EDEN, the powerhouse new film from Seattle director Megan Griffiths, tells the harrowing story of an eighteen-year-old Korean- American girl abducted by sex traffickers and forced into a life of prostitution and abuse. Starring Jamie Chung and based on the life of Chong Kim, who collaborated on the development of the film, Griffiths’ second feature in as many years (following 2011′s lovely slice-of-life piece, The Off Hours) won three Awards at the SXSW Festival in Austin, TX in March. Playing at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) this month, the film has received extraordinary praise and been the topic of much discussion.
I met her for coffee right before the second screening of her film at the newly restored SIFF Uptown theatre in Queen Anne to discuss her approach to directing and the recent come-uppance of Seattle as a film town.
Eric Stone: How did your experience directing The Off Hours prepare you for Eden?
Megan Griffiths: It gave me confidence as a director. I felt I could trust my instincts. And that is really what I’m learning as I work on more things and talk to other directors who are working. Really, all you have is your instincts. If you don’t trust them and other people don’t trust them, you’re really screwed. Colin Plank, the producer, trusted my instincts. There’s nothing worse than a producer and director trying to make different movies. That doesn’t work. In addition to that, having so much experience on set, in different capacities, has been really helpful. I felt like I knew what I was doing and that people should trust me.
ES: How did your approach differ this time around?
MG: I didn’t originate the Eden script. So that was a huge variation. I did a new draft – that was the first few months of me working on it – and I wasn’t signed on as director until the script was done. I gave the script back to Colin and said ‘this is the movie I want to make, and if you want to make that movie too, then let’s get together. And if you don’t, then let’s go our separate ways.’ No hard feelings, we wouldn’t be breaking contracts or severing a friendship. It was ‘if you’re for it, let’s make it, and if you’re not for it, we shouldn’t do it.’ He was for it.
ES: Was Eden an easier film to make?
MG: From a certain standpoint. It took me seven years to get The Off Hours made. This time, the film was already partially funded. I think the hardest part of the process is getting the funding, so the fact that the project came to me with financing was fantastic. We also had a bigger budget on Eden, and it was nice to be able to have more tools and be able to pay our amazing crew, many of whom were also on the crew of The Off Hours.
ES: Had you worked with Sean Porter (who shot Eden) as a cinematographer before?
MG: I hadn’t. I’d worked with him in a lot of other capacities. I used to be an AD (Assistant Director), and he has a camera and lighting background. I’d see him on the crew in various positions. I’d been AD while he was shooting. I just knew I liked his vibe and his energy and the way he approached the material. He has such a grasp on character and story and is committed to making sure that what he’s doing is in line with whatever’s happening in the movie at any given time. It’s not about creating a pretty picture, it’s about what is appropriate for the scene, getting the most effective images. It was incredible working with him.
ES: Porter and Ben Kasulke (who shot The Off Hours) are both good at not over-doing camera movement. They let the scene be about the character.
MG: Both are awesome. Another thing they have in common is their presence on set. Sometimes you go on a set and the crew is not conscious that the actors have a process. And they have this attitude, and actors feel it when they walk on the set. Actors need space to work, so they can be free and vulnerable, and our crew knew that.
ES: How hard was it to cast the role of ‘Eden’, eventually played by Jamie Chung?
MG: You know, it wasn’t too difficult. I was really worried about it. It’s such an intense role and such an internal role. I didn’t feel comfortable casting anyone without an audition. She had a weekend off and flew herself to Seattle to audition for Colin and I. She really came after the role. She thought she could do justice to it. She’s really intelligent and she did research. We had faith in her. She exceeded my expectations by so much. She brought so much vulnerability to the role.
ES: It’s a breakthrough.
MG: Yeah it is. Thank you.
ES: Tell me about your approach to working with actors. Did you rehearse? How much character discussion was there?
MG: Even though it’s based on a true story, I wrote fictional backstories for every character. It was something I needed to get my mind around for what I needed to do. When actors came on board, there was a lot of conversation about where (their characters) were coming from. The only real rehearsal was on set. They had questions and if I couldn’t answer them I’d make adjustments. I’d try to go in and be clear what the scene was. A lot of the young girls in the film had never experienced anything like this (human trafficking). I had to explain it without traumatizing them. A lot of the parents were really grateful about the opportunity to talk with them about this issue.
ES: What was the hardest scene to shoot?
MG: For Jamie, Matt (O’Leary, who co-stars as Eden’s meth-addicted captor) and I, it was the scene where Jamie runs into the backyard (trying to flee after severely wounding a John). It’s a critical scene in terms of story – the audience really has to buy what’s happening there. And it was also just a very taxing scene physically. Jamie had to be thrown down by Matt twelve or thirteen times, and they both had to do repeated takes where they are just running at full speed. And it’s such an emotional scene. She’s crying, she’s yelling, she’s got blood all over her, she’s wearing barely anything in public – no fun. There were a lot of difficult scenes but honestly people would be surprised that it was a fun production as well. It wasn’t dour and somber throughout. It was a lot of good people with great energy who wanted to be there and thought we were making a good movie.
ES: Because of the subject matter, did you feel an added pressure to make the film work?
MG: I definitely wanted Chong’s approval, because it’s her story. I never wanted to approach it as an issue movie. I wanted to concentrate on the story and the characters, make it a movie that had this sort of drive. I wanted it to be, for lack of a better word, entertaining. I researched and I talked to Chong about how she felt in certain situations. My first goal was to make a good movie, and hopefully that will start a conversation.
ES: This seems like the beginning of a new era where female directors are being taken more seriously and being given more freedom as artists. This is also a great time for Seattle filmmaking, with 60 films playing at SIFF. How do you feel to be a part of this moment in history, both as a Seattle filmmaker and as a female filmmaker?
MG: I feel good (laughs). I think Seattle has been growing as a film community for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of the features at SIFF. They’re all over the map genre wise, tone wise, in what they’re trying to do. Seattle is really coming into it’s own right now. There’s not just a lot of movies being made here, there’s a lot of quality movies. A lot of working filmmakers in town happen to be women. There’s no gender bias here. That’s an incredible thing.