Lynn Shelton has made six scruffy relationship dramedies, all set in her hometown of Seattle. When she picked up an agent after “Humpday” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, she figured she’d pay the bills with the occasional TV episode and continue shooting local movies. That’s not the way it turned out.
Over the last eight years, what began as a season-4 episode of “Mad Men” is now an in-demand career as a television comedy director, from Hulu’s “The Mindy Project” and “Casual” to IFC’s “Maron” and nine episodes of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.”
So when Shelton finally reassembled her Seattle film crew to shoot her seventh movie, “Outside In” — produced, co-written and starring Jay Duplass opposite Edie Falco and Kaitlyn Dever — everything was different. First, the movie is Shelton’s first drama. And second, she found herself more prepared than she had ever been.
“I realized I’m a completely different filmmaker than I was,” she said. “I felt so at ease, and so confident. I didn’t have the same angst. I don’t want to diss my other films, but the process of making them was much more anxiety producing because I hadn’t put in the hours. I’ve been on set constantly and I’ve learned so much every time. With every television show, I’ve always learned something new.”
Since her last film in 2014, “Laggies” starring Keira Knightley and Sam Rockwell, she kept developing several movies of varying sizes that somehow didn’t quite come together. Meanwhile, she loved directing television. “I was working with smart writers and talented crews and incredible casts,” she said. “I was just having a great time.”
Fans of her film work helped her land television gigs. Showrunner Liz Meriwether admired “Humpday” and brought Shelton onto Fox sitcom “New Girl” for five episodes. “Once I started doing television, I could prove that I was good at that too,” said Shelton. “Independent filmmaking is the perfect training. You have to be decisive, fast, efficient.”
Television is like an episode of “Chopped,” Shelton continued. “You’re given a basket of ingredients: a cast, a script, a crew. As a guest director coming into a show, that’s all been decided for you, which is not the case with a film that you’re putting together yourself, when you get to make all those decisions. So you’re thrown into this group of people that you need to collaborate with and figure out how best to unlock performances. You didn’t choose them, they didn’t choose you, it was the showrunner or whoever hired you. So, you also need to establish trust really quickly and make it clear you’re on the same team. You’re given these ingredients and you have to roll up your sleeves and make the best meal that you can of it.”
And the director had to finesse whatever challenges were thrown at her. One episode of “Shameless” was “insane,” said Shelton. “I did so many things that were brand new to me. I had to shoot a hot car chase and a car crash, and direct the birth of a child on a kitchen table. I found out that cream cheese and red currant jelly is what you smear on the kid along with some KY jelly. Strawberry jam will tend to create rashes, so you didn’t want to do that. So who knew?”
Shelton directed Fox’s “Ghosted,” “this amazing funny, crazy show that’s like ‘Men In Black’ meets ‘Ghostbusters,'” in order to work with two actors she admired, Adam Scott and Craig Robinson. “I had to tear the door off of a moving car. Again, all kinds of stunts and special effects and putting together the puzzle pieces of an action sequence. I just don’t write stuff like that. I learned so much.”
And the director bonded with countless writers, actors, showrunners, producers, and cinematographers along the way. While shooting two episodes of Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” for Netflix, she got to know D.P. Mark Schwartzbard and worked with him again on the current Judd Apatow series “Love.”
The Duplass brothers produced “Outside In” after Shelton chased down Jay, having admired his acting in “Transparent.” (Mark Duplass also starred in “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” which he executive produced.) They co-wrote the role of a lonely man who gets out of prison after 20 years and returns to deal with his family and friends, especially his old teacher (Falco), an unhappily married woman who worked tirelessly to free him and doesn’t know how to handle his strong romantic feelings for her. He also gets close to her 18-year-old daughter (Dever), who in many ways is closer to his arrested development.
While improvisation master Duplass tried to follow the script, there were plenty of scenes where “we would realize it was all about honesty and authenticity,” said Shelton, “and if we didn’t feel like the moment was quite there, we would rewrite it; they would sometimes improvise to get to that place, but then we would just find it.”
It’s no surprise to see “Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie” veteran Falco dig into the juicy role of a confused older woman, stuck in a bad marriage with strong sexual feelings for a younger man. But Duplass, who is always a relaxed and readily “available” film presence, is more emotional in this movie than we’ve seen him before. None of Duplass’ life experience could prepare him for the specificity of this youthful ex-con.
“He’s like boy interrupted,” said Shelton. “He’s been yanked from his real life and put into prison at 18. He wasn’t fully formed, so he didn’t get to finish his development into adulthood. And yet, his aging process has accelerated with the trauma of being in this horrible, terrifying place filled with paranoia and a sense of being watched all the time. There’s a moment when he involuntarily lashes out violently: It’s literally a prison reflex.”
For one crying scene, before every take Duplass would give Shelton a bear hug to help him release the tears. “He would just weep in my arms,” she said. “It was so moving, you can just feel him sobbing. He needed that physically, a sort of permission to open up. He knew it would unlock him.”
Acquired by The Orchard out of Toronto, the movie gets a 60-day theatrical platform release before it hits Netflix. “I’ll do as many Q&As as I can,” said Shelton. This spring, Shelton plans to shoot another comedy feature. She misses improvisation.
“I’m happy to do whatever works, but I want to go back to fully improvised dialogue,” she said. “You have to choose your cast very carefully, but I’ve been keeping my secret list of people. It’s definitely a hairpin turn in terms of genre. I’m giving myself permission to get wacky with it.”
As for television, Shelton would like to create or direct a limited or anthology series. “I could imagine being a showrunner under the right circumstances,” she said. “I might want to have a partner and share. But there are also so many different lengths of shows. ‘Flea Bag’ was six half-hour episodes, like a long feature, it’s just episodic. That seems appealing to me. And you can get first-tier actors to do anthology shows.”