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‘Laggies’ Sneak Preview Q & A: Lynn Shelton Changes Her Approach

'Laggies' Sneak Preview Q & A: Lynn Shelton Changes Her Approach

With “Laggies,” Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton returned to Sundance with her sixth feature.
Unlike Shelton’s last three Sundance entries, “Touchy Feely,” the entirely improvised “Humpday,” and 80% improvised “Your Sister’s Sister,” the writer-director did not write her own script for “Laggies,” starring Keira Knightley as a recently engaged woman suffering an identity crisis who befriends a teenager (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her single dad (Sam Rockwell), 

For the first time, this was adapted from a book by the writer Andrea Siegel. And Shelton’s strong ensemble, including Mark Webber as Knightley’s fiance and Jeff Garlin as her father, relied on that script–with just a touch of improvisation as they went. 

(My interview with Shelton on “Touchy Feely” is here, “Your Sister’s Sister” here.)
Shelton was originally going to star Anne Hathaway in the lead role, but when she fell out to do “Interstellar,” Knightley landed the part. She’s delightfully relaxed and natural working with Moretz and Rockwell in this believable and satisfying romantic comedy. 
“Laggies” is in theaters now, via A24.

Anne Thompson: With this movie, it feels like you’re reaching toward a wider audience. How did Keira Knightley end up in the film?

Lynn Shelton: Well, we actually had Anne Hathaway attached, and that was actually amazing, because when she became attached, we got Chloë Moretz and Sam Rockwell in quick succession. She had such insight into the character and script, then called me one day, bereft, saying, “I can’t believe this is happening. I have to drop out. I’m so sorry.” She was so sweet and so dear.
What was she going to do instead?
[Laughs] Well, “Interstellar.” She’d been attached to it for a long time, so it was just the way the schedules got worked out. It got greenlit at a time that boxed her into this place where she couldn’t do both. And I totally understood; that’s just the way of the world. Not long after, we offered it to Keira, and she said “yes” quite quickly. So it was great. Sam and Chloë were more than happy to work with her, so it worked out.

Keira Knightley gives a very good performance. She’s somebody who changes from movie to movie. It depends on her director, I’ve decided.
Well, I was excited to offer the part to her. I was thinking about when she first blew my socks off in “Bend it Like Beckham.” I remember seeing her in that very first “Pirates” movie, and finding out she’s 17 years old. I’d been an actress when I was that old, and I was jealous: if I had that kind of confidence! She was so game and so physically funny. There were pratfalls and she was so expressive. Even though it was a period piece, it was a contemporary take on that period. It wasn’t, like, Jane Austen. So, she’s funny and physical, and very comfortable in her own skin.
She’s actually done contemporary pieces over the years, if you look, but the thing she’s become known for are these more stylized period pieces. And she’s obviously very, very beautiful, but I think a lot of male directors focus on that, as opposed to all the other things she can bring. I wanted to show a very accessible, humanized version of her, and let that side of her out. She clearly wanted to, too, because she was drawn to this immediately and really related to Megan. I just love her in this so much.

What appealed to you about this material?
I wasn’t looking for a script. It’s the first time I’ve directed a film that I didn’t write. Producers were developing it with Andrea Seigel over a while — over the course two or three years — and I was honored to be the first choice as director. They gave it to me, I read it, and I said, “God, I couldn’t have written a story like this.” Andrea and I have similar interests in what we like to see in a script: it had a very nice balance between comedy and drama. The comedy came from this character-based places, instead of these contrived set pieces I felt like the characters sort of leapt off the page — they felt very three-dimensional and unique. I loved how flawed they all were. No was perfect or too unlikable. The plot, the way it happened, was surprising but believable. On paper, it sort of looked like, “Oh, this stuff doesn’t seem like it could be pulled off.” But then it, really, was very grounded, I thought, which I love — I love that challenge of taking something that feels high-concept and turning it into something that could happen.
I think ever since “Harold and Maude,” seeing that as a kid, I’ve always been drawn to this idea that two souls can connect, whether it’s through friendship or a romantic relationship. But this idea of, “You don’t have to live in the box that you’re supposed to only be friends with these kinds of people, people like you.” I love that there’s a female protagonist who’s allowed to explore the kind of territory I’ve gotten to see men explore since “The Graduate”: having an identity crisis, screwing up, and fumbling their way toward their own identity and their own place in the world.
Talk about your approach to working with actors. Mark Duplass and Joe Swanberg also work with improvisation. But you didn’t work that way on this film as your others.
No. Sam said that the meat of it is from a written page, and we used improv as garnish. So there are little moments, like, “The planet, Jupiter, but with two ‘p’s.” That was improv. So there are little moments like that, but they really are just garnish. Andrea Seigel’s script was working, so there was no reason to leave it. I love improv, but I don’t need to use it all the time. It’s not like I have to use it on principle — it really depends on the project.

