Lynn Shelton went from acting on Off-Off-Broadway stages to directing some of indie film’s brightest stars. Her directing credits include We Go Way Back, My Effortless Brilliance, Humpday, and most recently, Your Sister’s Sister, which stars Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, and Rosemarie DeWitt. Her work has screened at pretty much every major film festival in the world, including SXSW, Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto. In 2009, she won a Grand Jury Prize from Sundance and a special “Someone To Watch” award from the Independent Spirits.
Bloggers have referred to Shelton as the “female Apatow“, but up to this point she hasn’t really used his budget. Rather, she gravitates toward the scaled down model of filmmaking – small casts, miniscule budgets, and lots of collaboration with her cast and crew.
Did you make movies as a kid?
I’d only had one experience with making movies in school. It was this Super 8 camera project. I’m talking elementary school, that was really it, I don’t think we really had access to video cameras otherwise. But I was really into photography; my stepdad had given me a camera – a K1000 – when I was 14. I spent a lot of time in the dark room when I was in high school.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up and was raised in Seattle, where I live now. I ended up at the University of Washington and got a BA in acting, and then I moved to New York to do theatre. And then I don’t know exactly what it was – maybe a combination of getting into a couple unfortunate shows, maybe knowing I would never make a living at it, or knowing I would never pay the rent. I don’t know what it was. I just had a falling out with the theatre. It became less satisfying to me. I ended up producing my own theatre, which was helpful, but generally…it wasn’t doing it for me anymore.
What kinds of jobs were you working while you were acting?
For about 5 years, I was a temp. Oh god, it was horrible. I remember my goal for my 30th birthday was not to work in offices anymore. It was a blessed relief to finally stop that.
So you wanted to make a switch?
I had applied to grad school in acting. I remember thinking to myself at the time, should I apply to acting or photography school? I guess I sort of knew I wanted to make movies in my 20s. But I was still so intimidated. Because the only thing I knew about movies was that they cost millions and millions of dollars, and I would be responsible for somebody else’s millions of dollars, and it scared the shit out of me. I couldn’t imagine what that would be like. So I left that little dream in the dirt.
What happened with NYU Acting school?
That was another turn in the road — I’d applied to NYU and I waited and waited and finally at the end of the summer I got this form letter that was like, “You didn’t get in.” And I was like, “You should have told me this earlier.” And my friend who did get in told me I was on the top of the waiting list, so if one person hadn’t gone, you would have gotten in. And I think about that a lot. Because I wonder if I would be doing what I was doing now if I’d gone. I think I would have gone off on some other tangent and I wouldn’t have been as happy.
What brought photography back into your life? How did you know you could give up acting and be OK?
I had an opportunity to go to this retreat. A friend of mine, an artist, she was at a residency at this place in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, this school of crafts, I guess, and in the summer they have these workshops and you can go learn how to blow glass or blacksmith or make books or furniture. And she was trying to get my husband and I to come down and visit her and partake in this. We were doing a lot of downtown theatre at the time, this exhausting grind, building sets, rehearsing. And we wanted to get out of the city and we went and did a session.
He did jewelry making and he discovered he could carve these incredible little sculptures. Airplanes for guys and pinkie rings with teacups for girls. It was wild, I’d be like, “How did you do that?” But I went and did photography, you know? And I figured I’d just have fun. But then this place is like heaven and I got so into it again. I was in the darkroom till 3 in the morning. I was an addict, a junkie. And we’d stumble back down the road to our little hovel in the mountains and then we’d get up at 7 in the morning and do it all over again. It was this totally transformative working vacation.
So when you got back to New York, you went another route.
Yeah, I ended up transferring my interests over to my second love. I’d found a mentor at the International Center of Photography, and I built up a body of work. I applied to the School of Visual Arts MFA photography program. And luckily it was photography and “related media,” so I could take classes in their film department. And then suddenly my head was turned from photography to film.
So suddenly you were making your own films?
In grad school I was doing a lot of experimental stuff, and I learned sound design and editing and art design. One project I made involved a small frog? But anyway, it was a great way to explore all aspects of filmmaking first hand. It was also nice not to have the pressure to create a commercial project. I wasn’t thinking about audiences at all, I was thinking about what I wanted to make, I was just making what I wanted.
Do you still come at filmmaking from that perspective?
