Lynn Shelton chats to me from Seattle, the setting of her new film, Touchy Feely. The film stars pleasingly familiar faces; Ron Livingston, Rosemarie Dewitt, Alison Janney, Josh Pike and Ellen Page. It’s a bittersweet comedy-drama about an uptight dentist named Paul, (Pike) who discovers Reiki after he seemingly cures his patients of oral ailments. Meanwhile, his masseuse sister Abby (Dewitt) suddenly develops a fear of skin. These two people – utter opposites – end up facing a severe shift in their identity. Ellen Page plays Paul’s introverted daughter, who is silently pining for Jessie (Scoot McNairy), Abby’s boyfriend.
Although critically-acclaimed films such as Your Sister’s Sister and Humpday may not be (unfortunately) known to all audiences, Lynn Shelton has worked with the likes of Emily Blunt, Keira Knightley and Chloe Grace Moretz. Something of an all-encompassing auteur, Shelton writes, acts, directs and edits. Her trademark style is charming, warm comedy with humour and dialogue that feels unstrained. If her films had to be labelled, the most apt term would be ‘dramatic comedy’, (the least annoying term for her, she admits). Naturalism is of key importance, and her films usually are off-the-cuff in some form.
We talk improv, her early experimental feminist art film days, and how she wants to eat Spike Jonze’s brain. She is an effortless conversationalist; bright and animated, and laughs a hell of a lot. We begin chatting about our respective habitats.
I’m in Brighton, have you been?
No I’ve never been to Brighton. I’ve been London, York, road tripping and seeing bits of Hadrian’s Wall and up to Scotland. I’ve always wanted to go to Cornwall. I’ve always wanted to go to Brighton. I still need to explore, I do love England.
I somehow wouldn’t normally associate road-tripping with England.
(laughs) Well, my husband and I – oh my god – decades ago we just took out a map when we arrived in London and hired a car. We looked at the map and we just decided to do north all the way to a town called Tongue at the very top of Scotland. There was nothing there but sheep on a cliff. It was crazy, and one of the best road trips I’ve ever taken.
So, to fire away, where did the idea for Touchy Feely come from?
Well the narrative seed of the film came from me getting a massage years ago, and then just musing. It kind of occurred to me what the experience of being on the other side, on the masseuse side of the experience, would be like. I realised I would be incapable of doing that kind of work, just because of the fact that you’re having such an intimate experience with the bodies of total strangers. I didn’t feel I could handle the kind of variety of bodies and landscapes of skin that you would have to tolerate and be intimate with, it just sort of bowled me over when I realised how some people in the world are capable of that. I wondered if they ever reached – even those who had an affinity for it – if they ever reached a threshold. Bodies are weird and skin is freaky when you get right down to it. I wondered if that realisation just pierced through.
So that was a starting point. That was something I thought of, just that one moment for a character. Many of us have our identities so closely tied with what we do, and if you’re no longer capable of doing what you do, then how would that affect you? That was a quandary no matter what your occupation. When I worked with Rosemarie Dewitt on Your Sister’s Sister, suddenly that idea just came bubbling up again and I thought, she’s the one I want to explore this with. Then I started to put together the rest of the film.
Other than Rosemarie, did you have a cast in mind for the roles?
The other who I absolutely write it for was Paul, who is played by Josh Pike. He was an actor I had never worked with before but I admired greatly. When I met him a couple of years before Touchy Feely was filmed, he’d seen and admired Humpday, so we had this immediate connection that we needed to work together one day. I had this idea with him of a dentist that goes through a transformation. When I was working on Rosemarie’s character I thought that would be an interesting parallel – they are going on seemingly opposite journeys of self-discovery. One person thinks of themselves as being in a really great place in life and has a real thirst for life and freedom, but then she gets kind of cut down at the knees and has to figure out to pull herself out of this abyss that has suddenly opened up, this little depression. Meanwhile, her brother is doing the opposite. He sees himself as being confined in his life and within this little box. He’s really ruled by limits and fear and clinging in this co-dependent relationship to his daughter and drowning her with him. It’s a very closed off existence and then, suddenly, he’s told externally that actually there might be more to him that maybe meets the eye. I thought the journeys would be interesting next to each other.
