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Interview: Lynn Shelton On ‘Touchy Feely,’ Improvisation & Having Catherine Keener As A Casting Director

Interview: Lynn Shelton On 'Touchy Feely,' Improvisation & Having Catherine Keener As A Casting Director

It’s exciting at the moment to see some of the names who broke out of the independent scene in the middle of last decade — the filmmakers often lazily grouped under “mumblecore,” people like Mark and Jay Duplass, Joe Swanberg, Ry Russo-Young, et al. — getting to play on bigger canvases with big name actors and more robust budgets than when they were starting out. And it’s particularly exciting when it comes to Lynn Shelton.

The filmmaker has been a promising talent ever since her 2006 debut “We Go Way Back,” and over three other subsequent features — “My Effortless Brilliance,” “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” — has won more and more fans, and wider and wider audiences. Her latest, “Touchy Feely,” is the most star-studded to date, toplining Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney and Ron Livingston, and in many ways feels like a continuation of her earlier work, while also moving into new territory.

The film focuses on two siblings: masseuse Abby (DeWitt), who suddenly develops a revulsion to human touch, and dentist Paul (Pais), whose struggling practice suddenly turns around when he seems to be blessed with a healing touch. It’s a curious set-up, almost verging on magic realism, but Shelton makes it into something fascinating, sad and sensual, and it’s one of the most interesting movies we’ve seen in 2013 so far. We were lucky enough to talk to Shelton over the weekend when she was in town for Sundance London, and we got to delve more into the origins, process, and themes of the film.

Take a look below, and you can read more about Shelton’s upcoming projects in our earlier piece here

So when did the concept of “Touchy Feely” come to you? 
The idea of a person who works intimately with the bodies of strangers, who then reaches a threshold and can’t deal with skin anymore was an idea that had been bouncing round my head for quite some time. And after “Your Sister’s Sister,” the character and Rosemarie [DeWitt, who starred in that film] came together in my head, it became clear to me that she needed to be that person. So both the idea, and working with her, became clear after “Your Sister’s Sister.” But it also coincided with the idea of, after making three films in a row that were highly collaborative, working very closely with actors to find the characters, where much of the dialogue was improvised, I felt the urge to make something that firstly expanded beyond three character and one key location and one weekend, and also, wanting to be more of a control freak and just write a script.

So the two starting points were this character that Rosemarie seemed destined to play, and separately, Josh Pais and I had been talking about another movie, upon discovering we were mutual admirers of each other, about a different, but similar character. That project never came into being, but when I was working on this one, I thought that might be a great juxtaposition, to have him as her brother. She’s losing her mojo, he’s refining his. It started with those two, and then the other characters and narrative threads, was just me sitting down and writing. So once the script was written, then I started plugging actors into those other roles.

How quickly did it come together, then?
I started working on it during the edit process of “Your Sister’s Sister,” and then put it aside, because I had another project that came in with a producer, a project that another writer had written, that I loved. So I started working on that full-time, and we had a start date, and then it got pushed, and pushed again, and finally, a year ago… we were shooting “Touchy Feely” a year ago, so it was a little before that. But the other project got pushed one more time, and I hung up the phone, and I called Josh and Rose and said, “Are you guys available to shoot this thing in a couple of months, because I have to get on set again.” So they were available, and I had to finish the script in a couple of months.

