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Sundance Women Directors: Lynn Shelton on the Question that Shapes Her Work and the Beauty of Sundance

Features
by Melissa Silverstein
January 17, 2014 1:00 PM
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Keira Knightley in Lynn Shelton's "Laggies."

Laggies director Lynn Shelton is best known as the writer-director of the acclaimed comedy Your Sister's Sister, starring Emily Blunt, which screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Her 2009 hit, Humpday, won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards. Her fifth feature, Touchy Feely, featuring Ellen Page, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 and was released by Magnolia Pictures. 

Laggies will debut at Sundance on January 17th.

I haven't seen your film so we're going to do this as a preview for people. Why don't you give us your description of what Laggies is?

Oh, lordy.

I want to get a sense of your thoughts of what this film is.

Well, if you don't mind, I'm going to just start by talking about what attracted me to the project because it's the first film I've done that didn't come from an idea that I originated. I didn't write the script. It was kind of a shocker to read a script that I felt so personally connected to so quickly and I really knew I wanted to direct it immediately. Seeing that I was the first choice of the producer and writer who brought it to me, it all worked out really nicely and I'm really grateful. I was able to just say yes, and we were up and running. 

The reason that I was so attracted to it was a lot of times when I'm reading a script I know what's going to happen by page 10, 20, 30, and this one really took me on an unexpected journey -- lots of little sweet, subtle twists and turns along the pathway of the story that I could not have anticipated. I loved that. I also loved the fact that even though it was unexpected and surprising, it was never unbelievable. I kind of pride myself on taking premises that seem on paper to seem not particularly promising and then making a movie that really, once you watch it, you feel, "Oh yeah. That actually could have happened in real life." In this case, the idea of a 28-year-old befriending a 16-year-old and really genuinely wanting to hang out with her seems, on paper, not particularly believable, but I really felt like the way the story unfolded and how the characters were treated by the writer in a very loving and compassionate way, it really is believable. I just love unusual relationships and the way that sometimes souls connect in the most unexpected circumstances.

Overall, the film is about the main character, a 28-year-old woman Megan (Keira Knightley) who is in every scene in the film. It's her story. She's in a place in life [that's] similar to a place where you see a lot of men in movies but rarely women. She's kind of at an in-between place. She hasn't committed to what her life is going to be "when she grows up." She has yet to commit to that. But she's not a depressive. She's not a slacker dropout or a sort of stoner stripper gal or something; she's not doing it on purpose and it's not that she's unemployable. She has an advanced degree.  Nothing has motivated her to kind of step up, take some agency, and make decisions about where she's going to direct her life. That's her arc -- actually finding agency and deciding for herself where she will go. It's like she's been drifting down a river downstream on her back just going wherever the river takes her and she puts down her legs and stands up, looks around, and says, "Okay, I'm going to go to this bank." 

A 28-year-old guy with a 16-year-old girl would be a little creepy, but we don't have that creepy factor here.

No, not at all. It's a very sweet and genuine friendship.

That's cool. I like that. It feels to me -- and I don't know if you agree with this -- that you've made a progression in your films -- stepped it up each time in terms of the people who are in your films, the visibility your films get, and this one feels like it's another step for you. Do you feel that?

I do. It's the first film I've made with a multi-million budget, for instance. [All of] my films have been under a million, most of them under half a million. This is definitely a step up in the scope. It was the first time I got to step onto a helicopter and take aerial footage of my beloved Seattle. What was beautiful is that I got to use the same family of collaborators in Seattle that I've been using for the last five films, but I was able to give them all of bells and whistles that they deserve with a budget for my art department and camera department. It was really fun in that way, really lovely. I couldn't have been happier with the cast: each person was more talented and fun to work with and sweet-natured than the last. It was really a dreamy situation. Yeah, it does feel like a step up in a lot of ways.

This is the fifth film you've directed, is that correct?

Sixth.

And your fourth film at Sundance?

Yes.

What is the Lynn Shelton body of work? I feel that you are a unique storyteller. You tell the Seattle story, the story of women, of people who are trying to find their place. I look at Nicole Holofcener because she also has a body of work. The great news is that there are some women like you where you can look at your whole filmography. I'm wondering if you might have any thoughts about if someone said, "Hey, want to watch Lynn Shelton movies?"

