One of the most buzzed-about films at the Seattle International Film Festival is Eden, the newest film from local filmmaker Megan Griffiths. The Stranger even wrote, “if you miss it at SIFF, you’re an idiot.” The attention the film is getting is well-deserved. At a time when SIFF is showing almost seventy films from the Northwest and the most in its history, including its opening and closing night films, this is the very best film of that group.
Eden is based on the true story of Chong Kim, who was a teenager, holding a fake ID who, one night, flirted with the wrong guy in a uniform in a bar and found herself kidnapped and put in a sex-trafficking ring. It’s a compelling story brought to life by Griffiths’ film and the excellent actors, including Beau Bridges as a federal marshal who uses his occupation to provide cover for running the operation. The best performance, though, comes from Jamie Chung, an actress making her star turn in a riveting performance in the lead role. Having played smaller parts in films like The Hangover 2 and Sucker Punch, the role of Eden should be a starmaking portrayal.
The film was meticulously directed by Griffiths, who was best known for 2011 SIFF entry The Off Hours, a film set in a small town diner and based on the characters who come in and out of that diner. It’s a very good film held together by very strong performances and a flawless, moody cinematography from 2012 Mayor’s Award for Achievement in Film winner Benjamin Kasulke. But with Eden, Griffiths leaves little doubt that she’s one of the finest filmmakers in the Northwest right now.
Eden has one more screening at SIFF, on Tuesday, May 28 at the Everett Performing Arts Center at 8:30pm. If you haven’t yet seen it, it’s worth the trip to Everett.
The afternoon after Eden screened at SIFF for a sold out screening at the Egyptian Theater, I met Megan Griffiths at an Eastlake cafe to talk about the film, Jamie Chung’s incredible performance and what makes Seattle such a great place for independent cinema.
How did you get involved with Eden?
I had premiered The Off Hours at Sundance last year and I was literally at the Salt Lake Airport when I got an e-mail from Colin Plank, who is the producer of Eden. He had been developing it with a friend of his who is a screenwriter, Rick Phillips, for a couple of years already. He already had done some fundraising on it and already optioned the life rights for Chong Kim’s story that it was based on, so there was already a lot of work before I got involved. Colin gave me a hardcopy (of the script) when I got back to Seattle. I read it and basically came on as a writer first. I did a revision of the script and gave it back to Colin and said, “if this version is still something you want to produce, I’d love to direct it, and if not, no hard feelings and we can go our separate ways.” He loved the revision and we ended up starting off on a good foot because we both knew we were making the same movie and making it for the same reasons.
One thing I really loved about the film was that everything seemed to have been told through the Eden character’s eyes, or she’s involved in each scene.
That’s primarily true. There’s a few scenes where we go out and see Bob Gault’s (Beau Bridges) universe. She couldn’t be in those scenes because it wouldn’t have worked out, story-wise. We did want to show his world a little bit, so we had to break out of her perspective. But we did want to approach things very much from her perspective. We kept the camera work very subjective for the initial introduction to the new universe that she’s dropped into with the intention keeping the audience in her shoes and experiencing and thinking about how it’s affecting her.
Can you talk a little bit about how Jamie Chung became a part of the film? Her performance is a revelation.
We were going to down to LA to audition actors for that role. I knew that what was going to be the most important and challenging thing was to cast the lead because we wanted to keep to the fact that Chong is Korean American, but we didn’t want to limit the scope too much, so we opened the audition up to all Asian American actresses in LA and beyond. Jamie’s agent found the role and showed her the script and she got very attached to the idea of doing it. She wasn’t able to come to an audition in LA, so she flew herself to Seattle to audition for Colin and I. She blew us both away. She made a lot of amazing choices and was already so committed and already did so much research. She speaks Korean and she’s very smart and such a talented actress. She’s never had the opportunity, at least in the work I’ve seen, to flesh out a character like she did in Eden. She charted her trajectory very specifically in her prep, and then we got on set and she knew exactly where she was throughout the movie. Her chops blew me away on set, but even more so in the editing room when Eric (Frith), the editor, and I were crafting the film. We really had an appreciation from where she starts and where she ends. We shot out of sequence, it was all over the place, but she really mapped out well.
I thought her performance was what made the difference between the film being a great film instead of a very good film.
I appreciate that. I also appreciate the level of her performance and what she was able to do and what that meant for the film. The whole film rests on her and she’s able to carry it. She’s also surrounded by a lot of strong performances, but she’s the one who has to move things forward. It’s a very internal journey and that’s a very difficult thing to do and she did it well.
How much of the film was shot in Nevada, where it is set, versus Washington?
Just a couple (of scenes). We did two days of second unit work in Vegas. The one thing we don’t have in Washington is casinos on the Strip, so we did a lot of stuff without actors. A couple of days driving around in the van and shooting the van in those kind of environments. A few things to scatter throughout the film to set it in that recognizable universe, but everything with actors was shot in Washington. Central Washington was where we shot all of our exteriors because we have that desert region in the middle of the state that not a lot of people know about. It’s a good substitute for the Southwest, it’s very convincing. We held up pictures we had taken next to pictures of the Las Vegas area, Nevada and New Mexico and they were really indistinguishable.
We shot most of our interiors, and some of our exteriors, here in Seattle. Mostly the night exteriors. We had to just avoid trees. We basically had a “no green” policy. The most green you’ll see in the film was when we shot a condo in Vegas. There are palm trees, but also these luscious green trees. That almost could be Washington too!
