Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton won critical acclaim in 2006 for her first feature, We Go Way Back, which explored the depressing though often hilarious adventures of a young actress haunted by the memory of a happier adolescent self. With her new film, My Effortless Brilliance, which make its local debut at the Seattle International Film Festival this weekend, Shelton role shifts from autobiographer to anthropologist as she examines the complex world of male friendship.
The project arose from Shelton's desire to make a collaborative narrative film in which a team of well-chosen actors could draw on their life experiences to create characters suited to tell a particular story. In this case, the story Shelton had in mind was that of a platonic friendship gone awry. She had recently come to the realization that friendships, like romantic relationships, "can be so codependent that they are unsustainable," and that filmmakers were not exploring this rich emotional territory.
The decision to focus on men rather than women was partly intellectual, as Shelton believes her approach in this film is more distanced than in We Go Way Back, which was largely autobiographical. But the decision was also driven by her desire to work with Sean Nelson, whom she knew from previous collaborations — he worked on the music for her earlier film, and she shot a music video for his band Harvey Danger. Not only did Shelton find Nelson "funny and charismatic," but she discovered he also had experienced a platonic break-up, and was interested in the story she wanted to tell.
Most of the film takes place over the course of a weekend in a cabin in the woods of Eastern Washington, where three thirtysomething men negotiate their friendships. Nelson plays Eric, a narcissistic urbanite novelist visiting his down-to-earth buddy Dylan (Basil Harris), who abruptly ended their relationship two years earlier. The presence of Dylan's new friend, the quiet and slightly spooky Jim (Calvin Reeder), creates a tense triangle.
Shelton worked with the three actors to develop detailed histories of their characters and the relationships between them. All the actors are credited as writers of the film. Shelton wrote an outline to ensure certain points were revealed in each scene, but the actors improvised the dialogue. It's interesting to note that Larry David and Christopher Guest use the same technique, which may explain why Brilliance is often quite funny. Indeed, Nelson could be the Larry David of his generation, as he adeptly exaggerated his own worst qualities to create the character of Eric, according to Shelton.
By inviting the actors to bring their personal experiences into the film, Shelton was able to exploit naturally occurring tensions. For example, she claims Nelson actually was as terrified by the woods as he appears, and Reeder really is a fan of Charles Bukowski, a fact that spurs one of the film's few confrontations. This lack of overt drama gives the film a documentary feel, as the characters' realistic repression of their feelings produces a much more subtle and nuanced narrative than found in a traditional Hollywood script.
A total of seven days of shooting produced about 20 hours of footage which Shelton then took to the editing room. It was there that the actual 'story' of the film emerged, as she had to pick and choose which anecdotes, images, banter, and gestures could be stitched together to best portray the developing relationships among the three characters. In this sense, she says the film resembled a documentary, a genre with which she has much editing experience.
Although My Effortless Brilliance differs in many ways from her first effort, Shelton — a Seattle native — is quick to agree that they are both very much Northwest films. It's not just that they were set and shot in Washington, but they also share a sensibility with other films made in the area, though she's hard-pressed to say exactly what that is. "I recently saw a wonderful film made in Philadelphia, and one made in San Francisco," Shelton explained. "Neither could have been made in Seattle. Those of us making films outside of Los Angeles and New York are outsider artists in a sense, and our films reflect where we make them."
My Effortless Brilliance will be screened at the Egyptian Theater on Saturday, May 24th, at 9:30 p.m. and Monday, May 26th, at 4 p.m.