The other characters were cast along the way after I had written them all. Allison Janney was originally meant to be Catherine Keener but she couldn’t make it in the end, so introduced me to Allison. She also introduced me to Ellen Page, so I have to give Catherine credit for those two roles. Ellen just identified personally and deeply to the part of Jenny and it was very organic to fill all the other roles with other folk who ended up coming in.
As with your previous films, was there a lot of improvisation going on, was it kind of a collective project, did you all chip in or did you have the whole script rigidly set before hand?
The first two improvised films, My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday were completely improvised. I just had an outline but the dialogue was all 100% improvised and then I edited it almost like a documentary. With Your Sister’s Sister, Emily [Blunt] had improvised in her first film My Summer of Love.
I love that film
Oh I know, it’s so great isn’t it? That was totally improvised as well, but it had been a long time since she had done that, so she was still a little nervous. Rosemarie had never done it before so I wrote a script. There were a couple of scenes that were just totally improvised, but most of the film was actually scripted. I told them to basically look over the script the night before, but not to memorise the lines, not to look at them too closely. Sometimes we would go down completely different journeys and paths. How we went through the scene was totally up to them.
So with Touchy Feely I thought it would be the same. I was kind of open to anything really. I had a script and I was happy if the actors were interested to just toss it out at any moment. But more often than not, they really wanted to say the lines! I think a lot of it had to do with the fact the characters are not particularly banter-prone. The film is much more meditative and much more about awkward silences than about what’s actually being said. When Jenny is with her crush, Jessie, it was exactly how I wrote the scene. Rosemarie on the other hand, really loved working on Your Sister’s Sister, and was excited about improvising. The scenes between her and Allison and Josh and Allison were much looser. They would all find little extra pockets of opportunity and go into other little areas of conversation before swinging back to the scripted material. It was very playful and it was really depending on the scene and what felt was right. It was nice they kept saying ‘can’t we just say the words?’ and I would say yes of course! I’m not forcing you to improvise.
Well it’s a compliment to your writing, they can’t improve it.
My favourite moment is when Paul is approaching the Reiki table for the first time, and he’s clambering on it and lying on it in a weird way, and it’s incredibly awkward. The comedy is really physical. Was that improvised or had you already planned that?
Oh that was totally improvised! I did not tell him to get on the table that way, and when he did it I thought this is too ridiculous. It’s my favourite moment of the film as well, it’s just so funny. He was so grounded in that character that he really makes it work. Oh my god, I loved his performance in that whole movie.
How do you juggle directing a film you have written? Do you feel tempted the change your scripts you go?
The reason why I give so much freedom to the actors is because I’m not precious at all about my writing. I started as an editor, so I know I need certain elements to make a scene work. This is in terms of the arc of the scene, the shape of the scene, the sort of milestone that needs to be hit and the emotional dynamic. As long as we reach those key moments, I know I can put together a film to make it work. I really don’t care, whatever works. Even if we’re basically sticking with the scripted version, if there’s a moment that doesn’t quite work or a line that isn’t quite right together, we’ll rewrite it on the sly. The other thing happens too, the actors can go off on their own and they’re finding a new way to write a scene which is great, but sometimes I’ll need something specific and I know in the edit room I’ll want this one line or moment. Then I’ll get a bit more controlling. Sometimes it’s about options. I think for me, because I started out as an editor, it always comes down to the edit room ultimately. That’s where the final version comes about.
How long was filming and what was the most hilarious and memorable part of the whole filming experience?
