After first moving to Seattle 14 years ago, Megan Griffiths has come to embody two of the most special qualities of the city’s vibrant film scene with her immediate and unsentimental yet deeply humane approach to storytelling and the generosity she’s shown towards other filmmakers. So it was only natural that when the Seattle Film Festival needed a film to open the Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center’s leg of the bacchanal that is the nearly month-long fest, they turned to her. Still, the question remained whether she did right by the city’s music scene with her latest film “Lucky Them,” though that was quickly answered by someone who would know.
“Mike McCready from Pearl Jam was there, and he said that he thought the music world was very authentically rendered,” said Griffiths with a sigh of relief a few days removed from its rockin’ premiere in the Pacific Northwest. “I felt very good about that compliment, as a person who listened to that band quite a bit growing up.”
Being an opening act is actually getting to be rarer these days for Griffiths, who has clearly become a headliner in recent years. After moving effortlessly from exploring the quiet desperation of small-town life in “The Off Hours” to the true-life abduction thriller “Eden,” the consummate filmmaker has shown skills, cultivated over years working in every department imaginable for others such as Todd Rohal, Lynn Shelton and Robinson Devor, that may only be exceeded in range by the diversity of stories she tells.
All of it helps to illuminate “Lucky Them,” a bittersweet tale of a down-on-her-luck rock journalist (Toni Collette) who, in need of a scoop that will save her career, attempts to locate a former flame whose music was already the stuff of legend when he became one himself after disappearing from the stage and believed to be dead. Egged on by her opportunistic editor (Oliver Platt) and joined on the journey by a wealthy ex (Thomas Haden Church) who dabbles in documentary, she is forced to have a long overdue reckoning with her past.
The production itself comes with an interesting history. Written by Emily Wachtel, along with Huck Botko, the script was championed by her godparents Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, who planned to play a small role in the film before he passed away. With a rebellious spirit, it’s no wonder what Newman saw in the project and shortly before the film’s release, Griffiths explained what attracted her, as well as her collaboration with Wachtel, how she prepares the look of her films and even with a busy directorial dance card why she continues to lend a hand to other filmmakers who ask.
Since there was a pretty tightknit group that rallied around Emily Wachtel’s script, was it interesting to come into that kind of situation as a director?
It was good, but it was definitely collaboration. Emily was heavily involved throughout, and she had been working on it for a decade before I came into the picture, so I didn’t really want to be this person who just steamrolled in and said, “Great, it’s mine, thanks for all you did.” That was one of the conversations we had at the very beginning when we got on the phone to talk about the script. I said to her I had spent seven to eight years trying to get “The Off Hours” made and a few other films before this, so I couldn’t imagine that at the end of that process, handing the reins over to someone else. I think she appreciated that I had an understanding of that and we just moved forward that way where I was the director of the film, and she would sort of be in my ear and give me her opinion about things, but she never usurped the role that she had hired me to do, so it worked out really well.
Emily Wachtel has also said this was based in a small way on her own experiences, in terms of interacting with musicians as the host of a TV show. Was it interesting to work with someone who lived the story to an extent as part of the filmmaking team? It must’ve been a little reminiscent of “Eden” where your main subject co-wrote the script.
“Eden” prepared me in a weird way, but the experience of Chong Kim in “Eden” is so specific and singular, that it was more of a challenge to just get into her mind, and try to figure out how that [experience] affected her and what the realities of that world were. Whereas Emily’s history was a little bit more universal where it’s talking about mythologizing people in your life, and having a problem, moving on, or letting go of the past — that becomes a little more relatable. I think I came in with the knowledge of that history that I didn’t have for “Eden.”
She also wasn’t at all precious about details. There wasn’t anybody in the script that she said, “We have to cast this person because that’s the kind of person he was,” or “This has to be this way.” It was more the general vibe of the world, and making sure none of the characters got undersold in their intelligence. She just was there to protect the people that she had written, and of course, I was totally fine with that and happy to have her there.
