I had never met Lynn Shelton before last month but I already felt like I knew her. She has a way of telling us stories about other people that are really about all of us. Her new film Touchy Feely is about about a brother a sister, one who touches for a living and one who makes a point of not getting too close to anyone. The film is about conections and about intimacy and stars the incomparable Rosemarie DeWitt as a massseuse who developes an aversion to touching with a terrific performance by Josh Pais as her brother who begins healing through his touch.
Women and Hollywood: Talk to me a little about what makes this film different from your other films?
Lynn Shelton: A couple different aspects—the last three films I made were really written with my producer’s hat on to be producible. Luckily, the stories I wanted to tell weren’t impeded by that. The fact that they took place in one location and that there were 2 or 3 main characters and that the scenes is one storyline that sort of unfolds in a linear fashion over the course of 3 or 4 days. It means I can have longer scenes, fewer scenes where more takes place in each scene. All of those components mean that I can use a small crew and I can shoot it in one of two weeks—a week and a half. It makes it really cheap.
But I wanted to try something that was a little more expansive—multiple storylines, ensemble cast. I wanted to go into somebody’s brain and to experience—because film is the closest medium we have to the human experience. And those transcendent emotional moments that happen to us whether they’re high or low. I wanted to explore that. I started out as an experimental filmmaker and wanted to utilize some of the stuff that I had been playing with and bring it into a narrative world. I wanted there to be mystery and poetry inspired by the pure cinematic language Steve McQueen uses in Hunger and Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light. Films that allow themselves to be just to be singular and not worry about fitting into a mold.
WaH: You are definitely not a director who could be defined by a certain mold. But interestingly you wrote a full script for this film instead of improvising like you had done in the past.
LS: It ended up being more scripted. Rosemarie [DeWitt] was saying having been in Your Sister’s Sister and then this one—we figured out, we came up with this ratio of about 80% improvised, 20% scripted for Your Sister’s Sister. It’s pretty much flipped for this one. I always gave the actors freedom. I’d say if you see some opportunity to go off or reword something, anything you want to do that makes it feel real, follow that impulse. And they just chose to follow the script more, which was lovely for me because I was honored if you think my lines feel like real lines—that’s wonderful. They are all such wonderful actors they can make those moments feel really real. I will say that I was more of a control freak, sitting in a room really formulating this whole thing. It was really a movie that had to come out of me. The last two movies I made have been about male friendships—I don’t know anything about male friendships so I really came at those as an outsider, interloper you know. I hope I’m a keen observer and I have a perspective that maybe sometimes being on the outside can help you can see things that the people who are in it can’t. I love working that way too. I enlist so much collaboration from my actors. I can’t write dialogue like what they came up with in Humpday because I don’t know how guys talk alone. But with this film, because it was coming from a deeper, more inner place, it was somehow easier to write the lines.
WaH: In that scene where Rosemarie is wearing the blue hat, she looks exactly like you.
LS: She’s a little bit of my alter-ego I will admit.
WaH: I asked Nicole Holofcener once about Catherine Keener because she has been in all of her movies. So I ask you, what is it about you and Rosemarie DeWitt?
LS: There’s a connection! I feel a real connection to her on a personal level. I’ll totally admit that. It was interesting because on Your Sister’s Sister, we didn’t get a chance to know each other at all because she was cast two days before we started shooting. We spent a couple hours on the phone but that was it. We started developing our friendship after that. We just found that there was a connection. I think that was part of why I started seeing her in this role. And this role, it’s not like it’s autobiographical but there definitely are scenes that are ripped out of the pages of my life.
This is why I think drama and humor go so hand in hand because this is life. There was this period of time when I was in this sort of weird depressive state and I didn’t really quite know what was going on. My physical boundaries were screwed up—I was finding myself parking too close to something and I couldn’t get out of the car. Just weird things like that. One of the things that happened to me was that I have this pet peeve about using plastic bags. I went to buy some Epson salts because I just love soaking in really hot baths with Epson salts. I bought three huge bags—enormous bags and deodorant—and the clerk was like do you want a bag? And I was like no, I got it. And it turned into this Charlie Chaplin routine and I’m chasing shit all over the place. And we recreated it beautifully. I’m laughing hysterically, but I’m really depressed. There’s this humor to that kind of tragic moment in one’s life.
