Filmmaker Megan Griffiths calls herself a “people person.” She’s referring to the energy she gets from interacting with others, but the shorthand label is also an apt description of her moviemaking style. “For me,” Griffiths says, “it’s about the people in the movie.”
Strong characters drive her 2010 film The Off Hours, which she wrote, directed and edited, and which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year. The focus of this quiet, moody story is a young waitress working the night shift at a truck-stop diner. What makes the film special are the nuanced performances Griffiths elicits—her characters don’t do much, but their understated actions speak volumes.
Griffiths was inspired by her own brief stint on the night shift at a local film lab. “On the night shift, you aren’t interacting with a lot of people,” she says, “which, to me, feels like it would erode your sense of ambition.”
A lack of ambition isn’t something Griffiths, 36, has to worry about. Having spent her teen years in Moscow, Idaho, she went to film school at Ohio University. She always wanted to live in Seattle (“I had a romantic notion of it,” she confesses, based partly on movies such as Singles), so she had a Seattle friend rip out and mail her the local phone-book page containing the listings under “Film.” Griffiths sent her résumé to every company listed, landed a job at Alpha Cine film lab and moved here in 2000.
About a year in, she began to worry that she wasn’t making inroads with the local film community. “Shag Carpet Sunset is the reason I’m still here,” she says. She was hired as cinematographer on the local indie flick (released in 2003). Suddenly, she had friends in her chosen field. Connecting with Seattle’s tight-knit film community led her to assistant director jobs on several acclaimed local films, including Lynn Shelton’s first feature, We Go Way Back and Robinson Devor’s Zoo.
She never forgot about The Off Hours, however, which she’d written in 2003. She started talking in earnest about producing it in 2006—storing eight salvaged diner booths in a basement in West Seattle—and embarked on the rocky road to financing. By 2008, however, money stalled. Stars who had originally signed on (Alicia Silverstone and Aidan Quinn) dropped out.
But a funny thing happens when you’re a people person. “I had a vast amount of community support,” Griffith says. “Friends said, ‘If you just make it, I’ll work for free.’” In 2010, things finally fell into place, including an empty diner in Burien and four trucks full of props borrowed from Goodwill. After seven years of false starts, The Off Hours was shot in and around Seattle in 24 days.
“All of a sudden, your phone is ringing off the hook,” Griffiths says of her Sundance selection. It earned her the film she’s currently directing in eastern Washington and Seattle: Eden, inspired by the true story of a Korean-American woman forced into prostitution. “Eden is more plot-driven than The Off Hours,” she says, “so I tried to keep the story line intact, but make it more about the people.”
Another of Griffiths’ scripts was selected for a special production lab at the Sundance Institute last summer. Sadie is about a trailer park girl whose father is serving repeated tours in the Middle East, and the risks she takes to keep her disjointed family intact. (“I’m interested in the effects of being in a constant state of war,” Griffiths says.) Local filmmaker Lacey Leavitt will produce it, and Griffiths will direct, bringing the people forward.