid For Choking, 2003), she fell into a groove working as a producer and First Assistant Director on features in and around her adopted hometown of Seattle (Zoo, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, The Catechism Cataclysm, Your Sister’s Sister). 

After struggling for years to get her second feature off the ground, with the help of some very devoted producers, she finally made it happen. The Off Hours world premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and went on to receive a Spirit Award nomination (for Ben Kasulke’s cinematography). Since then, Griffiths has managed to return to the director’s chair while exploring new genres and terrains. For anyone who wants to be a director yet knows how hard it is to sustain a career without becoming pigeonholed, Megan Griffiths’ trajectory is something to admire and aspire to. 

In the days leading up to the release of her latest film, the star-studded naturalistic comedy Lucky Them, I hopped on the phone with Griffiths to discuss her path of the recent few years.  

Hammer to Nail: I’d love to break down how you got to where you are right now. Would you say that The Off Hours getting into Sundance was the real starting point for you as a director versus being a producer or an AD?  

Megan Griffiths: Definitely The Off Hours. I made a feature before that but it was like eight years before that, and then I spent all that time basically both trying to get Off Hours made and then also working on a bunch of other stuff. I was pretty firmly in the assistant director chair until Off Hours and that’s mostly gotten me out of that chair. After shooting Off Hours I did AD Your Sister’s Sister and The Catechism Cataclysm, but I was also a producer on both of those things.  

H2N: There are obviously many talented folks in our world who AD and set dress and PA and grip and whatever else, but deep down they have their own movie they want to direct. What finally got you over the hump to actually make The Off Hours after so many years of trying?   

MG: It was actually the producers of The Off Hours—Lacey Leavitt, Mischa Jakupcak, Joy Saez—they were all on it for like five years. We had just finished working on this other person’s movie, and we thought we were going to a funder’s meeting type of thing, we got invited to this thing where they were like, “Come talk to people and they might be investors, they might help you make The Off Hours,” so we went out and talked to them and realized that they weren’t investors, they were really just people who were trying to get their own projects made, which wasn’t gonna amount to us getting funding for the movie. So we went out to dinner afterwards and basically just started saying, “Why don’t we just do it for whatever we can pull together?” We had this one person who had invested in the film way earlier, like 2007, and had taken her money back when the economy fell apart, and she said at the time, “If you ever get the movie going, I’ll invest again,” and so we went back to her and she gave us $10,000. We said, “Okay, we’ll make it for $10,000 and if we can’t get any more money we’ll figure out a way to make it for $10,000.” And then we set a start date, which was my birthday, and then just drove towards it like a bunch of crazy people. It was actually Mischa who said, “Let’s just do it,” and then we just said, “Fuck it, yeah, let’s do it.”  

I should also add to that part of the reason we did it too is that so many crew members kept telling me they would work on it for free, who I’d worked with as an AD. I had all these relationships with crew, and people were so encouraging that that was a big part of it. Working as a crew member myself, I had a lot of goodwill in my corner.  

H2N: Regarding Eden, I’m pretty sure that project happened because of The Off Hours, which is pretty cool because it’s not like there’s an obvious link between those two movies in any way at all, or am I totally off base here?   

MG: Okay, so The Off Hours was at Sundance, and I got the script for Eden when I was at the Salt Lake City airport coming back from Sundance. So it was really immediate. It was this guy Colin Plank who worked on The Off Hours who had, unbeknownst to me, the whole time he’d worked on my film, had been sort of scouting me, I guess. He had some money for the film and ended up raising more. I wrote a new draft of it. I came on as a writer first. I was like, “Why don’t I write a version of the film I would be really excited about making and if you wanna do that one then we’ll go off and make that movie.” I was also trying to scale it back because he didn’t have enough money to do what the original script was aiming for, so I sent him my draft and he was really on board with all the changes and excited about it, so then I came on as a director.  

H2N: What was his role on The Off Hours?  

MG: He helped us with locations. He came into the office and was basically offering to invest in exchange for a producer credit, but we weren’t open to the idea of anyone else getting a producer credit because our three producers had been on the film for so long. So we said no thank you to that but he said, “Well how can I help? I’ll just volunteer.” Our location manager was part-time, so he stepped up and filled out the other part of that job, which was much needed, so it was great that he did it.  

H2N: Talk more about the transition from agreeing to do a rewrite and agreeing to direct it. Were they begging you or had you fallen in love with the material to the point where you pushed hard for it yourself?  

MG: Well, he asked me to direct. I was the person who proposed being a screenwriter first because I wanted to make sure we were on the same page. I’d seen a lot of people—I know you know a lot of people in this category too—who have gone into a project where they were not on page with the producers and they’re trying to make different movies and it just always results in a horrible situation. 

