Interview: Lynn Shelton on “My Effortless Brilliance”

[I interviewed Lynn Shelton in Seattle on May 17, 2008, to talk about her then new film, My Effortless Brilliance, and her debut feature, We Go Way Back. This interview was originally published on GreenCine on May 24, 2008. Since this interview, Shelton made Humpday, which was chosen to play in the exclusive competition at Sundance 2009 and was quickly scooped up as the festival’s first film sale, and won the Acura Someone to Watch Award for My Effortless Brilliance at the 2009 Spirit Awards. I revisit the interview for Parallax View.]

Lynn Shelton
Lynn Shelton

Lynn Shelton is part of a hardy breed: the regional filmmaker who creates feature films within a community far outside the L.A.-centered base. That means casts, crews, locations, post-production and even financing is all locally based. Her debut feature, We Go Way Back, made after a decade of honing her skills on experimental films and documentaries and editing the features of other local filmmakers, won the Jury Prize at Slamdance in 2006. Her second film, My Effortless Brilliance premiered at SXSW in 2008 and gets it hometown premiere during the opening weekend of the Seattle International Film Festival.

Both of these films are small, intimate, character-based pictures. We Go Way Back, the story of a young actress in a kind of emotional stupor as she struggles to make her way as an actress at the expense of her own sense of self, tosses in a high concept twist – her 13-year-old self, present in letters written to her future self full of confidence and creativity and ambition, arrives in the flesh. What could be a Lynchian bend in time and space and identity, however, is played with naturalistic calm. She’s not here to judge, only to heal and center her emotionally fractured older self. My Effortless Brilliance shifts to male relationships, specifically the “break-up” of old friends and the desperation with which one man (played by Sean Nelson – singer, songwriter, former frontman for Harvey Danger and, in the interest of disclosure, my friend and colleague), a novelist struggling to repeat the success of his first book, attempts to reconnect. His motivations are less out of affection than ego – dude, he was dumped! The film’s reception was mixed, which may have as much to do with the seeming lack of narrative drive and plotting and its undeniable similarities to Old Joy as with the discomforting portrait of male relationships. Yet I found the texture of the relationships and the sly humor winning and was impressed with the performances, especially Nelson, who’s a natural in the role, subtly establishing the sense of ego and vulnerability and self-aggrandizement in the character with brave intimacy. Shelton’s observations of male relationships and the rhythms of old friends falling into old patterns are spot on, helped immensely, surely, by the collaboration of the cast, who played the scenes without a script, only an outline.

I met Lynn Shelton for breakfast at Mae’s on Phinney Ridge (a great little breakfast spot near both of us) and, starting out over cups of green tea (“I love it,” she said – our first connection made), she launched into the history of how she started making features and where My Effortless Brilliance came from.

We Go Way Back is the quintessential chick flick and My Effortless Brilliance really is the quintessential guy flick,” she began. “I’ve yet to meet a guy who does not like my new movie. And there are a lot of people who like it, but there are some who just can’t find a way into it. They just can’t relate to it, basically. And We Go Way Back is the exact opposite. Every woman has a very homogeneous sense of love for this movie. A lot of men love it too, but sometimes men are just like, ‘Whatever.’ It’s really, really interesting. So I like that dichotomy.”

When thinking about My Effortless Brilliance, I think back to when I saw Doris Dorrie’s Men, and what I liked so much about it is that there are so many films about women made by men and so few films about men made by women. And you get a distinctly different perspective. There’s no ego involved, for one thing.

There are actually a couple of moments in the movie that the guys really begged me to cut out. I actually tried to see if I could and I couldn’t really make it work, but I also really felt that they were honest.

The actors were involved in the screenwriting process as well, correct? Their names are listed as screenwriters in the credits.