Well, I believe we had 21 days or maybe 20, it wasn’t quite enough. Well you know it would have been lovely to have more, but we made it work. I’ve made films in much shorter amount of time, with 12 days for Your Sister’s Sister and 10 for Humpday.
Wow, that’s short.
Yeah, ridiculously short. But, we had very few characters, not as many scenes and basically one key location. That really means you can be extremely efficient with the number of days, but with Touchy Feely we had 15 or 16 locations and lots of characters and so on. I think we moved faster than I’ve ever moved before, though. I’d say the most delightful day was when we did all the scenes between Allison Janney and Josh Pike. I feel like one of my greatest accomplishments as an artist was putting those two actors together. I just think they have the most amazing chemistry. It was kind of hard for me to believe they had never worked together before. The way that they worked together was just sheer delight. You may recall the montage where she is teaching him Reiki, and we shot so much, way more than ended up on the DVD. There’s actually deleted outtakes strung together. Just absolutely hilarious stuff that they did, it was really painful to have to cut it out of the movie because it wasn’t serving the film overall but they were just – oh my god – they were so delightful and inbetween takes the whole crew laughed so hard. It was one of the most joyous days I’ve ever had on a set. I think it was also after weeks of making poor Rosemarie cry in different ways and be depressed and alone, it was such a contrast to some of the more grimmer days. It was lovely.
I’m interested in your process as a script-writer. You create such natural, believable characters and this effortlessly real dialogue, and I’m just wondering how you create that. Are you listening in to conversations and then sneak off to write them down? Do you take inspiration from those around you?
You know I actually started that long ago, when I don’t even know if I was film-making. I was trying to write dialogue for stories and for plays. I started in the theatre as an actor but also trying to write, I was never quite satisfied with the level of naturalism of the writing. I would tape record friends who were telling a story for instance, or little snaps of dialogue between friends, and then transcribe them just to see how real conversation looks on the page, and try to learn that way. I’ve always been a very close observer of humans and human behaviour, and I think the acting background is helpful too. Really my main method of writing now is taking walks and acting out the conversations out loud, so that my entire neighbourhood thinks I’m crazy. I walk down the street and sort of mutter to myself, but for some reason the walking kind of unlocks the creativity a little bit, you know. I realise what I’m doing is I’m improvising. It’s funny when I had this revelation. That’s what I’m doing, I’m improvising! The only way I feel I can actually get a real sounding conversation is to actually say it out loud, then I have to go and transcribe it before I forget it.
It’s just rare, so many films have such predictable dialogue, it isn’t until you see a film such as yours that you actually notice the difference, and it’s a world away.
Well that’s the highest compliment you can possibly give me so I really appreciate it.
When you write what comes first the plot or the character, do you have a character then create a story around them?
I find it impossible to write the dialogue until I know who the character is. With My Effortless Brilliance I started with the characters. When I had a really loose idea for a general combination of character types and general kind of sense where the narrative was going to go I involved them really early on. I would work on creating a back story with them, so we’d end up getting on the phone together and have these phone conversations. It would be just me and one other actor. Occasionally it would be a group of us, and we would all tell stories that we could then draw on for back story between their relationships. Then it’s my job to go away and take all of that in and edit the stuff that wasn’t going to be helpful to the film. That sort of fermentation of ideas and getting everybody involved takes a lot of ring mastery and facilitating. One of the reasons with Touchy Feely I wanted to take back a little control and have the film be more than just half-baked before I brought it to the actors. But whether I am working by myself or in collaboration I find a back story is the essential thing that has to be in place before you can figure out the film. You don’t know who these people are, so you don’t know what they’re going to say or do in the different circumstances. As soon as you know that, it all kind of falls into place in a very organic way. For me back story is just absolutely crucial, you have to know who everybody is.
This isn’t a question as such, more a comment, but although your films are seen as comedies they don’t contain jokes or gags. The humour in comes from the characters, simply talking and laughing together. It isn’t contrived and doesn’t feel planned.
