Four years ago, writer-directo Lynn Shelton released a film called HUMPDAY that made me laugh so hard I almost had to tune the film out just to keep from heaving my guts onto the floor of the theater from giggling, and it didn't take me long to contact the distributor to beg them to let me screen it in Chicago and to sent Shelton along for a Q&A, both of which they graciously did.
Jump ahead to the 2011 Toronto Film Festival (and later at the 2012 Sundance Festival), where Shelton unveiled her last work, YOUR SISTER'S SISTER, which offered indelible insight into human behavior, unrequited love, and forgiveness. Again, Shelton was kind enough to come to Chicago for a Q&A screening, at which she revealed that she had already shot her next film, TOUCHY FEELY, which re-teams her with DeWitt, Ellen Page, Allison Janney, and Josh Pais. TOUCHY FEELY is about a massage therapist (DeWitt) who is suddenly stricken by a paralyzing aversion to bodily contact, while her uptight dentist brother (Pais) appears to receive the gift of a healing touch, and his practice flourishes as a result.
The film doesn't go for the easy laughs like some of Shelton's earlier works do, instead looking for some heart in a story that brushes us with touches of magical realism without getting saccharine or cheesy with it. Page is especially good as the dentist's venomous daughter. And once again, Shelton came to Chicago in January, just days after TOUCHY FEELY premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival (the film is set for a limited release this weekend and is currently available OnDemand).
The next morning, we sat down to breakfast and talked about the film as well as her next work, LAGGIES, which was not shot at the time, but has since been. Originally, LAGGIES was set to star Paul Rudd and Rebecca Hall, but it appears plans changed, and the roles are now being played by Sam Rockwell and Keira Knightley; it also stars Chloë Grace Moretz and Mark Webber. Enjoy what I'm hoping will be a once-a-year event in my life, my latest chat with Lynn Sheton…
Capone: We talked about this movie a lot when you were here last time. Had you already shot it?
LS: I had just shot it. We talked in the summer, right?
LS: Yeah, we shot it in May.
Capone: And I was super excited to see that you had directed the most recent "New Girl" last week, too. I didn’t even know you'd done that.
LS: I was so dumb. [Laughs]
Capone: That was such a great episode too.
LS: Yeah, that was interesting. I was in the beginning of editing [TOUCHY FEELY]; I'd got an assemble together and then had to go on the road to do press for YOUR SISTER’S SISTER and was going to go back to do the real work of figuring out the movie. So I’m not sure what kind of state I was in about it.
Capone: I don’t know if you set out to do it or it just sort of happened this way, but it seems clear you were trying to do a few different things with this film.
LS: Yes, it turns out it was a liberally long list, but I managed to check them all off, pretty much.
Capone: One of the things that I think remains the same is that all of your films are about these little life interruptions, and when the characters make it to the other side of their conflict, they're pretty much the same, but just a little polished.
LS: [laughs] Maybe one half-step evolved?
Capone: Yeah, but it’s not like some radical, 90-degree turn. It’s just like a nice little tune up. That’s how life works really; it changes in small increments not in huge, romantic-comedy-style changes.
LS: That’s not to say that some day I won't tell a story that’s on a grander scale.
Capone: Do you think you will?
LS: No, I’m basically just saying, “Never say never.” [laughs] But it does seem like there’s a pattern emerging, this idea of trying to highlight the epic nature of ordinary life. To the outside world, it may not have a huge ripple effect. I mean, even Ellen Page’s character, she is so introverted and so awkward and deeply feeling as a person and lacks the courage to open up and admit to her feelings.
Everything that happens to screaming characters, it’s a dramatic arc for them, and not just drama versus comedy, but it’s epic. It’s a big deal what happens to them. They really kind of go through it. Each of them go through these arcs kind of on their own, mostly on their own. Rosemarie’s character, Abby, never fully divulges to anybody what actually happened. She doesn’t tell her friend Bronwyn [Janney], she doesn’t tell her boyfriend, she just struggles through it alone. Which I think it’s something a lot of us do.
