It started on the set of “We Go Way Back” in 2006. Lynn Shelton was directing her first feature at the age of 39, and Megan Griffiths was her first AD. They both did not know of each other prior to the making of the film, but connected immediately over their mutual spirit of collaboration. They would go on to being close friends and collaborators together through all of their work.
After recently watching “We Go Way Back” for the first time, it seems perfect that Megan and Lynn were introduced to each other through this project. The film is about a 23-year-old actress named Kate, who is finally given a leading role on her birthday. Simultaneously she starts the film reading a birthday letter from her 13-year-old self to her 23-year-old self. In the letter, the 13-year-old Kate says she hopes her older self is doing everything she had wanted to do. Kate goes through many transitions throughout the film, and we find her constantly looking back at her 13-year-old self, a free-spirited photographer. In a way, Megan and Lynn balanced one another, like 23-year-old Kate and 13-year-old Kate, always supporting each other’s visions and directions. As Megan shared with me, “We were both big voices in the room for each other.”
After the tragedy of losing Lynn Shelton earlier this year, Megan Griffiths, with many other colleagues in the film community, mourned a great talent. Megan took this time of grieving to direct a tribute YouTube LIVE event, “Her Effortless Brilliance: A Celebration of Lynn Shelton Through Film and Music.” The event brought together different people who had starred in Lynn’s films and TV series, along with musicians that were a part of the soundtrack of her work. Lynn and Megan had that in common, along with being rooted in Seattle, a passion for the music and the musicians that supported their films.
Megan Griffiths is a director I’ve admired for a while, and I reached out to her about the “Of A Certain Age” grant that the Northwest Film Forum is behind along with Duplass Brothers Productions. Megan is on the board of Northwest Film Forum, and Lynn was an active member. The grant is for $25K and will be awarded to a US female/non-binary filmmaker at the age of 39 or older who plans to work in narrative filmmaking. Lynn started her career as a filmmaker at age 39, and it made sense to give an opportunity to a female/non-binary filmmaker “of a certain age” to show that it’s never too late to shift into or start a new career. This year the winner will be pooled from nominees from an advisory board put together by the Northwest Film Forum.
Megan Griffiths is one of the best filmmakers working today, and I wanted to elevate her work along with her relationship with Lynn because their films have meant so much to me. My summation of our conversation is that it’s so important to find your people in the industry, and to really treasure those people while they are in your life, because you never know when they may go. This is something good to remind ourselves, especially during this time when, as Megan put it, “The ground feels very uncertain underneath our feet.”
REBECCA MARTIN: What started your journey into filmmaking?
MEGAN GRIFFITHS: I grew up all over the place. I was born in Ohio, I moved to Arizona, and then Southern California, then Idaho, and then lived for a short-time in England. My Dad’s British and he teaches at the University level, so we moved into a lot of University towns growing up. That brought me all over the place and introduced me to different people. And then somewhere down the line, I started really being obsessed with movies, and having regular movie parties at my house. But I think it wasn’t until late high school that I realized there was a person responsible for what I was watching, and I began making a connection between the movies and the jobs behind it.
MARTIN: What were your steps to getting into directing?
GRIFFITHS: During my Undergraduate, there was not a film production program. I basically studied it on my own, and then I went on to get a Masters in Film Production from a film school in Ohio. I returned to the very town where I lived for the first six years of my life, in Athens.
Before I went to film school, I was living in Idaho. I would always go to Seattle to see concerts, and I fell in love with the city. I went to Seattle after I graduated from film school. I made a feature of my own, shortly thereafter. It was very small and didn’t get a lot of play. Over the next eight years, I tried to get my next feature made, while also working on the crew side as a cinematographer initially, and then I transitioned into ADing, being the first AD on other sets, and a few other jobs too.
MARTIN: You are very much a part of the Seattle film community. What was it like getting started there, instead of someplace like Hollywood?
GRIFFITHS: It’s a very small film community in Seattle, full of passionate, art-loving, filmmaking people. You really have to be invested in filmmaking as an art if you want to make a career out of it in Seattle. It’s not a very easy way to make a living.
Initially I worked on a big Stephen King miniseries, and I was a camera PA. I worked on this larger project, and I realized I’d rather be more in the center of things on set. From that point on I started working on smaller sets and having a day job. I worked at a film lab and I worked on the negative cutting. Sometimes at the film lab I worked at, they would let me take a month-long leave of absence to work on a project, and then come back and have a job. That’s how I really made it work in the first five years or so. Just going between making my rent with my day jobs, and then satisfying my love of filmmaking with my nights and weekends. On the smaller films I was working on, that’s when I was a cinematographer. Then as I moved over into ADing, a friend of mine asked me if I’d like to work on his films as an AD, my friend Todd Rohal from film school. I had not done that job before, but when I came back from doing it, because it was in Pennsylvania, I just realized there was not a lot of people doing that for small films in Seattle. I felt like it was a niche I could fill. And that’s when I could start letting my day jobs go and work to make a “living” in film.
