“It just meant an enormous amount to be asked the first time,” Shelton says of her first opening night slot, when Your Sister’s Sister opened SIFF in 2012. “It really felt like a celebration of not just me, but of the entire local filmmaking community.”
Now, Sword of Trust is a celebration of a different sort and it finds the writer/director setting another type of precedent. The film marks the first feature Shelton has made outside of the Northwest (it was shot on location in Birmingham, Alabama). “Seattle’s in my blood and bones,” Shelton says. “But even though it wasn’t my region, shooting Sword of Trust felt like a triumph of regional filmmaking. About half of the crew was Birminghamers, and it felt like a tight-knit temporary family.”
Character-rooted humor is one of Shelton’s trademarks, and Sword of Trust veers closer to flat-out farce than any of her previous features. The film follows Mel (Marc Maron), a pawn shop owner who winds up in an unlikely partnership with a couple (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) looking to unload an artifact that may or may not confirm the South’s victory in the Civil War.
For all of the belly laughs embedded in the movie, however (and there are quite a few), there’s a definite sense of affection for her characters, who are just endearing and/or silly enough to sidestep offensive stereotyping. “It was an enormous challenge,” Shelton admits. “We spent a lot of time observing the local culture and trying to embed ourselves there.”
That said, the movie's very funny characters are colorful deep-South denizens chasing down a sword to add credibility to their very outré conspiracy theories. Those timelier satiric elements aren’t accidental. “I wasn’t trying to go super-heavy-handed with the commentary, but I did want to touch on the situation with our Conspiracy Theorist-in-Chief. I’m happy to have explored that a little bit, and it doesn’t seem to have gotten less relevant since we initially filmed the movie.”
Sword of Trust serves as an engaging showcase for Maron, whose weary pawnshop-owning protagonist fits the actor/comedian’s own scruffy, lived-in personality like a workman’s worn glove (the character was written specifically for Maron by Shelton). The two met when he interviewed Shelton for an episode of his WTF with Marc Maron podcast four years ago, and she’s worked frequently with Maron ever since, directing episodes of his sitcom, Maron, and GLOW, the Netflix series that features Maron as a regular.
“We’ve been trying to write a project together for a while, but we could never get in the same room for long enough,” she says. “Finally he told me, ‘If you have an idea for a movie you want to write by yourself, and you want me in it, just write a part for me and I’ll do it.’”
Shelton’s about as local as a local filmmaker can get. Born and raised in Seattle, she frequented SIFF as a teenager. She also gained early exposure to cinema, thanks to her parents’ fondness for film. “They weren’t filmmakers, but they were very smart film lovers,” she notes.
Viewings of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (her mother’s favorite film) and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories opened Shelton’s eyes to the craft and technique of filmmaking. “There were certain moments in those films that just caught my breath, where I felt the filmmaking,” she recalls. “I just popped out of the story as a viewer and thought about that [director] making that decision, whether it was where they placed freeze frames, or where they cut a scene. And I thought about why it was affecting me. That was the first inkling in me of wanting to express myself as a filmmaker.”
Shelton initially channeled her creative energy into an acting career, graduating from the University of Washington School of Drama and finding her way to New York to become an actor. The tenuous nature of that profession led her to graduate studies in photography at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. After working with her thesis adviser (experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh) and a course in video art, Shelton was making her own experimental shorts. “I was doing completely experimental work and not worrying about an audience,” she says.
She eventually honed her expertise as a film editor, working on her own shorts and teaching editing. Shelton journeyed back to Seattle after graduate school and took an unpaid gig editing Measure, a short dance film, which led to her first feature editing gig: a locally produced 2002 thriller called Outpatient.
Several other editing jobs bolstered Shelton’s confidence in her own filmmaking skills, but it was a Q&A at the Seattle Art Museum by French director Claire Denis in 2003 that emboldened Shelton to take the directorial reins. “During her talk, I realized that she’d made her first film at the age of 40,” Shelton says. “I found that unbelievably inspiring.”
Shelton wrote and directed We Go Way Back, her first feature film, over the course of the next two years. It won the Slamdance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 2006. Her profile as a filmmaker has grown steadily ever since. Her distinctive style — loose-limbed, character-driven films with a wry sense of humor and a distinctively Seattle sense of thoughtfulness — has found favor with receptive audiences well beyond the Pacific Northwest: Humpday, her 2009 indie comedy, won an Independent Spirit Award and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance.
After helming a 2010 episode of Mad Men, a succession of episodic TV assignments kept her busy, and enabled her to continue doing her own passion projects. “The TV work has just been a master class in filmmaking for me,” she says. “I’ve logged so much time behind the camera. It’s stimulated me creatively, and it’s challenged me to use every element in my filmmaking tool kit.”
Shelton’s currently doing pre-production on Little Fires Everywhere, a miniseries adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestseller. She’ll be executive-producing alongside stars Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, as well as directing half of the series’ eight episodes. It’s a welcome journey outside her comfort zone. What’s more familiar will be SIFF.
“This second time opening SIFF is especially meaningful to me,” Shelton says. “It’s a reminder, even after all of this fulfilling TV work that, yes, I am still a filmmaker.”
Sword of Trust opens Thursday, May 16 at 7 p.m. during the SIFF gala celebration.