They are. The reason is that the actual arc of the movie… The whole movie started because I wanted to find a new way of making films. Before I made We Go Way Back, I’d been making a lot of little experimental films and documentaries and doing everything on my own, basically. I’d gone to grad school in photography and media. My own movies were all DIY, I just did everything, and it was half because I needed to be in control of everything but also because I didn’t know how to collaborate with other people. I didn’t know about that process because my MFA program was basically a solo artist/ solo photographer paradigm. I think I learned about cinematic storytelling as an editor. I edited two feature films for other people and a number of shorts and I had this whole long background in the theater as an actor. So this was sort of a long time coming and when Gregg Lachow invited to make We Go Way Back for The Film Company, I walked onto the set, I didn’t know any of the crew and it was my first time on a film set, so it was my film school, too. And I completely fell in love with working with other people, with creative collaborators, and that was such an incredible group of people, I’ve worked with [cinematographer] Ben Kasulke ever since on music videos and documentaries and the web series we did last year. It totally changed the way I make art. Now it’s all relationship based. I really like inviting other people into the process and seeing where they can take that part of the project, and we always end up with something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s totally addictive.

So that was great, but the thing that I found really frustrating was the traditional filmmaking structure of writing a script… Well, there are a lot of different elements to it that add up to this difficulty, but what it ends up adding up to is a really challenging experience for the actor. I’m somebody who had worked really organically performing in the theater, which was always a more performance oriented activity. And having that experience as an actor, I was totally empathetic with the actors on the set and it was constantly frustrating having to ask them to do a line 50 times and keep it fresh every time, because we had to change angles, or to wait another hour for the lighting set-up, or whatever it is. I’m really happy with the film and I’m really happy with the performances, but I just felt that there could be an easier way. It still feels more “written” to me than I would like. I really wanted to try to find a completely naturalistic performance, I wanted to create a film where it felt like the events were unfolding in front of your eyes and you were a fly on the wall, like a documentary feeling instead of imagining that somebody could have written those lines and asked actors to say them. And so, in the middle of “We Go Way back,” I started listing all the things I wanted to do as an experiment to see, if you create a completely performance-oriented creative situation, what would happen. So I had some of the elements in place. The first one was, instead of writing a script and creating characters in my head and looking for this person to fill that role, I got this idea that what if I started with people that I wanted to work with and create a character designed for them, that was based on them and they could be involved in the development of the character.

The two stars of My Effortless Brilliance were both involved in We Go Way Back. Sean Nelson was the music supervisor and Basil Harris had a supporting role in that film.

It was actually kind of a coincidence because I started the whole project with Sean Nelson, who I’d come to know and our paths kept crossing, and I just found him really compelling. I’d only seen glimpses of him on screen in his music videos that he did for Harvey Danger, but I thought he seemed totally comfortable in front of the camera. I found him really funny and just very engaging and riveting, and as a person I found him completely singular, I’d never met anyone like him. He was such an interesting combination of qualities. And that’s the way the movie started. I came up with this idea that I wanted to try to make a movie in a different way as a kind of experiment and I started chatting with Sean about this idea of doing a movie together and he was really excited about it and so that sounded good. At the same time I was interested in a theme, which was basically how really intense, codependent platonic relationships are sometimes just as unsustainable and can get just as unhealthy as romantic relationships can get. I’d had three really dramatic break-ups with platonic girlfriends in my life that were just devastating. Even more devastating than a romance since boyfriends come and go but your girlfriend is supposed to be there for life. But I didn’t know if that was just a girl thing so I brought up the topic to Sean to see if he was interested in it and he was completely interested in it. That break-up scene at the beginning of the movie is pretty much a recreation of something that happened to him in his life. So he was totally into it and that was it, starting with Sean and the theme, and then I pitched this character to him. I was worried that it might be a little too close to him because it basically is him, it’s like his history with music and his brief, intense brush with fame [in Harvey Danger] transferred over to this novelist, which is easy for him as well because he’s also a writer. But he was totally in to it, he loved the character and loved the idea of it. We would have these lunches and these teas and talk about character and then as the character developed, we started realizing what other relationships would be helpful. It turns out that Basil [Harris] is in real life a great friend of Sean’s. They have this incredible rapport together, they’re two of these people who, you put them in the same room and you can’t get a word in edgewise, they’re just riffing off each other. And even though these friends were going to be on the outs, I needed there to be these glimmers of the relationship as it was, you could see what the foundations of it were, so I knew I needed an actual strong relationship to begin with. I’d worked with Basil before and was really comfortable with him, so it was perfect. Calvin Reeder was cast specifically because I needed somebody who was the polar opposite of Sean Nelson. Calvin is not that character but he does have a lot of those same character traits, he’s sort of this same kind of laconic, slightly anti-intellectual.