H2N: I’ve never heard of that happening to any of our friends, I don’t know what you’re talking about. [both laugh]  

MG: I was trying with all my might to avoid that situation. I’d rather not do the film than do the version I don’t like. But [Eden] ended up working out pretty well. I would say more people should do it but my agents keep telling me no one should do that because there’s this potential for you to rewrite a script that ends up being given to someone else.  

H2N: It’s interesting you said the “a” word because I want to ask about your agent’s role in this trajectory. I had actually thought Eden had sprung from that world but it clearly didn’t.   

MG: I didn’t get an agent out of Off Hours. I had a couple meetings but everyone kept telling me that nobody watches drama. [both laugh] So I had a problem getting an agent! I actually went to LA right before SXSW when Eden premiered, and tried to take meetings with managers and agents but couldn’t get a meeting to save my life. And then I went back right after SXSW, having just received the Audience Award, and it was a different world. I took all sorts of meetings and that’s when I got my reps.  

H2N: Well, yeah, but Eden’s not a comedy!  

MG: It’s not. It’s not a straight drama, though, either. I think people were excited about the fact that there were some thriller type elements in it. For whatever reason—I do think the Audience Award helped quite a bit—but just in general having something not quite so small like The Off Hours.   

H2N: You can talk as freely as you’d like about this stuff, but Eden took a long while to come out. I know that a long turnaround is commonplace but I guess I’m mostly wondering how long after SXSW did you know that a deal was in place and you were going to be getting a release?  

MG: I don’t think the deal was signed on that movie until maybe five months after SXSW. It was a tough sell. It’s a weird movie that way because people who watch it seem to respond well to it. It was well received critically and we actually got a few audience awards, which kept surprising me because it’s such a dark film. It seemed to me that people were happy they saw it after they’d watched it, but getting people to the theater to see a movie about human trafficking is a tough proposition. I think it was really scary to distributors because no movie about this subject has really ever done well except Taken, and we didn’t exactly have the same approach as Taken! [both laugh] I just feel like people were really freaked out by the idea, but once they did get it, I think they found it challenging and maybe didn’t work outside the box enough to actually get people out to see it. I think it’s just the nature of the film. I’m proud of it and I’m happy it did as much as it did, but I feel like there was an opportunity there for us to do more and we’re all kinda bummed out by the fact that it didn’t.  

H2N: I hear ya. It’s hard in a thumbnail description to clarify that a movie like Eden does have some uplift in it. Most people are probably like, “Ehhh, I’d rather not go down that rabbit hole today, thank you very much.”  

MG: I’m as guilty as anyone of keeping things sitting on my Netflix queue that are not “easy” views, and I’m sure Eden is that movie for a ton of people. [both laugh] A few people have told me that. “It took a while for me to watch it but I finally did and I’m so happy I did.” It’s there, people can discover it!  

H2N: Okay, so you’re finished with Eden and say to yourself, “Okay, I need a new project. I’m not an AD anymore, I’m a director.” How do you get from Eden to the next one?   

MG: That’s when I got my agent, so I did the rounds and had general meetings in LA, but none of those led anywhere initially. At that point, I definitely didn’t feel like I was looking for AD jobs. I was trying to stay in the director’s chair. I guess it was right after SXSW, after I got my agent, I was hanging out at SIFF with Colin Trevorrow [director of Safety Not Guaranteed]. He and I were just chatting about upcoming projects and he said, “Oh, you know what, I’ve been talking to this producer who is doing this Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward film called Lucky Them and I feel like you’d be really good for it. She was asking for directors, would you mind if I sent you the script?” So that one came through a friend and not my agent. I just read the script and bonded with the producer Emily [Wachtel]. She’d been working on the movie at that point for like a decade at that point, and I told her that I had worked on a film for a really long time myself—The Off Hours—and I couldn’t imagine giving it over at that point, so I was grateful that she would even consider trusting me with this decade’s worth of her life. And I think she liked hearing that and that’s what sealed the deal on that film. We worked together to move it from New York to Seattle, because it wasn’t originally Seattle.  

H2N: That’s a massive change, though, so right away it seems like for her to even consider that is showing a huge act of trust on her part. Was that you pitching it because of your comfort zone and your tight crew, or was it creative as well because obviously the Pacific Northwest music scene is so historically significant?  

