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A Delicate Balance: Thora Birch on Directing Her First Feature, The Gabby Petito Story

Photo Credit: Peter Konerko.

Growing up with the films of actor Thora Birch was a true gift. In the roles she portrayed throughout the decade of my youth, she played characters who felt more real than the majority of people my age I saw on screen. The girls Birch brought to life were complicated, outspoken and explored taboo topics such as sexuality on their own terms. Her very first scene in Mary Agnes Donoghue’s 1991 gem, “Paradise,” shows her character befriending a boy (Elijah Wood) by inviting him to join her in spying on her older sister, whose daily routine involves ironing while topless in front of an open window. By the end of the 90s, Birch became the topless girl in the window in Sam Mendes’ Best Picture Oscar-winner, “American Beauty,” in an indelible sequence where the eroticism came not from the nudity but the palpable exhilaration of finally feeling seen

In between those pictures, Birch stole every one of her scenes as the mischievous sister in Kenny Ortega’s 1993 cult phenomenon “Hocus Pocus,” where she boldly brings up her older brother’s obsession with “yabbos,” and as the aspiring actress in Lesli Linka Glatter’s 1995 coming of age dramedy, “Now and Then,” who delights in stuffing her bra with bags of vanilla pudding. One of the film’s most infamous sequences occurs as the 12-year-old heroines spy on a group of boys skinny-dipping, prompting Birch’s character to explain—from her innocent perspective—the difference between a flaccid penis and an erect one. After watching so many scenes of horny boys ogling the opposite sex, this moment felt not only refreshing but remarkably truthful.

One of the great joys of Ebertfest, the annual film festival held at Roger Ebert’s alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the opportunity it provides film buffs to have meaningful conversations with artists whose work has left a lasting impact on them. Last month, I had the great privilege of moderating the onstage Q&A following a packed screening of Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 masterwork, “Ghost World,” starring Birch as a hilariously cynical high school graduate who develops an unexpected bond with a middle-aged record collector (Steve Buscemi). It is a brilliant performance that seems to have leapt directly off the pages of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel upon which the film is based. 

Prior to the screening, I had the pleasure of speaking at length with not only Zwigoff, but Birch and her husband, talent manager Michael Benton Adler, who hinted that some exciting news was on the imminent horizon. Sure enough, Deadline announced just days ago that Birch will be making her directorial debut with a project that currently has the working title, “The Gabby Petito Story.” Based on the real-life story of the titular travel blogger, who was killed at age 22 by her fiancé Brian Laundrie while on a cross country trip, the film is set to premiere on Lifetime later this year, with Birch also co-starring as Gabby’s mother. On the day that Birch flew to Utah to begin shooting the film, she took time prior to her flight to speak with me about the project and her hopes for it.

When did your interest in directing films first come about?

I’ve been wanting to direct since I was about nine or ten years old. The first films that I worked on where I really felt like I was an actor, starting with “Paradise,” were also the first ones where I noticed that according to everybody else, the most important person on the set was the director. That got me thinking, ‘If that’s the most important person, then that’s what I want to be doing.’ On every project I worked on from that point on, the role of the director became my focus. I would always pay attention to the directors and I was fortunate enough to work with some of the best, like Sam Mendes, Mary Agnes Donoghue, Lesli Linka Glatter and so many other great directors all throughout my whole career. At the end of the day, that’s what I thought I needed to be doing. I needed to be telling people what to do.

In what ways did those three particular directors you named inspire you on set?

I would say that amongst all three of them, they had a pre-calculation and a thought process about approaching the material that they would be working on. They also knew how to deal with their crews. I loved watching Lesli handle a crew like any other person would. She just showed up onset and was like, “Yeah, I’m here with Demi Moore and we’re fuckin’ producing and directing!” [laughs] Back then, it was a little bit more of a novelty to see so many women in power like that, so to be a 12-year-old actress working under those auspices, I was like, “Oh my god, fantastic! This is what life is gonna be like.” It was encouraging and inspiring and it made me want to stay in the game.

According to IMDb, you directed the 2006 short film, “I, Witness.” 

That’s true! My friends and I thought we were gonna be Funny Or Die before Funny Or Die actually came about. We had this dream of doing all these short comedy sketches online and just blast them out. We could shoot them in our off-time, and “I Witness” was one of the ones we made together. Then Funny Or Die arrived and eclipsed us. I directed a couple other shorts as well, but nothing to share.

What was your previous experience with Lifetime like while starring in 2003’s “Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story,” for which you received an Emmy nomination?