Capone: I wondered if that’s because she thought, “Let me see if it goes away before it becomes some sort of big deal.”
LS: Yeah. Also I think that naming it and saying it out loud makes it more terrifying, more real. She’s still just hoping that it’s not really happening to her and she's trying to fix it, but she’s always been somebody who’s been able to just fix herself or find a way to help. But the things that she tries are not working and then, yeah, so then she kind of has to get to a place of total surrender: “All right, I have to break out and do something completely beyond my comfort zone.”
Capone: Yeah. It’s also the first time in one of your films where you shown people as parents.
LS: That’s true, yeah, a parent-child relationship.
Capone: They interact in a way that is not, I don’t think, a typical parent-child relationship, so you almost forget that’s what they are. But that’s what it is, and I think Ellen’s character has suffered because of that, playing the caregiver for her stilted father.
Capone: It’s an important step. You’re dealing with issues that you probably do have some firsthand knowledge of.
LS: I had a copy of my first film [WE GO WAY BACK] in my bag and I was hoping I still had it to give to you, because this is really a return to my initial impulses as a filmmaker, which I had spoken to you about over the summer. At least Abby’s arc--it’s not multiple storylines, it has one storyline--but it’s very much about a women who loses her sense of self and is trying to figure out how to get it back and it’s a different context. They're really different ages. She’s only 23, and then there’s this magic surrealist element of her 13-year-old self coming in to it. It’s so different than my second, third and fourth films.
I started as an experimental filmmaker and I keep going back to it. What happened was that first experience, things about that first experience, were transformative and I knew I never wanted to make movies by myself again as a solo artists and that I really was a narrative filmmaker. But I wanted to just completely concentrate on only one aspect, which was trying to get naturalistic performances on screen, and that’s what I did for the next three movies, was just concentrate on that kind of one slice of filmmaking. I felt like that was the key to a successful film, not matter how beautifully lit or anything. My first film was the first film I ever wrote, it’s completely written except for one scene that was improvised. An when we shot that scene, I was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing. What if I made a whole movie like this?”
We had very little time; it was 16 days. It was an ambitious shoot. There were a lot of locations and things, and I felt like 90 percent of our time was spent lighting, and it was so aggravating. We had so little time and so little footage. We were shooting on 35mm, but we ran out of film. For the actors, it was just like “Argh!” And it was such an artificial environment, because these were all local Seattle actors, they were theater actors, and they weren’t used to being in front of the camera. So I started fantasizing about concentrating on getting acting and writing that really felt real.
Then this film, among the many other things I wanted to try, I was basically going back to my initial impulses as a filmmaker, which involved territory for some subjective filmmaking, to really get inside somebody’s head; I think film is the best way that we have to do that, to actually convey human experience, like an inner-psychic landscape of somebody’s mind. Also, films like Steve McQueen’s HUNGER, films like that where nobody speaks for 40 minutes, it’s purely cinematic between visuals and every aspect of the visual--what’s in the frame, what’s in focus, how is it lit, how is the camera moving or not moving.
All of those things, plus the sound design if there’s music, that’s pure cinematic language without resting on dialog. I love that. That was my initial impulse as a filmmaker, to incorporate that kind of stuff. It’s interesting, because for me it’s like this full-circle return, but I wanted to go back to it like “Now that you actually know a little bit more about what you’re doing, how can you handle this approach.” Because my first one was like film school for me, and you have access to actors who are really veteran in front of the camera and really know what they are doing with lines.
Capone: This is the first time I can think of in one of your films where I really noticed the attention to visuals, espeically that very bold move of filling the screen with skin, which you do a couple of times. It’s a weird sensation to be looking at that, and everyone’s skin is a little different. When you’re searching for the perfect skin shot, what are you looking for exactly?
LS: Well I had to reshoot that several times, because when we did it on set, our macro lens wasn’t close enough, and then we went and I tried to get even closer physically, but we just couldn’t get there. Then I was zooming in digitally, and it just didn’t look as good. So finally I did some research, and a friend of my producer, all he does are these art films with macro photography, so I consulted with him and I got the most macro lens you can get, which is like a 5-to-1 macro. I then spent an entire day--or like five or six hours--in the loft apartment of my gaffer, who was the only one in town, he was also a shooter, so he was able to do this. It was me and him and his girlfriend.