You mentioned wanting to be more of a control freak here, whereas “Humpday” was mostly improvised, and “Your Sister’s Sister” had a lot of that too. Was there any improv in “Touchy Feely”?
“Your Sister’s Sister” was about 70 pages of dialogue, some of the scenes were just descriptions of what would happen, but most had full dialogue. Occasionally, if Mark [Duplass] was in a scene, they tended to go completely off the beaten track that I’d written, but if it was the two actresses, they might change the precise wording, but they kept much closer to the script I’d written. So that was what I envisioned for this film, but none of the actors were veteran improvisers. So Rose, who’d experienced that before, her scenes tended to be a little more loose, and Josh and Allison were very game as well, but Ellen and Scoot and Josh probably stayed closest, they were like “They’re great lines, can we just say them?” I was open to whatever was working for everybody, it’s always interesting to see how it shifts. But I’d say “Your Sister’s Sister” was probably 70/80% improvised, and it was probably the opposite for “Touchy Feely.”Do you feel like you’re moving towards your ideal process, then? Or is it dependent on the individual film?
It changes from project to project, it really does. The film I’m about to do, will probably be 95-100% unimprovised, because it’s such a great script. But then, if something’s not working, I’m so comfortable with just throwing lines out, or playing around. I can’t wait to do a fully improvised script again, to find people who are really comfortable and into it. It’s about the capabilities of the people you’re working with, what are their strengths and weaknesses. Some of the most brilliant actors need the spine of the text to work off of, and there’s no shame in that, they’re actors, not writers. So it really depends on the individual performers.

You’re working again with Rosemarie here. Do you feel like you’re building up a rep company? Are there actors here you’d like to work with again?
There are. I’d love to work with Mark again, Rose, all the actors I’ve worked with. But there’s so many others, I’m such an actor geek as a director, and sometimes I despair, because there are so many people I admire, and I know i’m not going to get to work with them all, and I get very sad about that sometimes. But it really does mean that I want to keep reaching out, and they reach out to me sometimes, and I start thinking about characters for them. So short of having some vast ensemble cast, fiftyfold… But I like both, working with new people and discovering how to unlock their particular process, to help open them up.It’s endlessly fascinating to me.

Beyond Rosemarie and Josh, were you writing with any of the cast in mind?
In fact, Allison’s role was going to be Catherine Keener, who’s become a friend of mine. She had committed, but then another project came up that she was developing, that she was actually going to direct, and it was all greenlit and going and she had to drop out, but she introduced me to Allison, who it turned out was a fan of my work. And she’s very good friends with Ellen Page, and connected me with Ellen as well. So she was almost an additional casting director. And Scoot’s role was actually going to be played by Mark Webber, who I’d met at Sundance, and who’s in my new movie. We were really excited about working today, and had lots of long conversations and developed the character, and he’d actually been a bike messenger, and had all this inside knowledge. But what happened is that Rosemarie got cast in Gus Van Sant‘s movie “Promised Land,” and they were shooting when we planning on shooting, in May, so we had to pull it forward three weeks, and Mark was already committed to play the lead in another movie. So it was sad, but getting Scoot to play it, we felt quite blessed.

The film’s on a bigger scale than anything you’ve tackled before, in terms of scope, and number of storylines. And yet it still feels very intimate, which is appropriate because it feels, to me, like a film about intimacy. How conscious was that sort of dichotomy?
I had this territory I wanted to explore, and I also knew I wanted it to be more characters, and more storylines. My three previous films all took place over a long weekend, one story linearly told. This one, I tried to edit it myself, and it was such a puzzle to figure out this balancing act, how long do you stay away from each story, not losing track of different characters. But it just sort of happened like that. I always find that the starting point of each of my films ends up expanding, it becomes about other things, there are other layers I could never really have foreseen. So I don’t know if intimacy was exactly on my mind, and I agree with you, I think it’s definitely about intimacy. It was more that it was wanting to see where these two character arcs would lead, and then all these other storylines got included too. But I’m glad it feels intimate, that makes me feel happy.

You said that you went back to being your own editor on this film. Is that likely to be the case going forward?
On this film, I feel like I got a lot out of my system. It feels very intimate for me, a very personal film, because it was inside me and I had to get it out. And the editing part of it… during “Your Sister’s Sister,” the editor I worked with on that and “Humpday” is brilliant, and we’re great together as a team, it’s like a two headed monster in the room. But then on “Your Sister’s Sister,” there were too many times where I wanted to take the control out of his hand, and do it myself. I really had this urge to be in the driver’s seat again. I’m really glad I went through it, but it was hard, and lonely, and grueling, so I’m definitely ready to go back to a collaborative experience again. I could see myself doing it again, but not right now… 

Magnolia will release “Touchy Feely” later this year.

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