I loved working with Lifetime on that film. Our director, Peter Levin, is someone who I still talk to. I am gonna be asking him for advice like, “How do you deal with Lifetime?” [laughs] It feels like such a beautiful full circle because I did have nice experiences working with Lifetime, playing Liz Murray and also in “The Pregnancy Pact.” Now for me to be able to direct this story, which is so pertinent—it just happened five minutes ago, everybody knows about what happened—it’s a high responsibility, so I’m just preparing myself for a beat here before I dive into this.

What led you to want to tell the story of Gabby Petito?

There’s an element of abusive relationships in this story that I think so many of us can relate to. Within five seconds, this story captured the entire nation’s attention in the middle of Covid and all these other horrific things going on. Everyone stopped and took a minute and were like, “Where’s Gabby? What happened to Gabby?” That kind of fascination and focus point was something that I thought was a third character in the whole story. At the end of the day, it is about Gabby and Brian and their personal relationship, but apart from that, it’s about how the public responded to these two and developed such a fascination that it led them to help solve the case. The FBI is not known for thanking the public for their help. But they did thank the public for their assistance on this one, and so I thought that was an interesting thing to pick up and play with. 

What are your thoughts on the current popularity of the true crime genre, in which a dramatization typically follows a docuseries? In my view, shows like “The Girl from Plainville” and “The Staircase” manage to avoid exploitation by humanizing each of the people involved. 

Yes, I agree, and honestly, I credit the pandemic for a lot of this. The pandemic made us stay indoors and watch documentaries. We saw things that we would normally never watch because we all of a sudden had so much time on our hands. If you wanted to keep little kids entertained, you had to have something on the screen playing 24/7. That opened up so many people’s minds towards different storylines. I would normally never spend my time watching “Top Chef,” but the second that the pandemic hit, all of a sudden, I just watched 22 seasons of that shit. [laughs] That’s how it happens, but that’s a beautiful thing and it’s an eye opener. It shows you that human beings have the capacity to relate to so many different types of stories. 

It just so happened that once I really focused in on this one—what happened to Gabby and Brian—the thing that hit me the most was that this is just an everyday couple. They are not that obscure, they are not that frickin’ weird. They don’t have any interests that are outside the scope of anyone else’s interests. They are normal, everyday people. She just happened to fall in love with this guy and he just happened to fall in love with her, and it just went badly. They thought it would be cool to reconvert their van and travel around the country. They thought it was all so perfect, and then it fell apart just like that. That moment where something is good and then becomes the polar opposite is, to me, a fascinating element. 

According to the recent Deadline article, this film is a part of Lifetime’s Stop the Violence Against Women Public Affairs initiative.

I think it is so wonderful that Lifetime is taking this on their shoulders. In my own personal life, I have been in an abusive relationship, but the thing is that I wouldn’t have looked back on that relationship and said to myself, “Oh wow, I guess that was an abusive relationship.” But it was, and I think that if we could help anybody see the warning signs, that would be fantastic because you just don’t see them when you’re in that situation. Life is beautiful and things are good and you have sweet moments and there’s love, but then it just turns. When that happens, you need to take notice. 

Is a goal of yours to upend gender stereotyping as a director?

That’s a good question. What I would say is that yes, it’s been a goal of mine, but at the same time, I just respond to characters, roles and situations that naturally fall into how I see life anyway. It’s not like I’m out there trying to be a feminist icon who is fighting for women’s rights. The roles I’ve played have either presented themselves to me, or I’ve sought them out, and they are authentic women, so why not present them as such—as women who we meet every day?

I’m not actually gonna call myself a director until I direct the second feature. The next one has to come, but I’m already looking at scripts, though, so that’s good. [laughs] Ultimately, I don’t care who writes it or who does what. It’s all about the stories, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a “female-centric” story or not. What interests me are human stories. Those are what I believe are the most important things to tell. 

We spoke at Ebertfest about how important it was for you to feel protected on sets, such as when shooting the intimate scenes in “American Beauty.” How do you hope these experiences will inform your approach to directing this film?

I’m already concerned because I realized that with a story like the one involving Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie, it is very delicate and it will hit people in a lot of different ways. I’m not trying to demonize anyone. I think that there is a responsibility to represent these people as the public has experienced them. Brian and Gabby were a young, cute couple that went horribly wrong, and how does that happen? There are a lot of different ways in which that can happen, so I’m trying to find the reality within that without offending the Petito family, her supporters or anyone else. This is a story about a toxic relationship at the end of the day, and how do you explore that without being false or offensive? It’s a delicate balance.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 


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