Q&A: Lynn Shelton, Writer-Director of TOUCHY FEELY

(Re-posted from LimitéMagazine.com)

Award-winning filmmaker Lynn Shelton had her breakthrough with 2009′s Humpday, a comedic “romp” about a bromance taken to the next level. And aside from the occasional TV gig (directing the “Hands and Knees” episode of Mad Men), the director-writer-producer-editor-actress remains a fixture in today’s independent film scene. Her 2011 release Your Sister’s Sister, starring Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, won multiple awards and nominations, including a Gotham Award for its cast and the Directors to Watch Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The festival darling’s latest release is Touchy Feely, a 2013 Sundance selection that was released this past September and is available on DVD today. Starring an ensemble cast of both veterans and new actors alike, the story focuses on Abby (DeWitt), a masseuse who delves into a depression upon developing an aversion to bodily contact, and her brother Paul (Josh Pais), a rather dull dentist whose practice experiences an overnight surge of interest from new patients. Ellen Page, Scott McNairy, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, and newcomer Tomo Nakayama round out the cast.

I had the opportunity to speak with the multi-hyphenate filmmaker about her latest film and her process.

What is it about this particular story that appealed to you most? Why is this a story you wanted to tell?

I made three films that were really small in scope. I had two or three characters, basically in one location, and the whole thing took place over the course of a long weekend, and it was just one narrative thrust. I wanted to try something a little bit broader in scope. I also wanted to try something a little more scripted. I was open to throwing out the script if everybody wanted to improvise dialogue, but I wanted to just be sitting alone in a room writing the thing, which I hadn’t done for awhile.

The starting point of the film came from this idea of Rosemarie DeWitt’s character as she’s suddenly unable to deal with bodies anymore, and how intense it would be to have this very intimate relationship with a stranger. And at the end of the day, because everyone is so different and skin is so freaky, I always wondered if people [masseuses] had ever just reached a threshold. And if they weren’t able to do their job anymore, that leads to the universal question of whether your occupation feeds into your sense of self identity and self worth. If you’re no longer able to do it, then where does that lead you; if you go down into some sort of a hole, how do you dig yourself back out and find who you are again? I thought that would be an interesting trajectory to explore.

There was an autobiographical inspiration to once she’s [DeWitt’s character] in the depression because I had a mild depression a few years ago and so much stuff came up for me. I felt ashamed, you know. Aside from being depressed, it was so frustrating because I could see my life on the other side of this veil—sort of a black veil, and I couldn’t get to it. I wanted to explore that, too.

But I knew I didn’t want it to be just her story. I had been having conversations with Josh Pais and we were tossing ideas around about a character who has no mojo and starts to get some [in contrast to DeWitt’s character who has mojo and loses it].

The thing that appealed to me the most is that the film is very original—nothing I’ve ever seen before. I love the duality of the two main characters, how one is gaining his groove and the other is losing it, and how they sort of meet in the middle in a way.

You’ve had about five films released in the past seven years. Do you feel you always have to be working?

I do. It’s definitely a sickness. [laughter]

You write, you produce, you edit, you act. How does all of that come together to help you with your directing?

It took me a long time to start directing films. For me, the director that I am is because of that—it’s because of this circuitous route. The films that I’ve made are because I’ve spent years in the theatre acting and then moved on to photography, then became an experimental filmmaker, including work on films with a lot of documentary elements because I was so fascinated by how real people talk and how real people present themselves to the world. [My previous experiences were] like this long, slow film school—the 20 years that preceded the making of my first feature film.

So really it’s three things. Being a photographer helped me figure out what I liked to see in the frame, and being an actor gave me empathy for what the actors are going through on my set and making sure they have an emotionally safe environment. And ultimately it’s the editing that really makes the films work.

I think making a movie requires a lot of maturity, in general, so it makes sense to me that a person should almost wait until they’ve had life experiences before they tackle their first film.

You edited Touchy Feely, but you don’t edit all of your films. How do you choose which ones to edit?

I edited the first couple, but I found the second experience move much more slowly, and it was much harder. Here I was in this room alone making a movie by myself and it was really lonely. I confided in a new friend [Nat Sanders] that I met on the festival circuit, who’s an incredible editor; he’s the only editor I really trusted. It’s so great to be in a room with him.

But with Touchy Feely, I don’t know, man, I just wanted to get back in the driver’s seat and it was perfect timing. I talked to him [Sanders] and he had other projects that were offered to him, and I think a lot of it is also that I felt very vulnerable making this movie because it has so much emotional content in it. I wanted to be really sure it allowed the audiences to come to it, and that it wasn’t thrusting its emotions onto the audience. And I wanted to get back in touch with the process. It makes me a better director when I have my hands on the keyboard.

You’re a woman in this male-dominated industry who’s doing really well and succeeding. Do you ever feel that weight of what it means that you’re doing well in this industry?

I feel a sense of celebration because I have so many young women come to me to say that I’m inspiring to them, and that’s a nice feeling.

Last question: I like to ask this of everyone because I’m a film buff, myself. What is your all-time favorite movie? 

Daniel! [laughter] I don’t think I can give an all-time favorite. It’s literally an impossible question, but I’ll give you three and you can do with them what you will. I’m gonna give you Harold and Maude(1971), Y Tu Mamá También (2001), and Stardust Memories (1980).

Click here to read Lynn Shelton’s profile in Limité’s “Film’s Female Powerhouses” feature.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zu6qd1QngqQ]
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