MG: Basically that was the conversation. On the very first phone call, she told me they had already started talking about not shooting it in New York because they just didn’t have the kind of budget to make it there. They considered Nashville and Seattle and were looking at other cities and I said, “Come out to Seattle, I’ll introduce you to my team, you can see some of the places where I’d want to shoot.” And she and couple of the other producers—Amy Hobby and Adam Gibbs—came to Seattle and I showed them around and introduced them to people like Lacey. Just because it’s such a great group of people, and they had seen Safety Not Guaranteed and The Off Hours and Eden and Lynn’s [Shelton] movies, and were aware of what the Seattle crews were capable of, so it actually wasn’t very difficult to convince them. 

 H2N: Factoring all that into the equation, it’s still a big decision, especially when you’ve been working on something that long, so I think it’s a testament to them that they were able to swallow their NYC dreams and embrace this opportunity.  

MG: I give the producers a lot of credit—Emily in particular—for a few things. One of which is the openness to changing it. Because that was a big change in the script, but Emily and I worked together to revise it. She was never too precious about the material and instead wanted to find the best version of it. The other thing I give them a lot of credit for is trusting me to make something that’s comedic after watching The Off Hours and Eden! [both laugh] Because they’re not exactly “comic samples.”  

H2N: Those movies are romps!  

MG: I think Lucky Them is closer to who I am as a person, it’s just more my personality. But they didn’t have any proof of that except for Colin Trevorrow saying, “Trust me, I think she can pull it off.” And they went with it. I also got surrounded by a lot of people who’d done comedy before so that didn’t hurt.  

H2N: Speaking of Lucky Them, which is why we’re “really” here right now. Did you have time to rehearse? You’re working with such seasoned pros that I wonder if you merely had some conversations to get on the same page before shooting? How did the process go for this film in particular with regard to directing actors and capturing a tone, because it isn’t an outright Comedy; it’s naturalistic and lived-in at the same time?   
MG: It was pretty conversational. We ran some scenes in prep and we did a table read, but for the most part Toni [Collette] and I and Emily would sit around a table and talk about Ellie’s character, and then when Tom came it was talking about who they are and what they wear and all that stuff you do with actors. I’ve never really had the luxury of rehearsal time with actors with any film that I’ve done, and I’ve come to enjoy the process without it. You just have a lot of conversations on the phone or when they get to town about who the people are. You’re not running scenes or anything but when you get to set and do the blocking rehearsal and questions come up, you can address them there. I don’t think we had anything that would be considered traditional rehearsal time. Oliver Platt and I and Emily went through every scene of his line-by-line before we started shooting, because he’s very meticulous that way. We also only had two days with him so we wanted to make sure we capitalized on that.  

H2N: Without jinxing things, you’ve gone from drama to comedy and now it’s lining up that you’re heading in a different direction.  

MG: I like the idea of not being pigeonholed. There’s definitely a through-line of “character based drama” in all of the movies—Off Hours is pretty straight drama and then Eden is drama-thriller and Lucky Them is drama-comedy—and the one that I think will be next is a psychological thriller, and that one I’m sure will have some drama in there too, why not? [H2N laughs] I like the idea of trying to expand and work different muscles and try different genres and not stick to one category for too long.  

H2N: Are you receiving any sort of blowback? Historically, in the studio-agent system, and in my admittedly limited experience, it seems that it’s looked at as weird to want to hop around, when the reality is that as a creative person if you’ve just done something it’s so much more intriguing and exciting to swim over to another island. Are you simply surrounding yourself with people who support the idea of not sticking to one genre?  

MG: I think there definitely is a double-edged sword there, because I look at other filmmakers who work in one genre and get really good at it, and they’ve developed a following based on that. Someone like Rian Johnson. He’s developed a following of people who like what he does, and it’s not like his movies are all the same but they’re in the same ballpark. So that’s the downside of moving around: it’s hard to develop a group of people who are interested in you as a director because it’s not the same audience for every movie. The nice thing about having a few different sample pieces is because I’m interested in various things, I now have different samples to send out for different projects. Steven Soderbergh is a great example of someone who has been able to hop genres but he’s definitely an exception to the rule.  

H2N: Usually when I do these conversations it devolves into sorrow and hopelessness about there are too many options out there for viewers and it’s impossible to find audiences for our comparatively small movies. Can you give me a positive, optimistic take on the impending release?  

MG: Alright. I feel good about this movie’s chances… if people are aware of it. It’s an easy one to go see, because it’s pretty light and fun and it’s about music and it’s got people in it that are enjoyable to watch like Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church and Johnny Depp. Right now, I feel like the tide is going in a good direction and I’m hoping that a lot of people come out to see it—especially in New York, because those opening weekend numbers are so critical, as you know, and basically the entirety of your theatrical future depends on that weekend. I’m doing everything I can to push that opening weekend in New York, and then following weekend in LA, to show that this movie can be popular and that people will want to go see it. 

