Filmmaker Megan Griffiths Loves Seattle And Seattle Loves Her Back

Nov 4, 2013

Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths.
Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths.
Credit Seattle Times Photo/Bettina Hansen

Filmmaker Megan Griffiths always she knew she would come to Seattle. Griffiths spent most of her adolescence in Idaho, and Seattle was the place she'd visit for a concert or to do some shopping. But Griffiths cheerfully acknowledges she knew nothing about Seattle's film community when she decided to relocate to the Northwest.

"A friend of mine was moving up here as well," Griffiths recalls. "She ripped the film page out of the phone book for me so I could send my resume."

With that, Griffiths starts to laugh. It's a warm, rolling sound so infectious you understand immediately why people use words like "golden" to describe her.

At 38, after years of hard work, Griffiths is at the cusp of a career breakthrough. Her fourth film, "Lucky Them," premiered earlier this year to a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival. It will be nationally distributed in 2014. A comedy, "Lucky Them" stars Toni Collette as a music writer whose rocker boyfriend disappeared 10 years before the opening scene. When her editor assigns her to retrace her boyfriend's last steps, Collette's character is plunged into her past and forced to look ahead to her future.

With "Lucky Them," Griffiths has come light years from her first Seattle job. The newly-minted film school grad spent four years at Alpha Cine labs, where she processed the film for Viewmasters, those red goggle-like gadgets that display panoramic views of the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and other attractions. On weekends though, Megan Griffiths worked on local movies — as an errand girl, a production assistant for the Stephen King mini-series, "Rose Red," to cinematographer on small indie features.

Filmmaker Lynn Shelton met Griffiths in 2005 on the set of Shelton's first feature, "We Go Way Back." The film was made with the support of a now-defunct program called The Film Company, which had hired Griffiths to be Shelton's assistant director.

"She was the queen of the set," Shelton says. Griffiths had the onerous job of organizing shoots, scheduling crew members and keeping the production on track. Shelton says Griffiths managed to do that while treating the crew with interest and respect.

"That's why people love her," Shelton says. "She values everybody."

Shelton says that's why the film community rallied around Griffiths when she finally decided to make her film, "The Off Hours." For more than eight years, Griffiths had been polishing the screenplay about the denizens of a 24-hour diner. The recession made fundraising next to impossible, but for Griffiths, the timing was right to pursue the project. Lynn Shelton says people came out to work for free, out of personal loyalty to Griffiths.

"It's true," Griffiths says. "'Off Hours' wouldn't have gotten made without the huge outpouring of support, people coming out to do jobs for nothing because they believed in me."

"Off Hours" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. Griffiths says that after the festival, at the Salt Lake City International Airport, she was approached to direct a small drama called "Eden," about a woman kidnapped by human sex traffickers. That movie opened at SXSW, in Austin, Texas, where it earned Griffiths both a filmmaking award and theatrical distribution. Significantly, it got her noticed by the future producers of "Lucky Them."

"Lucky Them" was originally to be set in New York, but when Griffiths was hired, she convinced the producers to change the locale to Seattle. "We started talking," Griffiths remembers, "I said, 'Seattle's a music town, the story could easily happen here.' So they came out, I showed them places, they met crew members. They were sold pretty quickly."

James Keblas, who directs Seattle's Office of Film and Music, says that's part of Griffiths' appeal.

"She exudes town pride," Keblas says. He credits Griffiths and Shelton for helping make Seattle a destination for independent filmmaking. Keblas says the fact that both women bring their projects to the city and hire local crew members keeps filmmakers working. That, in turn, attracts other film projects.

"The best thing we can do is build our own industry on our own terms," he says. Keblas compares the film community to Seattle's music industry: "We didn't wait for 'Rolling Stone' to come to town to build it. We did it on our own. Same is true with film."

Griffiths has made her four feature films in Washington state, with mostly local crews. Keblas notes that each movie has come with a bigger budget — money that Griffiths spends locally.

In 2012, The Stranger honored Griffiths with its annual Genius Award for filmmaking. The honor came with a cash prize, which Griffiths says was welcome.

"You know, I've always said I've just wanted to make a living making movies," she muses. "I'm actually not to that point."

The 2014 release of "Lucky Them" could change that, if it can draw the art house crowds. But Griffiths isn't counting on anything. Recently she and Shelton traveled to Los Angeles, partly for some face time with California movie producers. They both need commercial work to help support their projects. And if Griffiths has her way, she'll film those projects in Seattle.