While dad's off at war, home becomes the battlefield.
Although it took almost a decade to leap from the page to the screen, Megan Griffiths' feature, Sadie, both a coming-of-age story and something much darker and frighteningly complex, has to be considered a pleasing result. Telling the story of a young teen living in a Seattle-based trailer park who longs for her military father serving overseas, the film provides equal attention to the internal needs of its characters—Sadie needs a father figure, but certainly not the questionable men her mother (played by Melanie Lynskey ) brings home—and the external concerns the setting (and the current political triggers of our country, really) provide—Opoid addiction and mental health issues are but two of the underlying factors the film posits.
As our title character grows equally curious and territorial against a new neighbor (played by Tony Award winner John Gallagher Jr.) who takes a liking to her mother, the film, rather than turning its back on Sadie's manifesting grief, expands on it twofold. After its world premiere at SXSW 2018, No Film School spoke with Griffiths about the filmmaker's family background, the film's long road toward production, directing young actors to perform sensitive material, and the film's inventive use of sound design.
No Film School: Rather than ask how the story for this film came to be, I wanted to ask how the lives of your friends and family served as an influence? I've read that your friend was an "army brat" growing up and that your mother was a social worker who worked with children.
Megan Griffiths: My best friend's dad was a lieutenant colonel in the Army growing up, and there was also a number of military men in my mom's wing of the family. My grandfather on my mom's side and I think, at least three, if not four, of my six uncles, were in the military.
What had even more of a bearing on this story was my mom, a social worker whose specialty was dealing with children of abuse, including sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. She worked in that field for almost her entire career. She was a very empathetic person and was able to deal with a lot of dark subjects over the course of her every day at work. Even so, she'd still come home and create a happy home life for us.
Even though she dealt with some of the worst aspects of society on a daily basis, my mother was able to raise my sister and I with a great deal of positivity, hope, and empathy. That was a big part of how I was shaped as a storyteller, and I always consider myself an empathy-driven filmmaker. I try to approach all of my characters with a great deal of empathy and understanding. I approach film, in general, with the goal of understanding people that I might not naturally understand or even gravitate to. I want to see a life other than my own, as I try to understand the choices that other people make.
"'We got a lot of people saying, "We don't want to finance a movie that stars children but is made for adults.'"
NFS: Your screenplay had been in development for a long while. What prompted it to finally go into production?
Griffiths: It was a long process. I started writing this script in 2009, and so it's almost coming up on a decade now. When we shot it, it had been a good seven-years-plus [in dvelopment], and it was not an easy movie to get made. We got a lot of people saying, "We don't want to finance a movie that stars children but is made for adults." There's a lot of preconceptions about what's marketable and what people are interested in seeing—even if I think that's being blasted apart these days—that have existed for a long time. We battled throughout the entire process of trying to get this movie financed and made, and [that's not easy, for women's stories, especially.]
We took the film to the Sundance Creative Producing Lab, the Rotterdam Co-Production Lab, and IFP's No Borders market. We talked to a lot of different companies and financiers over the years, and what ultimately pushed us into production was, number one, that I was like, "I need to make this movie now." Over the years, I had been really wanting to contribute to the conversation around kids and violence, and this movie felt like the way I could do that.
I just kept coming back to it, really wanting to get it made, and I came to a point in 2016 where I said, "I have a window. Melanie Lynskey has a window (she had been attached for a couple of years at that point), and so let's just find the perfect cast for this movie. Let's create this great ensemble and make it for whatever we can pull together." Producer Jennessa West jumped on board to join Lacey Leavitt, who had been a producer on the project for years, and then Eliza Shelden, our executive producer, became our sole financier and put that final, vital piece into place.
NFS: At several points throughout the film, we hear voiceovers of the letters Sadie has been writing to her father. How did that narrative device enhance this story?
Griffiths: Well, there are two reasons that I liked it for this story. When you're a young film student, they're always like, "Don't use voiceover. Don't use flashbacks.” There are all of these overused tropes, and for me, the reason I ignored that for this film and chose to keep it in there was number one: Sadie is a very closed character. She's very guarded with everybody in her life, and I thought that the letters were our only opportunity to get an idea of what actually goes on in Sadie's mind. It gives us a more vulnerable, emotional view of her.
The other factor was that I always considered this movie to be a war movie with a different focus, focusing on the people at home and the soldier being a young girl in this case, with her battlefield being the trailer park. Getting ready for the film and watching war movies, I noticed that letters to home were an urgent part of so many of them. It just felt like an appropriate thing to flip around, having it be letters to the battlefront that her dad is on from her own battlefront at home.
"We shot this film at a trailer park full of all kinds of people, some of whom brought us cookies and were wonderful and welcoming, and others whom were dealing with substance abuse issues; it was a wide spectrum of humanity."
NFS: The film has a rustic quality to its mise en scène, at times feeling like a neverending junkyard with bodies of cars lined up and smushed on top of one another. There's a cloying presence of endless clutter all around Sadie's friends and family. Was this something you had to work on with your Production Designer?
Griffiths: Definitely. I worked with my Production Designer and Location Manager to find those spaces, and then to also dress those spaces in the right way to represent the characters and what's going on in their minds (and the part of society that they exist in). Our cultural perception of trailer parks is that they are places where people end up rather than places where people choose to live.
We shot this film at a trailer park full of all kinds of people, some of whom brought us cookies and were wonderful and welcoming, and others whom were dealing with substance abuse issues; it was a wide spectrum of humanity. It felt like a transitory space, appropriate for my characters and especially for the character of Cyrus who is in such an unsettled part of his life.