I had to shoot the beginning of the title sequence as well, so the opening titles, those are actually my hands on his girlfriend’s back, and then later I stand in for Rose’s hands again when she's putting her hands down. Again, we wanted to get closer, and our hands trade off pretty well luckily. Then the really super close-up shots on her knee, that’s actually me. [Laughs] So his girlfriend has this beautiful brown skin and my skin is like Rose’s, so we were standing in for the different people.
But trying to get the lighting right…I mean, you’re like this close with the lens and you’re trying to get light in there and get the right light. It was crazy hard, and at one point he looked up and said, “I’m so glad we’re not doing this with 30 or 50 people waiting for us.” It really needed to just be this one day. That’s just straight-up skin, there’s no special effects. Skin is freaky, and I just wanted to really show that if you really look close, it’s like this alien landscape. When we just deal with each other day-to-day, we kind of gloss over all of our imperfections, or we would freak out if we fell into a mole like “Ew, what’s that?” But that’s sort of the real, and occasionally it pierces through like “Oh my god, we are just pieces of meat.”
Capone: Was there a visual language that you were attempting to establish on top of the story?
LS: Yeah, all of those kinds of shots, because the rest of the film is pretty much on a tripod, pretty straightforward coverage. I love cross coverage, which means you have a camera on each person in a conversation, so that people can feel free. They were also “on” in a way that they’re not “on” when they are off camera. But for all of that language that you’re specifically talking about relates to Abby’s psychic state, and she goes into a disassociated, weird place. She’s freaking out. So between sound design and music…there are parts where my composer created some soundscapes that are really more akin to sound design than music with tonal shifts and stuff.
That was really hard, actually, because we did a bunch of rough edit screenings, and I had this temp music and I had a really hard time finding the right temp music. A lot of it felt like a horror movie, and people were like, “Does she have skin cancer? Is this like a David Cronenberg movie all of a sudden?” They’d freak out. So yeah, you had to really find the right tone, and then I had something else where it felt really angelic. It was really important, and the whole movie really rests on the music.
Capone: It does, and speaking of which, the one singing sequence that you have really moved me. I’d say Ellen’s character was probably the hardest for me to get a handle on, both in terms of what her issue is and then whether she even really comes out of this any better. But that scene is so great, because everyone has had that moment where a single song will either destroy you or pull you back together. Can you talk about finding that singer and that song with that scene?
LS: His name is Tomo Nakayama. I am deeply, deeply affected by music. Music means a great deal to me, and after HUMPDAY, I was approached by this MTV producer to do a web series based on actual musicians in Seattle, and it became like my love letter to Seattle and to music and musicians as well. I had 13 bands, and they were all actual bands, and they were all associated with each other in some way, and then they played themselves and enact these moments, all over a 12-episode arc in the web series. They're all about seven or eight minutes, and so it adds up to the length of a feature film, and to that date, it was the biggest production I had ever done budget-wise.
And it was one of the reasons I was confident that Tomo would be able to act. It’s really the first time he’s ever acted on screen, but I had worked with 50 or 60 cast members of musicians, that were non-actors and they all did great. Some did really well and some did less well. Even though it’s a different thing to be on a stage, there’s still some part of them that’s unselfconscious as a performer.
So I had gotten to know Tomo through friends of that. He actually had a very brief moment in that web series, so I knew him then, but then I started to see him in his band. He has a band called Grand Hallway, and I started to see him perform here and there, and he has the voice like an angel. In Seattle, he’s pretty well known. Then I heard he had auditioned for a part in SAFETY NOT GAURANTEED. I had seen him like three years ago--two years before we shot--inging in an a cappella show in the Freemont Abbey, and it was like all of these musicians that were friends of mine singing beautifully. I mean the whole show was like “Oh my god.” They were singing old-timey songs that would be in church music and cover songs. It was all a cappella, and there are just some gorgeous voices in Seattle and a lot of harmonizing groups, but he was the show stopper.
