Catching Up With Megan Griffiths and Emily Wachtel on Lucky Them

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One of the highlights of the Tribeca Film Festival this year was the world premiere of Lucky Them starring Toni Colette, Thomas Haden Church and Oliver Platt (and a surprise guest star, but more on that later). The film follows Colette’s Ellie, a music writer, and her attempts to find a legendary lost Seattle rocker—one who happened to have been the love of her life as well. “Ellie” shares some biography with Emily Wachtel, who was a producer and screenwriter on the film. It’s directed by former Paste Movies writer Megan Griffiths. The pair joined us by phone recently on the eve of the film’s premiere.

Paste: I loved the movie; I thought it was a great ride. Great performances, really well written. So why don’t we start there, with the writing of the film?

Emily Wachtel: It started as a reality TV show called Off the Record that Caroline Sherman, who is someone I grew up with, and I had started. It’s been a long journey! The journey is like the movie, it’s meandering. Luckily along the way, I bumped into Colin Trevorrow. He loved the film and wanted to make sure that it got made. We talked about several different directors, and then he called and it was a definitive, “You have to use Megan Griffiths.” He said, “If you use her, I will consult.” He was very adamant that I meet her. He said, “Her movies are nothing like this movie, but I think if you meet her, you will understand why.” So I spoke to Megan on the phone, and indeed she did live up to his phrase. And then we flew out there and met Megan and the rest of the crazy crew in Seattle. We merged New York and Seattle into one big tribe.

Once we saw Seattle, I realized it was a great place to film because the world for the film would be bigger in a smaller city, whereas in New York the world of the film would be smaller. But upon meeting Megan, she just had such a great take on the script and we immediately started adapting it to Seattle. I will say this, everyone during the shooting was like, “Is it weird that it’s not New York and it’s Seattle?” And the truth is it wasn’t, because the emotional through line of the story was there. So there was literally nothing weird about it.

Megan Griffiths: I think we just hit our two-year anniversary from that first phone call. I met with Colin during the Seattle International Film Festival, which is going on right now, and it was during his screening of Safety Not Guaranteed that we were sitting together and he had that same sort of like, “You know what, you would be really good for this movie.” I think that was just about two years ago.

Wachtel: It just wound up being like a battery. We were a positive and a negative and it just somehow worked.

Paste: Emily, tell me about, emotionally, the process of taking someone that you didn’t have a longstanding relationship with, however well you got along from the beginning, and were convinced she was the right person. It had to be pretty emotional.

Wachtel: Of course it was. It was like being shoved out of an airplane. But the thing, what Megan did, which was amazing, was when we first started working on the script, Megan said right out of the chute, “I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you to have to start working with me.” And somehow by saying that, it was just like a deep breath. So she addressed it, and then it was fine. I think the more we worked together, the more we got on to each other’s vibe. It’s like a band. The more I played, she played and we found our melody.

Paste: Megan, this is the first thing that you directed that you didn’t write. So tell me about having that feeling of wanting to be true to what brought you to the project and your visions for it, but you also want to be true to what someone has originated and has spent nine or ten years to get to this point.

Griffiths: Exactly. There’s some parallels with Eden, but it’s such a different animal that it’s hard to compare the two. The fact that they’re both based on true stories, although this one is much more of a semi autobiographical situation. Eden is such a specific experience that one person had that most people have no idea, but Emily’s experience I think is much more universal.

Wachtel: Just to interject for a second. We had a lot of emotionally revealing discussions during the writing of it. I would say, “This is like this or this is like that,” and Megan heard it and understood it. The give and take of that was interesting. It was like therapy.

Griffiths: These characters are created by Emily and she knew them backwards and forwards. She was there, you know, at every moment to look out for her creations. I’m obviously a very character driven director. That’s kind of my first priority. So it was really nice to have someone else there with me, protecting the people and making sure we were drawing real people who felt true to what she set out to do.

Wachtel: And honestly, if Megan felt strongly about something that I didn’t agree with, I would listen to her and I think vice versa. We were very sensitive to the other one, which can be challenging, but I think we found our footing.

Paste: There was also another name that leapt out at me that seemed to have been an early champion of the film. Tell me about the Joanne Woodward connection.

Wachtel: I grew up with their daughter, Claire Newman, my whole life. So I grew up with the Newmans as guardian/godparents type of thing. Paul [Newman] had watched me struggle as an actress, and actually one time he said, “Have you ever written a part that is close to you,” because he thought I was funny. I don’t know if he was laughing at me or with me. (Laughs) I never got the answer. But he read the script and he loved it. He sent it to actors initially to read, with a letter from Paul Newman. I was very lucky that he got people to read it. And then when he passed away, Joanne was very clear that she was onboard. It’s so lovely because they have been parents to me in so many ways. And not in the way that you’d think. It was very bohemian, hippie and cultured. I was very blessed, and I didn’t know it. But she’s very proud of this movie and the way that it came together. I don’t want to get all spiritual, but I really feel like the ghost of Paul has helped with this and the real Joanne has been a driving force. Sweat equity we call it.