A lot of the people who come into the industry really see their work as a commercial product. And that’s really not my point of view, it’s never been my point of view.
When you got out of school did you immediately start to make movies?
Well, my marketable skill coming out of school was editing. I started editing for other people. And I loved documentary. I loved interviewing people. How real people speak. Even before I ever made films I would record people – my brother-in-law was telling a story I remember and the way he was speaking was so fascinating, just his cadence. And I just transcribed it, trying to get the ums and I’s and sighs in there. Trying to get the real dialogue on the page.
Were you getting jobs quickly?
Not many creative jobs. A lot of corporate work. Commercial work. A friend of mine was making films for Sesame Street so I’d make random short films for Sesame Street. Mostly money-making stuff. And I also started teaching, mostly post-production classes. And then my husband and I moved back to Seattle.
Wow, was that scary? Leaving the city?
It was, yeah.
Was it a business decision or more of a “Screw New York, I gotta get out.”
Yeah, it was very much, Screw New York, I gotta get out. Originally I had planned to be there a few years, and then I was there nine. The energy of the city was feeding me at first but by the time I left I was just bled dry. I had to get out. But my husband was having a grand ol’ time, and the only way I could get him out of New York was to get really pregnant. [Laughs.] So that’s a little trick for anybody who wants it. Get really pregnant.
Did you find yourself missing acting once you started this other path?
At first it did feel like a bit of a betrayal, I have to say. Ever since I was a pre-teen, I had to be in a show. Sometimes more than one. And in college I was lucky to get cast a lot in really great roles. I needed that fix, that buzz you get with the audience. I just loved to be on stage. And once I moved to New York I realized I truly was a theatre slut. I would say yes to any role just to be onstage.
But once I got to New York the first show I ever got cast in was this horrible thing. This misogynistic piece of trite, this regurgitated… ugh. I was getting strangled, raped, murdered every night. And I was just like, What am I doing? What am I contributing to the world by being in this thing? It seemed like a narcissistic exercise.
Did you ever seriously question your decision to switch careers?
I questioned certain things, but mostly I went with my gut, I plunged ahead. It felt like a really healthy thing. It gave me a sense of empowerment and agency I didn’t have as an actor, when you’re just waiting to be cast in something, you’re waiting for the work. It was so nice to just pick up a damn camera and go out and make some work, you know?
So you’re back in Seattle after New York. How did you fall in with the film community there?
What was nice about that was – the filmmaking community felt like a real community. It was burgeoning, it was starting to grow. And there were all kinds of exciting projects going on. There were young, passionate, hungry filmmakers making work, but with no money. There were no union jobs, not a lot going on in the industry way, but I was given this opportunity to make work that I don’t think I ever would have gotten to do in the bigger markets. I edited shorts, and two features. And I learned so much. But I still hadn’t ever been on a film set, you know? [Laughs.]
Did you know you wanted to direct at that point?
I started harboring a secret desire that I didn’t share with anybody. It was like, I finally understand why I started in acting, and why I then went to photography, and why I became an editor. Because it’s all adding up to being a feature film director. But I was like, how on earth am I going to pull that together? I don’t know anything about business models for films, scriptwriting, I don’t know any crew, I don’t know how to collaborate with a crew.
So what happened?
This incredible thing happened. This non-profit studio [The Film Company] which was very short-lived, came along at a great time for me. This guy [Gregg Lachow] wanted to create a completely kind of art-oriented filmmaking community that drew on the old Hollywood studio system. Instead of five plays, he’d put on five films a year, and hopefully one of those would make a profit and become self-sustaining.
They only got through one round. But I was one of the lucky filmmakers they approached and basically commissioned to write and direct a feature film.
Why did they trust you to do this?
I’d made The Clouds that Touch us out of Clear Skies , a half-hour experimental documentary. It was first person cinema, this very Spalding-Gray like personal thing. The structure of the narrative was like this illustrated radio documentary. It got into a bunch of festivals and some nice press. But this company didn’t want my film to fulfill any requirements other than being 75 minutes long, and you had to use their collaborators. Aside from that, it could be anything. They said it could just be the color red for 75 minutes.
That’s incredible, to find someone who believes in the work like that.
