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Lynn Shelton: Passionate About Filmmaking — and the Northwest

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Touchy Feely, the latest feature by Northwest filmmaker Lynn Shelton (BA, Drama, ‘87), premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2013. With a cast that includes Ellen Page, Rosemarie DeWitt, Alison Janney, and Josh Pais, the film is Shelton’s fifth since 2005, an impressive output by any standard. And Shelton has no intention of slowing down any time soon.

“I was forty when my first film premiered, so I felt a sense of urgency right off the bat,” explains Shelton, whose recent films include Your Sister’s Sister and Humpday. “Ever since, I feel off kilter if I’m not working on a film.”

Shelton was always been attracted to creative fields. She began writing poetry at age six, then discovered acting after taking a class as a preteen. “I was addicted. I just kept taking classes,” she recalls. 

Lynn Shelton

“I was forty when my first film premiered, so I felt a sense of urgency right off the bat,” says Lynn Shelton. Media credit: Luann Smythe

After graduating from Seattle’s Garfield High School, she attended a small liberal arts college for a year—and hated it. She transferred to the UW and never looked back. “I loved the diversity of students at the UW,” she recalls. “Their ages and life situations were so much more varied. And the School of Drama felt like a small family within the larger university.”

Brief stints in theatre, first in Seattle and then in Manhattan, led Shelton to realize that acting was not sustaining her creatively. She dove into photography, pursuing a master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York. A video workshop there provided an aha moment. “I loved the time-based aspect and working with audio,” recalls Shelton, who began making experimental films and editing other filmmakers’ projects. 

Shelton spent nearly a decade as a film editor and part-time teacher before making her first feature. During that time she also married, returned to Seattle, and had a child. “I was editing narrative work — some features, some shorts — when it finally dawned on me that I could do what these filmmakers were doing. I could write and direct.”

Her first feature, We Go Way Back (2006), took nine months from concept to completion — a timeline ripe with metaphor. “At the time, I was ambivalent about whether to have more kids,” Shelton recalls. “After this project, I realized that I wouldn’t be having more human babies. From now on, my films would be my babies. I had discovered exactly what I wanted to do.”

We Go Way Back concerns a 23-year-old woman who questions her life choices after reading a letter she wrote to her older self at age 13. Shelton loved making the film, but found herself frustrated by the limitations that traditional filmmaking poses for actors. It seemed to her that more time was spent setting up shots than working with actors on interpreting scenes. 

...I realized that I wouldn't be having more human babies. From now on, my films would be my babies. I had discovered exactly what I wanted to do.

“There was one improvised scene in that film, and that scene was very exciting,” says Shelton. “I decided that my next film would be a complete experiment with the actors developing their own characters, using their own words.” That second film, My Effortless Brilliance (2008), takes place almost entirely in and around a cabin in the woods. Shelton describes it as a relationship portrait, with plot taking a back seat. “We made that film with the most bare bones crew you could possibly have,” she recalls. “It was an incredibly intimate experience.” 

For her next two films, Shelton continued to have the actors improvise most of their lines, but now within a painstakingly structured plot. Humpday (2009), about friends determined to create an “art film” for the local amateur porn festival, became Shelton’s breakout film, garnering an Independent Spirit Award, a Sundance Special Jury Prize, and a National Board of Review award for top independent film. My Sister’s Sister (2011), about complicated relationships between friends and siblings, brought more accolades, including award nominations for Shelton, star Rosemarie DeWitt, and the ensemble cast. 

While it might seem that improvisation is an easy out for a writer/director, leaving the actors to do the heavy lifting, Shelton assures that it is anything but. “Improv is actually really stressful,” she explains. “Sometimes lightning strikes once and never again. It’s the surprises actors spring on each other. So as a director, I have to be improvising too, playing off of what the actors are doing. It requires going on instinct, capturing it all and then finding the gems in the editing.” 

Lynn Shelton (left) with actress Rosemarie DeWitt during the filming of  Touchy Feely.

Lynn Shelton (left) with actress Rosemarie DeWitt during the filming of  Touchy FeelyMedia credit: Eliza Truitt

It also requires dedicated actors. On big movie productions, the cameras roll one or two hours a day, with the remaining time spent on lighting and other logistics. Shelton’s films flip that. Her actors work ten hour days, with lighting limited to no more than two hours. “That’s a ratio that’s heaven for me,” she says. 

The critical success of her recent films has opened other doors for Shelton. After Humpday, she was invited to create a web series about Seattle bands. She describes the 12-part series, $5 Cover: Seattle, as “a love letter to Seattle.” She also has served as guest director for several popular television shows, including Mad Men and New Girl. 

None of that has slowed down her feature film career. Touchy Feely, her most ambitious project yet, concerns a massage therapist who develops an aversion to bodily contact. In some ways, the film is reminiscent of Shelton’s first feature, with a fully written script, less focus on dialog, and more emphasis on the character’s internal struggle.

“I wanted to break out of the formula of my recent work,” says Shelton. “My last three films each had one storyline, one key location, and three characters. This film has more storylines and locations and a larger crew. But my heart is still in working with actors, digging into great performances.” While Shelton’s past films have been 80 percent improvisation, Touchy Feely is only about 20 percent improvised. “I welcomed the actors to ad lib, but they were not veteran improvisers and rarely went off script.”

Like her other films, Touchy Feely was filmed in the Northwest, where Shelton and her long-time crew continue to live. “Seattle has a beautiful film community of people who are mutually supportive of each other,” she says. “They want to see friends succeed. It’s a great place to be if you want to make films.”

As she wraps up another trip to Sundance with yet another film, Shelton hopes that her experience will inspire students who may be intrigued but intimidated by the idea of making films.

“There’s never been a better time to make movies,” she insists. “For a young person starting out, it’s crazy how accessible decent equipment is now. Develop relationships, find people you want to collaborate with, and make a movie. If you keep your costs low, then the stakes are also low. You can take risks. You can risk failures along the way. You can show at smaller festivals and start to create a body of work. So pick up your camera. You have no excuse. Don’t wait for permission.”