“THE OFF HOURS” DIRECTOR MEGAN GRIFFITHS

Good things come to those who wait, as writer-director Megan Griffiths will attest. The debut feature from the Seattle-based filmmaker, The Off-Hours, was seven years in the making before it finally went into production last spring. Inspired by Griffiths’ own experiences working the night shift, this moody, atmospheric indie captures the lives of the people who frequent a diner in a nowhere truckstop town, including pretty young waitress Francine (Amy Seimetz), her foster brother Corey (Scoot McNairy), soft-spoken truck driver Oliver (Ross Partridge), and alcoholic diner owner Stu (Tony Doupe). There are also cameos from fellow directors Lynn Shelton (whose Humpday stormed Sundance in 2009, and who is a consulting producer on this film) and Calvin Reeder, who also has his first feature, The Oregonian, playing in Park City this January.

In addition to The Off-Hours, Griffiths has another film at Sundance this year as she is one of the producers of Todd Rohal’s The Catechism Cataclysm, which was shot in Seattle while The Off-Hours was in postproduction. Below, Griffiths tell Filmmaker about the arduous road she traveled before achieving this double success.

What drew you want to portray this night-time world? Was there a particular incident or situation that inspired you?

I worked the night-shift for a while and became really interested in the loneliness of that world. I started to wonder what drew people to this type of lifestyle and what kind of long term effects the isolation might have. I wouldn’t say there was one incident, but I definitely drew inspiration from people and events around me. The cook in the diner, Levi, was probably the character that was the most directly inspired by people I worked with. Levi is only ever seen in the kitchen of the diner–it’s as if he doesn’t exist outside that world. I felt this way about my co-workers. It became nearly impossible to imagine them functioning in any other environment.

From what I’ve read, you had to really be persistent and maintain your faith in this movie. Am I right that it took about seven years to finally come to fruition?

I wrote the first draft of the script in 2003 and continued writing for several years. Initially, I was working the night shift, then a day job, and eventually I began freelancing in production, and all the while I would work on new drafts of the script whenever possible. The title began to take on a whole new significance, because the project quite literally came together in my off hours. Once the script was ready, I teamed up with there three amazing Seattle women who I met working in production–Lacey Leavitt, Joy Saez, and Mischa Jakupcak. We began forming our business plan and went into a development phase where we raised some seed money, hired a casting director and set about to attach some name talent to the film. We spent about a year setting up the project in this kind of traditional model before the economy completely collapsed.

We tried valiantly to gain back the momentum by re-envisioning the production in various ways, but it wasn’t until we really stepped back and approached the project from an entirely new perspective that we finally were able to get it made. We suddenly realized that because of the relationships we had formed over the years and the enormous amount of community support we had built up in Seattle, we had everything we needed to make the film happen, so we greenlit ourselves.

It took many years of heartbreaking starts and stops before we were finally able to reach what, in the end, felt like a very natural decision. And once we started that ball rolling, everything just came together beautifully and with an ease that we never experienced at any other point in the project’s long history. And all along I’ve been surrounded by this same incredible team of producers, who have remained committed to the project for the past four years.

How did the film come together finally?

As I mentioned, we just stopped asking and starting doing. My first phone call was to Amy Seimetz, who I had been introduced to (via email and phone) by my friend Lynn Shelton a few months earlier after I saw Amy in Alexander the Last. I had given Amy the script and started talking to her before this, but one day I just called and said, “What does your schedule look like in April/May?” When she said she was available, that’s the moment I called my producers and said “Okay, we can do it–we have Francine.” After that I approached Tony Doupe, a Seattle actor I have known for years and have great respect for, then Ross Partridge, then Scoot McNairy, and on down the cast list.

What was the importance of the Seattle film community to this film? (Was the success of Humpday an inspiration?)

I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say that the Seattle film community is the reason this film even exists at all. I have been working in Seattle for about a decade and it’s truly an amazing place to make film. There is so much community support, from the film office and incentive program, from vendors, from locations, and most of all from fellow filmmakers and crews. This community has so much pride in the good work that comes out of Seattle, and they will rally around worthy projects in a way that is just beautiful to behold. And they have a lot to be proud of this year, with four Washington films showing at Sundance and several more amazing projects just waiting to have their premieres elsewhere. Humpday was most certainly an inspiration. I worked in a few small ways on Humpday and had the pleasure of attending several festivals with the Humpday team in 2009. Watching that movie succeed was such a pleasure, because I knew the whole team behind it and they have all put so much time and support into so many projects–success really could not have graced a more worthy group of people. Also, at that point I had spent years and years trying to make The Off Hours using a very traditional model, so getting a close up view of the realities of the marketplace was very eye opening. It really reset my views on how we should go about making the film. And of course Lynn Shelton (who is not only in the film, but is also a consulting producer) has always been such an enthusiastic supporter of the project and when I told her we were moving forward, she just threw herself into helping make it happen.