For instance, with the movie I did before this, “Touchy Feely,” I had a script that I thought we could toss out the window, and we ended up using 80% as I wrote it. The actors were just more comfortable, they really liked it, and they could make the words their own. You know, whatever works, because working outside the page is just fabulous. I just want it to feel real; I just want to see flesh-and-blood, real people on the screen, so whatever works.

“Your Sister’s Sister” was more on the other side.
And that was different from “Humpday.” “Humpday” and the prior film, “My Effortless Brilliance,” were completely improvised, dialogue-wise, so I had a very clear architecture to the script. We knew what was going to happen in every scene, and it was really elaborately detailed in terms of exposition — what needed to happen in the emotional dynamics. Then I turned on the cameras and let actors respond their own way with the beats of the scenes. The final version was written in editing, because we’d turn the camera on, sometimes, for 20, 30 minutes — for a long, meandering take — and then my editor and I would cut that down to a five-minute scene. The actors have to feel emotionally safe enough to take the risk to fall on their face, otherwise it feels like watching paint dry. But they know we’re not going to use any of that — we’re going to find the good stuff.
So “Your Sister’s Sister” was very similar, except that the actresses didn’t have as much experience as improvisers as Mark, so they asked for dialogue. I wrote dialogue, and then we probably used the dialogue, in estimation, around 20 – 25%, as written. Most of it, though, was improvised, or sort of changed enough that we called it improvised. So it really, again, is “whatever works.”
So you’re totally open to both of these things.
I’m totally open. Yeah, I really am. Because some of my favorite actors on Earth are not improvisers, and that’s fine. They’re not writers; they’re actors, so they need the text as the spine of their performance. And then you get a Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard. Allison Janney, for instance, turned out to be a good improviser. She’d never improvised before, but was very excited to try in “Touchy Feely,” and she was great it it.
But you get people who are really comfortable and for whom it’s not a problem. But there’s no shame in not being able to improvise, so it really is performer-to-performer and scene-to-scene, sometimes.
I like that Sam Rockwell feels believable as the father who’s curious about what’s going on here. He doesn’t feel like your standard romantic leading man.
Absolutely. Both scenes between he and Megan are some of the things I love the most. Those scenes, the way they read, the way that they connected, it was so wry. I mean, it was just so understated. It was beautiful. Those scenes, and the scene with the mom, Gretchen Mol’s scene, really struck me. I just thought, “Oh, that’s so brilliant, the way she handles this awkward exchange.” You cringe, but she she’s trying. The scene in the car — that’s just brilliant writing, you know? I thought it was so moving. So, yeah, these are some of the things that really drove me to it.
You live in Seattle, and you’ve been keeping your base there for your whole career, in spite of various lures to come to L.A. You’re shooting something for television now. Tell us about your television career.
I never expected to make a living doing my art. I always saw myself as an artist; I started off as a poet and a photographer and an actor — and when I started making narrative feature films, my first film was made in Seattle with all local actors, all local crew. It went to Slamdance, and we won the cinematography award. I had a few gigs in L.A., but I wan’t getting reps coming to me, asking to work with me, and I didn’t want to leave Seattle. So I thought, “Well, I’ll just keep doing what I want to be doing,” because I self-produced my second film. I was teaching a filmmaking program and, on my summer break, I would borrow a camera and go out with some friends and make a movie. I enjoy teaching, and I thought it would just sort of supplement my films, in that way.
Then I made “Humpday,” which is my third film. It got into Sundance, and everything changed. I got people from agents and managers wanting to represent me, sending me scripts, and then, suddenly, I had a way to get into television, which is something I had always been interested in, to make a little extra cash, because there’s so much good television. I was honored that my very first TV gig was “Mad Men” — which was nuts, after making a movie on a micro-budget. That was like my bootcamp: it was my first time on a soundstage, with a moving crew, and with actors I really admired. I did it well, and then I thought, “Wow, I could just do a studio movie after this. I can do anything.” “Laggies” was the first time I had several million dollars, a lot of trucks, trailers, and a huge crew — on a movie.

