Lynn Shelton: "They Could Just Make It Happen With Their Own Words"


Did you rehearse scenes, did you work them out in workshop approach to get a shape to them?

No, we'd just talk and talk and talk before we shot. We were shooting on video, so if it really wasn't working, we could do it again. We usually had two cameras, especially in the cabin, and the lighting was set up and the room was set up in such a way that they could go wherever they wanted and do whatever they wanted and the hope was that we would get the coverage with the two cameras. The reason you do take after take and make them do the same thing again and again and make them hit the same marks is so that you can move the camera and the lights and get all these different angles and put it together in the edit room. But with two cameras, the hope was that we would never have to make them replicate the exact same thing again and again, which would stifle the performances. The whole point was to make it as easy on them as possible so they could be comfortable and naturalistic.

And so that dinner scene, for instance, the first dinner in the cabin, I think we shot for 20-25 minutes and they just went, they just kept talking and had this long conversation and then I ended up cutting it down to a two-minute scene. So editing it was a lot like editing a documentary. I just had 20 hours or so of really great performances and all this wonderful writing and usable footage but then had to decide how I was going to shape it. I stole a lot of shots and created moments and enhanced tensions and did all kinds of stuff. There are a few scenes that we realized really should be shifted and weren't working the way we shot them so I would have to manipulate them a little bit in the editing. That's the redemptive beauty of the editing phase. Like I said, the edit room is where I learned how to be a cinematic storyteller, and a director, for that matter. On set I often felt like I was just a big cheater. We would talk and talk and talk and we all knew what was going to happen in that scene, but I would then just step back and let them go. In retrospect, I realize that there was a lot that I was putting into place, but a lot of it was invisible. I really felt that my directorship came heavily in to play in the edit room.

My Effortless Brilliance

 

Orson Welles was quoted as saying "The director is simply the audience.... His job is to preside over accidents." So it's creating a set where creative work can bloom.

Totally, yeah, and that's something I'm very protective of. The other big, big difference between these two productions is that We Go Way Back probably had about 30 people on set and the new movie was often just Ben the cinematographer, Vinny the sound guy, and me and the actors. We didn't have a gaffer. We had a production designer who set everything up and then it was all done. But we were in this remote location so we worked out a deal where she would cook and set out snacks for us. It was great, it was like a little family, it was very, very intimate. And when you have a set that small, everyone is equally engaged because they're right there, they're so important. A lot of times on bigger sets you can't help but have people on the outer edges; they're trying to have a happy work life so they're having conversations and sharing jokes and it's nothing to do with what's going on creatively on the set, and so it's just a sense of distraction - the energy is different. So when everybody is there and are really focused on what's going on, it just creates a very dynamic set experience.

Did you see Old Joy? The idea of old friends coming back together after a long period of being apart, the tensions, trying to recapture the past and not being able to but seeing glimpses into what it was like...

And there are all these other parallels. The directors are both women and it's in the woods in the Pacific Northwest somewhere, yeah. There are many people who refer to Old Joy in reviews, but they immediately then list all the ways that it's totally different.

Yes. You come about this topic with a completely different style, from a completely different perspective, and you come out with a completely take on the theme. And still just as legitimate.

I hope so. [Laughs] It hasn't been a problem so far. It's like you can't not talk about it, you have to point out these parallels exist, but it's not a problem.

And that brings me back to the idea of male relationships as seen from the perspective of a woman filmmaker, getting the ego and self-consciousness out of the way, and then making it about the self-consciousness of these people and Eric especially. Every time things start to get heavy, Eric either quiets down and turns away or he changes the subject and starts cracking jokes, trying to defuse the situation through humor.

Exactly, awfully self-deprecatory, and yet bringing the attention back to him. I went to the Ashland Film Festival and at every screening there were people who were just obsessed that I was a woman and why would I want to make this movie about men? As you point out, men make movies about women all the time. But I realized that throughout my filmmaking career and up to We Go Way Back, I was always writing about what I knew and always writing from a very internal place, from the inside out. And this movie was so fun to make because it was the exact opposite, it was from the outside in. I was starting with a topic and a male friendship and men in general, the world of men alone, and these particular men, these particular characters that I was really compelled by, and I was investigating from this outside perspective. It's a really fabulous way to work. You hope that your own fascination with the subject matter will translate over to the audience's experience.

I didn't realize it until the end, but everything that Eric does to reconnect with Dylan is motivated by that first scene and the line: "You're a terrible friend and you're an asshole." It's like he's got to erase that; he has to make Dylan change his mind, even though everything Dylan said was true and he probably realizes that.

[Laughing] And he continues to reinforce it. It's so sad.

It's more a matter of ego than affection. It's all about him. I don't even know that they even like each other anymore, but there is a comfort level that they find right toward the end, when they're hiking through the woods and finally Dylan falls into Eric's rhythm of quips and jokes and nonsense observations and you know that's what they were like 20 years ago.

That was the idea, that the sheen is gone from the new friend, his worst qualities come out, this deranged, obsessed hunter, and they're just sort of stuck there behind him because he's leading them through the forest, and they lose all sense of awe and respect for him and are like little naughty schoolchildren behind the teacher's back. I was really pleased with how that came across. And I have to say that, especially on the big screen, Calvin really is awesome. A lot of people have told me that they feel like he steals a lot of the scenes, he's so good.

He becomes the active man at that point and Eric and Dylan are just passive city guys cracking their goofball jokes: "This reminds me of the time we stayed up all night drinking and then went cougar hunting." Was that something they just came up with?

Oh yeah. I made them stay there and just banter. The deleted scenes we could have on our DVD, good God. 17 solid hours of pure gold. It was painful, actually, the stuff I had to cut out, because it was just so funny.

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