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Lynn Shelton's Sundance hat trick

An interview with Seattle's queen bee of filmmaking.
Lynn Shelton, director of "Touchy Feely."

Lynn Shelton, director of "Touchy Feely." Photo: Elen Nivrae

Rarely do filmmakers debut three films at the Sundance Film Festival in a five-year span, but Seattle's Lynn Shelton has accomplished that hat trick. She brought audiences to tears (with uncomfortable laughter) in the 2009 'bromance' "Humpday," then took a more serious turn with the family drama "Your Sister's Sister" in 2012. Shelton was once again selected to showcase her work last month in Park City, Utah.

Her new film, "Touchy Feely," is Shelton's second to premiere in Sundance's dramatic competition. Starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page and Allison Janney, "Touchy Feely" is the story of a massage therapist (DeWitt) who becomes suddenly and mysteriously allergic to touching people. Meanwhile her brother (Pais), an uptight dentist, is transformed into someone with a healing touch that patients clamor for. The two explore relationships, family, and what it means to make a real connection.

We caught up with her fresh off the heels of another whirlwind festival.

Samantha Herndon: Congratulations on "Touchy Feely." Your last two films had a somewhat more straightforward plot setup: maybe these two best friends will make a porno together, maybe this man will sleep with his best friend's sister. "Touchy Feely" felt like a marked change in your direction. It has this element of the powerful unknown, life-altering experiences and these gorgeous soundscapes of transformation. Describe what you where going for. Was "Touchy Feely" meant to be a more experimental, experiential film?

Lynn Shelton: It certainly was. I've been yearning for some time to return to my initial impulse as a feature filmmaker, which was to explore narrative territory that allows for some cinematic representation of psychic landscapes. I definitely wanted to get into people's heads with this one.

I started out as an experimental filmmaker and my first narrative feature, "We Go Way Back," had room for this kind of subjective, sound and music-driven content. With my second, third and fourth features, I concentrated on attempting to perfect a high degree of naturalism in the performances on screen, and each of them ended up being very dialogue-driven with a single plot through-line. I wanted "Touchy Feely" to contain some poetry, some mystery and moments that viscerally affected the audience.

At a Q&A after "Touchy Feely" screened at Sundance, you mentioned that directing an episode of "Mad Men" from a strict TV script changed your approach to using 'scriptments,' which leave a lot of room for improvisation from the actors. How has your approach evolved and what are you shooting next?

It's totally a project to project thing for me. I know I will go back to making films that are made up mostly of improvised lines. And there will be films that are mostly written lines. It depends on the actors you are working with and the kind of story you are attempting to tell. Being comfortable with giving my actors a lot of freedom and then knowing how to deal with that in the edit room gives me one more tool in my tool belt, but that doesn't mean that I have to use it all or even most of the time. Directing "Hands and Knees" for Mad Men was the first time I'd worked with a really well-written script and actors who knew their characters like the backs of their hands.

This felt like luxury to me. I could spend all my time as a director meticulously framing every shot and finding the shape of the scene with the actors, instead of wringing my hands over whether we had created enough dialogue on set to find the scene later in the edit room.

The next project I direct will be a movie called "Laggies" by the brilliant writer Andrea Siegel. I'll probably do what I did with "Touchy Feely", which will be to rely heavily on the lines as written but to be ready to toss them out or at least be loose with them if they are not working on set or if we find something better. It's about remaining flexible and open.


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