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

Let me step back to your first feature. You came out of theater, and you had edited some features before you directed We Go Way Back, including Hedda Gabler. In We Go Way Back the actress is cast in the lead of Hedda Gabler and it's a production that is going right off the rails. Is there anything autobiographical in that, or is this just your nightmare of the worst possible theater experience that you could think of?

[Laughs] The director is an amalgamation of many acting teachers and directors that I've encountered. I started acting when I was about 11 and kept on acting through my twenties and it was like an addiction. I was always in a show, so I encountered lots and lots of different personalities through the years. None of them were quite as misguided as poor Bob's character, but there is also some practicality to it. I needed a role in western classic theater that might be recognizable to a certain set so that it would be a big deal, because this is her first big role, so she needs to be offered this great part, and I needed to write the script in five weeks and I knew that play really, really well. I knew the lines by heart, so it was expedient. But there are a lot of interesting challenges to playing Hedda anyway. This is obviously very condensed and exaggerated, but the kernel of the story is totally autobiographical.

Hedda Gabler


So you never actually had a director with a potato fixation?

No, my own devious brain came up with that. [Laughs]

The craziness of all those ridiculous choices was pretty funny, but what I found disturbing was the cavalier attitude he had when, after she spent weeks learning Norwegian and memorizing her lines in Norwegian as well as English, he said, "Well, that isn't working." He never even thanked her for all that effort and work she put into his whim - it was just like he said, "Let's just forget about it." He doesn't even notice how it affects her.

No, he's so into his own vision that it's beyond him. It's a very satisfying audience reaction.

Kate is an exceptionally passive character.

Yes, she is. [Laughs]

Everything simply happens to her and she just lets it. Her depression feeds her passivity and her passivity then feeds her depression.

I think she doesn't even see herself as being passive. She's working very hard to do this thing that she's supposed to be doing, which is to be an actress, and so she's dedicated herself to this theater company and she's doing everything she can. She's their number one volunteer, she feels like she's doing and working, but in fact she's always doing and working to feed the needs of other people and then the desires of other people. What I was trying to capture was, I was getting interested in looking back and seeing these different selves that I had been, really different personalities.

I've always romanticized, I'm sure way out of proportion, that moment right before adolescence hit for me. It really was, for me, a really peak year, and for me it was 13. I was writing stories and poetry and painting and playing music and taking photographs, doing all these things, and I remember having a real clarity of vision and a real confidence, like I was ready to take on the world. When I look into the behavior patterns and the way that I was and the sense of depression in general after that, the other end of high school, basically, something in that adolescent period crushed it out of me. I wanted to do the ten-year thing because it's kind of poetic, but it was really 19 or 20 for me. I was really interested in those two selves, and then somebody turned me on to that book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls [by Mary Pipher], which documents this exact same thing that happens to many, many, many women, that there is this sense of empowerment that just disappears as soon as the body becomes sexualized and you become objectified and your relationship to the world inextricably changes.

So I was really just compelled by how totally, starkly different those two people were and I thought it would be interesting to throw them in the same room together. So that was the initial idea. And in order to really create an interesting juxtaposition, I was not really in such bad shape as she was, but I loosely based her on some of the experiences I had and condensed them into a shorter time period and stuff like that to make it more dramatic. One of the key events in my life that I wanted to approach was this experience I had that basically was a date rape. It took me a long time to work through what had happened. I suppressed the experience for a while, literally forgot about it, and it resurfaced a couple years later at which point I became really angry at the guy and I felt really victimized, and then a few years after that I realized that I had been completely complicit in the whole thing. Looking at it now, I realized he shouldn't have done what he did, but I can also see that he had a different take on it and I was so incredibly passive because I had lost all sense of boundaries and all sense of respect. I really wanted to capture that experience that I think happens to a lot of young women. I heard this writer in her fifties talk about the different stages in a woman's life in broad sweeping strokes, but she characterized the twenties as a woman's "Geisha years." [Laughs] Really trying to make everybody around you happy, especially men, and I just thought that was perfect. It was exactly what I wanted to capture, that essence of how soul crushing it is.

Her anger and her disappointment in that scene in the film is what finally brings her 13-year-old self into the world.

Right, exactly. And it was almost like a symbolic suicide, that bathtub scene, because she's killing this other part of herself because it's too painful to be judged, basically, by this other person.

You shoot it in a way that completely alienates the adult Kate from her surroundings. You chop up answering machine massages and a speech until they are jumbled together in rush, as if they are just rattling around in her head, and as she makes muffins, we just see her hands, as if they are disconnected from her body and herself, as she talks on the phone to her mom.

