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Life In Pictures

After 13 years of filmmaking in Seattle, Megan Griffiths has made more than a career out of movies. 

At the Film Forum in Tribeca, a line winds out of the lobby and spills onto the sidewalk, the very tail of twilight dissolving into an inky blue Manhattan skyline. It’s a Friday in late March, and the crowd is queued up to see Eden, a drama about domestic sex trafficking, shot in Washington state and directed by Megan Griffiths.

In the theatre the movie flies by, bolting straight out of the first frames into 98 engrossing minutes of action. Based on a true story, Eden follows a teenage Korean-American girl who’s abducted into a crime ring and forced to live in a storage locker, among many other terrible things. Unlike conventional thrillers, every gorgeous, horrifying scene pulses with humanizing detail, weaving a complex story about trust, power and relationships with tremendous empathy, without getting vulgar or heavy-handed. It’s artful and believable in equal measure.

After the screening, several dozen audience members stick around for a Q&A with Griffiths, lead actress Jamie Chung and cinematographer Sean Porter. “It’s this beautiful, battered realism,” Porter tells the crowd. “Megan and I never wanted it to feel like a documentary. We wanted to respect the fact that we were making a film.” He describes the way their approach creates a safe emotional distance that allows the audience to absorb what it’s watching.

The next day, at a bustling French bistro on the Upper West Side, Griffiths is talking about taking on a movie with such a tough subject. “It wasn’t my intention to make an issue movie, so to speak,” she says. “It was like, let me take this incredible story and make a good movie out of it. Let me support the story with cinematic elements and respect the issue.”

Megan Griffiths is tall—5’11” tall—with a big, warm Midwestern smile. Her hair is girl-next-door brown, tied up in a messy ponytail; on her feet is a pair of well-worn black Chucks. There’s a tattoo on the inside of her left wrist—a tiny line drawing of a film camera that looks a little like Japanese kanji, a relic from a shoot in West Virginia years ago.

“I took a sharpie and drew it on myself, and then they traced it with a tattoo pen,” Griffiths says. “People are always like, what does that mean? And I’m like, it means camera.”

Griffiths lives in Ballard, but she’ll be in New York for most of the next few months. She’s here both to kick off Eden’s theatrical release at the Film Forum and to edit her most recent feature, Lucky Them, which shot in Seattle in February. Lucky Them is a comedy about a rock journalist on assignment to track down her musician ex-boyfriend. Executive produced by Joanne Woodward, it stars Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church.

In the wake of Eden, Griffiths says people in Hollywood are eager to make her into a female action/thriller director. One potential manager told her she was like a unicorn because she could direct genre and she’s a woman. But Griffiths isn’t interested in being pigeonholed.

“I have to be able to see something in a script that’s really engaging to me, with characters and relationships,” she says. “I’m interested in the little minutiae of expression and the dynamic between people. A lot of times you don’t see that, especially the bigger movies get. It becomes more about visual spectacle, like big explosions, and less about people.”

Griffiths’ hunger for interpersonal connection has guided her for 13 years as a professional filmmaker. In that time she’s been a cinematographer, editor, producer, assistant director, writer and a now director four times over. She’s conquered the art of the limited budget and built an army of loyal collaborators. In the process, she’s honed a rare combination of intuition and pragmatism that gives her films a signature: compassion, precision, purpose.

* * *

“Megan’s been in a relationship with film her entire life,” says Griffiths’ friend Mel Eslyn, a producer, on the phone from LA. “It’s a relationship she’s constantly paying care to. It’s not just a career.”

Griffiths, 38, was born in Ohio and spent part of her childhood in Southern California. The shy daughter of a scientist dad and a therapist mom, she watched a lot of movies. The family eventually moved to Idaho, where Griffiths attended high school and college, making occasional pilgrimages to Seattle for big rock shows like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses at the Kingdome.

“When I would visit Seattle I’d feel like, this is my natural habitat,” she says.

As an undergrad at the University of Idaho, Griffiths studied political science and worked part-time at a video store. She bought her first camera—a VHS camcorder—so she could make her own projects. In her final semester of school, she changed her major to visual communications.

“There was no film program,” she says. “It was history of film and film theory, photography and videography, commercials and news packages, but no narrative filmmaking. I didn’t really know anything about filmmaking when I showed up to grad school. But that’s the thing I liked about that program—they choose people from lots of different disciplines and we were all learning to use film cameras for the first time.”

After getting her MFA in film from Ohio University in 2000, Griffiths moved to Seattle to see if she could build a career. She found a job at Alpha Cine film lab and got a gig as a production assistant on a Stephen King movie. But opportunities were slim.

One day she answered an ad for a director of photography for a film called Shag Carpet Sunset, the first feature directed by Andrew McAllister. McAllister liked the sensibility of Griffiths’ short films, one of which had won her a nomination for a Student Academy Award. The two met for a drink at Linda’s Tavern and hit it off.

“She shook my hand very properly, which I still tease her about,” McAllister says. “Megan has a certain element of fearlessness about her—and I really needed someone who I could trust with my life savings.”

Shag Carpet Sunset was unpaid, but it kept Griffiths in Seattle. “That was my first introduction to the kind of people and community I really responded to,” she says.

In 2002, Griffiths directed her first feature, First Aid for Choking, a small-town movie about a young girl in beauty school. After that, her career hit a lull. She considered giving it up entirely and going to culinary school. She interviewed for teaching jobs. At one point she nearly moved to New Orleans for a screenwriting gig—but an epiphany told her not to go.

