Interview: Lynn Shelton Gets All Touchy Feely

Filmmaker Lynn Shelton had been making small indie films on the Seattle film scene for a number of years before her third film Humpday got her added attention at the Sundance Film Festival. That film had many fans allowing Shelton to branch into other things including television before directing Your Sister’s Sister, her first film with more established actors like Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt.

That brings us to Touchy Feely, Shelton’s fifth film and one that feels very different from her previous two but also feels distinctly like the work of a director who has always been able to get amazing performances out of her actors. She reunites with DeWitt, who this time plays Abby, a massage therapist who one day discovers that she’s unable make contact with other humans. At the same time, her brother Paul, a dentist played by Josh Pais, is trying to raise a teen daughter (Ellen Page) and trying to keep his dental business afloat, something which becomes easier when patients learn he can heal them of their pain. Allison Janney plays Abby’s boss at the Reiki studio who ends up training Paul how to do Reiki in some of the movie’s funniest scenes, while Scott McNairy plays Abby’s somewhat younger boyfriend who is stymied by his girlfriend’s behavior.

Having spoken with Shelton and the casts of her previous movies as a group, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with the filmmaker and her two leads, Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais, to talk individually about how Touchy Feely came about and how the process of making the movie differed from her previous films.

“I’d made three films in a row where I’d been really collaborative with actors and brought them into the process well before the script was totally figured out, getting their two cents all along the way about the background of the characters, who these people were, and how that might impact the plot,” Shelton told us when asked how the process of making this film differed from her previous ones. “It’s wonderful to work that way and it gets everybody really invested in the characters and in the project. It makes it feel like our project and not just mine and I love that, but it’s sort of exhausting.”

As it turns out, it was Shelton’s experiences directing an episode of AMC’s “Mad Men” that got her thinking about sitting down to write a full script in advance of filming. “I had made two films in a row that were completely improvised and I didn’t realize how much stress there was in improvising on set and trying to write the dialogue on set and make sure it’s all in there. It was so heavenly to have these beautifully written lines of dialogue come out of the mouths of people who really knew who their characters were and could really make them work then I could just concentrate as a director on just trying to find the shape of the scene. That sort of planted the seed for me. ‘I think I want to try and write a script, that might be kind of cool.’”

Anyone who watches a good amount of movies or television is bound to know the work of character actor Josh Pais and probably knows that he rarely plays lead roles like the one he does in Shelton’s film.

Pais told us how the ball got rolling on him collaborating with Shelton. “I was at a screening of a movie I was in at the Tribeca Film Festival and I walked outside and this very beautiful woman came up to me and I was like, ‘I’m such a big fan of your work,’ and I was extremely flattered. We walked a couple blocks and I said, ‘What do you do?’ and she said, ‘I’m a filmmaker, I’m Lynn Shelton,’ ’cause I had just seen ‘Humpday,” and I was back at her with just how I’m a big fan of hers.”

“It was the mutual admiration society and we were best friends at the end of that night,” Shelton said, continuing his story. “‘We have to work together, let’s work together!’ ‘Okay!’ I’m so obsessed with that guy and it was fun to give him something more meaty to chew on, a role that he could dig his teeth into.”

She went on to tell us how they spent some time developing a character but didn’t have a story to put him into until much later when she came up with the idea for Rosemarie’s character. “We’d been in conversation and we really didn’t talk that often, but there was this character that we were starting to think about and I was trying to figure out a story to put him in. The original idea I had just didn’t quite add up to anything so it fell by the wayside. ‘Touchy Feely’ really started with the massage therapist character, it was the creative catalyst. I had the inklings of that idea for a long time, then I met Rose and it bubbled to the forefront and she became my muse for filling out the rest of that character and starting to figure out her journey. Then I realized that some iteration of that character I was talking to Josh about would be an interesting juxtaposition or contrast. Then I had the idea to resurrect that character that had disappeared off the face of the planet with this project and put it into this one. It’s funny how these things end up finding their way into the world.”

Pais had more to say about this character he plays in the film. “It was very interesting to me to create a character that was so repressed and so wanting every day to be the same, a very insular existence because he couldn’t deal with the fluctuations of life. I was very interested in how can I create that physically and then starting with the very shut down suppressed guy who then somehow, maybe there’s the ability to heal people within him that’s dormant that just starts coming to the surface and he starts to be able to heal people and has no idea what’s happening or why it’s happening. That causes him to go on his own journey and to wake up and to accept the fluctuations of life, and to accept that we really are living in a state where everything is quite unknown even though we’d like to pretend that it is more known than it actually is. That’s the journey my character goes on from being totally shut down to being really open and starting to come alive within his own life.”

“You don’t see a lot of character studies of somebody that is kind of locked in,” Pais added. “He really is the most undynamic character imaginable, but I think just to see that tightness and that closed-off-ness and then he starts to crack and open up. I think there’s something that all of us can relate to because we’re all on some kind of journey of wanting to feel more, of wanting to be more alive or happier. I think Lynn has found a way in this movie to really explore that very subtle journey that most of us are on.”

When we asked Shelton whether the collaborative process on set was anything like with her previous movies despite having more of a script, she responded, “I knew that I wanted to make a movie that wasn’t just three characters in one location over the course of a long weekend– I’d made three movies with that structure. Because I wanted to do something a little more complicated with more locations and more of an ensemble with lots of different storylines, I just didn’t want the extra aggravation and noise of working with a lot of people and having collaborations so I just wanted to get my control freak on for a change and do it more by myself. Rose and Josh ended up being creative catalysts for me and I wrote those roles specifically for them, but the collaboration part of it had a little different flavor. It was a little bit more of a traditional filmmaking experience where I definitely was touching base with them but I wasn’t constantly asking for their input on that level.”