H2N: Okay, that’s optimistic enough for me. You didn’t make me cry, at least.  

MG: It’s cautiously optimistic!  

— Michael Tully

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Upside of Rejection

'Tis the season of rejection. Independent filmmakers spent the fall pushing through the post process to get their projects ready for Sundance, SXSW, Berlin, Rotterdam, Tribeca, and on and on. And as those festivals come and go, they leave in their wake many, many broken dreams for those who didn't make the cut.

I have been on the downside of this equation and yes, it sucks. Films are personal. If you did your job right there's a little of your soul in them. When your film is rejected, it's basically impossible to be objective about it. You want the very best life for this thing you've brought into the universe. And despite the advances in DIY distribution you really just can't beat the power of a good festival premiere, and the associated publicity, to register on your audience's radar.

I have had films premiere at Sundance, Toronto, SXSW and Tribeca. I have also been rejected by those same festivals (and others) many, many times over. Did those rejections sting? Definitely. Some of them hit me really hard. But now that a few years have passed and I can view the situation from a slightly more removed vantage point, I find I am actually grateful. No, seriously, I am.

I'm grateful for the humility those rejections instilled, the pragmatism they inspired, the way they stripped away any sense of entitlement I might have felt for success. Because I'm not entitled to it. No one is.

I'm not usually one for sports references, but accepting defeat and then heading back on the field is the only way anyone has ever won a championship. And let me tell you, getting seven consecutive rejection letters from Sundance has a way of making you really appreciate it when suddenly the phone rings on the eighth. My touchdown dance was a sight to see.

But with all due respect and gratitude to the festivals that eventually did accept my films, I also know this: Experts are wrong all the time. People who program film festivals are generally smart, savvy people with highly attuned taste, but they'd be the first to tell you that they make mistakes. They allow great films to slip through their fingers. They have bad days where they watch films with less patience or get bullied by the marketplace to give precious slots to less deserving films that might have more draw. They are gatekeepers and they are needed in this world, but they aren't perfect.

Ultimately, as filmmakers we will face rejection. Honestly, the rejection we face at the festival level is great training for the rejection we will continue to face consistently throughout our careers. It's a tough and competitive business and you've got to keep your heart, your wits, and your humility intact.

And at the end of the day if you have made a film that speaks to something authentic, that connects with even one other person, it can get rejected from every festival in the world and you've still accomplished something pretty magical.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Dear Los Angeles,

Los Angeles, my feelings for you are complicated. On the one hand, you have all that sweet mid-century architecture, a wide selection of vegetarian food, picnic weather in October, and several of the best people I know (and, okay, a couple of the worst, but this is the plus column).

You also happen to house the hub of my chosen industry. There is no other place where so much of the population can relate to the simultaneous contentment and nauseating uncertainty of following your creative passion. And there is certainly no other place where one has such unparalleled proximity to potential collaborators, professional idols and unabashed dreamers.

The thing about you, Los Angeles, is that mingled with that ever-present yellow haze, you also have this intoxicating air of possibility. The word "no" is rarely spoken. "Maybe" is emblazoned on the city crest. Maybe your pilot will be produced, maybe that marquee actor will sign on for your film, maybe everything will click. But when you try to grasp on to something, to pin it down, you realize that air of possibility is often just that: air. Swirling around you, making you feel cool, when really your body temperature hasn't changed at all.

Perhaps that's a good thing. Perhaps living in a state of maybe is useful. Perhaps it fuels creation, makes a person dig deeper and work harder to find that extra something that will transform the maybe into that ever-elusive yes. Perhaps that air of possibility puts wind in the sails of our figurative boats.

But what if that pleasant breeze and constant gentle movement is making people forget that their boats also have oars? That they can also move ahead on the strength of their own arms and backs? What if everyone is just floating indistinctly, waiting for the breeze to eventually take them in the direction they want to go, their own power over their fate becoming an afterthought, a last resort?

Los Angeles, I wonder if you ever consider the inherent peril in a system that has the majority of people awaiting permission to move forward. The unbalanced power structure that impacts every level of interpersonal interaction, infusing so many encounters with an awkward transactional dynamic in which the less powerful individual has something to gain from the more powerful. The negative effects that being on the needy end of that dynamic can have on a person's psyche and, by extension, their creative output. The way it drives creators to generate rehashed versions of past successes rather than nurturing the stories that authentically reside within, that have a chance of saying something true and organically felt.

And as rough as this dynamic can make things for those on the downside of the equation, it's no October picnic for the powerful either. Those who dole out "maybe's" each day, more often than not just avoiding the confrontational "no" that might come back to haunt them even though they have no plan to ever make that "maybe" a "yes."