Right. Truthfully I never know with any of my films really I’ve never known how comedic or dramatic they’re going to end up. I never knew if they were actually going to be labelled as a comedy for instance, including Humpday. I mean it may sound disingenuous but it’s absolutely true, I usually end of feeling like the film is going to be way more dramatic then it will be comedic. On set we’re taking everything deadly seriously. Sometimes the most dramatic moment on the set are the funniest moment on the screen, because the actors are so in character and the characters are so deadly serious about whatever it is that’s happening. As an example, in Humpday, when Andrew spills the beans to Anna about the nature of the project that he’s going to embark on with her husband (that as two straight men they are going to make a porno movie together, as ‘art’), was the most serious freaking day on set. We were not trying to set up a joke by any means, but it’s explosively funny on screen. I’m always surprised by certain moments that I thought myself were just really dramatic and then people just find it hysterically funny. It’s a very different kind of intention than I’m setting out to write a funny funny comedy and I’m going to be writing jokes and setting up pratfalls – I’m aware on a certain level that there might be humour emerging. I don’t know if I could ever make a deadly serious all dramatic movie.
Well that’s the interesting quality to your films, as they can’t be put into a box. They’re not comedy or romance or drama. When I read about Your Sister’s Sister and it’s called a romantic comedy, I disagree. It has those elements, but really there’s a whole load of drama in there.
Thank you, I totally agree. It’s not my nature to do all one or the other, you know. And even the closest that I’ve come to is ‘dramatic-comedy’ and that is the one that annoys me the least. But it is really difficult to come up with a kind of box to put those films in. I agree with you and it’s very validating to hear.
Well terms are used a lot and for convenience. The term ‘mumblecore’ is obviously dreaded by directors associated with the movement, but has come to mean films that are natural and improvised.
Yeah. I know it’s a funny term, not one that comes up so often anymore but still rises up for sure.
It’s influence is still present, such as with the Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies .
It started an evolution for sure.
What was the first thing that you ever filmed?
After college I moved to New York City to try to be an actor in the theatre, but I became disillusioned and it felt like an exercise in narcissism for me. I wasn’t fulfilling all my creative impulses anymore. I had also been interested in Photography. so I went to Art school and Photography was my thing. I was taking a lot of cultural theory classes and exploring different things. I ended up taking this class that was using film and video as a solo artist, so that was my first experience with film, as an experimental filmmaker and I made a good dozen films. A lot of the film work I did incorporated documentary elements. I would follow people around and record conversations with my camera and then combine that real footage, and a lot of interviews as well. I would interview people on various topics, and a lot of the films were overtly feminist material or female centered. My very first film was called White and it was a kind of deconstruction of the bridal schmaltz. (laughs) I had just got married and I was feeling kind of conflicted about it. I dressed my husband up in a paper wedding dress. It was just crazy bad, experimental art. It was very fun to do. My second film was called the Down of Her , which comes from a British poem actually that was all about women and their body hair removal practices. So I interviewed like twenty women about how they go about getting rid of the hair on their bodies, what did they do or not?
That’s funny as there’s a scene in Your Sister’s Sister when Rosemarie’s character comments about her sister’s public hair, in front of her sister’s crush. She laughs, when really she is mortified. You pity her, but it’s also hilarious.
Yes, yes! It’s funny I’ve never made that connection before. That was a long time ago, you get these little echoes in work. But yes, the thing that was nice to making all the films outside of film school was that I did everything myself; all the editing and sound design and so on and so forth. It was a safe way for me to explore the medium without having to give up any control as I was a total control freak. I was making completely non-commercial work too but I didn’t have to worry about anything, it was all on my own terms, it was a form of expression. It was a freeing way to begin. Then I was editing, editing was the one marketable skill I had when I came out of school – I learnt how to collaborate with other peoples work and work with directors and figure out what that kind of relationship looks like. Editing is the most collaborative role, and long term, you work so intensely with your editor as a director.
