One thing everybody could agree on at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival was the rightness of the opening night movie. It was Your Sister’s Sister, directed by Seattle resident Lynn Shelton, and it set the tone for the Northwesty slant of the festival that followed.
It makes an even better story that Your Sister’s Sister happens to be a highly enjoyable film, perhaps Shelton’s best yet. This one shares the semi-improvised method of Shelton’s Humpday, and also the sneaky sense that there really is a structure underlying the apparently easygoing story.
Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow and director Lynn Shelton are in attendance at Northwest Film Forum’s Local Sightings Film Festival on Saturday, September 26 to present a 35mm screenings of Shelton’s debut feature, We Go Way Back, the same day it makes its streaming debut on Fandor. It’s a preview of the tenth anniversary theatrical release that’ll occur early in 2016, presented by Fandor and Factory 25. – Ed.
Lynn Shelton made her debut feature, We Go Way Back, after a decade of honing her skills. With a master’s degree in photography and years of experience as a stage actress, the Seattle-based artist taught herself filmmaking by making experimental films and documentaries and editing the features of other local filmmakers. She credits Claire Denis with inspiring her, at the age of thirty-seven, to have the faith to follow her muse and make a feature film. With financing from a Seattle non-profit production company, she made We Go Way Back on a tiny budget and with a cast and crew of professionals from her Seattle home. It won the Jury Prize at Slamdance in 2006 and launched a career that, to date, has remained defiantly independent. Her budgets have since gotten bigger and her casts more famous (Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt in Your Sister’s Sister, Keira Knightley and Chloë Grace Moretz in Laggies) yet she has remained not only independent but local, shooting in Seattle with area crews. At least for her features. Between movies she, like many fellow indie filmmakers, directs episodes of TV shows, from Mad Men to The Mindy Project andFresh Off the Boat.
We Go Way Back is the story of a young actress in her twenties (Amber Hubert) who is in a kind of emotional stupor as she struggles to make her way as a professional actress at the expense of her own sense of self. But Shelton tosses in a high concept twist: her thirteen-year-old self, present in letters full of confidence and creativity and ambition that she wrote to her future self, arrives in the flesh. What could be a Lynch-ian 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.
I first interviewed Shelton in 2008, soon after her second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, premiered at SXSW. I had just seen We Go Way Back and was excited to discuss it with her. We’ve talked many times since but this is the only time we really delved into her first film.
Sean Axmaker: 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 main character, Kate (Amber Hubert), 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?
Lynn Shelton: [Laughs.] The director is an amalgamation of many acting teachers and directors that I’ve encountered. I started acting when I was about eleven 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.
Is there something in the misty Northwest air that makes its filmmakers incline toward the dreamy, the open-ended, the unresolved? Seattle has had no slick Hollywood “breakthrough,” instead turning out poetic little movies that seem embarrassed about conventional storytelling.
This can be a good thing. Case in point: Lynn Shelton’s My Effortless Brilliance, a 2008 feature that browses through the delicate business of broken friendship. After a brief prologue, the film travels to a forest cabin where the grandly-named, once-promising novelist Eric Lambert Jones (played by Harvey Danger frontman Sean Nelson) has gone to maybe patch things up with the testy Dylan (Basil Harris), an old friend who got fed up with Eric’s narcissistic ways. For a day and a night, they drink, chop wood, talk around it. Read More “My Effortless Brilliance”
For some reason, the local area has been a haven for filmmakers who prefer an experimental mode to traditional storytelling. Feature-length experimental films are a notoriously tough sell, but a few recent items, such as Gregg Lachow’s Money Buys Happiness and Robinson Devor’s Police Beat, have broken through to national attention.
Now you can add Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back to that list. This film was shot hereabouts, including Seattle and Whidbey Island, and produced by The Film Company, a Seattle non-profit film studio. Earlier this year it won Best Narrative Film at the Slamdance Film Festival—that’s the hip fest that serves as an alternative to the better-known Sundance.
[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.”