And it extends outside their offices--the casual hang, the trip to the barista, the family reunion--the hopeful are everywhere in LA. It's easy to see why a person in that position might begin to avoid those in a lower power tier altogether, to seek out only those in their same bracket, to dodge those uncomfortable bullets of expectation. And what then? The decision makers are now confined to a tiny, unnatural universe of like-minded privilege and rarified air. They no longer walk amongst the people, and therefore they no longer know anything about the experience of the people, and therefore they no longer tell stories that reflect the experience of the people, and the product becomes a glossed over, unrecognizable version of reality that gets branded as "Hollywood."

So, Los Angeles, you see why I resist you even as you pull me in. I worry that my choices are either to be one of the hopeful, waiting breathlessly to be granted entry, or one of the gatekeepers, retreating ever-backwards from the human experience that is actually the city's main export. And I don't like those choices, because productivity and authenticity matter. But I also know there are surely more than just these two options. Because I know Los Angelenos who are creating great, original work, who are grounded human beings, and who remember their own oars. People who may be battling a flawed system but who also seem to be coming out ahead. Knowing that those people exist doesn't make me any less conflicted about you, Los Angeles, but it does manage to make me slightly more optimistic.

Monday, September 22, 2014

In Defense of Unmarketable Films

When I put on my producer hat, it is often for projects that could be categorized as risky. Or unconventional. Or, if one is being less polite, unmarketable. And, being a person who tries to make a habit of looking at the world through multiple perspectives, I can understand that categorization and how it makes potential investors, production companies, even actors, a bit nervous to get involved. Even if they personally like it, they worry that they will be in the minority; that their money/time/reputation is on the line for something that might just not play to the masses.

I'm really glad I saw Welcome to the Dollhouse. I'm really glad I saw SafeMe and You and Everyone We Know. Schizopolis. American Astronaut. Pi. George Washington. Pink Flamingos. Memento. I'm glad these films exist. But if you were to look at these films on paper--their market potential, the established success of similar movies--would any of them have been considered a safe financial bet? Doubtful. Does that factor in to whether they should have been made? I don't believe it does.

These films and many more like them, while perhaps not for everyone, made an impact on the world of cinema. They challenged audiences and influenced a generation of filmmakers to try weird shit. Challenging norms is important. Sometimes this translates into mainstream success, when filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky and Stephen Soderbergh are given their shots at bigger projects and the freedom to incorporate their sensibilities and they end up shifting the way movies are made in Hollywood.

But some people don't make a weird indie films in an effort to gain entry into the larger industry. Some filmmakers can't be (or don't want to be) contained in that universe because their vision is not designed to be mass produced or marketed. John Waters, Todd Solondz, Miranda July, Cory McAbee. Their filmmaking is driven by something less definable--to push at the boundaries of things, to explore the crevices, to scratch an obscure itch, to poke, prod, provoke. They have something to add to the conversation that is truly different--something people may not even realize is missing from the current landscape until this new and unique thing comes along.

New and unique don't work in the marketing paradigm of our current system. Today's marketing is all about reaching out to a known, definable audience and building from there. A book sold well--let's adapt it. A movie did great business--time for a sequel. There's a beautiful foreign film that Americans will never watch because they hate subtitles--take the reading part out and remake it in English! Find something that people already like and then feed it to them again in a new form. It may be solid business sense, but how many times can you regurgitate something before it's completely inedible?

We are living in a particularly risk-averse time. People are downloading movies for free, no one is going to theaters, and distributors are making way, way, WAY less money than they used to. What that means is that they are spending less money on fewer acquisitions. What that means is that the people who finance films in the first place are seeing less return and getting more cautious about what they invest in. Which translates to those financiers trying to determine which films are the safest, what attachments will bring what amount of sales in foreign markets, what movie this movie is like and how can we tap into that audience that already liked that other thing and get them to come back for more. The people who invest in art for art's sake are pretty busy trying to keep theater, opera and ballet afloat. What time do they have for the less noble world of for-profit cinema?

You can say that these films are small and niche and should be budgeted accordingly, but what about that ambitious new idea that simply can't be pulled off for a micro-budget? Should it just not get made?

I don't know the answer to these questions. All the arguments for familiarity, consensus, and repetition of patterns follow a financial logic that I can't really argue with as a person with no capital on the line. But there's this nagging question that escapes that line of reasoning: If no one supports the visionaries, what will become of the visions?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

17 Things I Learned From Working on Other People’s Films

Cross-Posted from Hope For Film

It’s a pretty rare thing that a director has the opportunity to watch other directors at work. As a crew-member, I had a front row seat to almost every aspect of the job, pre-production through post. I never worked on a film that didn’t teach me something—whether it fell in the “to emulate” or “to avoid at all costs” column. These lessons helped me direct actors, assemble good crews, communicate effectively, have realistic expectations, and generally feel at home on a film set.