Then I was really lucky because, in 2005 I was basically commissioned to write and direct my first feature after I had moved from New York to Seattle. I started being able to edit all of these narrative films. That was when I realised I was ready to direct my own feature. When I got that opportunity it was called We Go Way Back, was at a festival called Slamdance and won the Grand Jury prize. The reason that I started working in improvisation actually was because I wasn’t satisfied with the level of naturalism in the writing. I wanted something that felt completely real. I started picking the people I wanted to work with first instead of writing the role first. That was a huge goal, for it to resonate authenticity.
You acted in Humpday, which you also directed. What was that like?
Yeah and I have worked in other peoples films. I acted in one of Joe Swanberg’s web series and played Greta Gerwig’s older sister in hi Nights and Weekends. I do enjoy it but I don’t do it enough. I want to make sure it is the right circumstance and I’m not going to go and ruin a friend’s movie. I mean you do get rusty. It takes me a while to get up to speed again if I haven’t done it for a while because it’s certainly not where I’ve put my focus.
Well, you do get practice on your walks.
That’s true. I was discounting that. That’s true. Well the one thing I have to say about acting in Humpday (Lynn plays a woman in an open lesbian relationship, and enjoys being with men openly in front of her partner) – that role was extremely specific in my mind. I knew in my mind who I wanted her to be, that they wouldn’t get it right, they would judge her, they would make her seem something that she wasn’t. I was very precious. I was possessive of her and Mark [Duplass] was the one who said, just play her yourself! So I did. I was glad because I do enjoy how she turned out. I got her exactly how I wanted her to be portrayed. I didn’t have to communicate with anybody else. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again though because acting and directing are so totally different things and to do them at the same time I found really distracting and hard. When you’re improvising you’re improvising as a director and as much as an actor. Sometimes with really complicated scenes with lots of people I would think, what was I thinking, this is a terrible idea. Humpday was a lesson. Don’t write anymore roles for yourself! I’m happy to do roles for other people if they are kind enough to ask me.
I love the awkwardness of the scene when your character’s partner and Mark’s character Ben are talking at the party. He asks her which woman is her partner and she points to your character, who is getting off with his friend Andrew.
They’re so good in that scene. What does he say? I think he says ‘it’s all good in the hood’.
If you could have dinner with any director of your choice who would it be?
Spike Jonze. I met him once and had a brief conversation. I would love to have a full evening and a complete dinner and he was so sweet and so smart, and I wanted to open up his skull and eat his brain. His last film really resonated with me.
So you’ve got Laggies out soon, with Keira Knightley, What’s next for you?
Kiera’s film will be released in the states in September, and it’s coming right up so that’s good. I want to go back to a smaller project on a smaller scale at some point. It may not be the next film but sometime in the near future I’d like to do another very intimately scaled, smaller number of characters.
That’s good to hear.
Yeah I miss it! I miss it, on these films I was able to work with the tiniest crews and we were all like a little family. In Your Sister’s Sister we were all living together on this island. No cars, no nothing for two weeks, it was amazing, I don’t know if anything will be that idyllic again. It’s a special kind of experience. I’d love to have that again. I’m also working on a couple of other projects, one that’s written by another writer that’s based on a memoir about a woman growing up in Seattle. We’re in development on that, the script it pretty much done, we have to get financing together and go out to actors. Then I’m co-writing a script adapted from another real life story, this will be a bigger film, it’s sort of a comedy caper with a lot of crazy antics. It will be a little more involved, but yeah it’s really nice to just be sort of in this development phase. I just directed a pilot for the ABC network so I’ll probably be directing a few of those episodes. It means I only have to go to LA for a week and shoot it and come back to Seattle and keep working on my own stuff, it’s a really nice way to keep the bills paid and I enjoy it as well. I can keep my directing muscles exercised.