Megan Griffiths has a tiny tattoo of a movie camera on the inside of her wrist, an appropriate memento for someone who tells stories through moving pictures. “I’ve always been a behind-the-camera person,” she says.
A Seattleite since 2000, the 38-year-old Griffiths is no longer an up-and-coming filmmaker; she’s arrived, with each of her films having served as a step along the way. “The Off Hours,” the tale of a night-shift waitress, was Griffiths’ debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. “Eden,” a gripping, fact-based drama about a young woman kidnapped and forced into sex slavery, premiered at South by Southwest in 2012 and later played theatrically in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.
“Lucky Them,” a romantic comedy filmed in and around Seattle earlier this year, wasn’t just a step, but a leap. The funny, wistful film, which stars Toni Collette as a rock journalist reluctantly drawn into investigating the fate of a former boyfriend, made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, to a standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience. Last month it was picked up for national release by IFC Films, a longtime distributor of independent film (its biggest hit: “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”).
“It was such a big response,” remembered Griffiths of the Toronto screening. “I was worried that people wouldn’t laugh — it’s not like you can look at my body of work and assume that you’re walking into a comedy. But people were really on board, so early, and laughing so much.” Sitting in the theater, she felt “this great sense of relief, and then, wow, a sort of happiness building.”
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Originally from Ohio, Griffiths “moved around a lot” growing up, eventually finding her way to the University of Idaho (where she came to know and love Seattle during frequent visits in the ’90s) and Ohio University for a graduate degree in film. Her taste in movies was and is eclectic — as a teen, she loved “The Graduate,” “Midnight Run” and “12 Monkeys” — and her work behind the camera has been varied.
In addition to directing four features (her first, “First Aid for Choking,” was made in 2003), Griffiths has been a fixture in the burgeoning Seattle film industry in many roles. She’s been an assistant director for numerous local films (including “Zoo,” “Cthulhu,” and “The Catechism Cataclysm”), as well as a co-producer (Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister”), camera operator (second-unit director of photography on Shelton’s “Humpday”; camera work on “Blood on the Flat Track: The Rise of the Rat City Rollergirls”), editor, and writer (she co-wrote all her films except “Lucky Them”).
The perpetually smiling Griffiths remembers bonding with Shelton during the latter’s debut film, “We Go Way Back” (for which Griffiths was an assistant director), through their shared ideas for creating an ideal working environment. “As much as possible I want everyone having a good time and enjoying the process, not just a means-to-an-end kind of thing,” she said. “Positivity is an underrated trait in this business.”
Collette, in an email interview, described the atmosphere on the “Lucky Them” set as “joyous, focused, passionate and exciting. It reminded me of my early filmmaking experiences. People were there because of a kinship with the story and a curiosity and respect for the process.“
Asked what initially drew her to work with Griffiths, Collette said that she was sent a copy of “Eden” — Griffiths’ drama about sex traffickers — and “just couldn’t watch it. She created such a real and disturbing world. I thought, jeez, if she can make me believe in her story to the extent that I have to turn it off, then she is a master storyteller.”
“Lucky Them,” whose cast also includes Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt, Nina Arianda and Amy Seimetz (who starred in “The Off Hours”), wasn’t originally planned to take place in Seattle. Emily Wachtel, the film’s screenwriter and producer, had long envisioned shooting the story in New York. Griffiths suggested Seattle, wanting to use her usual crew and feeling that the story made perfect sense in Seattle — a music town. The producers, after a local visit, agreed, and the film was shot here from late January to early March.
“I’m a big fan of depicting light gray, rainy Seattle,” said Griffiths. “I love the way it looks — it’s so lush and saturated in a really cool way — not just with water but with color and contrast.” That being said, she acknowledged that Collette and Church — from Australia and Texas, respectively — were a little less enamored with the weather. “We had them bundled up, but they were still definitely huddled around the heater as much as possible!”
As she awaits details of “Lucky Them” ‘s national release (IFC has said the film will be out in “the first half of 2014”), Griffiths is at work on a new project: She’s developing a thriller with Johnny Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil. Though reluctant to discuss details at this point — “I’m a person who doesn’t believe that anything’s real until I’m on the set shooting” — she describes the project as an original screenplay in the “Black Swan” psychological-thriller mode. She’s currently working on casting, and says that the film will be shot in the Northwest, but not Seattle. Because the script is written around “a very specific place in Vancouver [B.C.],” she’ll be headed north for several months for the film’s production, likely in early 2014.
At this stage in her career, Griffiths is finding more and more opportunities to work. After finishing “Eden” she acquired an agent, who sends scripts her way and sets up meetings. (The new thriller came from “a general meeting that turned into a job, which is never how it happens! General meetings [usually] turn into nothing — a nice conversation, and then you never see them again.”) She’s also hoping someday to film a “coming-of-age dramatic thriller” that she wrote, called “Sadie,” which has been kicking around for a few years, and recently wrote a TV pilot script. “Some wheels are turning in that direction,” she said, “but you have to commit a lot of time to get that happening.”
Griffiths is resigned to the idea that sometimes it will be necessary to go elsewhere to make films — Seattle’s film community is lively but small, compared with Los Angeles to the south and Vancouver to the north. But she says the Northwest is home, “even if I leave and come back.” And she’s looking forward to finding more corners of the city to bring to life through the camera — such as Collette’s character’s apartment in Fremont (really a storefront, “right next to Uneeda Burger”) and the lollipop-neon lights of Capitol Hill in the “Lucky Them” opening sequence. “There’s always going to be plenty of Seattle that people haven’t seen yet,” she says.
“Lucky Them” has an unexpectedly poignant, charming ending that leaves its audiences smiling; Megan Griffiths’ career, likewise, clearly gives her joy.
Moira Macdonald: email@example.com or 206-464-2725