A little about me: In the past four years, I have directed three features (The Off Hours, Eden and Lucky Them) and been a co-, exec-, consulting, or straight-up producer on four others (The Catechism Cataclysm, Your Sister’s Sister, Koinonia and The Greens Are Gone). This recent uptick in creative productivity comes after a decade spent working below the line—first as a director of photography, then briefly an editor, then a 1st assistant director. Admittedly, much of the time I spent crewing was also spent longing for the day when I would be helming my own projects, but luckily I wasn’t so busy moping around that I missed out on all there was to absorb from working on other people’s films.

1.    Give them what they need so that they can give you what you need.

Crews and actors don’t work in a vacuum. There is a collective goal in play at any given moment on a set, and in order to achieve that goal, people need information. The system is highly interdependent. Logging time on a variety of sets allows you to learn how departments run, what details people need to operate at their peak, and how to communicate that without pissing anyone off. The better you get at giving people what they need, the more you’ll find that they’ll provide the things that you need.

2.    Watch and learn.

An underappreciated benefit of serving as an AD is that you have a front row seat to basically every aspect of the filmmaking process. You can listen in on conversations between all the key collaborators and watch what unfolds afterwards to see which methods of communication were most effective. I learned a lot from my vantage point, but here are a couple huge generalizations I noticed regarding communication: Actors respond to clarity, crews respond to decisiveness, and everyone responds to respect.

3.    Hire people you trust, then trust them.

There are few things more annoying then being micromanaged. It undermines one of the most critical elements of a harmonious, productive environment: trust. If you don’t trust someone, don’t hire that person. Once you have lined up your team, give them some autonomy. When people feel ownership in the creative process they are more invested and their work reflects that.

4.    You can create and curate your community.

When I began working in the industry, I ran face-first into the age-old clash of production vs. crew. This is the notion that there are opposing sides on a set, both of whom feel the other is taking advantage of them. As an AD, you are right at the heart of this battle. The only way to I found to fight this ideology was to disprove it, production by production, individual by individual. Good communities are built. It takes a commitment to fostering communication and open dialogue about what is working and what is not. It takes admitting you’re wrong once in a while and changing your ways. It takes the strength to address things directly and without emotion, with the common goal of making the set into a place where you want to be. Added benefit: once you know your community, you can curate your own sets to ensure the people you bring into your sacred production bubble are people who share your filmmaking philosophy.

5.    Try to relax.

Over the years, I worked with many first time directors and found a pretty consistent common denominator lurking behind all bad choices: fear. Fear is the enemy of creativity. Feeling out of one’s element can be a huge distraction. Immersion helps. Working on a lot of sets helps you get comfortable in that environment and frees you up to focus on what you should be focusing once you are at the helm.

6.    Treat people as collaborators, not employees.

Many directors and producers emanate the vibe that their crews should be subservient and/or grateful to be there. Pro tip: this approach does not instill dedication or passion for the work. Instead, it fosters a sense of obligation and erodes any sense of the communal creative experience that leads to great films.

7.    The vibe on set translates to performances.

Imagine an environment where you are at your most productive and creative—somewhere you can truly bare your soul. Are there people yelling, texting and insulting each other all around you? I didn’t think so.

8.    Set boundaries.

There are a lot of bitter people who work in film. Understandable—it’s easy to become bitter when you feel people are constantly working you to the bone and not appreciating your many sacrifices. The best way I’ve seen to sidestep this common trend is to set boundaries early and clearly. You may worry that you’re not being a team player, but I’d always rather have someone tell me up-front that they’re feeling taken advantage of than see it come out in the form of anger after the fact.

9.    Barriers won’t just go away because you don’t like them.

It’s the nature of independent film that compromises have to be made. I’ve seen a lot of directors refuse to bend—cling to some unrealistic ideal until the very last second and then sulk when they inevitably must scramble to find another way. Look at the parameters of your schedule and your budget realistically as early as possible and figure out how to work within them while still protecting the heart of your film. If you don’t choose your own compromises others will impose them on you—and you probably won’t like their choices.

10. No one is there to sabotage your film.

Something a lot of people seem to fail to comprehend is that everyone on set is there to get a film made—ideally a great one. When your AD or line producer asks you for information, they aren’t conspiring against you. They are trying to help make your film happen. Hiding information does not serve you. Be transparent. No one knows what you need unless you ask for it. You may hear no, but at least then a conversation can begin about how to achieve it some other way. You’re a director, be direct.