I wrote “The Off Hours” in 2003, but it didn’t get made until later, and then premiered in 2011 at Sundance. That was really the breakout moment for me as a director. That film led to “Eden”, which was a film I made that I shot nine months after Sundance, and then it premiered in 2012 at SXSW, won the Audience prize there as well as a special jury mention for the lead actor Jamie Chung.
MARTIN: I’m impressed with how different your directed films are from each other. I’m also impressed that you’ve written the script for most of your directed films. What takes you to these different stories and projects?
GRIFFITHS: I’m not specifically drawn to one type of genre or style, but I like playing around in different genres and styles. I always have to be drawn in by a character, and usually what the film has to say is really important to me. Or what it’s trying to convey. Everything has a point of view, and it’s always important to me what that is, and what the film is conveying to people. Also, it’s a level of opportunity when it presents itself. When it’s films I have written and nurtured, and I’ve finally gotten to the screen, like “Sadie”, those are things inside me that I needed to say. I really wanted to explore those topics, and those were my own. And then there were other opportunities that came along which became mine, like I threw myself into them, but initially it started out as someone else’s passion project, and then I got invited to join that, like “Eden” and “Lucky Them”. They both were in development for years before I came into the picture.
MARTIN: I loved “Sadie”, and that child actor [Sophia Mitri Schloss] has an amazing presence onscreen. What brought you to that film?
GRIFFITHS: That was something I wrote in response to the fact that I was just seeing so many stories of violence on the news, like mass shooters and stuff like that, all with the backdrop that we were still in war as a country. It was about drawing connections for me between the way, as individuals, we may solve all of our problems with violence, mirroring the way our country tries to solve problems with violence. That became something that I really wanted to explore. I decided to talk about it through the eyes of a young girl. Because I felt like I’d seen films and stories that showed how young men deal with violent tendencies, but I hadn’t really seen that through the eyes of a girl. So that was the genesis of “Sadie.”
MARTIN: I love that you portrayed this kind of story through the eyes of a young girl. There is something so real to all of that. What are the things that you try to bring onscreen in terms of the character and story?
GRIFFITHS: I value authenticity and realism as it’s based in a world that the audience lives in, that it’s not necessarily their reflection of the world, but that they believe it. That becomes the focus of my research and prep for a project. Then bringing in actors who feel they can inhabit the characters. What the actors bring to their character, and what the rest of the group brings to it, builds into a world that feels authentic.
MARTIN: How did you find Sophia for the Sadie role?
GRIFFITHS: She is based in Seattle. And I had seen her in a film called “Lane 1974”, which I recommend if you haven’t seen it. She’s just got this very natural gift. Sadie is a very different character than Lane, she’s the lead in that film too. Sophia is great at holding the screen for an entire feature, and that was something that was really important to me, because “Sadie” is about this character. She is surrounded by other characters that have lives as well, but she’s got to be the one whose eyes we see the world through. And I just saw that she could do that through what I had seen her do through the character Lane.
Sophia was based in Seattle, but went through the same process as all the young actors who read for Sadie, so she didn’t have the advantage of being the local hire. Even auditioning on tape, though, her talent was undeniable.
MARTIN: When did you first meet Lynn?
GRIFFITHS: When we met, it was on her first feature film. It was called “We Go Way Back”. She was directing, and I was her first AD. We were paired by her producers. She didn’t know me before that, and I didn’t know of her work yet. We were just thrown together, and immediately clicked because we had a similar filmmaking philosophy. We had similar ideas about how the set environment was so important to actors performances and the mental health of the crew. Also, the importance of just trying to take care of people and make sure nobody felt taken advantage of, and everybody was working towards the same goal of collaboration. We just saw eye to eye on a lot of that stuff. I was a new AD at the time, and it was my second job as a first AD. Lynn had never been on a set with crew before because all the work she had done before that, all of her short films were her and a camera basically. She came from an editing background, so I think she valued the fact that I knew what the crew hierarchy was and how a set ran. We were both learning a lot, and we bonded. She went back to much smaller films after that one. I worked a little bit on “Humpday”, and I was a producer on “Your Sister’s Sister”. We just always read each other’s work, and watched each other’s rough cuts. We were both big voices in the room for each other.
MARTIN: Can you talk about your involvement in the “Of a Certain Age” grant, in honor of Lynn Shelton, and who/what the grant is for?
