BY MARGY ROCHLIN
Three days after independent filmmaker Lynn Shelton wrapped her latest film, Touchy Feely, she stepped onstage in front of a cheering audience of 2,900 at the Seattle Opera House. She was there to introduce Your Sister’s Sister, her 2011 low-budget comedy that was shot in 12 days and was now opening the Seattle Film Festival, a first-ever for a local director. “It’s going to be a difficult [memory] to top,” says Shelton of the experience. “They had a live orchestra play me and my crew on and off the stage. It was wonderful.”
That Shelton was completing one film while ushering another into theaters may sound like a rarity in today’s world of independent filmmaking. But Touchy Feely, like the Seattle-based filmmaker’s other four features, was made using a now time-tested Shelton-ian model: It was shot on a tight production schedule for very little money (much of which was gathered from small grants and fund-raising house parties) and starred actors summoned by a single “Want to make a movie?” phone call. What makes Touchy Feely, a family ensemble drama-comedy about a massage therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt) who suddenly finds the human body repulsive, the most ambitious of her witty, often poignant oeuvre is that it incorporates fifteen different locations and interweaves storylines of seven main characters. On the Shelton scale, where the last three of her movies—My Effortless Brilliance (2008), Humpday (2009) and Your Sister’s Sister (2011)—revolve around three characters, take place at one location, were shot with two handheld cameras and transpire over the course of a long weekend, Touchy Feely, which premieres at Sundance, could be considered a sprawling epic.
COST-CONSCIOUS: As her films have gotten bigger, Shelton has tried to keep an intimate, family feel on the set.
Shelton came up with her stripped-down signature style as a reaction to an experience she had back in 2005 while directing her first feature, the quasi-autobiographical We Go Way Back. Instead of being able to devote herself to talking about blocking and motivation with her cast of stage actors, Shelton found herself consumed by the nuts and bolts of conventional moviemaking. “There were all these people standing around, the smoke machines were going and my actors were totally freaking out. I started fantasizing: ‘God, what if I could shoot a movie completely in order? What if there’d be no weird lighting equipment? What if I could create a fiction film that felt like a fly-on-the-wall documentary?’” says Shelton who got her start making experimental documentaries and working as a film editor. “That’s what I was going for: Pure naturalism.”
Her decision to work with a miniscule crew—Shelton frequently doubles as the second camera operator—means less bystanders to make the actors feel self-conscious. But it’s also essential to her business plan: if she was going to be able to get her projects up and running on what she calls a “micro-budget,” she’d have just enough to compensate her talent and crew if they were willing to work on a profit-sharing system. “Everybody works for very little,” says Shelton who observes union minimums. “Then if I make money, or the producer makes money, we all make money. Everyone gets a piece.”
For most of her films, Shelton provided her tiny cast with nothing more than a barebones story outline which she and the actors fleshed out in preproduction. When shooting begins, the cast is expected to improvise almost every word of dialogue. Because of her love of working without a script, Shelton’s approach has been compared to British director Mike Leigh even though there’s a big difference about the way the two directors acquire cinematic authenticity.
“I have an initial idea—a scaffolding—of what’s going to happen in the story and a general sense of the kinds of people they are and what kinds of relationships they may have,” says Shelton pointing out that Leigh works with the actors to develop both actions and characters, then creates a film script culled from his favorite moments. “With me, there’s no improvisation at all until we get on set.”
Whether an actor discovers a reliable dialogue groove or is riff-happy and uses each take to veer in a brand-new surprising direction, Shelton protects herself by always shooting the scene with a camera on each actor, even if that means lighting both sides of an exchange simultaneously. “I find cross coverage incredibly helpful. If you have it then you never have to recreate that little magic moment,” says Shelton adding that actors are more likely to get on an imaginative roll if they are on camera at the same time. “There’s no danger of one of them tuning out, saving it for their close-up. They’re right there. They have to be on. It creates this immediacy and spontaneity.”
Shelton relied on cross-coverage for Touchy Feely, too. But this time around she decided to mix it up by foregoing shaky handhelds for cameras on tripods. Though the cast worked largely from a script, Shelton says it was their decision. “I didn’t have any actors [for whom] improvising was their milieu, their comfort zone,” she reveals. “They’d say, ‘These are great lines, Lynn. Can’t we use them?’ And because they were so good at taking words on the page and making them seem like they’re improvised, it worked out great.”
Shelton had a revelation about memorized dialogue after landing her first gig as a guest director in 2010 on an extremely complicated episode of the sleek ’60s-era drama Mad Men. As daunting as it was, she quickly discovered the overlap between directing a cable TV series and being a scrappy indie filmmaker: Both jobs require the director to be fast, decisive and to solve problems without hesitating. But she could have never predicted how she’d react to working with a cast who weren’t expected to come up with improv magic day in and out. “It was so luxurious to have a good script and good dialogue and not have to worry about coming up with the words. Actors are actors—they’re not writers,” says Shelton who has since guest-directed on New Girl and Ben and Kate, both half-hour comedies on Fox that are scripted but contain flashes of improvisation.
Mad Men was also the first time Shelton worked with a crew comprised of 75 strangers instead of her usual core of six to twelve skilled technicians who are also her close friends. Though Touchy Feely didn’t need a Mad Men-sized community to get made, it was large enough in scale that Shelton had to expand her small band of Seattle-based regulars. “We needed more bodies, so it was basically the same crew plus,” says Shelton whose team fluctuated between 35 to 50 people, each of whom had been told that the vibe on her set has to be supportive, emotionally even-keeled and that yellers aren’t tolerated.
What Shelton figured out from her earlier films is that if you need to work very quickly and no one is being paid much, one bad mood can become contagious and slow production down. “If somebody is having a crappy day it can affect everything,” says Shelton, who wondered if it was possible to keep things levelheaded on a bigger production.
“One of the things I wanted to explore was: Could I keep the intimate feeling of my tiny, family-style film sets where everybody is really excited to be there and on the same page, and it’s a really positive experience for everybody?” Shelton got her answer on the last week of filming. “People of all different stripes from different departments from high to low, were coming up to me and saying, ‘Usually by this time on a production someone is driving me out of my mind and I want to strangle them, I can’t wait to finish. But this? The weeks have flown by,’” recalls Shelton. “People just had a great time and it made me really happy to hear that.”