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Sundance Women Directors: Lynn Shelton on the Question that Shapes Her Work and the Beauty of Sundance

Sundance Women Directors: Lynn Shelton on the Question that Shapes Her Work and the Beauty of Sundance

Laggies director Lynn Shelton is best known as the writer-director of the acclaimed comedy Your Sister’s Sister, starring Emily Blunt, which screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Her 2009 hit, Humpday, won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards. Her fifth feature, Touchy Feely, featuring Ellen Page, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 and was released by Magnolia Pictures. 

Laggies will debut at Sundance on January 17th.

I haven’t seen your film so we’re going to do this as a
preview for people. Why don’t you give us your description of what Laggies is?

Oh, lordy.

I want to get a sense of your
thoughts of what this film is.

Well, if you don’t mind, I’m going to just start by talking about what attracted me to the project
because it’s the first film I’ve done that didn’t come from an idea that I
originated. I didn’t write the script. 
It was kind of a shocker to read a
script that I felt so personally connected to so quickly and I really knew I
wanted to direct it immediately. Seeing that I was the first choice of the
producer and writer who brought it to me, it all worked out really nicely and
I’m really grateful. I was able to just say yes, and we were up and running. 

The
reason that I was so attracted to it was a lot of times when I’m reading a
script I know what’s going to happen by page 10, 20, 30, and this one really
took me on an unexpected journey — lots of little sweet, subtle twists and
turns along the pathway of the story that I could not have anticipated. I loved
that. I also loved the fact that even though it was unexpected and surprising, it was never unbelievable. I kind of pride myself on taking premises that seem
on paper to seem not particularly promising and then making a movie that really,
once you watch it, you feel, “Oh yeah. That actually could have happened in real
life.” In this case, the idea of a 28-year-old befriending a 16-year-old and
really genuinely wanting to hang out with her seems, on paper, not particularly
believable, but I really felt like the way the story unfolded and how the
characters were treated by the writer in a very loving and compassionate way, it
really is believable. I just love unusual relationships and the way that
sometimes souls connect in the most unexpected circumstances.

Overall, the film is
about the main character, a 28-year-old woman Megan (Keira Knightley) who is in
every scene in the film. It’s her story. She’s in a place in life [that’s]
similar to a place where you see a lot of men in movies but rarely women. She’s
kind of at an in-between place. She hasn’t committed to what her life is going
to be “when she grows up.” She has yet to commit to that. But she’s
not a depressive. She’s not a slacker dropout or a sort of stoner stripper gal
or something; she’s not doing it on purpose and it’s not that she’s
unemployable. She has an advanced degree.  Nothing has motivated her to kind of step up,
take some agency, and make decisions about where she’s going to direct her
life. That’s her arc — actually finding agency and deciding for herself where
she will go. It’s like she’s been drifting down a river downstream on her back
just going wherever the river takes her and she puts down her legs and stands
up, looks around, and says, “Okay, I’m going to go to this bank.” 

A 28-year-old guy with a 16-year-old girl would be a
little creepy, but we don’t have that creepy factor here.

No, not at all. It’s a
very sweet and genuine friendship.

That’s cool. I like that. It feels to me — and I don’t know
if you agree with this — that you’ve made a progression in your films — stepped
it up each time in terms of the people who are in your films, the visibility
your films get, and this one feels like it’s another step for you. Do you feel
that?

I do. It’s the first
film I’ve made with a multi-million budget, for instance. [All of] my films have
been under a million, most of them under half a million. This is definitely a
step up in the scope. It was the first time I got to step onto a helicopter and
take aerial footage of my beloved Seattle. What was beautiful is that I got to
use the same family of collaborators in Seattle that I’ve been using for the
last five films, but I was able to give them all of bells and whistles that
they deserve with a budget for my art department and camera department. It was
really fun in that way, really lovely. I couldn’t have been happier with the
cast: each person was more talented and fun to work with and sweet-natured than
the last. It was really a dreamy situation. Yeah, it does feel like a step up
in a lot of ways.

This is the fifth film you’ve directed, is that correct?

Sixth.

And your fourth film at Sundance?

Yes.

What is the Lynn Shelton body of work? I feel that you are a unique
storyteller. You tell the Seattle story, the story of women, of people who are
trying to find their place. I look at Nicole Holofcener

because
she also has a body of work. The great news is that there are some women like
you where you can look at your whole filmography. I’m wondering if you might
have any thoughts about if someone said, “Hey, want to watch Lynn Shelton
movies?”