GRIFFITHS: We were all in the depths of grief when Lynn passed away earlier this year. It was so sudden and unexpected and awful. The grant conversation kicked off with Mark Duplass saying they would like to see a grant exist in her name. They thought that Northwest Film Forum, which is a film organization in Seattle that Lynn was a part of, and that I’m on the board, would be the great steward for this kind of a grant. From there we had a meeting between me, Mel Eslyn, from Duplass productions, and people from the Film Forum. We brainstormed about what that grant could be, and built upon the money that the Duplass brothers had committed, and built it up to a $25,000 annual grant. Then we decided to model it after Lynn. She came to filmmaking late in her career. She was an actor and she was a photographer, and lived a lot of lives before she was a filmmaker full time. We just wanted to support other people who were coming into this filmmaking world a little later, with a little more life experience. Lynn was 39 when she made “We Go Way Back”, which was her first feature. To be awarded the grant, people [women or non-binary] had to be 39 or older, and have this goal of working in narrative filmmaking. That was the genesis of the grant and why it was designed the way it was.
MARTIN: I would love to share with our readers how they could get access to this grant. I don’t know a lot about the grant process, but can you share how 39+ women and non-binary people in the US can apply for this grant?
GRIFFITHS: This year, in order to get things moving, because we wanted to award the first grant in 2020, we did not have the bandwidth to support a full submission process across the country. We ended up using an advisory board to recommend filmmakers, and people were nominated. The grant is in progress and will be awarded this year. We talked about for future years, when we have a little bit more time to plan and build the structure underneath the grant, and are able to go through a large amount of materials, we’d like to see the access open more to everyone. Although we did get a beautiful diverse array of nominees this year. I’m super happy with that.
MARTIN: With the Emmys coming up next month, and Lynn being nominated for “Little Fires Everywhere” in the Outstanding Directing category, what does that mean to you, since you worked together all of those years? Also, what did it mean for you to be inducted into the Academy, as Lynn nominated you.
GRIFFITHS: I’m so proud of Lynn’s nomination. She was prolific in her episodic directing career and consistently turned in beautiful episodes for such a wide variety of shows. I know she’d be over the moon to be recognized like this for “Little Fires Everywhere”. That show was a major breakthrough for her–she directed four episodes and her vision was, from what I’ve read from the show’s creators, just a huge part of the show’s DNA. It’s a bittersweet thing to see her nomination, because really I just want her to be able to bask in such well-earned glory. I feel similarly about my own Academy induction, as I knew she was the person who started that process for me. Getting the notification that I was in, the first thing I wanted to do was call her and thank her for being such an incredible advocate for me (in that case and so many others), but I couldn’t. But it’s also beautiful that the reverberations of her generosity and talent are still being felt in so many ways.
MARTIN: What’s coming up for you in terms of directing?
GRIFFITHS: I have a couple features that I’m developing right now. I don’t know if or when they’ll be coming together, especially with this weird landscape we’re in. I definitely always want to have a feature on the horizon. What I’ve been spending my last couple years doing is focusing on television, episodic work. I’ve been able to break into episodic directing, which is a challenging jump to make as a feature director. I’ve really been taking advantage of the fact that I’ve been getting a lot offers, and I’m doing a lot of TV work to support myself and pay off all of that debt that I had as an independent filmmaker. It’s been great, because it’s been such a different world of dropping into all of these different pre-existing sets, and just being ready to tackle whatever the day brings. So it’s been really good for me as a filmmaker to get into that world. I’ve met lots of great people that way too. I’ll probably try to figure out how to continue to balance between being a work for hire director and building my own projects.
MARTIN: One thing I wanted to add was the beautiful tribute you did for Lynn, “Her Effortless Brilliance”. I see that you have a gift for collaboration and bringing people together. I could see it was a labor of love for you, and I was so touched by it, and loved how you pieced it together.
GRIFFITHS: That was a hard thing to tackle, but also a real healing process for me to make that and to everyone, again with the Duplass brothers and Mel Eslyn, and Lynn’s publicist Adam Kersh, to make that happen. It was definitely a labor of love for all of us. I became immersed in that for several weeks after Lynn passed away, and it was about putting it out into the world, which was a huge release for me. It functioned in a couple ways, where it distracted me from my grief, and also allowed me to work through it at the same time.
MARTIN: Thoughts about being a filmmaker during the current landscape?
GRIFFITHS: There are so many thoughts. I’ll just say it’s an uncertain, weird time for filmmaking. Like every conversation about making things right now ends with the “shrug” emoji. Nobody knows what’s coming and what’s happening next year. Planning feels almost silly, but also you can’t not try to plan what’s next. It’s a weird time, like everyone is rushing, trying to get back to set. There’s a lot of pausing and going backwards. The ground feels very uncertain underneath our feet.
MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
GRIFFITHS: I guess I would say it’s important to be aware of what you bring to the table that’s specific to you, and to be able to walk into a room and own that. Also be confident in your ability to deliver your version of whatever the project is. There’s just going to be a lot of sexism, racism, classism, and all sorts of things involved that you have no control over, but the thing that you can own is this certainty in your own vision, trying to figure out what that vision is as early as possible in your career, and make sure you always honor it and prioritize getting it when you’re making things. I think those are the really important things.