If, as has been widely lamented in recent years, Hollywood has given up on the small-scale dramas that once were their bread and butter up until the 1990s when the special effects spectacle took hold, Megan Griffiths’ “Eden” is proof that the tradition is alive, well and even reinvigorated in the hands of indie filmmakers who embrace realism and clearly appreciate a good story of human perseverance. “Eden” is actually quite extraordinary, both in its telling and in its origins as a true-life event, detailing the abduction of Chong Kim, a young Korean-American woman who was seduced by a man in uniform at an Oklahoma City bar and soon found herself in the confines of a privately-created prison where it was expected she would live out the rest of her days as a sex slave under the auspices of an underground sex trafficking ring. But Kim has other plans, finding ways to ingratiate herself within the organization in order to ultimately plot her escape.
An emotionally wrenching nailbiter wasn’t exactly what was expected of a sophomore feature for Griffiths, who last directed the quietly contemplative Amy Seimetz character study “The Off Hours.” Then again, nothing about “Eden” could be anticipated, unexpectedly thrilling at every turn and featuring some truly riveting performances from Jamie Chung as Kim, Matt O’Leary as Kim’s primary handler Vaughan and Beau Bridges as the sadistic sherriff who has the run of the town both above ground and underneath. After the film made its triumphant debut at SXSW last year where it picked up the Audience Award, Griffiths spoke to me about the change of pace for her as a filmmaker, how the film’s evocative look came about and what appealed to her about the screenplay, the story of which was actually co-written by Kim, who was contacted by screenwriter Richard B. Phillips who learned of her from a newspaper article.
I’m sure a lot of people have said this to you after screenings, but did you have the moment yourself where you were thought, “Wow, this is a lot more common problem here than I thought it was?”
Absolutely. I was aware of trafficking, as I think most people are, but really the things we know about are the girls being trafficked into and out of foreign nations. I didn’t really think about it as something that happens in the U.S. As I started researching it, it really came to my attention that it happens a lot. It’s a huge, huge issue in this country, so being able to make this film, it was a good opportunity to present that issue and draw attention to it in a medium I’m comfortable with.
Since you didn’t originate the script, was it a different experience to have the script come to you and find something in it?
That was a weird thing for me. I’ve never directed anything I hadn’t written myself, so when this came to me, I had to think about whether or not that was something I wanted to do. I was so intrigued by the story and by a couple of the characters and I just felt like I could do justice to it. It ended up being a really great experience because it wasn’t a film I would’ve written on my own, but I’m really happy I had the opportunity to direct it.
What was it that attracted you to this story?
I really like complicated people and relationships. This movie was full of those kind of things and really wasn’t [only Eden] running from her captors. She makes a lot of complicated decisions along the way just to survive, then the character of Vaughan, who’s the captor she ends up spending a lot of time with, [his relationship with] Eden really intrigued me because it just feels so complex.
What was it like having Chong as a resource and a collaborator?
She was a tremendous resource. I’ve never been involved in a situation like this and thankfully so, but I’m still trying to get to the root of the physical and emotional realities of someone who is in that predicament. Being able to talk to Chong about her situation and knowing that she had been such a collaborator on the script with Rick Phillips, who was the original writer, that meant a lot to me even when I first got the script to know that there was someone who had been through this was involved. Then to be able to allow Jamie and Matt, the actors, access to Chong, she was so open and generous about sharing her experience and perspective that it was really helpful to them for their performances.
You mentioned “A Prophet” as a visual guide at SXSW and it’s interesting how you’re able to bring artistic flourishes to this film while maintaining a great sense of realism. What was it like to walk the line to make a stylish film but at the same time not exploitative in that regard?
What’s always important to me is trying to portray characters in an authentic way, so I just always approached it as what is it like to be in these scenarios? What would put people in this world, not just Eden, who is forcibly taken into that world, but all of the people who populate that universe — the people who work at that facility — and really try to understand them as characters. I’m an aesthetic person, so I wanted to approach it in a way that the visuals really supported the story we were trying to tell.
My director of photography Sean Porter and I termed it “battered, beautiful realism.” We wanted it to be aesthetically pleasing and interesting, but also had this edge and authenticity. We needed to keep telling the story from Eden’s perspective and keep it really subjective as she’s plunged into this world and as she’s kind of figuring out how it works. As she becomes part of that world, we got more and more objective with our cinematography and then when she realizes she’s gotten in so deep, she’s thrown back into reality.
It’s fascinating to me that you’ve kept things interesting in both this film and “The Off Hours” while being in confined spaces.
Production design plays a huge role in that, and just being specific and intentional about everything that goes into the frame, keeping these small, intimate spaces and letting them speak about the characters as much as the actors.
In general, how did you get interested in filmmaking?
It was such a natural progression of events, there wasn’t really one thing that drew me. I was always interested in watching movies and I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember. I was really interested in photography and these [two things] coalesced along the way into making films. Then I went to graduate school for film and just kept getting more and more specific about what it was that drew me to it. It isn’t something you do if you’re not in it for the right reasons because independent film is a difficult place to make a living. For me, I feel like I have a perspective on human behavior and I’m just interested in exploring things through that lens. Whenever I have an issue that I can’t quite work out in my mind, my first instinct is just to write about it through the eyes of characters I create.
“Eden” is now open at the Film Forum in New York and will open in Los Angeles on March 29th at the Laemmle Music Hall and the SIFF Cinema Uptown on May 3rd. A full list of theaters is here.