TIME CAN GET away from you if you’re not careful. That’s the theme of Megan Griffiths’s second feature film, The Off Hours, but it could apply to her life, too. The Seattle writer and director spent seven years trying to scrounge up enough scratch to film her script about a rudderless waitress before shrinking her budget and enlisting the help of friends like local indie auteur Lynn Shelton. You’d never know by watching the carefully crafted character study that she had to scrimp, and the folks at Sundance and SIFF couldn’t tell either: The Off Hours screened at the former in January and hits the latter this summer.
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What I care about is characters. If I’m watching a film, it can have the most exciting plot in the world, but if there aren’t characters I can latch on to, it doesn’t work for me. On the flipside, if there’s a film that doesn’t have much going on but has people I want to watch, then I’d watch that movie first.
My biggest strength is understanding human behavior. I spend a lot of time—wherever I am, whatever I’m doing—observing people and taking mental notes, trying to understand why they do what they do and forming my own theories based on what I know about them.
If you cast the wrong person, it’s hard to get any kind of performance out of them. If you cast the right person, the job is 85 percent done.
You can sit in your apartment with a piece of paper and a pencil, and you can write. That’s a really inexpensive way to express yourself. But making a movie? Even at the very low end of the budget spectrum, it still costs more than a car. And that’s not the kind of money that starving artists have sitting around.
Someone who’s good at raising money for their film is able to talk about it as if it’s the most important movie that will ever be made. That’s something that doesn’t come that naturally to me.
The first screening at Sundance was really difficult. As soon as the first frame came up, I was like, “Uh-oh. It’s too dark.” It’s one of those things where I’ve seen it so many times that I know what it should look like and I know where there are details in the shadows that are important to me. So it was hard for me to watch it, because as soon as I had that in my head, I psyched myself out and thought, “It’s not going to work. People aren’t going to like it.” But at the end of the screening, people were like, “I didn’t notice it being dark. You’re crazy.” You’re so fraught with nerves. You just have no idea how this roomful of strangers and industry people are going to react.
It’s hard to be 100 percent confident about what you’re putting out there when you’re working in a creative field. It’s all so subjective. I would say I try to be decisive and confident, but inside you’re like, “Please like my movie.”
I am a big fan of the feedback process, though. I always say that’s the number-one thing I got out of film school: When you’re getting feedback, don’t defend yourself. Let everybody say what they’re going to say, instead of telling everyone why they’re wrong. I’ve been in some feedback screenings where the writer or the filmmaker will defend themselves the whole time, and you’re like, “Why am I even telling you this?”
If I had submitted my first rough cut to Sundance, it would have been a two-and-a-half-hour mess. I ended up cutting 50 scenes out of the film. Almost a third of what was in the script is not in the final cut. In the end, you want the film to work without having to sit there and explain it to people and tell them why this scene is here and why that scene is there and why these characters do what they do. It should stand alone.
I have this weird OCD mechanism where I really don’t like to start something until I’m finished with the preceding project. I think, in a way, that’s a really good thing, because there are a lot of people who don’t ever complete anything. Even if it takes me seven years to complete something, I’m going to do it. Eventually.
A friend of mine once said to me, “If you’re going to call yourself a filmmaker, eventually you have to make films.” Hearing that from him and then watching what Lynn Shelton’s been doing—where she’s been making movies and growing and learning—sort of inspired me to make The Off Hours, even though it didn’t happen in the way that I always thought it would.
It’s an ongoing challenge to figure out why, as a filmmaker, your voice is as important as everybody else’s.