Paste: Megan, in your previous films, especially the last two films, you had Amy [Seimetz] as your lead at the beginning of her feature film-leading career. And then Jamie [Chung] was certainly no stranger to the camera, but in Eden I think you showed everybody a completely new side of her. So tell me about coming in and working with two people like Toni [Collette] and Tom [Church], who not only are very familiar faces but also each of them have really strong identities as actors in all of our minds. So what was it like to work with that for a change rather than having this clay and being able to mold it into what you want the audience to see?

Griffiths: We were in really good hands with those two as our leads in this movie. Getting people like Toni [Collette] and Tom [Church] in the lead roles of this film made my life pretty pleasurable on the set. You know, we didn’t get a whole lot of rehearsal time. We had a little bit of time to prep, shoot, sit down and really talk about the characters. Tom had been talking about this character with Emily for six years at that point. And Toni had kind of just jumped onboard but had such a sense of who the character was and a real understanding of where she was in her life. So it just became a matter of details and nuance when we got on set and then protecting them in the editing room.

In any movie you get the performances on set that you think you need, and then you walk in the editing room and you really craft it there. You showcase their performance to the best light and in the best interest of the movie. I’m a huge advocate of protecting your actors and making them look good, because all that does is make me look good. So we just really carved away and found the best moments of both of their performances. We had a really strong cast all around, down to the small supporting roles. We armed ourselves well on this one.

Paste: The environments do feel very lived in. It felt very much like a Seattle movie. Walk me through the production design and creating that lived in feeling.

Griffiths: Well we worked with this production designer named John Lavin, who is awesome and has been a Seattle resident for many many decades. He was really committed to layering in a lot of Seattle history into each of the sets. I’m very much about texture in the production design and trying to get lots of levels going on beyond what’s happening with the actors. Anything that contributes to the authenticity in a movie is good. Frida Clements does a lot of band posters in Seattle. Jeff Kleinsmith, who is the main poster designer for Sub Pop, contributed also to the posters that are in Ellie’s basement. Just a lot of true historical stuff. Sub Pop contributed a lot of real mementos that are sitting in Giles’ office.

Wachtel: There’s also a picture of Paul Newman and Keith Richards in Giles’ office, but you don’t really see it.

Griffiths: Just trying to make sure we were representing the history of this city but also the current music scene. So I thought John and his team really killed it, getting all that stuff.

Paste: What I think is really cool about the Seattle scene is there’s a cohesion where you all are friends with each other, you all work together, a lot of you share a similar sensibility. There seems to be an identity to the Seattle film scene.

Wachtel: The thing about Seattle that was so interesting to me, if you work in film there, you work in film there. Everybody does different jobs, everybody pitches in. In New York or LA, everyone is just walking around with a script or trying to get an audition. Everybody multitasks there [in Seattle], and of course that’s what you have to do to get a film done. I feel like everybody doesn’t know that that’s the way to do it. It was a phenomenal education. And of course I love the city because my dreams came true there.

Griffiths: I think that sort of collaborative spirit and egoless approach is pretty prevalent in Seattle. I think it’s the same in the music scene. I think it’s just something about people that gravitate to the Northwest and sort of the speed of life and the style of life that people are seeking out when they come here. They seem to really value the quality of life that can come with really investing in what your doing for a living. And so the people that are populating the sets of mine and everybody else out here are people who are showing up to make a great movie. They’re not showing up to get a paycheck. They’re showing up to be a part of an experience and be part of something that they are proud of.

Wachtel: When I started out 12 years ago, I had big dreams of how this movie would be and how it would be cast and stuff. It was hard, with what little money we had to get other people to see that, and Megan did. It was nice to meet someone that thought as big as I did, because you have to when you’re starting out you know.

Griffiths: I don’t understand the idea of underselling your own product. Why not aim high always? Let me tell you something about Emily too. In our very first phone conversation she said to me, “I think the perfect person to play Matthew Smith is Johnny Depp. Don’t you think?” And I said, “Sure!” He is perfect for it. There really isn’t anyone in the world better for the role. But it just seemed so impossible to even dream that that would happen, and Emily is the kind of person that’s like “Yeah okay, well let’s make that happen.” Even I had my doubts that that one would happen. Emily’s tenacity and her vision for the potential of this film and what it could be, her driving force without listening to any naysayers is pretty admirable I have to say. It’s a huge part of why this movie even happened.

Wachtel: It’s either tenacity or stupidity. (laughs)

Paste: Well I’m glad that it got made. Tell us about where people can go to find out about screening near them, or Facebook pages, Twitter feeds. How can people support the film?

Griffiths: IFC is releasing it. It comes out May 30th in New York on VOD and also gets released theatrically in LA the following week and a series of other cities in the coming weeks including Seattle, Denver, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia and will hopefully keep expanding outwards from there. I think all of that is on IFC’s Lucky Them website. We’re also a part of the Summer Indie Movie Challenge and there’s a Tumblr page for that.