Yeah, the sense of disassociation is important. I was really interested throughout the whole film to match form and function, trying to get the way of telling her story to support her experience and get inside her head. It's the way memory works, you remember these little moments. But I think that sense of being overwhelmed can also be like that. And so when the director is giving a speech about her and everyone is watching her, his words start to echo and layer, the impulse was to try to represent that kind of experience as an out of body experience. And at the end of the last sex scene, where we're above looking down, that was an experience that I had where I was on top of the room looking down at this thing happening to me.

Like an out of body experience by someone on the operating table.

Exactly. Like life is something that's happening to her and she's not even a part of it.

There is a small community of Seattle filmmakers who are making features with local talent and local funding - you, Rick Stevenson, Robinson Devor, John Jeffcoat, Matt Wilkins, Greg Lachow. But most of these films are small, intimate, arthouse films - with rare exceptions, they aren't designed for big audience distribution. Is there an economic model that can make your kind of filmmaking work financially?

[Laughs] My two films have very different budgets. We shot We Go Way Back in 35mm, which immediately blew up the budget a great deal. And I wasn't actually in the producing part so I don't even know how much it was. I heard someone say it was under a half a million, so probably $250,000 to $500,000, in that region. That's a small budget for a feature film and yet a lot more than I could ever know how to put together. As a producer, I haven't entered that realm yet.

The way that I put money together for my second film, which was a much, much smaller budget than that - you might call it a micro-budget - was grants, house party fundraisers. I got fiscal sponsorship because I was a non-profit. People could make tax-deductible donations, and because I had this track record, people really liked my first film, I got a lot of support. The filmmaking model that I used was not only very performance-friendly for my second film, but it was also extremely economical because I had this very tiny crew and we only shot for seven days. It's a very efficient little set. So that is one way.

My Effortless Brilliance

What is really empowering about the second film is that I was able to actually just pull it all together on my own. I actually used the same fundraising model that I traditionally used with my experimental documentaries and films that really had absolutely no commercial hope or economic viability but is really just pure art. And I really approach them as art, first and foremost. This doesn't mean I don't want people to see my films. Because I'm going into the realm of feature films, I have to think more and more about how am I going to get these films into the world.

A good model for me has been the Duplass Brothers and The Puffy Chair, the first real breakaway hit of that kind of film. They did well around the world, and because they were able to make it for such a small amount of money, they didn't have to make the $5 million deal with Miramax in order to make their money back. The other thing is, I just want to make movies, so it's less important to me. The economic viability question is there, for sure, and I'm becoming more comfortable with thinking about that, but it really isn't my starting point. My starting point is just: how can I make my next film? And the fact that I didn't have to write a business plan or find investors and create this big structure for myself in order to make my second film, it's really freeing.

I have friends who have scripts that have been in development for years and they may have a lot of really great and impressive pieces in place, but it's such a huge budget that they're just sitting and waiting and not making movies because they are trying to put together the financing. I never want to get stuck in that kind of situation. It doesn't mean I won't ever make a movie above $500,000 or whatever, but if I ever do, I would like to be able to, as that's developing, go out and make movies on a soft scale. And you really can do that. We shot on this wonderful HD video camera that cost something like $5,000.

Do you think there is a Seattle sensibility when it comes to local filmmaking?

Sure. What's nice about going around to different film festivals, regional film festivals, is seeing other independent films being made in Philadelphia and San Francisco and New York and LA. You realize that there is something different. I don't know if it's a combination of the light, the actual geographical quality of being here. I think also you're sort of an outsider artist if you're not living in LA. You can break out of the box a little more. Not that people aren't doing exciting work out of the cities, but I feel you get an outsider perspective on it, somehow. I don't feel inhibited by models that have been in place forever and a day.

There is less insistence in narrative or plot-driven productions.

Yes. Although I have to say it's something that I do aspire to. That's something I do admire very much about the Duplass Brothers. Their first film, The Puffy Chair, is relationship-based; there's a couple and then his brother gets into the mix, and it's also very funny but in this hyper-naturalistic style. Their characters are so full and their style so naturalistic that people focus on those things, but they're really plot-driven: totally, classic "what's going to happen next?" With Brilliance, I was worried that, you know, nothing happens in the movie. My little art joke name for it is "My Dinner With Sean-dre." There's a lot of talking. There's definitely a strong emotional subtext in every scene. I just didn't know if it would be evident to anybody but me.

I wouldn't want to make a film that meanders and is really self-indulgent. I really want that sense of purpose, and so I realize that I'm a lot more conservative or traditional in that way. I actually am interesting in making a film that the audience would enjoy sitting through. I don't have any problem with that. But it seems that there are some filmmakers where that is not at the top of their list at all. Which is totally fine and they're making really important films, but not films I would ever make. I really want to be the populist artiste.

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