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With ‘The Gabby Petito Story,’ Thora Birch Finally Gets to Tell the Actors What to Do

The "American Beauty" and "Hocus Pocus" actress knew at age 10 she wanted to be a director. Three decades later, she tells IndieWire why it happened at Lifetime.

Behind the scenes of "The Gabby Petito Story" with Skyler Samuels, Thora Birch, and Evan Hall

Behind the scenes of “The Gabby Petito Story” with Skyler Samuels, Thora Birch, and Evan Hall


Child actors often grown up to become veteran actors, but Thora Birch was always different: She wanted to be the one who had the answers. Birch made her mark in “Hocus Pocus,” “American Beauty,” and “Ghost World,” but she had her eye on being the person who told the actors what to do. After producing indie films “Petunia” and “The Competition,” she’s now got that opportunity as the director of Lifetime movie “The Gabby Petito Story,” in which she also takes a role as Gabby’s mom, Nichole.

The daughter of pornographic performers (her mother and father, Carol Connors and Jack Birch, both appeared in “Deep Throat”), Birch started acting at four and snagged major commercials (Burger King, Quaker Oats) before turning to films with “Purple People Eater” at age six. Her three-decade career also includes a recurring role on “The Walking Dead” and starring in the sci-fi podcast “Overleaper.”

Along the way she’s earned BAFTA, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominations and she’s worked with a lot of directors including Sam Mendes, Lesli Linka Glatter, Wayne Wang, Phillip Noyce, and Terry Zwigoff. They all fed a desire she’s held since the age of 10: to become a director herself.

Her debut is a somewhat surprising outing: “The Gabby Petito Story,” a Lifetime-backed, ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie about the life and death of Gabby Petito (Skyler Samuels), her fiancé Brian Laundrie (Evan Hall), and the ongoing quest for justice. Birch told IndieWire she wants her film to provide “an authentic portrait of the reality behind the facade that [Gabby] portrayed so beautifully in her online world.”

Birch previously starred in two films for Lifetime, “The Pregnancy Pact” in 2010 and 2003’s “Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story” (which gave her that Emmy nomination). She explains her journey to directing, what she’s learned from her directors, and why she’s not in the”Hocus Pocus” sequel.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IndieWire: You’ve been acting since you were just a child. When did you first think, “Hey, maybe I want to direct something”?

Thora Birch: I was 10.

You were 10? What happened? 

I started acting when I was four [years old] and by age nine, I had it more concretely in my mind what acting really was. I loved it and definitely wanted to continue that, but always thought, “Oh, in the future, when I’m an adult, I would like to direct as well.” Up until that point, every shoot I had been on, if anyone had a question, it was like, “Well, go ask the director.” It think it was the excitement that maybe I would have the answers. That was the appeal, being the sort of puppet master — or if not that, then at least the imagination captain.

Are there directors that you have worked with whose style, or the way they behave on set, you’d like to emulate?

No, I don’t even know how to do the job. [Laughs] Once I knew that [directing] was a future goal, I always sort of stalked my directors one way or another by observing, talking to, trying to get inside their process. Of course, you learn so much from the great ones, but you also learn a lot from the ones that maybe you didn’t have great experiences with or you didn’t think ultimately did the script justice.

Also, I find it difficult when people ask me, “Who is your favorite director?” That to me is as ridiculous as asking me what my favorite film is. There’s no way I have one. I have people that I think are great, great, great, and then like, oh, maybe good. But to name them I don’t think is fair.

As a director, Thora Birch wore the perfect T-shirt (here behind the scenes of “The Gabby Petito Story” with Skyler Samuels)


OK, not naming names, but are there any on-set experiences that shaped your view of what a director is, or what a director could be, or what you wanted to do with that job?

The directors I most responded to that I’ve worked with, the ones who I would have wanted to have parts of their capabilities and outlook on the job, were the ones that fully understood what each and every person does on set. Having produced two small independent films myself, I view the director’s role as requiring a producer’s hat as well.

You have to think about it from a broader perspective than what you want to accomplish and have on screen. That’s not how it goes. The best directors, or maybe the best directors that I’ve worked with, definitely had that understanding. It helps to create a harmony on set. You have incredibly talented department heads and there’s a little bit of politicking going on and credit-taking and this and that. That’s all fine and well, but I also think it’s the director’s job to be the principal and keep that stuff down at a minimum so we can all focus on the same goal and try to accomplish that as best we can — without stifling individual creativity, of course.

What was your intention when directing this particular story? 

