A different form of improvisation is felt in “Touchy Feely,” the fifth feature from Lynn Shelton; instead of the loose outlines and dialogue of the director’s recent films (“Your Sister’s Sister,” “Humpday”), it’s the film’s subjective and technical experience that feels crafted on the spot and cemented in the editing room. We follow two siblings — masseuse Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) and introverted dentist Josh Pais – as they adjust to their surroundings following an unexplained shift in personal energy, and Shelton achieves this through use of micro closeups, swirling sound effects, and an exploratory pace.
The film is a simmering, sensual oddity, bolstered by excellent performances by DeWitt and Pais alongside co-stars Allison Janney, Ellen Page, and Scoot McNairy, and we thought as much when we saw it at Sundance this past year. You can read more about the film’s production when we interviewed Shelton earlier this year, but when we caught up again in LA recently, she described how her early works evolved into “Touchy Feely,” her upcoming film with Keira Knightley, “Laggies,” and the unexpected positives after losing a lead actor.
Your feature filmmaking career started with a more experimental work [2006’s “We Go Way Back”]. What prompted this return to that approach with “Touchy Feely?
Since that was my initial impulse as a shorts and feature filmmaker, I had really just made films for pure expression, and I explored a lot of combinations – for example, my thesis film was an exploration of different levels of consciousness, all conveyed through sound design and visuals. So I did have this urge to go back because I spent my second, third, and fourth features trying to get naturalism out of actors and flesh and blood characters on the screen. That was the focus, but they ended up being very relationship-focused, banter-driven movies with very little room for exploration of that psychic landscape.
Seeing films like [Steve McQueen’s] “Hunger” just slayed me, too. I mean, there’s a film where there’s no dialogue for 40 minutes, and its so poetic and visceral — it’s just pure cinematic magic. And because I had made two films that were basically three people together for a long weekend, I wanted to try a film with multiple storylines, an ensemble cast, more than one location. I wanted to figure it all out myself and not have to incorporate the two cents of every actor — which I had been doing and loved — but it was as if [“Touchy Feely”] was just inside of me and wanted to come out.
From my second film onwards, I really wrote for the people I wanted to work with; that had been my creative catalyst, and in this case it still was. I wrote Abby and Paul, the brother and sister, for Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais, and they really were people I knew and were able to touch base with. Josh and I were actually talking about a character for another project over a couple of years that ended up being this one, and then I thought he’d be a nice counter balance in this one against Rosemarie.
The film is a blend of different tones, some scenes touching on comedy to others of near-Cronenbergian body horror. You and Rosemarie have talked before about feeling out the film as it was being made; were you terrified at any point, not knowing what was around the corner?
Oh my god, you know the moment of terror was during the rough assemble. I just thought, “Who made this? What is this?” I really did. It was kind of unnerving, because it was very instinctive, the whole process of making this film. I remember Megan Griffiths — who was my AD and is now an amazing filmmaker [“Eden”] — I gave her editorial consultant on this film, because she must’ve seen like 12 different iterations of it. She’s a great note-giver in the editing room. But she saw it in that really, really rough state, when I never would’ve shown it to anybody.
She was the first to say, “There’s a great movie in there. You’re fine.” And really the thing was giving the film balance. Tonally it changes as well: there are some funny scenes, and, you’re right, almost Cronenbergian scenes too. There was one scene that was almost too Cronenbergian to even keep in the film, because it would send people off running going “What the hell?”
What did it involve?
It was a dream, there was this weird body thing that happened, and it just freaked people out. Half the people would know that it was a dream and that it was just a manifestation of all these anxieties, but the other half were just like, “I was waiting for it to turn into ‘Alien.’ “
I tried putting it in different places, but it was clear that it had to go. So I cut it, and nobody noticed anything. But I was like, “Goddammit,” cause it was one of the lynchpins of the whole movie, and it was my first special effect. I had all of these rough edit screenings though to keep a sense of perspective –what’s working, what’s not. I gotta give a lot of credit to my composer [Vinny Smith] too, because that’s when the film really started working. I asked a friend at Sundance what he though, and he said Vinny came in and just hugged the whole movie with his music.
With your upcoming film, “Laggies,” you went through a period of unfortunately losing both of your lead actresses in a quick period of time. How do you move forward from that kind of development: do you simply push through? Head to another project and come back later?
Well, “Your Sister’s Sister” was the first time that happened, and it was specifically difficult then because I had been working with that actress for eight months building the role with her. When I lost that actress, I thought the movie was dead, and then I found out it’s very possible – all the work was written down. I was able to write down a character bible, and then fill Rosemarie in on all of those details. And even though we only had a few hours on the phone before we basically started shooting, she kicks ass, and I can’t imagine anyone else. So that was a huge lesson: even though it feels like these people are so embedded in a role, you actually can find some one else in a pinch.
With “Laggies,” it was even easier, because it wasn’t a part that I had written for that actor. In fact, it was the first film I had made in which the script originated with someone else. We developed it for two years and I gave her lots of notes, but it was a character that she had come up with. There were different versions of Megan to be played, and she would’ve changed with Anne Hathaway, and then Keira came in and found her own beautiful version of her. I remember Chloe Moretz had just been cast, and because she’s had this happen to her a million times, said, “You know, more often than not it was meant to be in some way.” So yeah, I’ve become a lot less freaked out since “Your Sister’s Sister.”
One of your skills as a director is taking these tidy concepts, like “massage therapist grows averse to skin,” and breaking them open to find the deeper story. “Laggies” seems to focus on stunted adolescence with Keira’s character; how did you crack that narrative?
It reminded me of my first feature [“We Go Way Back”], about an older woman who sees her 13-year-old self, but one of the thoughts that I had writing that script was, “Well, maybe it doesn’t have to be her real self, but more of a proxy. So she could see some version of herself and they’d have some sort of friendship. So I saw “Laggies” as a version of what my first movie could’ve been.
I loved how everything that happens in the movie is unexpected but believable. I’ve read so many scripts where you can kind of tell what’s going to happen around page 20, but here you don’t know, and that’s something I’m really attracted to as a filmmaker. I try to make all my films do that — you don’t know what journey it has in store for you. I’m not talking any “Usual Suspects” twists, but yeah, that’s the main thing. I don’t really buy a bunch of teenagers hanging out with a 28-year-old, but in the journey in the film, it actually makes sense. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it if it was some raunchy crazy comedy; I wanted to really feel like a believable story. I don’t really know why I’m attracted to those types of challenges, but I am.
“Touchy Feely” is on iTunes and VOD now, and hits theatres on Sept. 6th.