People often struggle to find their true identities and their place of belonging within society, and can become resilient when they’re forced into unfamiliar situations. Such is the case with the title character, as well as the director, in the new independent drama ‘Eden,’ which is now playing in select theaters across America, and will be released on VOD on April 19. The character of Eden is determined to find a way to cope with her new life after being abducted by human traffickers and forced into prostitution. Meanwhile, writer-director Megan Griffiths overcame her fear of how mainstream audiences would embrace the movie’s uncomfortable issue of human trafficking in the United States after the film won several awards at last year’s SXSW festival.
‘Eden’ follows a naive Korean-American teenager, Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung), who accepts a ride home by a seemingly charming firefighter, Jesse (Scott Mechlowicz), after sneaking into a New Mexico bar with one of her friends. After spending some time with , Hyun realizes that Jesse really isn’t the firefighter he claims to be, and he instead abducts her and smuggles her to Las Vegas. After spending some time imprisoned in a storage facility-turned-brothel, Hyun Jae is initiated into her new life by Bob Gault (Beau Bridges), the corrupt Federal Marshall that runs the organization.
Hyun Jae, who is soon renamed Eden, by her captors, immediately learns that she has been smuggled into human trafficking, and sees no hope of escaping. Eden is also introduced to Vaughan (Matt O’Leary), the unpredictable man who oversees the storage facility where she’s being held. After he begins taking her out on jobs, it isn’t long before she attempts to escape. But after experiencing the harsh punishment that comes after failed escape attempts, Eden begins to submit to her doomed fate.
In an effort to adjust to her new lifestyle, Eden befriends Priscilla (Jeanine Monterroza), a young girl who has been at the facility for years. Priscilla informs Eden of the organization, leading Eden to offer herself to Vaughan, telling him she used to do the books at her family’s store and she could do the same for the organization. Rising in rank in the organization, Eden grows accustom to the better lifestyle Vaughan offers her, but she still yearns for her freedom.
Griffiths generously took the time recently to talk about shooting the independent drama, which is inspired by true events, as chronicled in the memoir by Chong Kim. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed the film’s complicated relationships convinced her to take on the movie’s directorial duties; why she decided to cast Chung, Bridges and O’Leary in their respective roles; and how winning the awards at SXSW validated her reasoning for making the film.
Question (Q): Colin Plank, one of the producers of ‘Eden,’ who worked with the film’s screenwriter, Rick Phillips, approached you to direct the film. Why did you decide to take on the project and helm the film?
Megan Griffiths (MG): I think it was really the relationships in the movie and their complicated nature, primarily between Eden and her main trafficker, Vaughan. I found that relationship really fascinating and odd and really disturbing, and I just wanted to explore that. I think that was the number one thing that drew me in.
Also, to be able to tell a story from the victim’s perspective, I feel that hasn’t been done very often, especially in this genre of films. It’s usually from the savior’s perspective, the person who comes in and saves the day. In this case, we get to see it from the inside out, which I liked.
Q: You’re also credited as being a co-writer on the film. What were your working relationships with Rick, as well as Chong Kim, who translated her memoir on which the film’s based into English?
MG: Well, I came into the film a little later in the process. Rick and Chong began working together a couple of years before I even heard of ‘Eden.’ There had been an article about Chong in a newspaper that Rick had seen. He had tracked her down and asked her if she would be interested in collaborating on a script about her story. He found it really intriguing and fascinating. She agreed, and they worked together for a couple of years to get her story on paper and find a way to condense it and make it into a narrative. So that had all happened before I came along.
When the script came to me, which was in the early part of 2011, I worked on it independently from them. I had taken what they had done and tried to streamline it a little bit and focus it on characters and their relationships. So that was my approach.
I spoke to Chong through that process, because I wanted to know about the physical and emotional realities of that situation. I wanted to make sure I was capturing that on the page before I started shooting the film. So we had conversations about it. Rick also read my drafts, but we didn’t work together so much.
Q: How much knowledge did you have of human trafficking in America before you started working on the film? What kind of research did you do for the film before you began writing the script?
MG: I knew a little bit about trafficking in general, as an international issue. Like most people, I associated it primarily with Eastern Europe, which you see depicted most in films. So I had that knowledge.
But knowing it took place in the U.S. was a startling discovery. I basically read every article I could find, and did a lot of Internet research with articles and news stories on the subject. I also watched a lot of documentaries and films about trafficking, pretty much everyone I could find. I submerged myself in the subject, which was not a particularly fun way to spend the summer.
But I basically wanted to get my head around, and watch, survivors as they talked about their experiences. That’s where I mainly wanted to focus my research energy, because that’s where this particular story was about.
Q: In the film, Jamie Chung plays the title character, while Beau Bridges and Matt O’Leary portray Bob Gault and Vaughan, respectively. Why did you decide to cast Jamie, Beau and Matt in the lead roles?
MG: Well, I didn’t know about Jamie before this project. Her agent put her forward for it, and she’s a very high profile Korean-American actress. But I just hadn’t seen much of her work. She kind of pursued the role after she found out about it. It was written for a Korean-American actress, as Chong Kim is Korean-American. I really wanted to stay true to her ethnicity and background, so I wanted to cast accordingly. We did kind of open it up during our casting process, and auditioned people from other nationalities. We wanted to get the best actress we could.