[Originally published in Seattle Weekly, September 2013]
What compelling mysteries might be quietly thrumming inside the world of the dentist’s office? It is characteristic of the wistful, daydreamy universe of Lynn Shelton’s films that this unlikely question (has anyone outside the dental profession ever asked it?) makes up part of her latest project. Touchy Feely is the stubbornly—and, I think, wonderfully—low-key follow-up to Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, the partly improvised comedies that put Shelton on the indie-movie map. This new one is again shot in Seattle, Shelton’s hometown. Two siblings experience unexplained eruptions in their professional skills: Massage therapist Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt, from Your Sister’s Sister) is suddenly repulsed by the touch of human skin, and dentist Paul (Josh Pais) develops magical healing powers that can cure his patients’ jaw problems.
“You are to stay within Snohomish County,” the man says sternly. These words—not often uttered in the cinema—are spoken by a parole officer to a newly released ex-con in Outside In.
They are also taken to heart by the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, who creates a beguiling mood piece by staying close to her local roots. This film is especially evocative in its sense of place: There’s an unmistakable familiarity in the way the camera sees the evergreen-lined byroads east of Everett and the homey storefronts of Granite Falls. I spotted the little smear of green mold that develops around car windows when they haven’t been cared for during a Northwest winter (something I might possibly have some experience with). Outside In is about feeling like an outsider on your own home turf, but it’s been made with a native’s view of the landscape.
Robert Horton joins Philip Wohlstetter, filmmakers Lynn Shelton and Megan Griffiths, and Scarecrow director Kate Barr to testify at the Seattle City Council meeting on the importance of The Scarecrow Project as a non-profit film archive to the City of Seattle.
If Woody Allen had been a woman born and raised in the Great Damp of the Pacific Northwest, Lynn Shelton might have been his name. Your Sister’s Sister warms the comedic cockles through sharp, largely improvised dialogue and quirky emotional connection among three not-quite-grown-up 30-somethings (Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt), friends, relations and lovers who accidentally come to share a cabin in the woods for a week or so.
This crowd-pleasing chamber dramedy, Shelton’s first film since Humpday (2009), takes all the time it needs—suffering a bit of narrative sag in its middle—to reveal “family” secrets and resolve a Shakespeare-lite comedy of errors, while meandering toward sort-of reunion. (Trust me, Duplass was born to play Shakespeare’s Bottom.) Funny, confessional talk among folks whose suffering is mostly manageable builds a glow as fragile and transitory as midsummer fireflies, putting you in the mood to be forgiving when spontaneity goes south in favor of an unconvincing, hippie-dippy finish.
Humpday, the third feature from local filmmaker Lynn Shelton, made its world premiere in the Dramatic Competition section of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It was the first film sale of the festival and went on to win a Special Jury Prize “For the Spirit of Independence.” It subsequently played in the exclusive Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and was the Centerpiece Gala for the Northwest Connections sidebar at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year. It makes its theatrical debut on Friday, June 10 in New York and Seattle.
Humpday is the story of best friends – one married and seemingly content in a conventional lifestyle, the other an aimless traveler whose artistic ambitions are unmatched by his accomplishments – who reunite after 10 years and make an unusual commitment to an extreme art project: two straight men having sex on camera for an amateur porno festival. Mark Duplass (of The Puffy Chair and Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Joshua Leonard (co-star of the indie blockbuster The Blair Witch Project) play the very straight buddies who essentially dare each other into the project and Seattle stage actress Alycia Delmore co-stars as Duplass’s wife. The rest of Shelton’s cast and crew was drawn from the pool of Seattle talent. I had previously interviewed Shelton about her first two features, We Go Way Back and My Effortless Brilliance [read the interview on Parallax View here] and and then kept running into her at screenings and receptions. Wouldn’t you know, we became friends. This interview was conducted at her home in January 2009, mere days before she left for the Sundance premiere (and before the film’s sale to Magnolia). It was relaxed and fun, probably the last interview she gave under such easy-going conditions, and he we hung out for over an hour talking movies, her particular approach to filmmaking and the Seattle independent scene, among other things.
How did you come to cast Mark Duplass?
I met Mark on the set of True Adolescents, which was being shot in Seattle in August of ’07. He was starring in it and I was shooting still photography. We knew of each other, we had mutual friends in the filmmaking community, so it was sort of like no introduction was necessary. We just gave each other a big old hug the first time we saw each other and immediately bonded as filmmakers. We would jabber away over the craft table and at lunch and we realized we had a lot in common in terms of our filmmaking philosophies. And it was really clear that we wanted to work together in some capacity by the time he went back to L.A.. I told him that I wanted to direct him.