Of course, you live in Seattle, which must’ve been a reason to shift the film’s original setting from New York, but was exploring the music scene a big draw as well?
Definitely. Part of the reason I live here is because of music. I lived in northern Idaho growing up, and Seattle was in the spotlight music-wise [because of] the grunge era, so I would come over to Seattle for concerts. It was very much a world I was interested in being a part of, so I came to Seattle for music, then ended up falling love with the city.
When I had a chance to move anywhere after I graduated from film school, I decided that Seattle was where I wanted to live. So representing that music world is a responsibility, but it’s also something I just felt qualified for because it’s a world that I am a big part of. Now that I live here, I’m very much obsessed with radio stations like KEXP and local bands like Pickwick, The Moondoggies and Father John Misty, who are all on the soundtrack. Trying to represent this world authentically was a big part of what were going for once we made the decision to translate it over to Seattle from New York.
This also has some really nice comic moments. Was it fun to flex those muscles?
Actually, it was really fun, I really like having a relaxed, easygoing environment on set, so to shoot a movie [where we] embrace that, it helps the movie and the performances. I also feel like this film is a bit closer to my personality than most of the stuff that I’ve done before. There’s a part of me in everything I do, but I just was really excited to do something that’s lighter, and compared to the world that I had been living in for “Eden,” it was a nice change of pace. I also am a person who doesn’t like to penned in by “this is your genre,” so I like to move around a little bit and really just see what feels the most natural to me and use the film language in different ways.
Was it easy to convey visually? As with “Eden,” you found a way to get at something authentic while also expressing a particular mood.
Ben Kutchins is the cinematographer, who I had not worked with before, but we sat down at the very beginning of the project, as I would always do with a pile of DVDs. We basically both brought ideas of movies that we thought could potentially be visual reference points, and my technique is to watch everything on mute and double time, so that you don’t get caught up in the story. You’re only looking at framing and lighting, and specifics like that where you’re just paying attention to the choices that were made visually. We were trying to find comedies that successfully created a light enough world that it wasn’t supposed to make you laugh, but also had an interesting look and still work as comedies.
The use of color is always a big thing for me, talking to the cinematographer, the production designer, and the costume designer and getting on the same page about what our palette is for the movie. This movie had a much brighter, colorful, jeweled tone, and that was one of the ideas that we had to make it feel vibrant, and allowing us to do maybe a little edgier stuff with the lighting and still keep it light.
You’re obviously very busy as a director, but as I said when I talked to Todd Rohal earlier this year, you’ve still found the time to work on other people’s productions like his “Rat Pack Rat” where you were a producer. Do you still get something out of being on other people’s sets?
Yeah, Todd, in particular, is a filmmaker who I just want to see make movies. He has such an interesting filmmaking voice that if there’s anything I can do to be helpful in getting that to happen, I want to do it. I would never consider myself a producer, first and foremost, but I definitely have worked on enough movies at this point where I feel like I have some understanding of how I can be helpful in that way. So I lend my hand here and there whenever it just kind of feels appropriate. I get a lot of out of that because [Todd] makes such different movies than I do. We have completely different aesthetics, but there’s a mutual respect there and it’s awesome to be able to be associated with what he does.
I’m just about to go to Boston to visit the set of “The Greens Are Gone,” a film that I’m one of the executive producers on, being written and directed by Peer Pedersen, who was an executive producer on “Lucky Them.” He’s a first-time feature director and he asked me if I would come on as an [executive producer] in order to give him advice and any time he had a question about what he was doing, he wanted to be able to have someone who had been there and done it before, so I was really happy to take on that role because I love his script. It’s not exactly selfless — I like having my name on these movies that I really love. I’ve spent so much time over the years as part of the crew, and I used to get to be on a lot more people’s sets then I do these days, but it’s nice to be able to go and visit other people’s sets and keep learning things that way and help make these other projects come to life.
“Lucky Them” opens on May 30th in New York at the IFC Center and will be available on VOD and digital download.