Sadie, the latest feature film from Seattle director, Megan Griffiths, debuted this past weekend at SXSW. It is a close-up look at the life of a 13-year-old girl (Sadie, played by Sophia Mitri Schloss) living with her mother (Rae, played by Melanie Lynskey) in a trailer park. Sadie’s father has been away serving in the military for years, and the two only communicate through the rare handwritten letters. Sadie, a smart but frustrated student, begins to test the bounds of her day-to-day life and, well, you have to watch the film to find out the rest. It features a very recognizable cast (including Danielle Brooks of Orange Is the New Black fame), is scored by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, and it's moving, well crafted, and honest. It’s also quite pertinent to today’s culture of hostility and violence. To get a sense of the film's genesis and themes, I chatted with Griffiths over the phone as she drove from San Antonio to Austin.
The movie depicts the life of a girl between childhood and adulthood. Was any of the story inspired by your life at that age?
I don’t have a military family, though I had friends who did. So, aside from just being a girl that went through puberty and had to grow up in this world we live in, it’s not really based on anything personal. It’s more drawn from wanting to tell a story about violence in our culture and how it affects people growing up right now, when all they see are people solving problems with violence.
A major theme in Sadie is how easy kids can be surrounded by brutality. Why was this important?
I was seeing violence in our culture as sort of this inescapable thing. There are school shootings and all sorts of other gun violence happening, police brutality. And it’s not like the world hasn’t been violent before this, but it just feels so omnipresent now. It sticks with me that the more violent the world becomes, the more exposed we are to it just through things like video games, and the more desensitized we’re going to become and then the world’s going to get worse. I don’t have kids—but I’m still very worried how our kids are being imprinted on and what we’re doing as a culture about it. I wanted to contribute to the national conversation about violence.
What did you like about the idea of telling such a personal story about Sadie?
It’s funny. I wanted to focus on this small microcosmic world to tell the story about a larger theme but I also wrote it when I was trying to get another movie, The Off Hours, made. I started writing the script for Sadie in 2009 and it was proving to be very hard to get Off Hours made, so I was like, “I’m going to write something that is really producible on a smaller budget that I don’t have to gather all these elements for.” But I ended up making Off Hours for a much lower budget than I ultimately made Sadie for. The whole process was driven by the story I wanted to tell in this very contained way, to keep its effectiveness without blowing anything up or having a giant cast. It felt like the right scope.
It seems like a major theme of the movie is that adulthood requires holding onto a lot of lies. What made you want to work in this dynamic?
The adult characters, I always thought of them as people striving for happiness and falling short of it in most cases. And they’re all distracted by their own issues. We all have a lot of stuff going on in our lives. And, in the movie, the kids kind of get lost in the shuffle. It’s not like they’re neglected or ill treated, but the adults have their own problems and they’re focused on them all of the time. I don’t consider them to be bad people, just distracted people. It’s an understandable position they’re in.
There are no cell phones in the movie. Why did that matter to you?
I don’t love shooting cell phones and tech in movies. I try to avoid it. With Sadie, it felt like I wanted it to be a little more timeless even though it’s about the world we live in right now. I didn’t want to make it stuck in 2017. I wanted it to hold up. I wrote it in 2009 and shot it in 2017 and the themes in it remain just as relevant—if not more relevant—the longer it took to get it made. I want it to stand the test of time. I wish that youth and violence was a theme that would be less relevant, but I don’t that’s happening any time soon.
What difficulties did you encounter shooting in the trailer park?
We found this really great place in Everett. Our production designer had shot near it for a previous project and directed us to it. I’m not 100% sure it’s still there, however. Allowing me to shoot at your location has actually proven to be a bit of a curse—the diner in The Off Hours is gone, other places I’ve shot are now empty fields. But the trailer park and the people who owned the land were selling it off, they’d just built a motel on the property. So, several trailers were vacant and the owners I think were waiting for people to move out to do something else with the land. Everywhere around it was highly developed and we had to be careful where to point our cameras. Three trailers were vacant and we shot in two of them and shot around all of them. We tried not to disturb anyone but it can be intrusive to have a film crew all up in your space. We were there for two weeks out of the 19-day shoot. People were really cool and we had to be on our best behavior. A few folks brought us cookies. Some people ended up in the background of the movie, which made them excited.