Thora Birch on Why It Isn’t Too Soon for Her Film The Gabby Petito Story

Thora Birch is an award-winning actress, producer, and filmmaker who began acting at age 4 and has appeared in films including American Beauty, Ghost World, Now and Then, The Hole, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, as well as TV shows including The Walking Dead. In this piece, she talks about making her feature-length directorial debut with the new Lifetime movie The Gabby Petito Story, about the young woman killed by her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, as they traveled America by van. Birch also plays Petito’s mother, Nicole Schmidt. Here is why — and how — she set out to tell the story.

When people ask, “So, what made you want to direct?,” it’s sometimes hard not to let out a small chuckle — because I wind up thinking to myself, “What could make me not want to?”  All I can say is that by age 10, I finally figured out acting was a craft and job, not a hobby — and that everyone on a film set agrees that if any question is ever going to get answered, one must ask The Director.

Two years later, in 1995, I worked on Now and Then with the excellent and excellently accomplished director Lesli Linka Glatter. Working alongside a team of female producers, including Demi Moore, she showed me that all directors aren’t male. Or at least didn’t have to be male. My young mind viewed this state of affairs in the industry as something that needed addressing, but perhaps it was starting to be addressed? Time would prove that it wasn’t really, or, maybe, not at all.  For a few more decades, you could still count the number of “successful” female directors on one hand — as measured by box office returns first and major awards, second.

None of the above is a complaint, it’s just how I viewed the landscape at that time. I do believe the climate for women behind the camera is finally becoming more fertile, thanks in part to Lifetime. I thank the network for providing an opportunity for professionals such as myself, who have a long history in the industry and on sets, but haven’t been put through the “normal” channels of having to produce, write, edit and score the film yourself, before getting the head chair at video village.

In any case, let’s talk about making a movie, shall we?  For many familiar with the story of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old aspiring social media Influencer reported missing and later found strangled to death in September 2021, it might sound exploitative, if not downright callous, that a film has already been produced and will air on Lifetime starting October 1. When I initially started exploring Gabby and Brian Laundrie’s #vanlife journey in February of this year, I was inclined to agree that it was too soon. 

But ultimately, I came to be confused by that assertion, because it avoids the true question when it comes to telling Gabby’s story, or that of so many others who have fallen victim to domestic violence: How should one approach such a delicate endeavor?  Simply choosing not to engage doesn’t honor her memory, and doesn’t shine a light on situations that are all too common.

Plenty of people in many of our initial, ideal filming locations were near-vehemently opposed to the project. Getting permits for highway use in Moab, Utah, where police stopped Gabby’s boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, while she was a passenger in the van? Forget it, don’t even ask.  Homes, apartment buildings, and small-business establishments all asked the same thing: “What’s the film about?” After our reply, kept as brief as possible within the legal bounds, their response was always no. 

Thora Birch on Why It Isn’t Too Soon for Her Film The Gabby Petito Story

Thora Birch on the set of The Gabby Petito Story, her feature directorial debut.

A week into filming on our 16-day shoot, we still did not have some major locations that simply couldn’t be replaced or altered. It was an incredible stress on our line producer, locations department and pretty much all of our department heads, who were already wearing multiple hats in some odd ways (I had my costume designer on recon in Jackson Hole, Wyoming).  

Our location dilemma bled into many aspects of production, including the ability to have properly prepared shot lists, or even a filming schedule we could rely upon more than a day or two out.  

That’s not uncommon for a production moving at the pace of a small indie — but we also had to operate within a general structure that Lifetime prefers its signature films not to depart too far from. And we needed our actors to reach deep emotional depths, while knowing that Gabby and Brian’s families and friends are still raw from the international attention the case received.  Daunting stuff.  

I was beyond fortunate to have found two young actors — Skyler Samuels and Evan Hall — who were not only unbelievably talented professionals, but also absolutely lovely individuals who approached their portrayals with nothing but respect and the shared intention of bringing Gabby and Brian to life as honestly as they could, given the wealth of information available about the timeline and acceleration of the verifiable violence Gabby experienced.  

Two or three days specifically stand out that I honestly don’t know how we all got through.  Between heat, a dizzyingly changing schedule, and a few paparazzi doggedly following our crew and cast around, It’s no surprise one or two of my crew decided to work off-set when we filmed the most delicate scenes.  

As in many tough shoots, ultimately all of our struggles, fatigue, and occasional self doubts forged us into a quick family. We were bonded by a deep sense of responsibility to be as sensitive to the subject matter, and our main characters, as possible. Our shared intention is to bring Gabby’s experiences to life as a cautionary example.  If one person makes a change in their relationships for the better after viewing this film, then it will be a success.

And yeah — it’s been said before, but making movies is an insanely difficult task requiring creativity, yes, but a bunch of other annoying little political considerations as well.  I can’t wait to do it again. 

The Gabby Petito Story, directed by Thora Birch, airs on Lifetime Saturday at 8/7c and is available for streaming the next day.

Main Image: Thora Birch on the set of The Gabby Petito Story.