I really found that I couldn’t develop the plot until I had the characters so I would keep going back to the actors and really talk to them about their characters and get them to help me with the backstory. And so Sean and Basil’s characters had this whole, rich history together, we knew all the stuff about how they met and stuff that they had done in college, the history that they had, the life of their relationship was all well thought out. And I would also get some input about plot, but generally that was all me. And this was all self-funded so I was writing for resources that I had at my disposal. I had that location [the cabin in the woods] I knew I could get, so that became part of it. Oh, I can get a horse? Okay, I’ll throw a horse in. So I had the whole thing mapped out and knew exactly what was going to happen in every scene, but the words that came out of their mouths were for the most part all coming out of their heads. I was talking to Sean the other day and he said, “I hate to use the word improvisation, because to me that was not improvised.” He felt that he knew exactly what he was going to say. They all did, because we talked at length before we shot every scene so they always knew what the scene was about and where it was headed, it was just that they didn’t have to worry about memorizing specific words, they could just make it happen with their own words. That’s why I gave them writing credit, because the actual words are their own.

Basil Harris and Sean Nelson rest their effortless brilliance
Basil Harris and Sean Nelson rest their effortless brilliance

Did you rehearse scenes, did you work them out in workshop approach to get a shape to them?

No, we’d just talk and talk and talk before we shot. We were shooting on video, so if it really wasn’t working, we could do it again. We usually had two cameras, especially in the cabin, and the lighting was set up and the room was set up in such a way that they could go wherever they wanted and do whatever they wanted and the hope was that we would get the coverage with the two cameras. The reason you do take after take and make them do the same thing again and again and make them hit the same marks is so that you can move the camera and the lights and get all these different angles and put it together in the edit room. But with two cameras, the hope was that we would never have to make them replicate the exact same thing again and again, which would stifle the performances. The whole point was to make it as easy on them as possible so they could be comfortable and naturalistic. And so that dinner scene, for instance, the first dinner in the cabin, I think we shot for 20-25 minutes and they just went, they just kept talking and had this long conversation and then I ended up cutting it down to a two-minute scene. So editing it was a lot like editing a documentary. I just had 20 hours or so of really great performances and all this wonderful writing and usable footage but then had to decide how I was going to shape it. I stole a lot of shots and created moments and enhanced tensions and did all kinds of stuff. There are a few scenes that we realized really should be shifted and weren’t working the way we shot them so I would have to manipulate them a little bit in the editing. That’s the redemptive beauty of the editing phase. Like I said, the edit room is where I learned how to be a cinematic storyteller, and a director, for that matter. On set I often felt like was just a big cheater. We would talk and talk and talk and we all knew what was going to happen in that scene, but I would then just step back and let them go. In retrospect I realize that there was a lot that I was putting into place, but a lot of it was invisible. I really felt that my directorship came heavily in to play in the edit room.

Orson Welles was quoted as saying “The director is simply the audience. . . . His job is to preside over accidents.” So it’s creating a set where creative work can bloom.

Totally, yeah, and that’s something I’m very protective of. The other big, big difference between these two productions is that We Go Way Back probably had about 30 people on set and the new movie was often just Ben the cinematographer, Vinny the sound guy, and me and the actors. We didn’t have a gaffer. We had a production designer who set everything up and then it was all done. But we were in this remote location so we worked out a deal where she would cook and set out snacks for us. It was great, it was like a little family, it was very, very intimate. And when you have a set that small, everyone is equally engaged because they’re right there, they’re so important. A lot of times on bigger sets you can’t help but have people on the outer edges, they’re trying to have a happy work like so they’re having conversations and sharing jokes and it’s nothing to do with what’s going on creatively on the set, and so it’s just a sense of distraction, the energy is different. So when everybody is there and are really focused on what’s going on, it just creates a very dynamic set experience.

Lynn Shelton shoots "My Effortless Brilliance"
Lynn Shelton shoots "My Effortless Brilliance"

Did you see Old Joy? The idea of old friends coming back together after a long period of part, the tensions, trying to recapture the past and not being able to but seeing glimpses into what it was like…

And there are all these other parallels. The directors are both women and it’s in the woods in the Pacific Northwest somewhere, yeah. There are many people who refer to Old Joy in reviews, but they immediately then list all the ways that it’s totally different.