He probably thought I’d make an experimental documentary. I don’t know what he thought. Nobody knew I wanted to direct narrative films. And I told him, “I don’t have a script.” and he was like, “You’ll think of something.” And then that film ended up winning Slamdance, got a cinematography award, going around the world, and winning awards.
That’s basically the opposite of every producer in the world – somebody who wants to let you do whatever the hell you want.
His belief was if you could write a script just fulfilling your vision and not thinking about commercial liability or attracting investors, you would really make your best work. So now, every time I want to make a movie, I go back to that first experience. Without that, I would have taken another 5, 10 years to make a feature. I’m sure of it.
What was being on the set of a feature film like? Did you have to learn the ropes?
That first day I’d go around meeting people being like, “Hi, I’m Lynn. Who are you? Oh, you’re the gaffer. And what is a gaffer?” It was wild. I was 39 years old. I didn’t think I could have done it any earlier. Because I needed the confidence that age brought me to be able to lead a team.
After that, did you go right to the next project?
I knew I wanted to make another movie, but I didn’t know how to do that. I knew I wouldn’t luck out with a company like I had for the first film. But I’d gone on the festival circuit with We Go Way Back and I remember being at the Maryland Film Festival talking to two people: one was James Burke, who directed this film called Aurora Borealis, and the other was Joe Swanberg. And he had made a film for three thousand dollars called LOL. And the way he’d done it — basically he’d gotten a crew together over the course of several months, and they’d shoot whenever they could, like on weekends. The production values sucked. But I remember thinking the actors were amazing and it felt so real, and that was something I could do. Or, I could just empower myself to take my friends and go out and shoot something. So that was really inspiring.
But that’s not how the first film worked.
Well that first process, I fell in love with collaboration, with movie-making. But we had 16 days, this big crew, a lot of people volunteering their time, this big package, all these resources, but very, very little time. But there was one scene in that film that was improvised, and I felt like my body had been electrified when I watched it. I was so excited by what was happening in from of the camera. And I thought, What if you made a whole movie that was this? Just this? It felt real and so full of life. So my second movie was this whole experiment.
How did you go about it?
I started the movie just with people I wanted to work with, and I made the movie with them and for them. There’s no lighting, a natural environment, we’re on location. And my whole purpose was to see if I could create a narrative film that felt exactly like a documentary, like you were dropped into these people’s lives. And it actually turned into a real movie!
That was My Effortless Brilliance.
And it got into South By Southwest and then it actually got bought! By IFC films. It was crazy. I didn’t have any stars, it was me and my friends. And I put it together myself. 4 crew members. I didn’t have an AD, didn’t have a producer (which was a big mistake by the way.) But I’d just kidnapped them all and went to the woods, and over the course of 2 long weekends we made this thing.
Every project gives you more confidence, but that second project felt like a brand new experience.
It’s funny – back when everyone first started talking about that whole improvised, Mumblecore movement, I assumed that everyone was in on it together. Like you all conspired to make these films in this style. But it actually seemed more organic than that…
Yeah it was all happening separately. I mean, we’d all met each other for the most part. I met Joe before My Effortless Brilliance, but he just gave me the confidence to know I could try something like this. It was emblematic of the way that these communities are all very supportive, outside of New York and LA. There’s a sense of advocating for each other and being each other’s cheerleaders.
It’s impressive that you’ve managed to do all this pretty much entirely outside of New York and LA.
It is, it’s great. It’s two degrees of separation in Seattle. It’s so intimate.
When you originally moved back to Seattle, how did you get to know people in the community?
I actually had a few connections from back in the theatre days, but it was always very random. My friend Dana Hanson, this incredibly talented woman, she started in dance and dance theatre. And she and her company had made a short film on 16mm, and we just happened to run into each other in the city, and we’re catching up and she needed an editor for this film she and her company had made. And I said, “I’ll edit it” and she’s like, “I don’t have any money.” And I said, “Just let me edit the damn movie.” And it ended up getting screened everywhere. It was the first dance film to get into the New York Film Festival, and then into 50 festivals around the world.
That’s how I got my first editing feature film gig. From an 8 minute dance film with no dialogue. They hired me on the basis of that. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to do something for free.
And sometimes you’re getting strangled in an off-Broadway theatre.
Exactly. Sometimes it’s not the right choice. But sometimes it really is.
Interview by Lucas Kavner
Photo Courtesy of IFC