We recently sat down with acclaimed filmmaker Lynn Shelton for an extended natter about her upcoming film, dietary requirements and producing Surimi in the Bering Sea!
Click: Well first off, did you really work aboard a fishing trawler in the Bering Sea? Was it like Deadliest Catch?!Lynn Shelton: [Laughs] I did! Not quite as bad because the ship is larger, it’s like a football field and a half long or something like that...Click: Woah!LS: Yeah, huge big factory trawler that uses hundred tonne nets that get hauled in like this big giant snake into the belly of the beast! They would get dumped into the hull below and there would be this big factory line where we turn it into Surimi. It’s this fish paste basically, you make fake crab out of it and it goes straight to Japan just as Surimi, a fish paste with leak and salt and sugar added.
You could make loads of money, I guess, turning pollock into that!
And yeah, two and a half solid months on the Bering Sea and I started in the factory, constantly seasick the entire time...Click: Oh No!LS: It was miserable! I just wanted to slit my wrists! I eventually moved up to the galley, when one of the galley workers got pregnant actually. So I got bumped up to assistant which was, I suppose, slightly less insane.
But I guess it was one of those experiences. It was a hell at the time, but great story fodder at parties. Very few people bring it up anymore!!Click: It’s interesting because you’re credited as an actress and writer as well as a director. So do you have a particular career path which you’d prefer to go down?LS: Well I started as an actor in the theatre. In my twenties I moved to New York to be closer to the theatre and after a couple of months, the theatre and I had a falling out. It was not fulfilling all of my creative needs I suppose mostly. It was never as much fun.
So I ended up going into photography. I went to graduate school in photography, which is a second, in the wings, love of mine. And it was there I discovered film and video and started making films, kind of as a solo artist, as a photographer or painter might approach the medium. And I never worked with any crews or anything, I did everything by myself, I’m a total control freak, which was a very nice through-the-back-door way of doing it.
And also editing, that was my marketable skill. So then I came out of school and was editing for other people and making my own strange films, totally un-commercial, (nobody’s seen them, nobody should) and then moved back to Seattle to have my kid, I was pregnant. And because it’s a smaller community, all of a sudden, I was editing features and lots of narrative work and that’s when I got the idea “Hmm, I think I could direct”
So I started doing that over commission. I was really lucky, it was a non profit film called ‘The Film Company’ and afterwards I was asked ‘Would you like to write a feature?’ and I was like “Ummm, yeah, you’ve kind of read my mind!”
And on the set of that film, I became myself, I thought, this is what I was always meant to be doing.
But I couldn’t have done it any earlier. I felt like the accumulation of everything I’ve learned before and also the combination of that combined with the maturity level and confidence level that I had, which I didn’t have a t 19 or 29 even.
Now I will still occasionally act when a friend asks me to in smaller roles basically to keep a connection with my actors, to keep that connection to their process, that deep empathy.
I always want to make sure I have an incredibly emotionally faithful, performer centric set, so I have as few people on set as often as I can. It really is the hardest job on the set and I never want to lose sight of that.Click: Speaking of small crews, there’s only really 3 characters in Your Sister’s Sister. Was that a big challenge or do you prefer working with a smaller cast?LS: I love it, it means you can focus so much, and get to know those characters so intimately, and pick up on all the nuances between them. It’s interesting because I’m looking at working on a couple of different projects next that are much more an ensemble cast, and I’m happy to deal with that particular challenge.
But the thing I’ll always come back to is that smaller cast. It makes it so much more manageable. I mean the set itself; we had from between eight to a dozen crewmen. Compared to a normal movie that’s insanely small!
It means, from the whole experience, the cast and crew are like a family, you know? We basically kidnapped everybody so we were sort of in this summer camp and then we’d trot over to our picture house and eat and dine and hang out together afterwards. It was a very bonding experience.Click: Siblings seems to be a big theme in Your Sister’s Sister. Is there anything that provoked this?LS: Not personally. I have a brother and two step siblings and they’re all incredibly boring, uncomplicated, pure love connections I have with all of them. But I have dear friends whose relationships there are much more complicated. The closer they are to their siblings the more fraught with competition. There’s just so much there, there’s so much weight, so I’ve always been a keen observer of human nature I think I’ve always just been really compelled by those.