Yes. You come about this topic with a completely different style, from a completely different perspective, and you come out with a completely take on the theme. And still just as legitimate.

I hope so. (laughs) It hasn’t been a problem so far. It’s like you can’t not talk about it, you have to point out these parallels exist, but it’s not a problem.

And that brings me back to the idea of male relationships as seen from the perspective of a woman filmmaker, getting the ego and self-consciousness out of the way, and then making it about the self-consciousness of these people and Eric especially. Every time things start to get heavy, Eric either quiets down and turns away or he changes the subject and starts cracking jokes, trying to defuse the situation through humor.

Exactly, awfully self-deprecatory, and yet bringing the attention back to him. I went to the Ashland Film Festival and at every screening there were people who were just obsessed that I was a woman and why would I want to make this movie about men? As you point out, men make movies about women all the time. But I realized that throughout my filmmaking career and up to We Go Way Back, I was always writing about what I knew and always writing from a very internal place, from the inside out. And this movie was so fun to make because it was the exact opposite, it was from the outside in. I was starting with a topic and a male friendship and men in general, the world of men alone, and these particular men, these particular characters that I was really compelled by, and I was investigating from this outside perspective. It’s a really fabulous way to work. You hope that your own fascination with the subject matter will translate over to the audience’s experience.

I didn’t realize it until the end, but everything that Erik does to reconnect with Dylan is motivated by that first scene and the line: “You’re a terrible friend and you’re an asshole.” It’s like he’s got to erase that, he has to make Dylan change his mind, even though everything Dylan said was true and he probably realizes that.

(laughing) And he continues to reinforce it. It’s so sad.

It’s more a matter of ego than affection. It’s all about him. I don’t even know that they even like each other anymore, but there is a comfort level that they find right toward the end, when they’re hiking through the woods and finally Dylan falls into Eric’s rhythm of quips and jokes and nonsense observations and you know that’s what they were like 20 years ago.

That was the idea, that the sheen is gone from the new friend, his worst qualities come out, this deranged, obsessed hunter, and they’re just sort of stuck there behind him because he’s leading them through the forest, and they lose all sense of awe and respect for him and are like little naughty schoolchildren behind the teacher’s back. I was really pleased with how that came across. And I have to say that, especially on the big screen, Calvin really is awesome. A lot of people have told me that they feel like he steals a lot of the scenes, he’s so good.

He becomes the active man at that point and Eric and Dylan are just passive city guys cracking their goofball jokes: “This reminds of the time we stayed up all night drinking and then went cougar hunting.” Was that something they just came up with?

Oh yeah. I made them stay there and just banter. The deleted scenes we could have on our DVD, good God. 17 solid hours of pure gold. It was painful, actually, the stuff I had to cut out, because it was just so funny.

Let me step back to your first feature. You came out of theater, and you had edited some features before you directed We Go Way Back, including Hedda Gabler. In We Go Way Back the actress is cast in the lead of Hedda Gabler and it’s a production that is going right off the rails. Is there anything autobiographical in that, or is this just your nightmare of the worst possible theater experience that you could think of?

(laughs) The director is an amalgamation of many acting teachers and directors that I’ve encountered. I started acting when I was about 11 and kept on acting through my twenties and it was like an addiction, I was always in a show, so I encountered lots and lots of different personalities through the years. None of them were quite as misguided as poor Bob’s character but there is also some practicality to it. I needed a role in western classic theater that might be recognizable to a certain set so that it would be a big deal, because this is her first big role, so she needs to be offered this great part, and I needed to write the script in five weeks and I knew that play really, really well. I knew the lines by heart, so it was expedient. But there are a lot of interesting challenges to playing Hedda anyway. This is obviously very condensed and exaggerated but the kernel of the story is totally autobiographical.

So you never actually had a director with a potato fixation?