11. People want to work on good movies.

Contrary to popular belief, when the script is bad the crew knows it. And when they don’t feel any connection to the material, the job becomes about the paycheck. Most people got into this business in the first place because they love film. A good script—one that has been properly developed and made to be the best it can be—gives everyone a reason to show up each day and believe that they are part of something special. Not to mention that the better the script, the more access you have to those who are talented enough to be discerning.

12. Money is not the only resource.

My producers and I spent many years trying to raise money for The Off Hours before it dawned on us that it wasn’t the only path to getting the film made. We had all worked on the crew side for years and we had garnered a lot of goodwill in our community. You can’t just expect everyone to bend over backwards to fulfill your vision, but there are endless ways to make helping you something that helps them too—allowing them to step up to a key role, giving them good material for their reel, sponsorship possibilities, or even just the promise of you hiring them again in the future on a fully budgeted production. Find the win-win.

13. Don’t burn your investors.

A lot of things that happen on other people’s sets don’t have a direct impact on other filmmakers. Actors or crews have a bad experience and they attribute it to a specific production or set of people. Not so in the world of film finance. If those brave people who are willing to enter the risky world of indie film investment encounter a production that loses them thousands or millions of dollars, especially through negligence or poor management, they aren’t about to stick around and watch it happen again.

14. Feedback is good.

People who seal themselves away to complete their masterpiece will almost always end up with something that could’ve been way, way better. Seek out and embrace the opinions of others, ideally others who have no reason to please you or be kind. Wouldn’t you rather hear it from that random dude in a small screening room when you can still do something about it than read the same opinion printed in Variety for the whole world to see?

15. Things don’t sell for as much as you think.

I have been fortunate enough to share condos at film festivals with filmmakers who have sold highly buzzed-about films. What I learned: price tags are lower than you read about. It’s not the 90’s anymore. Reset your expectations and be aware of the market you are entering. This realization allowed us to finally move forward and make The Off Hours at a budget level that was much, much more responsible than the idealized version we had initially envisioned. Just because it’s what you want to make it for doesn’t mean it’s what you should make it for.

16. Don’t burn bridges.

If you think there’s someone on your set who won’t affect the outcome of the project, or who will never end up in a position of power over you, who you can abuse with impunity, you’re wrong. You just are. You will be working with these people the rest of your career, if you’re lucky. Don’t be a dick.

17. People who succeed usually deserve it.

There are exceptions to this, of course, but generally speaking the people who succeed in the world of independent film work really, really hard. This goes for crews, actors, directors and producers alike. Working on other people’s sets is a reminder that nothing comes easily, but the opportunity to spend your days pursuing something you’re truly passionate about is worth fighting for.

BIO: Megan is a working filmmaker and a work in progress. Her latest film Lucky Them (starring Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt and Johnny Depp) is available everywhere with a WiFi connection via VOD. Her film Eden (sometimes known as Abduction of Eden) is available online as well, and The Off Hours can be found through the film’s site. She also has a blog.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

LUCKY THEM - Reviews and Interviews

So many amazing posts and reviews have been coming out around the release of LUCKY THEM that I've decided to try to archive them all in one place so I can return to them and read them whenever I feel blue. Please excuse the blatant self-promotion and enjoy some positivity along with me:

Variety - Review
by Justin Chang

Moveable Fest - Megan Griffiths on Staying True to Lucky Them
by Stephen Saito

Rolling Stone - Review
by Peter Travers

The Dissolve - Review
by Chris Klimek

The A.V. Club - Review
by Mike D'Angelo

Can We Talk About Toni Collette in Lucky Them?
by Karen Kemmerle

NY Post - Review
by Lou Lumenek

Today Show - Ryan Eggold Performs
Kathie Lee & Hoda

Filmwax Radio - Podcast w Megan/Emily
by Adam Schartoff

Today Show - Toni Collette Interview
by Kathie Lee & Hoda

Access Hollywood - Toni Collette Interview

Bob Rivers Show - Megan Radio Interview

Vanity Fair Article - "How Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward Put Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, and Johnny Depp Together in Lucky Them"
by Bennett Marcus

Fandor Interview with Megan Griffiths about LUCKY THEM
by Sean Axmaker

Guest Blog on Women in Hollywood about Summer Indie Movie Challenge
by Megan Griffiths

Daily Beast - Interview with Toni Collete 
by Melissa Leon

Paste Magazine - Interview with Megan Griffiths & Emily Wachtel
by Michael Dunaway