Well,
the only reason I hesitate is because I feel like I’m bad at this. For
instance, I really enjoy reading what intelligent critics have to say about my
work because it’s always very eye-opening for me. I’m in the trenches making
it, following my instincts and doing my thing. Afterwards, other people help me
gain perspective and write much more eloquently about what my work is about. I
think if there was a list to be made about common threads or themes in my
films, the things that interest me as a filmmaker are definitely
relationships. I’m really interested in how people change through time, change
in relationship with other people — how they might show one aspect of
themselves when they’re with one person but with another person in another
context a different side of them will come out. All of that wraps around the
ultimate questions of “Who am I? Am I myself?” Those questions of self — that is
the eternal fascination point for me. I’m drawn to stories that force people to
take stock and ask themselves that very question — who am I, who do I want to
be, am I living up to whatever expectations I have for myself? Other hallmarks are that I definitely try to find the kind of
actor-collaborators that will create performances that I really truly believe
in. That together we can create stories and characters that appear onscreen, yet
feel so real that they’ll resonate with audiences because they’ll be so
believable.

Your film was in competition
last year, which was 50/50 men and women. This year you are in the
premiere section, so you’re not in competition and there are fewer female
directors in competition than there were last year. Do you have any thoughts on
that, or comments you want to make about the landmark that was last year but also
that we’re back to reality this year?

I will
say that I was surprised. The feeling I had last year was “finally.” It felt
like a high-water mark that had yet to be reached and I was absolutely thrilled
that it was reached, but didn’t necessarily feel like that meant from here on
out half of the films at Sundance would have gender parity. I was disappointed
but I can’t say that I was surprised.  But
I do still believe that it was a great sign of progress that we’re in general
going in the right direction — you know, two steps forward, one step back — but
at least in general we’re headed in the right direction overall. So I’m not going to get down about it.

Why do you think Sundance is so right for your work?

The
audiences and the mission statement of Sundance in general. The thing that I
appreciate and that has certainly served me well as a filmmaker is that they
really strike a balance between trying to court larger independent films where
the actors might be the stars of the cast, but they’re all challenging
themselves to do something new and something different, and something that’s
not so mainstream or studio driven. They are also trying to support veterans of
Sundance, people who have been there before and maybe doing something new and
different in their own work, and supporting them through their evolution as
filmmakers because there is a sense of being loyal and supporting filmmakers
who are veterans. 
And yet they are also always looking for brand new talent,
coming from wherever. 

I made Humpday
for a nickel and a dime and outside of the system of support or locale of
traditional filmmaking happens in New York and LA. I was up in the hinterlands
here in Seattle and I made a film with my friends, and didn’t have any big
stars in it. I sent in a DVD and they watched it. John Cooper [the Director
of Programming at Sundance] saw it, didn’t know me from

Adam, thought it was my first film, didn’t have any
awareness of me at all as a filmmaker, and accepted [Humpday] into the competition. That’s pretty remarkable for such a
high-profile festival. Now I’m in the category of one of the veterans that they
are continuing to support and I’m so grateful every time I get in because I
know people who have been at Sundance before and haven’t been able to get in
again or were rejected the second or third time. I’m always grateful and never
take anything for granted. 

The fact that they accepted me the first
time out [shows] they are sincerely passionate about good stories, new voices,
and fresh perspectives, and that’s why I think I’m a good fit for Sundance.
Their audiences are so beautiful. There are all these people who come into town
just for the same reason everybody’s there — the love of film. They are open,
excited, and genuinely passionate about the possibility of being a part of that
discovery process of being able to see new work and new talent for the first
time. I don’t know. It’s just a beautiful thing. I really, really love being
there. I love premiering work there and I’m really grateful to be there again
this year.

Now that you’ve taken a step up, do you continue taking
a step up or for your next project do you want to go back and do your own thing
again? What’s your advice to someone to build a career like you’ve had?

I would
say the biggest piece of advice is, Don’t wait too long for somebody else to
give you permission to make your work. For instance, I have a couple of things
in development that are on a similar scale to Laggies  actually one
of them could be much larger, three times the size budget-wise — and I’m
genuinely, incredibly excited about
these films, but if it takes years
for them to come together, I’m not just going to sit and wait for years and
years to go by before I make another movie. I’m always going to have in my back
pocket that smaller, easier-to-put-together movie where I can literally call up
friends and say, “Hey. Want to take a couple weeks and make a movie together?” just so that I can keep working. 
Especially earlier in my career, that
sensibility really served me well. I remember 

It’s funny, I just
talked to a friend who signed on recently with a manager in LA, a tiny agency,
and she said their names and I said, “Oh, my God.” I had forgotten I had a
meeting with them after I made my very first feature film and they gave me the
best advice ever. They said, “The best thing you can do is just to keep making
your own work. Find your own voice and hone your own artistry. Just focus in on
that and keep producing work.” The fact of the matter is, it’s totally feasible
to do that and make really high-quality work if you get the right collaborators
because the technology is such that you can create a beautiful image with a
great soundtrack with not very expensive equipment. That’s my biggest piece of
advice to fledgling filmmakers: just keep making movies and don’t wait too long
for that big deal to come through for larger scale work.

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