No, my own devious brain came up with that. (laughs)

The craziness of all those ridiculous choices was pretty funny, but what I found disturbing was the cavalier attitude he had when, after she spent weeks learning Norwegian and memorizing her lines in Norwegian as well as English, he said, “Well, that isn’t working.” He never even thanked her for all that effort and work she put into his whim, it was just like he said, “Let’s just forget about it.” He doesn’t even notice how it affects her.

No, he’s so into his own vision that it’s beyond him. It’s a very satisfying audience reaction.

Kate is an exceptionally passive character.

Yes she is. (laughs)

Everything simply happens to her and she just lets it. Her depression feeds her passivity and her passivity then feeds her depression.

I think she doesn’t even see herself as being passive. She’s working very hard to do this thing that she’s supposed to be doing, which is to be an actress, and so she’s dedicated herself to this theater company and she’s doing everything she can, she’s their number one volunteer, she feels like she’s doing and working, but in fact she’s always doing and working to feed the needs of other people and then the desires of other people. What I was trying to capture was, I was getting interested in looking back and seeing these different selves that I had been, really different personalities. I’ve always romanticized, I’m sure way out of proportion, that moment right before adolescence hit for me. It really was, for me, a really peak year, and for me it was 13. I was writing stories and poetry and painting and playing music and taking photographs, doing all these things, and I remember having a real clarity of vision and a real confidence, like I was ready to take on the world. When I look into the behavior patterns and the way that I was and the sense of depression in general after that, the other end of high school, basically, something in that adolescent period crushed it out of me. I wanted to do the ten-year thing because it’s kind of poetic, but I was really 19 or 20 for me. I was really interested in those two selves, and then somebody turned me on to that book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls [by Mary Pipher], which documents this exact same thing that happens to many, many, many women, that there is this sense of empowerment that just disappears as soon as the body becomes sexualized and you become objectified and your relationship to the world inextricably changes.

So I was really just compelled by how totally, starkly different those two people were and I thought it would be interesting to throw them in the same room together. That was the initial idea. And in order to really create an interesting juxtaposition, I was not really in such bad shape as she was, but I loosely based her on some of the experiences I had and condensed them into a shorter time period and stuff like that to make it more dramatic. One of the key events in my life that I wanted to approach was this experience I had that basically was a date rape. It took me a long time to work through what had happened. I suppressed the experience for a while, literally forgot about it, and it resurfaced a couple years later at which point I became really angry at the guy and I felt really victimized, and then a few years after that I realized that I had been completely complicit in the whole thing. Looking at it now, I realized he shouldn’t have done what he did, but I can also see that he had a different take on it and I was so incredibly passive because I had lost all sense of boundaries and all sense of respect. I really wanted to capture that experience that I think happens to a lot of young women. I heard this writer in her fifties talk about the different stages in a woman’s life in broad sweeping strokes, but she characterized the twenties as a woman’s “Geisha years.” (laughs) Really trying to make everybody around you happy, especially men, and I just thought that was perfect, it was exactly what I wanted to capture, that essence of how soul crushing it is.

Her anger and her disappointment in that scene in the film is what finally brings her 13-year-old self into the world.

Right, exactly. And it was almost like a symbolic suicide, that bathtub scene, because she’s killing this other part of herself because it’s too painful to be judged, basically, by this other person.

”]Kate confronts herself in "We Go Way Back" - Maggie Brown and Amber Hubert [photo by Mark Sullo]You shoot it in a way that completely alienates the adult Kate from her surroundings. You chop up answering machine massages and a speech until they are jumbled together in rush, as if they are just rattling around in her head, and as she makes muffins, we just see her hands, as if they are disconnected from her body and herself, as she talks on the phone to her mom.

Yeah, the sense of disassociation is important. I was really interested throughout the whole film to match form and function, trying to get the way of telling her story to support her experience and get inside her head. It’s the way memory works, you remember these little moments. But I think that sense of being overwhelmed can also be like that. And so when the director is giving a speech about her and everyone is watching her, his words start to echo and layer, the impulse was to try to represent that kind of experience as an out of body experience. And at the end of the last sex scene, where we’re above looking down, that was an experience that I had where I was on top of the room looking down at this thing happening to me.

Like an out of body experience by someone on the operating table.

Exactly. Like life is something that’s happening to her and she’s not even a part of it.

