Lynn Shelton’s Sundance hat trick

Lynn Shelton Credit: 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.

The music really added to the particular feeling of place in "Touchy Feely," especially the concert scene with Tomo Nakayama of the indie rock band Grand Hallway. I had the pleasure of seeing Tomo perform at Elliott Bay, and it blew me away. How did you discover Tomo, and how did the music add to the film?

I wrote and directed a music based web series for MTV called "$5 Cover: Seattle" a few years ago and met Tomo through that project. I started seeing his band playing at various events and there was one performance of his in particular that just blew me away. It was an acappella show at the Fremont Abbey where members of The Moondoggies, The Maldives, The Head and The Heart and others sang, mostly covers, and all unaccompanied by instruments.

Tomo capped off the show with the most remarkable rendition of a Judy Garland song ("The Man That Got Away") and it was such a transcendent experience for me that I became instantly obsessed with trying to re-create that experience in one of my movies some day. It is extraordinarily satisfying that I basically got to do this, only with a song that works much better for the various narratives of this film.

 

One of the big bits of buzz at Sundance this year was the representation of women directors at the festival. It was the first time that there were an equal number of women and men in the dramatic competition. Jill Soloway, who directed "Afternoon Delight," said it felt like the women directors “all crossed the street together holding hands.” Can you talk about your experience with the other women directors showing films at Sundance this year, or other women who have influenced your work? 

I am always inspired by other filmmakers, both men and women. This year at Sundance, Lake Bell and Jill Soloway's films were absolutely lovely, as were James Ponsoldt's and David Lowery's. Whenever someone tells me that I have inspired them in some way, well, that is the most amazing feeling in the world. 

For me, the main beauty of the gender parity in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section is that I hope it foreshadows a day when being a woman who makes movies will not be an unusual thing. At which point, all of our work will be able to be taken on its own merits, as opposed to the focus being on the sex of the artist. That being said, having female filmmakers such as Peggy Ahwesh, Claire Denis, Jane Campion, Lynne Ramsay and Kathryn Bigelow blazing the trail ahead of me was enormously influential on me when I was first starting out.

What about the current landscape for filmmaking in Washington state? Do you find the tax incentive helpful, or not enough?

The tax incentive is wonderful. It's really well structured and designed; one of the best in the nation in fact. The only issue now is that we simply need more money in the pot. If we could secure more funds for the program, Washington would be able to support many more (as well as larger) film productions and television shows each year and keep more film professionals employed year round and living here as taxpaying state residents. But it sure is a wonderful start!

Touchy Feely's collision of New Age-y, eastern-influenced culture and Western ideas provided some hilarious comedic material. But it also offered room for thinking about meaning in these characters' lives. Is this culture collision a particularly West Coast- or Seattle-specific story?

I think it's the kind of culture collision one could find all over the place but, yes, there is something about it that feels extra Seattle-y to me.

 

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