Did you do more than one? Which episode was it?

Just one. There was a period during the first four seasons when Matt Weiner would have the people he worked with closely, and then, one episode, he would ask somebody to come in and just be a fresh voice, filmmaker, to come, and be a guest director in one season. So I never expected to come back. Season four, episode ten — “Hands and Knees.” I got to recreate the 1965 New York Playboy Club in downtown L.A. I had my first stunt, because Lane Pryce’s dad whacks him with a cane, and Jon Hamm, having a panic attack, tore off his shirt. Joan finds out she’s pregnant and tells Roger.

What are you working on now?
Well, I’m here working on a show called “Fresh Off the Boat,” which we’re making on the Fox lot for ABC. I directed the pilot in the spring, and Jake Kasdan, the executive producer, asked if I would direct the pilot because he was directing another pilot, so he couldn’t do them both. It got picked up, so it’ll be airing in the New Year sometime. It doesn’t have a date yet, but probably February or March. It got picked up for 13 episodes. And it’s exciting, because it’s centered on an Asian-American family — specifically this one eleven-year-old character, who’s based on a real-life guy named Eddie Wong. He wrote this amazing book called “Fresh Off the Boat,” and you can also see his web series that reminds me a little of Anthony Bourdain.
He, himself, is just a fascinating character; I really, really love him. When he was growing up, his parents moved. They came from Taiwan, and he and his two bothers were born in the U.S., and they lived in a very urban part of Chinatown, D.C., then moved to Orlando in the early ‘90s, where it was very, very white. It was really fish-out-of-water, and he had things to figure out. He really was into hip-hop culture — he just identified with hip-hop culture — so he’s this little kid who’s just… it’s great. Nahnatchka Khan is the very talented showrunner, and it’s a great show to work on.