WaH: What was it about Ellen Page that made you want to cast her?
LS: I’ve become friendly with Catherine Keener and she loves Ellen. Catherine and I were going to work on a project that began falling apart. I remember her texting me asking if there was a part for Ellen in our movie. There wasn’t, but she put Ellen in my head. Then I started to work on this film and like I thought Ellen would be perfect. Originally, Catherine was supposed to play Allison Janney’s part, but the scheduling ended up not working. Allison really was incredible—she kicked ass. She was such a joy to work with. Catherine really should get a co-casting agent/directing credit. I would not have had those two people if it were not for Catherine.
WaH: Is it true you shot it in 12 days?
LS: No, that was Your Sister’s Sister. This was 20 days. Which I have to say for the number of locations and the number of scenes, I feel like we were working even faster than we were. Your Sister’s Sister was a really tight shoot.
WaH: Do you feel like you are moving into making bigger, more commercial type movies?
LS: I don’t see just one trend in the evolution of my career. There was just a lot more time, but I immediately missed just being hunkered down in one place and diving in with cameras rolling most of the day. Just diving into finding the scene and the performances. I will definitely work small again. My next film, Laggies, is my first film that someone else has written (Andrea Seigel). It ended up being pushed from last year, so I shot Touchy Feely. It should be happening this year.
WaH: What’s it about?
LS: It’s about a 28 year old who is stuck. She’s putting off getting her real life started and is just going with the flow. She’s educated, really smart and she’s not depressed or anything—it’s not like she’s a stoner or checked out. She’s passive in her life and putting off getting it going. In the meantime she is still hanging out with the people she did in high school and still with the boyfriend she had in high school. She coming to start to realize that maybe they are outgrowing each other. Things aren’t quite working for her. Her boyfriend proposes to her and it starts things. The big weird thing in this movie is that she develops a friendship with a 16 year old girl. What’s beautiful about the script is that it’s unexpected and completely believable every step of the way. It’s really lovely and it actually reminded me of my very first feature which was about a 23 year old and her 13 year old self.
WaH: Have you cast it?
LS: Rebecca Hall is attached to play the lead and we are in the process of finding a 13 year old and her dad.
WaH: I just wanted to talk to you about the status of women directors as you’ve made many movies now and go to film festivals and meet other women. This is the first year that there is gender parity in competition in US documentary and narrative. Do you have any thoughts on that?
LS: I think it’s just fantastic. I think it’s the first major film festival where that’s happened—ever. It’s long overdue and it’s really a sign too. You look at the statistics of how few women are working in the industry on big budget and studio films and television as well and the independent world is just a little bit easier. Especially these days because you can make your own path. You can pick up your camera with a couple friends and say let’s make a movie. Do it our way. Figure it out. You don’t have to go knocking up against some brick wall—so you get to just make your own path. There’s more women DP’s, editors and more collaboration all over the spectrum. It’s an independent film festival and it really shows. I think it’s fantastic. And for me, I want to see diversity in storytelling sources because we live in a very diverse society and the stories are for the whole society. That’s really important. For me, as a female filmmaker, when I was out on the festival circuit on 2006 I felt like such a freaking anomaly—an oddity.
WaH: That’s not that long ago.
LS: It’s not! And all these wonderful filmmakers many of whom are my buddies, but it’s like this sea of men. These young women would come up and just cling to me and say you are just like this beacon for me. I was like I’m so glad but I’d get on panels and be asked like what does it feel like to be a woman filmmaker. I’m not a man so I don’t know what it’s like to compare it. I don’t know how it would feel otherwise because I can only be a woman filmmaker. I’d love for there to be a situation—a world in which that’s just not even a question anymore. We are all filmmakers—different stripes, genders, sexual orientations, colors—and our work can be taken on its own terms. I’m really looking forward to that day.
WaH: What do you want people to walk out thinking about from seeing Touchy Feely?
LS: I just want them to be pulled into the story. I want them to care about the characters and the film to kind of be a conduit into their own lives. They feel enough of a relationship to these flesh and blood people and are able to relate and start thinking about their own lives. And maybe have some kind of emotional response.