5 Questions with Megan Griffiths
by Jenny Yule - Review
by Christy Lemire

Village Voice - The Nimble Lucky Them Seeks Out a Grunge Legend
by Chris Packham

Examiner - Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church Look For a Rock Star in Lucky Them
by Carla Hay

A Conversation with Megan Griffiths
by Michael Tully

LA Times - Review
by Martin Tsai

Musee Magazine - Review
by Belle McIntyre

Seattle Met - A Fiendish Conversation with Megan Griffiths
By Seth Sommerfeld

Seattle Times - Reviews
by Moira Macdonald

Kicking the Seat - Review
by Ian Simmons

Interview - KIRO Radio
by Tom Tangney

Weekly Volcano - Review
by Jared Lovrak

The Inlander - Review
by Mike Bookey

The Spokesman Review - Lucky Shows Off the Real Seattle
by Nathan Weinbender

Santa Fe Reporter - Review
David Riedel

Paste Magazine - Review
Monica Castillo

Tresspass - Review
by Sarah Ward

The Australian - Review
by Stephen Romei

Brisbane Times - Review
by Jake Wilson

Echo Newspaper - Review
by Tracey Fox

Sydney Arts Guide - Review
by Richard Cotter

Sydney Morning Herald - Thomas Haden Church takes the long route to road trip movie Lucky Them
by Phillipa Hawker

The Dissolve - Pick of the Day
by Tasha Robinson - Review
by Leigh Paatschon

ABC Australia - Review
by Christian Horgan

Popcorn Feminist - ‘Lucky Them': Indie’s deliciously detestable leading woman
by Sarah Edmonds

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In defense of Crewtopia.

I was recently made aware of an open letter in the local IATSE newsletter that took umbrage with the word "crewtopia" and apparently with the philosophy behind it. Since I have had a big part in popularizing this expression, I figured I owed the author a response.

The letter insinuated that the term paints Seattle as a "backwater with an inferiority complex." The word crewtopia is one that was coined in New York when Lacey Leavitt and I were talking to another filmmaker about our experiences working in Seattle. We were trying to come up with a way to do justice to the massive affection we have for the crews we have been lucky enough to work with on our productions, and the words crew and utopia became one. I've used it regularly ever since in both casual conversation and national press, and without fail I invoke it to convey exactly how talented, hard-working and incredibly special the crews in this city are. I honestly don't understand how it could be interpreted to make Seattle look inferior in any way.

The IATSE letter went on to speculate if any of us who use the word "really know what ‘crew utopia’ is to the working crew." I spent a decade as part of Seattle's working crew--in many roles, from PA, to DP, to 1st AD--and I understand on a core level what it means to feel respected by those above the line, as well as what it feels like when that respect is not there. Animosity between "crew" and "production" is unfortunately not rare in this business, whatever region you work in. And it's understandable, as there are plenty of people on both sides of the line who perpetuate this divide by mistreating or distrusting those on the other side. But that doesn't mean it should remain the norm.

I came up in the scrappy, make-it-work world of low budget film--where rules tend to be flexible and often broken for the sake of getting the film made. As I worked alongside Seattle and Spokane crews on features of mounting budgets, I began to more deeply understand and embrace the regulations that the unions have worked so hard to create and enforce. On THE OFF HOURS, my producers  (all former working crew) and I chose to run our set as much as possible as if we were operating under a union contract--not because we had to, but because we wanted to demonstrate to our crew the respect we had for their time and energy. I've seen many, many other producers of non-union films do the same. I'm not sure that the author of the IATSE letter understands that the elements he lists (living wages, reasonable hours, thorough preparation and mutual respect) are things we all want, and things that those he's criticizing have been prioritizing and striving to provide for years.

I don't write this post to stir up any ill feelings. I have great respect for the author of the letter in question, and for the union in whose newsletter he chose to air his feelings. I cherish my relationships with the members of IATSE Local 488 and would never want to endanger those relationships. I wrote because it seemed that the notion of crewtopia was being unfairly represented in a public space, and I felt the need to defend it in a public space. I'm certainly not above criticism, and am very open to hearing where my colleagues and I might continue to improve and do better by the community here in the Northwest.

Since THE OFF HOURS, I have been fortunate enough to be able to bring a few higher budget films home to Seattle. Lynn Shelton, Lacey Leavitt, Jennifer Roth, Mel Eslyn and others have brought many more. None of us would have been able to do this were it not for crewtopia. Our crews are the foundation upon which our films are built. They provide the passion, the positive energy, and the true dedication to the work that makes the films what they are. I know it's kind of a silly word, but crewtopia represents something special to me and many others. I hope this letter has done something to help illuminate the spirit in which the word was coined.