There is a small community of Seattle filmmakers who are making features with local talent and local funding – you, Rick Stevenson, Robinson Devore, John Jeffcoat, Matt Wilkins, Greg Lachow. But most of these films are small, intimate, arthouse films – with rare exceptions, they aren’t designed for big audience distribution. Is there an economic model that can make your kind of filmmaking work financially?

(laughs) My two film have very different budgets. We shot We Go Way Back in 35mm, which immediately blew up the budget a great deal. And I wasn’t actually in the producing part so I don’t even know how much it was. I heard someone say it was under a half a million, so probably $250,000 to $500,000, in that region. That’s a small budget of a feature film and yet a lot more than I could ever know how to put together. As a producer, I haven’t entered that realm yet. The way that I put money together for my second film, which was a much, much smaller budget than that, you might call it a micro-budget, was grants, house party fundraisers. I got fiscal sponsorship because I was a non-profit, people could make tax-deductible donations, and because I had this track record, people really liked my first film, I got a lot of support. The filmmaking model that I used was not only very performance-friendly for my second film, but it was also extremely economical because I had this very tiny crew and we only shot for seven days. It’s a very efficient little set. So that is one way.

What is really empowering about the second film is that I was able to actually just pull it all together on my own. I actually used the same fundraising model that I traditionally used with my experimental documentaries and films that really had absolutely no commercial hope or economic viability but is really just pure art. And I really approach them as art, first and foremost. This doesn’t mean I don’t want people to see my films. Because I’m going into the realm of feature films, I have to think more and more about how am I going to get these films into the world. A good model for me has been The Duplass Brothers and The Puffy Chair, the first real breakaway hit of that kind of film. They did well around the world, and because they were able to make it for such a small amount of money, they didn’t have to make the $5 million deal with Miramax in order to make their money back. The other thing is, I just want to make movies, so it’s less important to me. The economic viability question is there, for sure, and I’m becoming more comfortable with thinking about that, but it really isn’t my starting point. My starting point is just: how can I make my next film? And the fact that I didn’t have to write a business plan or find investors and create this big structure for myself in order to make my second film, it’s really freeing,. I have friends who have scripts that have been in development for years and they may have a lot of really great and impressive pieces in place, but it’s such a huge budget that they’re just sitting and waiting and not making movies because they are trying to put together the financing. I never want to get stuck in that kind of situation. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever make a movie above $500,000 or whatever, but if I ever do I would like to be able to, as that’s developing, go out an make movies on a soft scale. And you really can do that. We shot on this wonderful HD video camera that cost something like $5,000.

Do you think there is a Seattle sensibility when it comes to local filmmaking?

Sure. What’s nice about going around to different film festivals, regional film festivals, is seeing other independent films being made in Philadelphia and San Francisco and New York and L.A.. You realize that there is something different. I don’t know if it’s a combination of the light, the actual geographical quality of being here. I think it also you’re sort of an outsider artist if you’re not living in L.A., you can break out of the box a little more. Not that people aren’t doing exciting work out of the cities, but I feel you get an outsider perspective on it, somehow. I don’t feel inhibited by models that have been in place forever and a day.

There is less insistence in narrative or plot-driven productions.

Yes. Although I have to say it’s something that I do aspire to. That’s something I do admire very much about the Duplass Brothers. Their first film, The Puffy Chair, is relationship-based, there’s a couple and then his brother gets into the mix, and it’s also very funny but in this hyper-naturalistic style. Their characters are so full and their style so naturalistic that people focus on those things, but they’re really plot driven: totally, classic “what’s going to happen next?” With Brilliance, I was worried that, you know, nothing happens in the movie. My little art joke name for it is “My Dinner With Sean-dre.” There’s a lot of talking. There’s definitely a strong emotional subtext in every scene, I just didn’t know if it would be evident to anybody but me. I wouldn’t want to make a film that meanders and is really self-indulgent. I really want that sense of purpose, and so I realize that I’m a lot more conservative or traditional in that way. I actually am interesting in making a film that the audience would enjoy sitting through. I don’t have any problem with that. But it seems that there are some filmmakers where that is not at the top of their list at all. Which is totally fine and they’re making really important films, but not films I would ever make. I really want to be the populist artiste.

My Effortless Brilliance
My Effortless Brilliance