[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 revisited the interview for Parallax View in 2009.].
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.
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.
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 int