Do you have anything else in the works, in terms of your own writing?
I do. I’m working on a script that’s about, I’d say, three times the budget and three times the size of this film. It’s a comedy-caper. I’m co-writing it with a good friend of mine, Megan Griffiths, who’s another great filmmaker who lives in Seattle. I’ll direct it. We’re adapting a real story, so that’s all new for me. I’m also working on another film that is about the size of this one. It’s based on a memoir, it’s a coming-of-age story, so “Fresh Off the Boat” helped. I’m working with kids, and now I’m not afraid of working with kids anymore, which is good, because this is about a twelve-year-old girl. Then, I’m working on a small, intimate, improv-based movie, and putting together a cast for that. They’re all very different projects of different sizes, and I’m excited about all of them.
Audience member: What’s the meaning of “Laggies” as a title?
One who lags behind. The story behind that word is that Andrea Seigel, the writer, who’s probably about ten years younger than me, used that word all the time in high school with her buddies. She thought it was just common parlance, so she made me feel like a crazy person for a while, because I had never heard the word before. When I signed on to do this movie, I said, “I love the script, but we’re going to have to change the title, right? Nobody knows what a laggie is.” She said, “Oh, everybody knows what a laggie is. You’re crazy.” Then, after a while, it became clear that she was the crazy one, and that she and her friends had just made this up.
Then, for a long time, I tried to figure out another name for the movie. I asked focus groups for suggestions, and, a lot of times, people would say to me, “Here are some suggestions, but I have to tell you: I really don’t mind the word, even though I know exactly what it means.” All of the titles we came up with sounded kind of like a ‘90s rom-com. They all sounded really generic. I don’t know… we tried “Late to the Party” at one point. I said, “I can see how it fits, but that could be the name of a lot of other movies.” And so I came to really fall in love with the name, and A24, our distributor, went through the same process — they wanted to rename it, and then realized that it was singular. And then people tended to get a sense of what it means, so we just embraced it, and then added, as part of our ad campaign, “Stop lagging. Start living.”
Audience member: It was all shot on-location?
Everything was shot on-location. We shot in Seattle and surrounding communities — Bellevue, Mill Creek, all these other little communities. I’m a huge booster. I’ve now made six films in Washington State. They have a really good incentive program, and a lot of other films come up. “Safety Not Guaranteed” comes to mind, and they used my crew — an amazing, talented crew. We don’t have a big soundstage — we have places things can go — but we’re used to shooting on-location. My crew is just super good at it: we go in, switch out the furniture, switch out the art. My production designer puts a lot of work in each location. Allison’s restaurant, where they have the bachelor party, is actually a French restaurant, and a completely different space, so we only had 24 hours to go in there and put up everything. But, yeah, all location.
Audience member: Do you like shooting on a stage?
The only thing I’ve ever shot on a stage was for television, and it certainly has its advantages. The sound, and it’s nice to just be in there. But there’s something about shooting on-location that feels so much more organic. I talk to actors about this, too. Somebody like Sam Rockwell or Keira Knightley will go back-and-forth with giant studio pictures and smaller, independent films. They say, “When you’re in somebody’s house, what’s supposed to be a character’s house, and people hang out in there, you can inform the character work.” I felt that way as a director, too. It’s harder, because you’re in an actual, physical, tiny space — which can be a real pain in the ass — but I do enjoy it.
Audience member: The Great Northwest is just so beautiful. Where are the locations most effective, and what are you trying to do when you use them?
Well, we actually shot the aerial footage after we’d been editing for a while. A thing we felt the film was missing — and why we went out and shot that footage — was scope. I’m very geographically specific about where I set my movies, and each side of the lake has a different kind of vibe from Seattle. There are a lot of communities. There’s a lot of building going on; there’s a lot of development. The idea is that she and her friends grew up on that side of the lake, so all of her friends wear these bright jewel tones; then there’s these shots of her crossing over the lake, and it’s kind of symbolic — she’s at the crossroads of her life. She heads out to the Seattle side, with Earth tones, where everything’s a little more muted. There’s a different vibe.
And I didn’t want it to be like, “Oh, city good, suburbs bad.” It wasn’t that. It was a different thing, and the world where her friends are so comfortable wasn’t working for her. She had to find a new place. The aerial footage helped establishing that geography, and it also gave a big breath of fresh air. It’s like a breather. And there’s one shot, in particular, near the end, that’s so beautiful [Laughs] that I’m getting teary. I’m very city-proud, so that was fun. It was also the largest production I’d ever worked on, so it was really fun.
Audience member: There’s a credit, at the end, saying that Moretz had a “Creative Executive,” Trevor Moretz, assigned to her. Who is that?
That’s her brother.
Audience member: So what is a “Creative Executive”?
My understanding is that she’s been working for a long time — since she was very, very young — and Trevor has always been an acting coach, her creative support system. She travels on every job with him and her mom. She has other siblings as well, but Trevor’s the one who started as an actor, is well-trained, and this became his role in the unit.
How old is she now?
Well, she’s 17, because she was 16 when we were shooting a year ago. It’s nice to be working with actual kids, you know? And you forget, with her — and Kaitlyn Dever, too, who plays her best friend, Misty —I feel like I got to work with two of the best teen actresses working today. They’re so professional and so mature and so precocious when you’re giving them notes. They’re as professional as any adult — more than a lot of adults — and it’s easy to forget that they’re actually kids. You see them access their kid side, and they’re just goofing off and giggly, having a slumber party — you think, “Oh, they’re kids, too! That’s so wonderful.” — and it wasn’t a stretch.

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