At the very end, he sang this Judy Garland song, “The Man That Got Away,” and it was like he turned into this little androgynous creature. I mean, it was crazy, and the noise coming out of that guy. It was one of the most transcendent moments I had ever had in any context, much less just a performance context, and the acoustics in this place are very beautiful. It used to be a church, and now they’ve turned it into this community center and performance space, and I was like “That voice, in this space is going into one of my movies.” And basically that moment of total transcendence, I wanted to recreate.
And I love him, because he’s so unassuming and soft spoken and just sort of this strange creature, and then when he sings, you just can’t believe it’s coming out of him. It’s like “What the hell?” It’s so gratifying when people tell that to me. They say they have that experience watching it, they are like “What? Who is he? How did you find him?” I’m just like “Well he’s famous where I come from, but I want the world to know about him.” So yeah, it was very satisfying. The day we shot that, I was pinching myself. I was like “Oh my god. This has been a dream of mine, and I can’t believe we’re doing it.”
The last thing I’ll say is the song, the Judy Garland song wasn’t going to work and I didn’t want to worry about the rights, so we were looking and looking through his back catalog, but nothing quite worked. It was a really tough bill to fill, because it really had to tie up three or four character arcs, and then he basically wrote the song ["Horses"] for this, but it was before we even knew just how much was going to be going on in the montage. It felt like, “Okay, that’s open enough lyrically, and it's not just a love song.” I still marvel at how miraculously well it works for all of those storylines.
Capone: It’s one of those great end-of-movie moments that both sums up the film and ties it up.
LS: Oh good. There’s a big chunk of the movie where you just have to stick with it as it’s laying the groundwork for the payoffs later. Structurally, it’s very different than anything I have done before where it’s like, “Okay, this is what this movie is, and then all of a sudden things start to slowly shift, and you may not even realize it, like Josh’s character where he sees the full waiting room and he’s shocked. That’s the first inkling of, “Okay, what the hell is going on?”
Capone: I was going to ask you about him, because obviously he’s a character actor who has been in so many things. What was the thing that you saw him in that made you want to put him in your film?
LS: YEAR OF THE DOG.
Capone: Oh, the Mike White film.
LS: Did you see it?
Capone: Yeah, yeah.
LS: I thought he was a genius in that film. Remember, he played a character very similar, like the boss who just inappropriately drones on and on with a very disinterested employee about his life. I just thought he was such a genius. I was like “Oh my god, who is this guy? He is so great.” Then I got to meet him after the Tribeca Film Festival screening of PLEASE GIVE, Nicole Holofcener's film. Nicole and I share an agent, so I get to go to the green room and Catherine Keener wasn’t there. None of the big people were there, but he was there, and I was like “Um, sir. I think you’re amazing.” He was so gracious and really kind and “Oh, well thank you.” My date was my editor from HUMPDAY, and we all ended up going to the after party at some bar, and we kept talking. We talked for a couple of hours, and somehow HUMPDAY came up, and he freaked out. “What? You directed HUMPDAY? Oh my god.” I mean it was so funny, because he had been the one in power, and then the tables were turned. It was so funny.
So by the end of the night, we were talking about characters and movies, like “Okay, we have to work together.” So we started this friendship and we'd been talking for two years about doing something, and the character that we had been talking about was a dentist who was going to become an accidental cult leader, so it sort of shifted, and it was a different project, but then I realized “Oh, I could put them in the same film [as the masseuse], and they might make a nice juxtaposition.”
Capone: It’s weird to see someone like him, who has built this career on looking so incredibly uncomfortable in his own skin and making everyone else around him feel so awkward, get cocky and comfortable and develop a little swagger. I’ve never seen him that way before.
LS: I know. He’s been typecast in a very specific thing, but he plays a very different character in PRICE CHECK, which was at Sundance last year.
Capone: Oh, the Parker Posey film. It just played here not that long ago.