Something I’ve always been interested in is the way humans desperately want to connect, to other humans and when it ends up not working so well because none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes. Anyway all of that I find very endearing, I want the audience to love these characters for their flaws almost!Click: Well, we’re big fans of Emily Blunt at Click (naturally! – J) What was it like working with her?LS: Oh fantastic, she’s so lovely, she really really is yeah! She’s just great and it was really good timing when I asked her to do this movie because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get her. But her agent was a big fan of my last film, so he was sort of pitching it to her, and it was just a two week shoot so it was easier to say, “I guarantee it’s going to be a great time!” I think she had just done a bunch of bigger movies where there had been a lot of technical, not a lot of collaboration called on, from the actors and I think she was just ready to try something different. I think she just comes off brilliantly, don’t you? Seems cast and crew had no time for each other on YSS Enlarge Click: Little bit, yeah! Speaking of Hump Day, Mark Duplass, seems to be the only actor you’ve used twice in your films. Was that by accident or was there a preference?LS: Well we had a fantastic time working on the set of HUMPDAY, we met on another film before that , I was just the photographer on the set and just watched him work and was just totally “Oh my god, THAT is the kind of actor I want to work with” he was just so generous and so flexible.
So I said I want to direct, and he said “Pitch me something” and a couple months later I pitched him this crazy idea for Hump Day. He brought in Josh Leonard, they knew each other so it went from there. I go to these actors when the plot is still half baked so they heavily involved in the development of their characters.
It was very collaborative and very organic. So he came to me again and said “I have this idea for a film”
See he’s a filmmaker as well with his brother Jay (They’re the Duplass brothers) and they have this drawer filled with ideas and some of them don’t make it and some of them get brought out. And this film was about a brother who’d lost a brother, and if felt a little too close to home for them. So he called up and said “You wanna be in another film? I think that would be a good one and you could direct it and I could be in it maybe.”
The funny thing was the key difference was the thing he brought to me was ‘Guy has lost his brother and his best friend sends him up to family getaway and there he meets her mother!Click: Ooooh!LS: Yep! So originally it was going to be more of a May-December, she shows up the next day, a little bit more traditional love triangle. And I changed it to older sister pretty early on. I liked the parallel of the two sets of siblings and how they have complicated pasts, and try to resolve them.
It was a little bit of a struggle getting it to pop off the page, but that’s the challenge. That makes it real! But I hope I did okay...Click: you also have directed some TV stuff like Mad Men, was there a story behind getting that gig?LS: Sheer Luck! I don’t know, I feel so grateful and blessed to have had that experience. It was a real game changer for me, because it was my first time working in LA, with a crew, on a sound stage, with that kind of budget and that calibre of actors. The whole thing was a huge confidence booster and it was just... Heavenly.
It was heavenly. It was my favourite show!
And I really wanted to try to get a TV job, but also something to keep me busy between movies. But I don’t want to just say that they hired me because I’m so great!
But it was so great to work in such a different way because I use improvisation, A LOT of improvisation, all the dialogue. But in this, we were working with a script that was word perfect. And for good reason; it’s really, really well written and so it was in the middle of that I realised ‘Oh my god, what I do is so, incredibly stressful,’
Writing on set it’s so hard!
So I would like to work on a movie that’s scripted, without having to worry about the words all the time.
There is a quality that you can’t get, or I can’t figure out any other way to get the freshness in the dynamic of the relationship when the actors are actually coming up with their own words. It’s really something I’ll come back to again and again.Click: And do you reckon you’d prefer to direct TV over Film?LS: I LOVE TV! I’ve only had two gigs for that, Mad Men and New Girl. But really what it comes down to is I love directing, absolutely love it, and to direct television, good television, is such a good way to stretch your muscles. And your given certain things like, here are your actors, and here are the lines. It’s like your captain of a ship, not admiral of a fleet.
And all of that I find just an excellent brain teaser, I dunno, it feels really fulfilling. But I’m a filmmaker, I’m hoping I can slip in an episode or two of good television per year, that would be a dream. Who knows if I’ll have the opportunity to do that...
But it would also mean that if I wanted to continue working on smaller scale films I could, I wouldn’t have to do bigger films. I only want to do films if they feel like the right fit, and the self generated movies are my favourite.Click: And lastly, having a vegan in the film, it kind of resonated with me... was that a reflection of yourself or anything?LS: Well in fairness, her dietary choices and restrictions are a little bit of a play on me. That’s the one autobiographical thing is that I am a celiac so I can’t have gluten, but I also can’t eat dairy and soy and it’s a long, boring list of things I can’t eat. And I chose to not eat meat a while ago, so I’m kind of like a fish eating vegan, because I can’t have dairy or stuff like that.
So it turned out this could develop into these fun character traits, where there are these opportunities for humour, like the first night when he’s looking at her dehydrated fruit and she’s like “You hungry?” and he’s like “you’re okay...” Little things like that shine through because everybody looks at the food I eat in the same way. And there are the pancakes of course, completely based on something that happened to me. I’m much better at making pancakes now... But one was a complete disaster, just a gluey glob, a gummy mess, so that was funny to recreate. And also those moments when they don’t really understand her choices, it’s another point worth exploring.
A couple of weeks ago in London we saw this young comedian, and he went on for half of his routine about how if his son turned out to be gay he’d be absolutely fine with it, but if he turned out to be a vegetarian he freak out!
It was hysterical! Seriously, you can almost feel the enmity Enlarge