Regarding the junkyard, I love the image of cars stacked up like bodies or whatever. I think that's really interesting and not something I had intended, but I love that you came up with that image. For me, it was this space that these children are finding to play in that has so many weird, hidden dangers and is so antithetical to the playgrounds, woods, and fields we think of as being places where children play. It felt like an appropriate space for them to exist in.
NFS: And regarding that physical space (or the primary setting, really), how did you find and spatially map out the trailer park where Sadie and her mother live?
Griffiths: One of the other big driving forces to having it be in a trailer park was that I wanted to talk about something very large but then focus it way down into a very small microcosm.
The microcosm isn't only this trailer park in a small Washington town, but rather also this one cul-de-sac of this trailer park in this small Washington town. They all live near each other and their path to school-and-back and to the hospital where they work is well-trodden. This is the universe in which these characters exist. The smaller their universe was (and the larger of a story I could fit into it), the more universal it would feel.
NFS: While the trailers our main characters reside in are rather tight quarters, the sound design is used to subtly convey the world outside. The not-too-distant sound of helicopters, trains, and pouring rain are heard rattling outside Sadie's trailer, and I was wondering how you played with sound as a means to enhancing the physical space?
Griffiths: Because these trailers were paper thin, you could really hear everything inside of them. That a part of the characters' lives that I wanted to make sure was in the film, and there's a lot of an outside world penetrating their internal world conversations. I worked with a company in Seattle called Bad Animals for the sound mix, and they helped me layer in a bed of war sounds throughout the film.
The most obvious place where this is apparent is at the beginning when the title cards are coming up over the black, and you hear gunfire, and helicopters, and bomb sounds. That then gives way to the soundtrack, that rain and thunder, which sounds similar. Later throughout the movie in specific places (where it felt thematically appropriate), we would try to use those same kinds of sounds in subtle ways, whether it be a helicopter flying overhead, or, in one case, where we actually had a bomb drop sound happening that really worked into the soundtrack. This underlies all of the thematic stuff about war and battle that this character is going through.
"If an actor feels like they have something else to give, I never want to pull the rug out from under them."
NFS: Without spoiling too much, Sadie is a very complex character, and the actress embodying her, Sophia Mitri Schloss, is asked to take quite a few risks, both dramatically and physically. Does your directing style change when working with younger actors who have to perform sensitive material?
Griffiths: I think my role changes a little bit with any actor because I'm always changing my approach to accommodate what they respond to best. The through line is that I always want to create a safe environment on a set because I want them, even in scenes that are not incredibly difficult or challenging, to be open and vulnerable and not think about some odd tension they're experiencing on set. I want them to have the feeling that they can give themselves over and trust me, allowing exciting things to happen. The most exciting things happen when an actor is really in the moment and unguarded. I always try to create that environment.
I worked with Sophia much differently than I worked with Keith L. Williams, who plays Francis. They are different ages and they're different styles of performers. Probably the two most different performers of anybody in this movie were those two, and they had so many scenes together.
Like you said, Sophia had some really challenging scenes to pull off, and I wanted to make sure she felt like she could do it. She felt comfortable and safe, and I gave her the space to get to where she needed to get to. I never wanted to be in a place where we had five minutes to get the scene. I always allocated more time for those scenes so that we had time to "get there" and I would always offer an extra take or two to the actors if they didn't feel like they were "there" yet, even if I personally felt it was something wonderful.
If an actor feels like they have something else to give, I never want to pull the rug out from under them. I would always love to see what that is, and so I allow it whenever possible. It's hard to do that on a movie starring kids that's shot in 19 days (and that follows the specific hours that kids are permitted to work). It's really limiting, but we tried to allow for as much space for them to really deliver the performances they and I each wanted them to give.
NFS: You've been working on this film for nine years and it came together when, in 2016, you felt it was kind of ready to go into production. Having now gone through the experience, do you feel directors should always trust their instincts and "go for it" when they spot a window of opportunity?
Griffiths: It's funny because I probably would have felt like it was the right time to make this at any given point throughout those previous nine years, but I do feel like now, when we actually made it, [was the right time]. It was right after the presidential election, and that was another factor in our desire to get the film made. We had received this huge gut punch of what we had just done as a country and we felt a renewed drive to make things that felt political and substantive and that resonated. We wanted to do something that contributed to all of the really important conversations that were going on. That made us all say, no matter what budget we get for this project, now is the right time to make it.
The film is trying to say things about kids and violence and how this constant exposure of violence is affecting their ability to problem-solve, to discern between right and wrong, and their ability to see other people as human beings and the value of other people's lives. These things are building up in our world right now and the film felt like all I could do.
"It's a movie about people that you can relate to, and ultimately it says something about this big cultural issue."
As a person, I can vote and I can protest, but as a filmmaker, I have this avenue to talk about things in a way that hopefully more people will see. It's a movie about people that you can relate to, and ultimately it says something about this big cultural issue. That's what pushed us, and I do feel like it's a more resonant movie because of when it was made and released. It all came back to it being made at the right time, and yet ironically I wanted to make it the entire time I was trying to get it made. It's hard to imagine that I wouldn't have felt that way at any given point.
Right now, the film does feel all the more relevant because of everything that's going on in our culture (not to mention what just happened in Parkland, Florida), with all of these kids taking the power back and changing the course of our country. It just feels like a good time to have it out there.