LS: And he plays this smarmy kind of guy. And he’s on a TV show now called "Ray Donovan" and it’s on Showtime. I think he plays an agent like in Hollywood, so he gets to do something else, which is great. He’s a good guy with ridiculous range. Of course in real life, he’s nothing like those characters that he has to play all of the time.
Capone: You came back to editing on this film. I’ve heard this from a lot of people who have worked with Woody Allen over the years when I ask them, “Well is it a drama or a comedy?” and they're like “I’m not sure. It kind of depends on how he edits it.” Is there a really funny version of this movie in the footage or even maybe a darker version?
LS: I’ll tell you what there is. There is a funnier version in my mind, because I really thought it was going to be like half funny-half drama, and I showed Megan Griffiths--she lives in Seattle and made a movie called THE OFF HOURS that was at Sundance a couple of years ago. And then she made a movie that took SXSW by storm. She won the audience award last year at SXSW called EDEN that you have to see.
Capone: I’ve seen EDEN.
LS: You’ve seen it? With Jamie Chung?
Capone: It was at SXSW.
LS: Good, so that’s Megan, and she’s like my best friend. She was my first AD for years and years, and we’ve worked for each other. I’ve edited for her over the past seven or eight years. Anyway, so I showed her TOUCHY FEELY. She gives incredible notes in the editing process, and really early on, probably days after you and I talked, I brought her in and said, “I don’t know what the hell the structure should be. Should I just cut these scenes out, or should I try to make them work?” This was really early on and I’d never shown anybody else.
But she came in and the first thing she said was, “It’s great. It’s going to work. The performances are all amazing. It’s a drama. You know that, right?” I was like, “Really?” She was like, “It’s a drama, just own it.” It was so helpful, because there were things that I really was like, “This should be funny,” and I was able to just let them go, because it’s just a fucking drama, okay? Then whatever laughs there are, great, because it helps. I feel like it pulls the people in so that they can have the emotional payoffs. I was struggling to make it funny, and they just weren’t funny, so I just cut them out.
Capone: I saw on one of your IMDB credits that you have some a voice acting role in PRINCE AVALANCHE.
LS: Were you there at Sundance?
Capone: No. I haven’t seen the film, although it’s playing at SXSW, so I’ll see it there.
LS: David Gordon Green called me and said, “I’m making a little movie.” It’s like he’s forgotten how to make little movies. [Laughs] And he had all of these producer questions like, “How do you deal with SAG?” So we had this conversation, and it was like “Sure David Gordon Green, I’ll help you.” And we sort of met that way. I called him a couple of time like, “How is it working with this actor?” We had these sort of director conversations, and he calls me back in a couple of weeks later and says, “Would you consider doing a favor for me and acting in a scene with Paul Rudd on the phone?” I was like, “Yeah, I think I could make that happen. Sure, I’ll see if I can fit it into my schedule.”
So I’m on the phone with Paul Rudd, this super-intense, emotional, dramatic scene that I had a really good time doing, and then afterwards I thought, “That’s totally getting cut from the film,” but it’s not, and it’s actually one of the highlights of the movie. I loved the movie, and the conversation has been abstracted and been incorporated into the sound design. I play his girlfriend who has just dumped him.
Capone: I just saw Paul in December in this play on Broadway, and all I did afterwards was ask him about PRINCE AVALANCHE, even though I should have been asking him ANCHORMAN 2 questions.
LS: He hadn’t seen it yet, and I actually got to meet him for the first time, because we had actually been talking about him doing a role in another movie of mine.
Capone: I seem to remember that.
LS: Exactly, and it ended up not working out, which is totally fine, but we had had all of these conversations on the phone, and we just ended up throwing down together at the PRINCE AVALANCHE party. It was so fun. He’s such a great guy. He’s such a sweetheart.
Capone: I read that LAGGIES is next up for you, and this is your first time working from a script you didn't write. Was that the movie Paul was supposed to be in?
LS: Yeah, because of scheduling. It kept getting pushed and pushed, and he was doing the Broadway thing, so Paul bowed out. But yeah, it’s looking really good. I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s looking better than it’s looked for a couple of years, and it looks like we are going to shoot it in June in Seattle. I’m really excited.