Sundance London Interview: Lynn Shelton Q+A (Touchy Feely) Print
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 28 April 2013 08:37
Lynn Shelton interview, Touchy Feely

Ever since Your Sister's Sister, I've been a Lynn Shelton fan. A director who coaxed natural performances from all of her actors, she's great at creating moments, or conversations, or characters, that are instantly believable.

She drops the ball a bit on Touchy Feely, a larger ensemble piece than her previous films, but made some interesting comments in a Q+A after it premiered in the UK at Sundance London.

Here's what she had to say on Touchy Feely, improvisation and directing an episode of Mad Men.

Where did the idea for Touchy Feely come from

I had this idea in my head for a long time about someone who works intimately with bodies - maybe because I get massages a lot - and I'd never thought about what it was like doing that. But I thought it was such an intense thing to have such an intimate connection with strangers. And bodies are so odd. And skin is so weird! What if you just reached a threshold where you couldn't do that any more? What would it do to your identity? That idea had been eating away at me for a while. And after I worked with Rosemaire DeWitt on Your Sister's Sister, she started appearing as that character in my head and it just called to me that she was the one who had to channel that dream.

You also have this second storyline about Paul, a dentist. How did he become involved?

I had also been having conversations with Josh Pais, who plays her brother Paul, over the last couple of years talking about a collaborating on a project. But that ended up dying off, then I realised that character, this dentist, could be an interesting juxtaposition to Abby. It started with those two, then everything else came organically out of that, all the other storylines.

Josh Pais has been in everything from A Beautiful Mind to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. How did you discover him?

I saw Josh Pais in a film called The Year of the Dog by Mike White and he plays this boss, I thought he was brilliant, he was so funny and struck me so had. I became a bit obsessed and I had the chance to meet him and I went up and said "You're so amazing!" and he was very gracious, very nice to me, and we ended up chatting and a little whilte later he found out I directed Humpday and he flipped out because ehe loved that fill. We immediately started talking about collarboting on af ilm. We ha this eidea of an accidental cult leader and he was going to be a dnentit or something - it was a little unformed. But every few months we would get on the phone, or talk on Skype, and it felt like we knew each other forever and we kept developing this character… He told me I could tell you about his walk. The first day we shot was when Paul was high on ecstasy. And in that shot, he found the walk - all you have to do is curl up your toes and if you try to walk, you just automatically become Paul! All the crew were walking on set trying to be Paul… If you like at his IMDb page, he's been in, like, a gazillion films in all these small roles, so it was really fun to give him more of a leading role so he could really sink his teeth into it.

How did you find stepping up the scale from your previous, smaller films? What prompted that decision?

I had made three films in a row that were either completely improvised or majority improvised and with three characters, essentially one location,. They were written that way - luckily I like to turn a microscope on a small slice of characters' lives - because it's something that's very produceable, it can be shot in a few weeks. But I felt the need after three in a row to expand a bit and try multiple shorelines and ensemble casts and some parallel editing. Also, something that was a bit more scripted. THis was about 65% scripted, 35% improvised. I just needed to be a bit more of a control freak after being so collaborative. The shoot was a larger crew, 20 days instead of 10, and more time was spent lighting new locations. It made me want to go back to a situation where you're rolling a camera for 10 hours of 12 hours instead of the opposite which it feels like on a bigger film set.

Is that a direction you're continuing to head in?

I'm in prep right now that's going to be my most expensive film, several million dollars, with a script that someone else has written and it's got loads of location - it's a movie movie! (Laughs) I'm excited to do that too but I don't want to keep going bigger and bigger. Again, it makes me long for the smaller, more intimate set where it's more about the acting and the writing and getting it right.

You recently directed an episode of Mad Men. What was that like?

When they hired me, I'd only done my own micro-budget films in my own strange way up in Seattle. I never went to film school, I was an editor on the post side of the things and very quickly adapted this upside down model, where I would cast it first, and then a project would come from that and would be very improvised. It wasn't a normal way of making movies. So when they hired me to direct Mad Men, I was like "Do they know? Can I do this?" But it turned out it was the perfect match. In TV, you have to work very quickly and I was very used to that - and as an editor, I was confident in knowing when it was time to move on. And I realised it was the same job, you just have five people working for the key people you're talking to. It was nice to not be intimidated any more - after that I felt I could walk onto the set of any big movie and be fine. I had also be working with a lot of improvisation so to have this beautifully written script that had to be word perfect - there's no improvisation with a Matt Wiener script! - it was nice to see actors who really knew their characters, who knew their backstory, what they could do with this dialogue. That was when the seed was planted for [Touchy Feely's scripted] dialogue.

It's hard to capture that sense of touch on a cinema screen. You use a lot of tilt-shift. How did you and your DoP Benjamin Kasulke go about developing the look of the film?

The way that Ben and I work - this is out fifth film together - we're very collaborative, so we'll get together beforehand and talk about the look of a project. There are certain things where I have a clear image in my head and he'll realise that for me, or other times where I'll ask for more of his input. But we discover it together. It's very collaborative. But he's quite brilliant, so he's a great partner to work with! We went through with a still camera and went through all our locations and visually shot listed most of the scenes so that was helpful. I knew I wanted to get tilt-shift lenses and some macro lenses for the more special effecty parts of the film, the skin freak-out stuff!

Head this way to read our Touchy Feely review.