Lost souls at all-night diners have been explored on the big screen before. But from the opening montage of The Off Hours, with its quietly melancholic images of customerless four-tops, upended coffee cups and a scraper sitting on a worn-out greasy griddle, it's clear that Seattle-based writer-director Megan Griffiths knows how to capture the isolating loneliness of a restaurant when the city is sleeping.
Called “the reverse angle of a road movie” by Variety, this low-budget, dreamily paced drama about a loose community of sad-eyed waitresses, rumpled truck drivers, shuffling regulars and a burnt-out fry cook is now available on VOD and on The Off Hours' official website. In November, it was announced that The Off Hours' godhead director of photography, Benjamin Kasulke, received a nomination for Best Cinematography from the 2012 Film Independent Spirit Awards (to be presented Feb. 25 in a big, white beachfront tent in Santa Monica).
Recently, Griffiths spoke to Squid Ink about her quest to find the perfect diner location, how leatherette booths can migrate and why raw food is on her agenda when visiting Los Angeles.
Squid Ink: How did you come up with the idea of setting The Off Hours in a truck-stop diner?
Megan Griffiths: For a little while I worked the night shift at a film lab. Some of the people there had been working the night shift for 10 or 15 years. It was interesting to me how they went through their day. They just seemed like they weren't ambitious or hopeful anymore. When you're working those hours you have much, much fewer interactions with people. You see so few actual human beings in your daily life. I think it just has an effect on people. That's what I was interested in exploring: a population of people who didn't really feel like they could pursue their dreams anymore.
SI: How does a film lab morph into an all-night diner?
MG: I wanted to remove it from my initial environment and put it in a place that I thought would be aesthetically interesting. But I also wanted a place where passersby would come through and there would be new faces daily.
SI: Yours is a very classic Edward Hopper Nighthawks diner — almost empty, moody. There are so many kinds of diners to choose from — how did you end up with that one?
MG: I thought, “No, I don't want it to be a '50s theme diner.” “No, I don't want it to be a country kitsch diner.” But the '70s diner, the kind that feels like it just got lost in time? That's where I thought the story fit the best.
SI: How long did it take to find the diner that lived up to the one in your imagination?
MG: I scouted for diners for four years. I'd been to every single one that I could find and I hadn't found the one that I thought was right for the movie until about three weeks before we started shooting. This guy suggested Ed's #1 and I drove by and was like, “Oh, yeah. This will work!”
SI: Where was Ed's #1?
MG: It was in Burian, Wash., which is just a little south of Seattle. It's been closed for a few years. When we discovered it, it was pretty much of a shell. There wasn't a kitchen or booths or chairs. It was all gutted. Then I brought my production designer to see it and he was depressed.
MG: It was such a huge, huge undertaking to turn it back into a beautiful place. They had to clean all the grease off of the walls, then paint the walls a different color, then put more grease back on so that it looked like an old diner. They had to find old kitchen appliances to fill the space. We brought the whole thing back to life. We made it look like a diner that you could actually eat in.They ended up getting the booths from the grocery store across the way. [When Ed's #1] closed, it sort of migrated across the parking lot.
SI: Booth migration? How does that even work?
MG: Basically there was this grocery store across the way that opened up a café. It was an amazing deal. Your whole breakfast with coffee and everything was under $4. When we found Ed's #1, the location manager sort of followed this “For More Information” sign to the grocery store. That's where he got a lot of information about the diner and what had become of it. Apparently, there had been this one owner of the diner for 40 years and he was a notorious cheapskate. He always drank out of the same styrofoam cup and wore the same blazer every day of his life. He finally closed the doors on Ed's #1 and sold the booths to the café in the grocery store.
SI: Then what?
MG: All of the people who had been going to Ed's #1 started going to the café in the grocery store. When the booths arrived, they would sit in each of them and figure out where their butt groove was. That way they were able to tell whether or not it was their old spot. Then they'd sit in their old booths and have the same conversations they'd always had. They just changed the location by about 100 yards.
SI: Diner food tends to run the gamut from “simplicity on a plate” to regrettably stomach-churning. Did you have a go-to order during your four years of location scouting?
MG: My producer could tell you the answer to this question because she was always with me. I'd always order poached eggs on an English muffin with tomato slices and hash browns.
SI: Poached eggs? That was not the diner food answer we expected.
MG: Well it's something that a diner can do that is not super-duper greasy but is still standard diner fare. I have certain dishes that I order at any given type of restaurant, a barometer dish. Like with Thai food, it's the Pad See Ew.
SI: The Off Hours begins with a montage of hauntingly sad diner images. Have you ever worked in a diner?
MG: No. But I would go to diners late at night and drink a cup of coffee and look around. I'm a people watcher, an observer. I just kind of absorbed a lot of stuff. I worked on getting this film up and running for five years. I had a lot of time to go and experience that universe, just watch what people did when it was slow. Refilling the salt shakers, clearing the dishes.
SI: Where did the prop diner food — the slices of pie, the French fries — come from?
MG: Some of it they would purchase from other diners. Occasionally, they would make something in-house. They'd have to use the microwave. We tried to make the food palatable, but it could be pretty disgusting. There's a scene where a [waitress character] walks in and finds a truck driver [friend] there in the middle of the day and she starts eating his fries. If you look closely, the fries that she's picking up? It's the most disgusting-looking fry. And she was actually eating them — which is impressive. [laughs]
SI: How much was The Off Hours made for?
MG: Our budget was considerably under $100,000. During production we had less than that. We were getting money as we were shooting.
SI: When you make a movie for that little, what kind of craft services table can you possibly pull together?
MG: We had a person who was finding us sponsors. She got a lot of people to donate food. So we had a decent selection of food. But we didn't have a craft services person. The producers manned the craft table, making tofurky sandwiches and stuff and passing them around. It was meager. But not as meager as you might think.
SI: You've done some casting out of Los Angeles. Where are your favorite places to eat here?
MG: I'm a vegetarian. L.A. has a lot of great, specialized vegetarian restaurants. I go to Real Food Daily. There's a place I love: Euphoria loves Rawvolution.
SI: That is a name that's so bad it's like they're daring you to go there.
MG: I haven't experienced a lot of raw food to write home about. But they have food so amazing that a non-raw food person would like it. I got a taco salad that had ground-up walnuts, avocado and tomatoes. It was amazing. So good.
SI: You're from Moscow, Idaho. Tell us: Where do we eat on Main Street?
MG: [long pause] I am wracking my brain. [long pause] Of course! Mikey's Gyros! They make great Greek food, but they also make amazing soups. They make an outstanding lentil soup. But they don't have the same soup twice. They just keep making new and interesting types of soup. I had an African peanut soup once. It had a great flavor.
SI: Your latest movie, Eden, is premiering at South by Southwest, correct?
MG: Yes! I've never had something that I've directed play there, but it's a really fun festival to be at. Eden is such a serious film to take to such a fun festival so we'll see how that goes. It's about human trafficking. It's based on a true story of a woman who was abducted and kept in a storage facility in Las Vegas for over two years. It's sort of a complicated survival story.