Jamie wasn’t available when we were reading people in Los Angeles, so she ended up coming up to Seattle. She flew herself up on a day off from another film she was working on and read for the role. She blew me and Colin away, and she was the best choice for it.
Then Beau’s name kind of came up, and I felt like he would be a good fit for it. We approached him the really traditional way, through his agent. He read and responded to the material. We met and got along, and that’s how he was cast.
Matt actually replaced someone else who was going to play the role, who we lost about three weeks before shooting. I ended up meeting him on the set of another film that he was shooting in Seattle, which was where we shot. He came and read for us in our Seattle production office. He cast him about a week before we were supposed to start shooting. He had about 48 hours off between shooting his other film and ‘Eden.’ So he blew me away on how he could switch gears and go into this role, after doing something so different in the other film.
Q: What were your working relationships with Jamie, Beau and Matt like while you were filming? Did you work with them to develop their characters before you began shooting?
MG: Yeah, of course. A big part of the process is talking through what the characters are going through at every given point in the movie. It’s important to talk about their arc and what their relationships are with all the other characters. With independent films, you don’t get the luxury of a lot of rehearsal time.
But I’ve never found that I’ve been lacking in time in talking to the actors, via phone and email, or sitting down and having meetings to discuss the characters and just going through everything. That way we’re all on the same page when we start shooting. Of course, it becomes more about the details and specific lines once you get on set. It was much more broad strokes leading up to that. Everybody was really collaborative and brought a lot to the table, in terms of understanding their character, and having ideas on what would make them more complex and rounded out.
Q: Eden and Vaughan’s relationship is the most complicated and central one in the film, and drives her motivation to try to escape. What was Jamie and Matt’s working relationship like on the set, and how did they develop their on-screen relationship?
MG: Yeah, they were really mutually supportive of each other. They had actually worked together one other time (on ‘Sorority Row’), so they knew each other going into this movie. So they already had a built-in friendship. So then it was just finding those moments where they were putting forward one notion, but feeling something else. They were both fantastic about supporting each other in their respective bigger moments on camera. They were really great to watch together; they helped each other out a lot.
Q: You mentioned earlier this ‘Eden’ is an independent film, and the movie’s going to have a limited theatrical release before being shown on VOD. Did having a smaller budget influence the way you shot the film
MG: I’ve made films for a lot less than I had to spend on this. My previous film was a very micro-budgeted film. With that being said, ‘Eden’s incredibly ambitious. We used every penny that we had. (laughs) I wouldn’t say the budget would have changed the way I shot it. If I had more money, I don’t think I would have approached it in a different way.
We choose a shooting style and approach that was appropriate. My DP (Director of Photographer), Sean Porter, and I collaborated on that language, and stuck with it through the movie. We felt that it supports the story.
Having a limited budget affects you a lot in distribution. Unless you have a giant ad budget, it’s always going to be a challenge to rise above all the different movies that are being released at the same time. It’s tough to stand out in a way that people even know you exist and that your release is happening. So it’s challenging in that way, but I don’t think the budget was super limiting when we were actually making the film.
Q: ‘Eden’ had its world premiere at last year’s SXSW, and won several awards, including the Special Jury Recognition for Performance for Jamie’s role in the Narrative Feature Competition, Narrative Feature and Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award. What was your reaction when you not only found out the movie would be playing at SXSW, but that it also won the awards?
MG: When we got into that festival, I was a bit concerned. I love that festival and have been to it a lot of times, and it’s one of my favorite festivals. But I was worried that the audiences there weren’t going to accept the film. The festival plays a lot of different movies, but what I had perceived was that they had a great audience genre films and comedies, and a heavier, more dramatic film wouldn’t work for their audiences.
But that was completely proven wrong when we won the audience award. Not only did that show me that I was pigeonholing that audience, but I was pigeonholing myself a little bit. It clearly had that appeal for a wider audience, just because of the nature of the story. The audience responded to the execution, even though it’s not the traditional fare you have at SXSW. Getting the audience award there last year was incredibly encouraging, and it validated what we were all trying to do.
Q: Before working on ‘Eden,’ you directed a couple of other dramas, including ‘The Off Hours’ and ‘First Aid for Choking.’ What is it about the drama genre that you enjoy so much?
MG: I find myself naturally drawn to character studies, so I’m not particularly drawn to one genre or another. But a lot of times, dramas have the best opportunity to really explore characters. One thing I liked about ‘Eden’ was that it has other genre elements to it-it’s not a straight drama. There is a bit of a thriller aspect to it. I was excited to try out a new genre, while still being able to focus on characters and relationships.
My new film that just wrapped shooting is actually a comedy. (laughs) It also has a focus on characters I find really interesting, and relationships that were dynamics to me. For me, it’s more important to focus on characters, rather than it being about one genre or another.
Q: Are there any details about your new comedy that you can discuss, or do you have any other upcoming projects lined up that you can talk about?
MG: Well, this one’s in post-production, so it’s kind of taking my focus at the moment. But I can tell you that the title is ‘Lucky Them,’ and it stars Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church. It’s sort of a comedy in the vein of ‘Sideways,’ in the sense that it’s a character-driven comedy. It’s about a rock journalist who is given an assignment to track down her ex-boyfriend, who happens to be a well-known musician who disappeared ten years earlier. So she has to go on the hunt for this person, and also deal with her own feelings about that relationship.