Well, the only reason I hesitate is because I feel like I'm bad at this. For instance, I really enjoy reading what intelligent critics have to say about my work because it's always very eye-opening for me. I'm in the trenches making it, following my instincts and doing my thing. Afterwards, other people help me gain perspective and write much more eloquently about what my work is about. I think if there was a list to be made about common threads or themes in my films, the things that interest me as a filmmaker are definitely relationships. I'm really interested in how people change through time, change in relationship with other people -- how they might show one aspect of themselves when they're with one person but with another person in another context a different side of them will come out. All of that wraps around the ultimate questions of "Who am I? Am I myself?" Those questions of self -- that is the eternal fascination point for me. I'm drawn to stories that force people to take stock and ask themselves that very question -- who am I, who do I want to be, am I living up to whatever expectations I have for myself? Other hallmarks are that I definitely try to find the kind of actor-collaborators that will create performances that I really truly believe in. That together we can create stories and characters that appear onscreen, yet feel so real that they'll resonate with audiences because they'll be so believable.

Your film was in competition last year, which was 50/50 men and women. This year you are in the premiere section, so you're not in competition and there are fewer female directors in competition than there were last year. Do you have any thoughts on that, or comments you want to make about the landmark that was last year but also that we're back to reality this year?

I will say that I was surprised. The feeling I had last year was "finally." It felt like a high-water mark that had yet to be reached and I was absolutely thrilled that it was reached, but didn't necessarily feel like that meant from here on out half of the films at Sundance would have gender parity. I was disappointed but I can't say that I was surprised.  But I do still believe that it was a great sign of progress that we're in general going in the right direction -- you know, two steps forward, one step back -- but at least in general we're headed in the right direction overall. So I'm not going to get down about it.

Why do you think Sundance is so right for your work?

The audiences and the mission statement of Sundance in general. The thing that I appreciate and that has certainly served me well as a filmmaker is that they really strike a balance between trying to court larger independent films where the actors might be the stars of the cast, but they're all challenging themselves to do something new and something different, and something that's not so mainstream or studio driven. They are also trying to support veterans of Sundance, people who have been there before and maybe doing something new and different in their own work, and supporting them through their evolution as filmmakers because there is a sense of being loyal and supporting filmmakers who are veterans. And yet they are also always looking for brand new talent, coming from wherever. 

I made Humpday for a nickel and a dime and outside of the system of support or locale of traditional filmmaking happens in New York and LA. I was up in the hinterlands here in Seattle and I made a film with my friends, and didn't have any big stars in it. I sent in a DVD and they watched it. John Cooper [the Director of Programming at Sundance] saw it, didn't know me from Adam, thought it was my first film, didn't have any awareness of me at all as a filmmaker, and accepted [Humpday] into the competition. That's pretty remarkable for such a high-profile festival. Now I'm in the category of one of the veterans that they are continuing to support and I'm so grateful every time I get in because I know people who have been at Sundance before and haven't been able to get in again or were rejected the second or third time. I'm always grateful and never take anything for granted. 

The fact that they accepted me the first time out [shows] they are sincerely passionate about good stories, new voices, and fresh perspectives, and that's why I think I'm a good fit for Sundance. Their audiences are so beautiful. There are all these people who come into town just for the same reason everybody's there -- the love of film. They are open, excited, and genuinely passionate about the possibility of being a part of that discovery process of being able to see new work and new talent for the first time. I don't know. It's just a beautiful thing. I really, really love being there. I love premiering work there and I'm really grateful to be there again this year.

Now that you've taken a step up, do you continue taking a step up or for your next project do you want to go back and do your own thing again? What's your advice to someone to build a career like you've had?

I would say the biggest piece of advice is, Don't wait too long for somebody else to give you permission to make your work. For instance, I have a couple of things in development that are on a similar scale to Laggies -- actually one of them could be much larger, three times the size budget-wise -- and I'm genuinely, incredibly excited about these films, but if it takes years for them to come together, I'm not just going to sit and wait for years and years to go by before I make another movie. I'm always going to have in my back pocket that smaller, easier-to-put-together movie where I can literally call up friends and say, "Hey. Want to take a couple weeks and make a movie together?" just so that I can keep working. Especially earlier in my career, that sensibility really served me well. I remember 

It's funny, I just talked to a friend who signed on recently with a manager in LA, a tiny agency, and she said their names and I said, "Oh, my God." I had forgotten I had a meeting with them after I made my very first feature film and they gave me the best advice ever. They said, "The best thing you can do is just to keep making your own work. Find your own voice and hone your own artistry. Just focus in on that and keep producing work." The fact of the matter is, it's totally feasible to do that and make really high-quality work if you get the right collaborators because the technology is such that you can create a beautiful image with a great soundtrack with not very expensive equipment. That's my biggest piece of advice to fledgling filmmakers: just keep making movies and don't wait too long for that big deal to come through for larger scale work.

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