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Interview: Lynn Shelton On 'Touchy Feely,' Improvisation & Having Catherine Keener As A Casting Director

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 2, 2013 at 1:06PM

It's exciting at the moment to see some of the names who broke out of the independent scene in the middle of last decade -- the filmmakers often lazily grouped under "mumblecore," people like Mark and Jay Duplass, Joe Swanberg, Ry Russo-Young, et al. -- getting to play on bigger canvases with big name actors and more robust budgets than when they were starting out. And it's particularly exciting when it comes to Lynn Shelton.
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Lynn Shelton

It's exciting at the moment to see some of the names who broke out of the independent scene in the middle of last decade -- the filmmakers often lazily grouped under "mumblecore," people like Mark and Jay Duplass, Joe Swanberg, Ry Russo-Young, et al. -- getting to play on bigger canvases with big name actors and more robust budgets than when they were starting out. And it's particularly exciting when it comes to Lynn Shelton.

The filmmaker has been a promising talent ever since her 2006 debut "We Go Way Back," and over three other subsequent features -- "My Effortless Brilliance," "Humpday" and "Your Sister's Sister" -- has won more and more fans, and wider and wider audiences. Her latest, "Touchy Feely," is the most star-studded to date, toplining Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney and Ron Livingston, and in many ways feels like a continuation of her earlier work, while also moving into new territory.

The film focuses on two siblings: masseuse Abby (DeWitt), who suddenly develops a revulsion to human touch, and dentist Paul (Pais), whose struggling practice suddenly turns around when he seems to be blessed with a healing touch. It's a curious set-up, almost verging on magic realism, but Shelton makes it into something fascinating, sad and sensual, and it's one of the most interesting movies we've seen in 2013 so far. We were lucky enough to talk to Shelton over the weekend when she was in town for Sundance London, and we got to delve more into the origins, process, and themes of the film.

Take a look below, and you can read more about Shelton's upcoming projects in our earlier piece here

Touchy Feely Rosemarie DeWitt
So when did the concept of "Touchy Feely" come to you? 
The idea of a person who works intimately with the bodies of strangers, who then reaches a threshold and can't deal with skin anymore was an idea that had been bouncing round my head for quite some time. And after "Your Sister's Sister," the character and Rosemarie [DeWitt, who starred in that film] came together in my head, it became clear to me that she needed to be that person. So both the idea, and working with her, became clear after "Your Sister's Sister." But it also coincided with the idea of, after making three films in a row that were highly collaborative, working very closely with actors to find the characters, where much of the dialogue was improvised, I felt the urge to make something that firstly expanded beyond three character and one key location and one weekend, and also, wanting to be more of a control freak and just write a script.

So the two starting points were this character that Rosemarie seemed destined to play, and separately, Josh Pais and I had been talking about another movie, upon discovering we were mutual admirers of each other, about a different, but similar character. That project never came into being, but when I was working on this one, I thought that might be a great juxtaposition, to have him as her brother. She's losing her mojo, he's refining his. It started with those two, and then the other characters and narrative threads, was just me sitting down and writing. So once the script was written, then I started plugging actors into those other roles.

How quickly did it come together, then?
I started working on it during the edit process of "Your Sister's Sister," and then put it aside, because I had another project that came in with a producer, a project that another writer had written, that I loved. So I started working on that full-time, and we had a start date, and then it got pushed, and pushed again, and finally, a year ago... we were shooting "Touchy Feely" a year ago, so it was a little before that. But the other project got pushed one more time, and I hung up the phone, and I called Josh and Rose and said, "Are you guys available to shoot this thing in a couple of months, because I have to get on set again." So they were available, and I had to finish the script in a couple of months.

You mentioned wanting to be more of a control freak here, whereas "Humpday" was mostly improvised, and "Your Sister's Sister" had a lot of that too. Was there any improv in "Touchy Feely"?
"Your Sister's Sister" was about 70 pages of dialogue, some of the scenes were just descriptions of what would happen, but most had full dialogue. Occasionally, if Mark [Duplass] was in a scene, they tended to go completely off the beaten track that I'd written, but if it was the two actresses, they might change the precise wording, but they kept much closer to the script I'd written. So that was what I envisioned for this film, but none of the actors were veteran improvisers. So Rose, who'd experienced that before, her scenes tended to be a little more loose, and Josh and Allison were very game as well, but Ellen and Scoot and Josh probably stayed closest, they were like "They're great lines, can we just say them?" I was open to whatever was working for everybody, it's always interesting to see how it shifts. But I'd say "Your Sister's Sister" was probably 70/80% improvised, and it was probably the opposite for "Touchy Feely."

This article is related to: Interviews, Touchy Feely, Lynn Shelton, Your Sister's Sister


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