Filled with humor, pathos and music, Lucky Them is Megan Griffiths’ fourth feature. Written by Emily Wachtel and Huck Botko, this understated indie dramedy charmed audiences at TFF 2014. Reminiscent of movies like Almost Famous and Velvet Goldmine, Lucky Them follows one journalist who goes on a quest to uncover the truth behind a rock mystery only to find herself.

Toni Collette gives a revelatory performance as Ellie Klug, a world-weary music critic stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of one-night stands and morning hangovers. She is dragged into searching for her long lost boyfriend who was also a rock god by her demanding editor who cares only about his magazine’s circulation numbers.  As she dredges up her past, Ellie struggles to hang on.

We spoke to director Megan Griffiths about the film, about her decision to moving the setting from New York to Seattle, and about why you should never turn down a job on a film set.

Tribeca: Lucky Them is your fourth feature about a damaged female protagonist. How important is it for female stories to be told? Why does it seem that they are being told almost exclusively by independent filmmakers?

Megan Griffiths: That’s so funny. Someone told me recently that my genre was damaged women movies. I thought that was really funny because I’d never really pinpointed it. I just respond to complicated characters. Plus, I feel a little more qualified to deal with female protagonists, and I naturally sort of gravitate in that direction.

I think there are a lot of female stories that don’t get told; sadly, that’s just the way things work in this business. Given the current cinematic landscape, I feel very grateful we were able to make Lucky Them. Ellie, played by Toni Collette, is a great non-traditional female character. She’s forty, stays out late, and doesn’t want commitment or children. She’s flawed, but that’s what makes her relatable and interesting.

I know so many people like Ellie in my life, but I don’t see very many of them on screen. It felt so good to portray that type of person. So many people have come up to me after the movie to tell me that they relate so much to her.

I think it’s important to understand how to approach different movies and the different film language that you’d use. You can’t apply the same rules to every script.

Tribeca: Lucky Them is the first movie you’ve directed that you haven’t co-written, as well. What were your first reactions to reading the script, and can you talk a little bit about working with Emily Watchel?

MG: Emily and I attacked the script together, after I came on as the director. I’m very character-based in response to script and film.  I ask, “Is there a character who’s meaty and complex?” That’s what really gets me interested in something. In this script, I loved the Ellie character. I felt like she existed in my universe. I felt like I recognized so many of the people in the script from my everyday life.

I knew that if I had that experience, other people would too. I also knew that, at the time that I read it, Thomas Haden Church was attached to play Charlie. I totally loved that character on page, but knowing that Tom would be playing him just made Charlie so much better. He just has such a specific brand of humor. I was so excited to be his director and be involved in the mix.

Tribeca: I know the film originally was supposed to take place in NYC, but Emily agreed to move the location to Seattle after you came on board. Can you discuss the change?

MG: My friend, Colin Trevorrow, who directed Safety Not Guaranteed, made the introduction and everything happened very quickly. He showed me the script and got me on the phone with Emily. I knew there wasn’t a giant budget, so I immediately proposed Seattle as a location because I knew that we could take the budget a lot further in Seattle than we could in New York. Emily told me that she and the other producers had already been talking about shifting it out of New York for budgetary reasons, so she was really open to that idea.

It was really admirable how open she was to making the changes because she’d been living with the script for like a decade. It had always been in her head in a very specific way.

Tribeca: I couldn’t help but think of Eddie and the Cruisers, another film about the search for a lost music icon while I was watching Lucky Them. Were there other sort of works—film or music-wise—that you looked to for inspiration?

MG: It’s funny. I do tend to watch a lot of reference movies when I’m getting ready—other films of the actors I’m working with, and then films in whatever genre. I have never seen Eddie and the Cruisers so I don’t know the connection there.

Tribeca: Oh, it’s so good!

MG: I should totally watch it! One movie that’s come up a lot is Velvet Goldmine, which I revisited for the movie. It has a search for a lost musician, Toni Collette, and a bunch of other connections. I also was watching a lot of rock documentaries to immerse myself in the music world. I went to some live shows too, because they are a huge part of the film.

Tribeca: The heart of the film is Ellie’s search for Matthew Smith. How difficult it is to create a fictional rock legend (obviously in the vein of Kurt Cobain or Elliot Smith) who would inspire this search? How did you decide on and create the music?

MG: We had various reference points for who he was in the world, but we didn’t necessarily focus it on one person. We wanted to create someone who was a kind of cultural touchstone around whom people could place their own history. We made the decision to never show a picture of him. That wasn’t just about letting the suspense build over the course of the movie; it was also about not being too specific as to his impact on Ellie and on the industry.