The look and sound of the film – Ben Kasulke’s great cinematography and the evocative music of Joshua Morrison and Jeramy Koepping – are a huge part of the DNA of The Off Hours. Can you talk about their contributions.

All of these guys played a huge part in the film’s overall feel. Ben Kasulke has a great deal of technical skill that he rarely has the opportunity to showcase in the way that he does inThe Off Hours.There is no DP who is more respectful of the performers on set than Ben. In improvised, two-camera films, the look of the film is usually secondary to capturing real and powerful moments from the performers–that’s just the nature of working in that style and it’s as it should be.

With this project, because it was a scripted film and we chose to shoot with a single camera, Ben was really able to work with the gaffer and key grip and truly craft each frame. I felt we really found an excellent balance between spending time on technical elements and performance. While on the subject of the film’s look, I feel like I should mention the work of our production designer Ben Blankenship and his team. Something that’s not obvious when watching the film is that almost every location we used for this production started out as a blank canvas–the living spaces were all white-walled, empty apartments and the diner was closed and gutted of all booths, dishware…it didn’t even have a kitchen! Ben Blankenship and the rest of our art department brought an incredible amount of texture and character into each space. Ben also brought in the idea of a color scheme for each character, which Rebecca Luke, the costume designer, also implemented through the clothing of the characters. The cohesive color pallette and feel of all the spaces is a huge element of the look of the film, and gave Ben Kasulke and his team so much to work with once the cameras were rolling.

Joshua Morrison is a singer/songwriter I was introduced to several years ago in the early days of development on The Off Hours by our music supervisor Van Riker. I really love Josh’s music and when we decided to move forward with the film this year I called his manager Lynn Resnick to see if he might have any interest in film scoring. Lynn sent Josh the script and he really responded to it and wanted to do it. I should mention that Josh was in Abu Dhabi at the time, serving his final tour as a medic and green beret in the Army. Josh returned to Seattle in May, just as we were finishing the shoot, and began to work on the score immediately. We took an unconventional approach to scoring–Josh and Jeramy Koepping (his collaborator on the score) would watch cuts of the film and spend days playing and recording music together, then hand over a CD full of new tracks. I’d throw them into the cut and ask for small adjustments as necessary, but we never did a tracking session or anything like that. It felt very organic, and Josh and Jeramy were amazingly instinctive about knowing what worked for the film. I was consistently impressed by how perfectly the tracks matched the tone, and how much they enhanced the mood and emotion of the story.

Were there difficulties that arose out of the movie being set almost entirely at night?

We had a lot of night shoots–probably about half the shoot. That’s never easy, but I actually thought it helped everyone get more familiar with the world of the film. Ultimately I think it helped our performances across the board (cast as well as the crew and myself) because we were able to become a part of that night-shift culture and really bring out the specific feel of that world.

You and your producing partner Lacey Leavitt also produced The Catechism Cataclysm for Todd Rohal, which is also in Sundance this year. Do you think there’s a reason that everything is coming right for you now?

I like this question, because I really do feel like things came together in my world this year. I spent the entire year working only on excellent projects (three others besides my own–The Catechism Cataclysm as a producer, Late Autumn as a 1st AD, and Lynn’s Shelton’s untitled new project as a production supervisor) and even before the Sundance news 2010 felt like the most rewarding year of my career. I’ve worked in a lot of different capacities on a lot of different films over the years and put so much time and creative energy into other people’s projects, and it’s really an incredible feeling to feel that energy coming back and have my own work be rewarded in such a public way.

You have been a longtime advocate of green filmmaking. How easy was it to make The Off Hours on a tight budget and make it an environmentally friendly production?

I’ve always been frustrated at the amount of waste that occurs in the world of production.The Off Hours producers and our costume designer Rebecca Luke and I have been strategizing for years about how to run our set in a more environmentally and socially responsible fashion. Production is interesting, because even otherwise “green” people who want to make good decisions usually won’t go out of their way to do it if the infrastructure’s not there. If it’s not really thought out in advance by the production and set up so that recycling your old schedule is just as easy as throwing it in the trash, people aren’t going to do it. When it came down to making this film, we talked to every department and really sought out responsible solutions. And I’d say in the majority of cases, the sustainable solution was less expensive as well. The prime example of this would probably be our partnership with Goodwill Industries, who allowed our art and costume departments to borrow furniture, props, clothing, etc from their stores and use it for the production, then return it at wrap. This saved the production a huge amount of money, while also serving as a great overall recycling of materials. We did the same thing with needed building materials through other organizations in Seattle. We also got an amazing donation of water bottles and coffee mugs from a Seattle-based company called Vessel, which cut down on our waste and also allowed us to get our water in bulk (which we did through another Seattle company called Custom Pure).

Finally, what are your hopes and/or expectations for Sundance?

I’ve started saying that I’m setting my expectations low and my hopes high. Of course I’d love to have both movies received well and be able to get them to a wider audience. I already feel like I’ve accomplished so much by just finally getting The Off Hours made after so many years of struggle. Sundance is such an amazing affirmation that all the years of work were worth it.