Was the film slated to be shot in Washington before you came aboard?
Colin lives here as well, so he had been leaning that way. It’s not an intuitive choice to shoot it here because it’s a desert film. There are other places that have more deserts. We weren’t sure if we were going to secure funding through FilmWorks last year. They were being very careful about who they distributed funds to. If we hadn’t gotten some of those funds, we wouldn’t have been able to do it, because our budget was so stretched and we needed that to make it work. The real decision was made once we got the incentive secured, but the desire to shoot here was very much from the beginning. I’ve worked here a lot and I know a lot of people in the community and I made my film The Off Hours here. It was only possible because of the community spirit. That’s a different story, but the community made that film possible. I knew what crews are capable of when they come to the set and roll up their sleeves and do something for the passion of it, trying to make something great. It brings a new level of quality to the film that goes beyond the numbers in the budget. For me, that was the real reason I wanted to shoot here, so that I could have the people I knew and trusted surrounding me on set. It was really amazing to walk on set everyday and know everybody and feel like I was walking into a room full of my friends. They were all there to support me and do great work.
Watching both Eden and The Off Hours, I didn’t think that those films had too much in common. How was making Eden different from The Off Hours?
We had more tools available for Eden. It’s hard to say what’s different from my approach. The Off Hours was a script that I wrote and Eden was a script that I revised but didn’t originally write. I come into anything with a focus that it has to be on characters and relationships. In The Off Hours, the entire plot moves forward based on character motivations and small, incremental changes. In the world of Eden, it was an amazing plot that was built-in based on the story it was based on. My process was basically the same as The Off Hours, which was to track the characters and the relationships. I thought that it was very similar, but there was a structure built-in with Eden. It’s more action, plot-driven. What makes it feel like there’s a connection is that they focus on characters.
Right. Watching The Off Hours kind of reminded me of a Robert Altman film because it was about how each character’s lives interacted with one another, with one central character, who was the waitress in the diner.
I can see that. It all spans out from her. With The Off Hours, everything was very static and crafted.
There are a lot of really great films coming from Seattle right now, with a lot of great filmmakers, like yourself, Lynn Shelton and David Russo. More so than in recent memory, at least as far as I can remember. Is there something unique about Seattle as a film city?
There are great filmmakers, but if I had to pinpoint what’s the connecting thread between them, it’s just the crews. We have amazing crews because they’re not only skilled technicians but they’re good people who are in the business for the right reasons. You can’t work continuously in independent film if you don’t do it for the right reasons because it’s very difficult financially to make a living and it’s very long days. It can be unrewarding work in some less glorified parts of the film crew, less creative positions. In Seattle, we have such phenomenal people who come out time after time for all of these different films, at every different budget level, and give the same amount of hard work and passion. I’m a person who has worked here a lot, so I don’t have a strong basis for comparison but everyone I know who comes here to Seattle, like Matt Lillard has said this, that there is something special about Seattle that you don’t see everywhere.
Can we talk about the composers you worked with, Joshua Morrison and Jeramy Koepping? I’ve known their work for quite sometime as musicians, but not as film composers, but I think some of their very best work was done with your films.
It’s a great collaboration. When I first started trying to make The Off Hours, I was introduced to a guy who used to work at Barsuk and he was kind of directing me to musicians based on my taste. I’m obsessed with M. Ward. He’s one of my favorite musicians, and knowing I had that taste, he gave me Josh Morrison’s first album in 2006 or early 2007. I added it to my writing playlist. I always have a playlist that I’m listening to when I’m working on scripts. Josh became very engrained in that script. By the time we ended up making the film in 2010, I started associating him with that film. He was just finishing up, I think, his second tour in the Middle East. I sent the script to his manager at the time, and she forwarded it to him and he said he’d love to work on it. I knew he never did a score, but I figured his music would translate. When he came back, the first thing he did was sit down with me and when we met, he brought Jeramy Koepping along. He said “I’d love to include Jeramy in this. I think we’d be a good pair to do a score. He would bring another piece to the puzzle.” They did that score. I think we did it very nontraditionally. They would keep coming up with pieces and I would try them out in different places in the film. Sometimes I would ask for something slightly different or something completely new. We ended up with the score from The Off Hours, which is a little sparser than the Eden score. It fits the film very well. I had such a good experience with the two of them that when it came time to Eden, I asked if they wanted to work on it. It’s a completely different direction. They had done one piece for The Off Hours that led me to believe that they had more range than I had asked for, something more atmospheric for Eden. I asked them to do it and they jumped on it and said yes. They involved one other person, Matt Brown from Trespassers William. The three of them collaborated on the score. They started working on things while we were shooting and giving it to the editors. It wasn’t finalized until we were at the end of the mix, but we always had a working score throughout the whole process. I love it because music really shapes the scene in a lot of cases. It adds so much texture and atmosphere. Having it for all of the rough cuts and feedback screenings, it was really amazing. When we finalized everything, they went back and retracked everything and made sure it all fit. That’s the long answer.
What’s going to happen with Eden after SIFF?
We’re still trying to figure out where the international premiere is going to be. We’ve only played at two festivals, SXSW and SIFF. We’re seeking distribution, and that’s still in process. I’m waiting to find out, just like everybody else. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.