The intention of telling the story of Brian and Gabby’s journey was to try to take all the information and facts that were out there and try to deduce the most realistic portrait of what their relationship could have been like. Also, to give viewers, hopefully, an authentic portrait of the reality behind the facade that she portrayed so beautifully in her online world.

My main intention tonally was to mirror Gabby’s eye to a certain extent in how it was shot and following the van and their journey. Also, I wanted to keep it accurate to certain instances that are well-known and documented, such as the police pull-over in Moab.

I was not looking to other films to try to guide how I wanted to present this one. I did have a vibe that I wanted it to feel a little bit like a ’70s kind of road trip movie. It was important to me that we feel that they’re out in these elements. I wanted to see the sweat on them when it was hot, see the breath when it was cold. Luckily we were shooting in Utah, so all of that naturally happened.

Behind the scenes of “The Gabby Petito Story” with Thora Birch and Evan Hall


How closely did you follow the story?

I was out of country when it was unfolding and so I heard a little bit about it, but I wasn’t focused on it. A few months later, I was back stateside and I had been talking to Lifetime about the sort of things that they were interested in. Because of our previous successful relationship, I thought it would be a great fit for my first feature.

They brought [Gabby Petito] up to me and I did a quick deep dive and saw there were many, many elements that I thought were intriguing. The #vanlife element, the social media, the internet sleuths who were part of figuring out what happened to Gabby in a quicker manner. [And] the concept of how young girls specifically curate an online persona that clearly isn’t representative of the truth of their lives. It was part of a larger cautionary tale about that, but also about abusive relationships, domestic violence, and isolation. These are two young kids from middle-to-lower socioeconomic status during COVID who had this idealistic notion of traveling the country and living cleanly and morning yoga. And as we discover, unfortunately after the fact and too late, that really was not the case.

When did you decide you wanted to also take on a role in the film? 

I understood where Nichole was coming from, based on the many documentaries and interviews with her and Joe Petito. One thing that struck me was her ability to resist unhealthy self-criticism or guilt. Her strength and grief, of course, was something that I was really struck by.

The film’s two credited screenwriters are both men. How much input did you have into the screenplay? 

Lifetime moves very, very quickly. Once you know that this is the project that you’re going to embark on with them, you’re off to the races so we didn’t have a lot of time to go back and forth on the script. There were the necessary couple of note sessions passed around via emails, but I honestly I didn’t even ever have a conversation with them. Which was maybe kind of odd. I’m not sure about; it seems odd to me.

The blessing was the relationship they drew between Brian and Gabby, and how it went from lovely to downright deadly, is something that I thought was handled very, very well. I give a lot of credit to Skylar and Evan for how they portrayed what was on the page. They added a lot of depth and honesty to the roles. I tried to portray them both sensitively, even though, of course, how could one not have an ultimate judgment against Brian?

Everybody’s family members and friends are still alive. This all happened five minutes ago. So, for me, it was important to handle them each as true humans.

Did you talk to any of Gabby and Brian’s friends and family, the real people involved in this story?

Well, I definitely wanted to. I know that they were approached, but I don’t think we ever actually wound up making any contact with them.

Now that you’ve made this film, what other sorts of films would you like to direct?

The way I pursued my acting career was that I wanted to try all genres, do a little bit of everything. With directing, I don’t have a mapped-out plan. I’m not looking to only do certain types of film or have a tonal calling card. While I do respect so many directors who do have that, I think I’d like to be playful in the same way that I was with my choices in my acting career.

HOCUS POCUS, Kathy Najimy, Sarah Jessica Parker (top), Thora Birch (bottom), Bette Midler, 1993. ©Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Kathy Najimy, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thora Birch, and Bette Midler in “Hocus Pocus”

©Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

When you’re out and about in the world, are you recognized a lot?

I can be. It depends. I find that I have types of fans. There’s the “Hocus Pocus” fans, the “Ghost World” fans and then there’s some that just like my career or grew up with me or this. Do I have to wear a baseball cap and have my windows tinted? No. I’m enjoying it. I’m pleasantly comfortable with it.

“Hocus Pocus” is finally getting a sequel this same week your film is coming out. How does that feel?

I’m happy for the fans. The plan was for me to be in it. There were three different versions of how that would happen. It was, at one point, a go and then, as everybody knows, it took “Hocus Pocus 2” a long time to be presented to audiences. And unfortunately, when they were finally going to shoot, I was already on something else and it just couldn’t be worked out, so that does suck.

But at the end of the day, I’m so excited for the fans who have been begging for years and years for this to be made. I’m just excited to see it myself. As a fan of the film, completely removed from the fact that I’m Dani, it’s fun. It’s my childhood, too.

“The Gabby Petito Story” will premiere on Lifetime on Saturday, October 1.

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