“I don’t think it’s possible to deny that there is sexism in this industry. I will say that I think sexism is often not a malicious thing, but rather a behavior that results from subconscious resistance to change. Those in power want to replace themselves with people who remind them of themselves, which probably has something to do with our innate desire for immortality.” MG
I went to see a film I’d heard great buzz about, Eden, on a random afternoon a couple of years ago at SIFF Uptown. Armed with a purseful of candy and zero expectations, I spent the next hour and a half so compelled by the story on the screen that I completely forgot about my purse candy, which is unusual for me since candy is actually pretty much my favorite thing (fat adult child in the HOUSE!). This was my first experience with the cinematic magic created by Megan Griffiths. My second was at a screening for Lucky Them at The Underwood Stables (R.I.P.). There I got to meet the congenial director in person and talk to her a little bit about films (second to candy, my most favorite thing of ever and always). She’s maybe definitely the coolest and every time I run into her and get to jibber jabber about movies with her it is an absolute pleasure. Her upcoming film, The Night Stalker, about serial killer Richard Ramirez, seemed a perfect reason for us to talk creepy movies, what’s next for her (and other local film-making badass Lynn Shelton!), and director crushes.
Can you share a little bit about your history with film and what made you decide to become a director?
I recently found a journal entry from October 1994 where I wrote something like “I will be a film director. I won’t try to do it. I will do it.” It was really surprising to see that, since I don’t have any recollection of writing it and always felt like my path to filmmaking was more of an organic progression. I was always a movie fan, and definitely remember having a moment when watching The Graduate on VHS in high school when it clicked for me that filmmaking was a job that people did and that perhaps it might be a job that I’d like to do myself. But the true shift must have happened sometime during my first semester in college because I started as a poli-sci major but ended the year in visual communications. And once I started taking film-related classes, it was over for me. I went to film school and then moved to Seattle and have worked in production ever since. I’m pretty bull-headed, as that journal entry might convey, so when I make a plan, I tend to see it through.
Your latest film, The Night Stalker, is about serial killer Richard Ramirez. What drew you to this story? Can you tell us a bit more about the project?
I grew up in southern California in the 80’s when Ramirez was all over the news. I went to bed every night terrified I’d wake up to find him standing at the foot of my bed. He was so brutal and so random–never the same place, never the same type of victim, never any rhyme or reason to his murders–he had the entire state living in fear. I got wind that there was a company that might finance a Ramirez story, so I set about crafting my take on it and things went from there. It’s a fictional story that incorporates factual details from Ramirez’s life and crimes. I had access to a great biography by Phillip Carlo and also spoke a lot with Gilbert Carillo, the detective who hunted and eventually caught Ramirez. Both were treasure troves of information, much of which is interwoven into the story of the film.
What are some of your favorite serial killer films and/or horror films?
I do have favorite horror films, but The Night Stalker is squarely in the psychological drama category. It’s in the world of Dead Man Walking and Capote and Zodiac, and of course, The Silence of the Lambs, which is pretty much the gold standard for the genre.
Are there any serial killers that have life stories that absolutely NEED to be made into films?
I don’t know that my knowledge of serial killers is exhaustive enough to answer this question. Ramirez was a prominent figure in my own life, and my fascination with him is very much related to his hold on my psyche as a child. But I am endlessly interested in figuring out what makes people tick. People, as damaged as serial murderers are baffling and therefore, riveting, subjects.
Your films so far have been mainly focused on female characters. Is ‘The Night Stalker’ a departure from that?
Not really. In the film, Ramirez faces off with a female attorney who has come to San Quentin to obtain a confession from him for a decades-old crime. The film is very much about both of these characters and their impact on each other. Her story is the driver of the film. I have been told that my genre is “damaged women” movies and I can’t say this really deviates from that category–it just happens to also feature a damaged dude.
How has your experience been as a woman in Film? We hear all of these stories about the sexist crap women have to deal with when trying to make films but how much of that is fact, in your experience? If that is how it still is, do you feel like the tides are beginning to turn?
I don’t think it’s possible to deny that there is sexism in this industry. I will say that I think sexism is often not a malicious thing, but rather a behavior that results from subconscious resistance to change. Those in power want to replace themselves with people who remind them of themselves, which probably has something to do with our innate desire for immortality. It takes a special effort for white men in power to 1) recognize their instinctual predisposition to see white males as the “norm”, and 2) fight that instinct in the interest of creating a more diverse industry. At the same time, we can’t just wait for other people to change. Ava DuVernay summed it up in her amazing keynote at SXSW last year: “Stop asking people who don’t care about the work and just do the work. If I look at television and I think something’s missing, then you have to go do the work. A lot of people talk and I try to act.”
Having seen a couple of your films, I like that one was a suspenseful drama and the other a romantic dramedy. Is there a particular genre that you gravitate towards or is mixing it up your jam?
I like trying out different genres. It keeps me engaged in the mechanics of the process and the incredible study of the language of film in all its many applications. For me, it’s all about whether there’s a character or a theme that grabs ahold of me. When you direct, you’re working on making one thing for a year or more and then working on putting it out into the world for years thereafter. So it has to be something with enough layers and complexity to keep you interested for a long-ass time.
If you could pull a Christopher Guest and choose a handful of actors for your “company” and feature them in all of your films, who would be in your company?
I’ll go with Sam Rockwell, Meryl Streep, Scoot McNairy, Nina Arianda, Lupita Nyong’o, Ben Mendelsohn and Jenny Slate.
What other directors do you admire? Who would you work with if you could?
I’m a huge Soderbergh fan. I love Lynne Ramsey, Steve McQueen, Andrea Arnold, Ava DuVernay, Nicole Holofcener, Sean Durkin. I just watched and completely loved Diary of a Teenage Girl, so my new director-crush is Marielle Heller.
What’s up next for you? What would be your dream project?
I have a couple things in the pipeline. I’m developing a half-hour comedy series for HBO with Lynn Shelton that I am super excited about. I have a few passion projects that I’m hoping to get off the ground in the next year as well. My dream project changes every five minutes, but as of right now it’s finding something involving all the people in my “company” from that question above! I want to watch that movie!!
So do I, Megan Griffiths, so do I.