There’s only one song in the film that was supposed to be by Matthew Smith—it’s by a Seattle artist named Damien Jurado.  The song that was perfect for the film so it was an easy choice.

Tribeca: I thought Toni Collette was just fabulous in the role of Ellie, and it was nice to see her sexy side in full display.  Can you talk about how she came onto the project?

MG: Sure. She was someone that we were talking about early on in the process. It’s really hard to find a person who when you say “Toni Collette” they don’t say, “Oh, I love her!” People just really respond to her.

I’ve been a fan of hers since Muriel’s Wedding. We sent her a script through her agency—which is my agency too—and she just really responded to it, I think because there are a lot of similarities between her and her character. She’s married to a younger musician herself, and she’s very interested in music. I think she felt like this kind of role isn’t something she gets to do very often.

Once she got the script and read it, she was in. She came to Seattle, and we had preliminary conversations about who Ellie was, what she wore and really created her character together. Toni is such a pro. I was a fan before I started working with her, and then on set, I was just sort of blown away by what she would deliver and the depth of her performance. In the editing room, my admiration for her just grew throughout the whole process. If we ever needed anything, I could always go back to the footage and find it. Toni would always provide so many different options and so many different subtle changes.  She allowed us to shape the movie so specifically.

In the editing room, my admiration for Toni Collette just grew throughout the whole process. If we ever needed anything, I could always go back to the footage and find it. 

Tribeca: How did Ryan Eggold come aboard the project? Did he write his songs as well as perform them in the film?

MG: He did! It’s kind of a funny story. I don’t know how much he likes it when I tell this story, but I’ll do it anyway. He’s a person I found on a Google image search when I was looking for pictures for that character. I was trying to find reference pictures of musician-types who were combing their hair and of guys whose general looks were right. I found a picture of Ryan, and I went to track him down and found out he was an actor and a composer.

My casting director, Adrienne Stern, got him to send in a tape, and Emily and I immediately watched it. He was just destined to play Lucas. After that, we had a Skype call with him and found that he had already started writing music for the script. The next day, he sent us a bunch of tracks he recorded in his apartment. We had a composer involved early in the project, so we could compose songs for Ryan to sing, but then we ended up not needing any of those songs, because Ryan had created such great music that was thematically intertwined into the movie and just fit the character.  What he wrote was authentic and could exist in the Seattle busking universe.

Tribeca: You’ve basically done every job there is to do on a film set. How important it is for filmmakers to be adaptable? Did you find any one role particularly challenging?

MG: I personally feel like everything that I’ve done on other people’s movies has prepared me better to be a director. I spent a long time—5 years—working as an assistant director. That role, while most people wouldn’t consider it a creative position, was the best training ground to be a director. You have this incredible front row seat for all these different conversations that are happening.

You can learn from all the successes and failures of other people while you’re at that level when not so much is at stake for you personally. You can watch how directors talk to actors. Then when the director walks away, you can see how the actor responds and whether the director’s input enhanced their performance or detracted from their performance. You can learn and watch conversations between the director and other members of the crew. As an assistant director, you are privy to an entire process in a way that you aren’t in most positions.

Also, knowing my way around a set has been really helped me, often working with low budgets, to be efficient and to know exactly what I need while keeping everyone busy and happy. I’ve always felt like the more you know about every single job on set, the more you can relate to all the people working for you and know what they need and how you can help them. At the time that I was doing all those jobs—and not making my own stuff—I probably would have given a different answer. I would have been very frustrated and said that I prefer directing, but in retrospect, I feel like those years did nothing but enhance my work.

Tribeca: I know you went to film school at Ohio University. I went there for undergrad in Video Production!

MG: What a small world! [laughs]

I personally feel like everything that I’ve done on other people’s movies has prepared me better to be a director. 

Tribeca: How vital is it for aspiring—and even established filmmakers—to have a working knowledge of cinema and cinema history?

MG: I feel like it’s all about understanding the language of film and knowing how to get across the emotions and tone you’re trying to convey. Much of that, you can only learn by watching it work in other people’s movies and taking notes. I know that, personally, I’ve gone back and forth genre-wise.  With this project, I moved from a part of the film world that’s pretty dark to a lighter comedy.

I think it’s important to understand how to approach different movies and the different film language that you’d use. You can’t apply the same rules to every script. For me, studying other people’s work is crucial, but I would never advocate that there’s one path for everyone to take to become a filmmaker. These days, there are so many different ways that you can gain the skills you need.

There are people who are completely self-educated and people who are not and both types can make a great movie. You can come from a film school background—like I did—and it can work out. For me, I chose that path because I wanted to be a director. In my undergraduate career, I wasn’t able to make films, so I went to film school so that I would have that structure.  I wanted to make the mistakes I was supposed to make as a student filmmaker.