“I was in my car and I was driving home to pack, and I was like, what I want to do is live in Seattle and make movies,” she says. “It was a fork-in-the-road situation, one of those choice times where it’s like, do you go with an intellectual decision, or do you go with a gut decision? I’m a big believer in the gut decision.”

Griffiths spent the next five years working as an assistant director on more than a dozen films, including Lynn Shelton’s 2006 directorial debut, We Go Way Back. The AD deals with tricky moving parts—actors, locations, budgets, scheduling, plus supporting the director and keeping the crew happy. It’s an inherently thankless job.

“It’s like timing the perfect dinner,” Shelton says, on the phone from New York where she’s shooting a TV pilot. “You need a special set of skills to pull it off well. You have to have the kind of brain that likes to do puzzles.”

As an AD, Griffiths was unflappable, even when a shoot seemed headed for disaster, which Shelton says happened toward the end of their first collaboration. “I remember saying to her, ‘How are you so calm?!’ And Megan said, ‘Oh, I panic. I just don’t let you see it.”

Talk to anyone who has worked with Megan Griffiths and they’re likely to describe her in somewhat exalted terms: She’s a rock. A workhorse. A pillar of patience, loyalty and integrity.

She also loves to laugh. “She has a balance between really knowing her stuff and being able to get goofy,” McAllister says, citing their mutual appreciation for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Several years ago Griffiths started hosting a Thursday ritual called VHS Night at her home. The tradition began with a viewing party for Troll 2. Some 46 VHS Nights later, it’s still going strong. Anywhere from two to 20 people show up every week.

“It has to be Piranhas 2: The Spawning or something like that,” she explains. “There’s sort of a level, a threshold, a certain quality. It has to feel like it has to be watched on VHS.”

* * *

The entire time Griffiths was working as an AD, she was struggling to get her second feature off the ground. The Off Hours—a beautiful, timeless portrait of loneliness that revolves around a 24-hour diner—was in the works for nearly seven years from the time it was written to the time it was produced. Griffiths eventually pulled together a lean budget, the community rallied around her and The Off Hours got made, premiering at Sundance in 2011. The movie showcases Griffiths’ aesthetic, a kind of elevated realism marked by an exceptional attention to detail.

“She’s so compassionate, she’s such a great listener—a really good observer of human behavior,” says Lacey Leavitt, Griffiths’ producing partner and roommate. “She’s really good at sitting back quietly and watching. You can see the wheels turning.”

Several months after The Off Hours premiered, the script for Eden found its way to Griffiths, who did a rewrite with an eye toward a modest budget and a shoot in Eastern Washington. The film’s producers liked what she did to the script and the film moved quickly into production. Eden premiered at SXSW in 2012, where it won multiple awards before screening at a handful of festivals, including the Seattle International Film Festival. Its theatrical release began this March in New York and this month Eden returns to Seattle for a May 3–15 run at SIFF Cinema. (It’s also available for streaming and download; the DVD comes out in June.)

“Every time I see Eden, I feel like I attended a film master class,” Shelton says. “Every frame of that film has been lovingly given attention. The post-production, the color matching, the pick-up shots.”

Lucky Them found Griffiths while Eden was still winding through the festival circuit last summer. It, too, got a rewrite by Griffiths—to “Meganize it,” as Eslyn puts it—which set the story in Seattle. The producers approved of the rewrite and six months later, the Seattle-based crew was underway on a 26-day shoot all over town, on location at the Crocodile, the Comet, bars in Belltown, the streets of Capitol Hill.

“I’ve been making movies in Seattle for 13 years and haven’t ever shot Seattle for Seattle,” Griffiths says. “Finally I get to show the city that I love.”

On location at the Trigger Building in SoDo in February, the Lucky Them crew buzzed about their business wearing T-shirts from The Off Hours and other Seattle productions. As they prepped a shot, Griffiths was huddled with her gaffer, quietly bumping her shoulders and singing the hook from Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”: This is fucking awesome.

* * *

“I’m a little cheesy on the warm fuzzies,” Griffiths confesses. “Some people are like, ‘You’re so lovey-dovey when you talk about your crew.’ Positivity is underrated. It’s one of those things where it just doesn’t hurt to be a nice person.”

Getting a feature film made is a Herculean feat. Directing a successful feature film demands vision, dedication, leadership and extraordinary skill, especially if you’re doing it on your own terms. Griffiths is doing it all so well that resources are growing around her.

“I bet the hardest thing about being Megan is that you literally can’t do it all,” Leavitt says. “You have to say no to things because there’s just not enough of you to go around.”

Griffiths hasn’t booked her next directing project yet. She swears she’ll never AD again, but she can’t resist producing when she wants to see a movie happen, so she’s working with Eslyn and Leavitt to co-produce the next film by Todd Rohal (The Catechism Cataclysm). In the meantime, she’s developing a TV drama, reading scripts and trying to get her completed screenplays funded. Among them is a smaller, darker film called Sadie about a 13-year-old girl and the normalization of violence, which Leavitt took to the intensive, competitive Sundance Producing Lab last year.

Despite her accumulating success, Griffiths remains astoundingly modest. When she considers the impact of her work on the community that has made her career possible, pride finally shines through: “It feels really good to know Lucky Them wouldn’t have happened in Seattle if I hadn’t been hired to direct it,” she says. “It happened in Seattle because I rewrote the script to set in Seattle. It feels really great because I love all these people so much.”

Pictured above: Director Megan Griffiths and editor Meg Reticker pore over footage from Lucky Them in late March. Postcard-size stills from each scene line one wall of a tiny editing studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Photo by David Belisle.

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