Even though it was a different way of working from Your Sister’s Sister, Dewitt still found Shelton to be “super-collaborative.” “The main difference I feel for me, having done both, was that one was completely improvised–maybe there’s a ratio of 85 or 90% improvised on ‘Sister’s Sister’ and 10% scripted and I would reverse that on this and say it’s 90% scripted and 10% improvised. It was much more that traditional ‘play the scenes the way they were written’ which was really liberating for Lynn because then she could do a lot more with the camera. She wasn’t so married to having to get whatever the performances were and she could take more risks as a filmmaker.”

“I was very open to what was going to work and it’s really actor by actor and which actors are in combination with each other,” Shelton elaborated further on her process on set. “I find that some people really bring out their best performances when they are able to use their text as the spine of their performance. If they are trying to write dialogue at the same time, it doesn’t work so well, and then other people are really comfortable with it and they love to play and they love to see what’s in there. That’s what’s really nice, that the actors know they have that freedom, that if an opportunity arises and they feel the urge to say something that’s not on the page, they should absolutely see it through. Then if we decide it doesn’t go anywhere, we can always cut it out later or do it differently another take, but it’s sort of whatever works from scene to scene. There were other times when they just said exactly what was on the page and they did it completely beautiful.”

“She talks about this being a very personal film for her and I always got that sense, and therefore, I didn’t put a ton of two cents in and I wasn’t really trying to put my fingerprint all over it,” Dewitt admitted. “If anything I was really trying to understand what Lynn was getting at with this idea of living in your own skin and what happens when you’re stuck in your life and you need something to lift you out of that rut. I just tried more to be a vessel for Lynn’s ideas and curiosities. With ‘Your Sister’s Sister,’ when I would latch onto something I would run with it; this I wasn’t really running with it, I was waiting for my cues from Lynn so it was a really different way of working together.”

Pais also mentioned how Shelton got the cast to bond before filming began. “We actually spent a day together. She got everybody in the cast together in L.A. and we just cooked and hung out and didn’t really talk about the movie very much but it allowed all of us to get to know one another, so that by the time we go to set it was a real sense of family.”

Pais had lots of practice doing dental work, having played a “slightly different type of dentist” in the horror film Teeth as well as an orthodontist in Leaves of Grass, but Dewitt had to be believable as a massage therapist skilled in Reiki to play Abby. She told us how she prepared for that challenge. “I got to interview a bunch of massage therapists and then work with some and actually do massages with them next to me and changing my technique and widening my stance so you don’t hurt your back. It’s an art and it’s really hard work. These people are strong and they’re so committed to wellness for people that I think the big takeaway was not just the technique of it but how hard their job is in terms of coming in contact with all these people and their emotional energy in their bodies and how they need to do things to kind of shed it once a session is done.”

In the past, Shelton would spend months going through her actors’ improvised scenes after filming to find the best material and moments but Touchy Feely was also different in the post-production phase. “The challenge in editing this film was structuring it because of all the different storylines and trying to find the balance,” she told us. “You don’t want to spend too much time away from a character or forget about them and lose their thread. It was really interesting trying to keep track of all the different arcs going on and then tonally bringing it all together, which I have to say the music really helped and was the key to hugging the whole thing together into one cohesive whole.”

One of the film’s nice surprises is seeing Dewitt acting with real-life husband Ron Livingston who makes a brief appearance at the end as her ex-husband Adrian, delivering one of the film’s more dramatic scenes. “If anything I was really surprised when she said, ‘You know, I think I’m going to ask Ron to play Adrian’ and I was like ‘Really?’ I guess she had a conversation with him at Sundance and I think he was so different from her perception of him from watching him in movie that there’s a quality she wanted in the movie and in that character. I’m not sure why but real-life couples are a little weirdy to act together—there’s some bias there that you don’t think the audience wants to see that—so I was like ‘I don’t know, but let me see what he says.’ We had so much fun. They were kind of low easy scenes and I’m glad we did it.”

Those used to the humor in Shelton’s previous films might be surprised how this one weighs a bit more towards the dramatic side so we asked both actors their impressions on whether they considered it a comedy.

Pais went first, saying, “I think it is a comedy but the comedy is just so unbelievably subtle that it’s one of the things that makes the movie really unusual. I think on some level my character is hysterical but it’s not played in a way that you would think of as a comedy. I think there’s a lot of humor in this but it’s like the humor of everyday life. It’s the humor of what happens when you take the most uptight person you could imagine and give them the power to suddenly heal people? Or that same uptight character and they take ecstasy?”

“It is a much more subdued and serious piece,” Dewitt agreed. “Here’s the weird thing. I thought ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ was a drama. When we were shooting it, it all felt so serious. I was aware how funny Mark Duplass is in general but the thing I love about working with Lynn is that it’s always very honest and truthful even if the premise is a little wacky. Then I watched ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ with a Sundance audience and I could not believe the laughs it was getting—I was truly surprised. So if anything, ‘Touchy Feely’ is more what I thought ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ was but I think we never know the movies we’re in. The audience is such a crucial part of what we do.”

Touchy Feely has been playing on VOD for the last few weeks and it opens in New York and Portland on Friday, September 6, and then in Seattle and Los Angeles on September 13. You can find out where else it will be playing at the Official Magnolia Site.

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