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.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Going the distance.

I have been neglecting this blog space pretty woefully of late. Neglecting it to such an extreme, in fact, that I just discovered this post I wrote almost a year ago.  At that point I was right in the midst of editing my fourth feature, LUCKY THEM, and the timing was perfect to compose a blog post about post. A year later it's maybe not quite as timely, but hopefully useful enough to excuse the belatedness.

While you're making your film, every little detail feels vitally important.  The cast and crew are devoted to translating the script to the screen and the director stands at the center of a tornado, receiving thousands of questions a day.  Once the storm subsides and production wraps, the chaos abruptly ends.  The director is left holding the resulting footage, often alone or in the company of only one or two others.  Months stretch ahead with many more questions waiting to be answered regarding what will stay in the film and what will go, what can be done to enhance what is great and what can be done to overcome what isn't.  The passion that has been driving the process up to this point can be hard to sustain once you're sitting in a quiet room and the urgency has drained away.  But this phase of the process will determine your film's fate just as much as any other, if not more.  Care about every detail.  Consider every facet of the work.  There are things that can be done to make your movie better all the way up until you deliver it to your first festival or your distributor.  Never stop caring.

When I first started editing my films in film school, I would shut the door and keep the sound low--that's how self-conscious I was about my work.  But shutting yourself away and toiling in solitude does you no favors.  I was soon forced out of my shell my mandatory feedback sessions.  The rules were simple: show your work, encourage critique, and keep your mouth shut.  If someone asks a question, don't answer it, throw it back out to the other viewers.  If no one else can answer it, you know it's an issue that you need to address.  If everyone else seems clear on the question, move on.  Don't get defensive of your work--remember, you asked them to come.  It's not exactly fun to sit in the midst of a discussion about all the things that aren't working in your film, but wouldn't you rather experience this discomfort in a room of your peers instead of reading these criticisms in a published review of your finished work?  It's important to expose your film to actual audience members, welcome their feedback and use it to make your film the best it can be before unleashing it on the rest of the world.

I say this a lot, but that's only because it's true always and forever in every stage of the process.  As a filmmaker you are nothing without your instincts.  Feedback is critical, yes, but it's not an end result.  You need to be able to sort through that feedback and parse it for useful information, then apply your own instincts to determine the solutions to those problems.  Following your gut isn't a natural skill.  If it were there would be a lot more people living their dreams in this world.  You need to practice trusting yourself until it is second nature. Do it every day, not just in your creative projects but in your life.

Once you take your film out to real world test audiences, you may find that there are elements of the story that are unclear or pieces that people just aren't putting together.  There are a lot of ways to solve these problems, and they don't all revolve around going out and reshooting.  Strategic pick-up shots and the use of ADR can go a long way towards clearing things up.  On EDEN, we did one solitary pick-up of a hand holding a ring.  It solved the one story issue we were having in our test screenings.  We inserted new lines in via ADR to answer other questions that arose most frequently.  And as a result, no one has ever brought up these issues since.

Do you want to make money, do you want people to discover the film, or do you want people to discover you?  These are the choices that were given to me by the sales agent of THE OFF HOURS.  My response was probably the same as every other filmmaker who has ever been asked that question: Can't I have all three?  Maybe some people are fortunate enough to get fame, fortune and a wide release for their films, but most people have to settle for one, if any. Ultimately, with TOH, we determined that the most important thing was to get the film seen.  We figured that if the film wasn't going to be a break-out hit, we weren't likely to make a big profit, and that the least we could do for our investors and collaborators was to get their work into the world however we could.  We played as many film festivals as possible, submitted the film for awards, and when we were nominated for our Independent Spirit Award we paid to have four thousand screeners sent out to the voters.  That strategy ended up succeeding in another way--as people were exposed to the film they began to notice the strong work of the cast and crew.  It became a calling card piece not only for me as the director, but for the producers, our DP Ben Kasulke, production designer Ben Blankenship, costume designer Rebecca Luke, and our amazing cast, many of whom are breaking out now in a big way.  There are many ways to measure success, and box office is just one of them.