When starting out, filmmaker Lynn Shelton tried it the normal way.
“With my very first films I sat down in a room, like you’re supposed to, and I wrote a film. Then I found people to play the parts,” she remembers. “I found it really constraining.” Spending most of her time on technical details, she had little time for her actors.
Her next film, 2009’s “Humpday,” put acting up front: It was entirely improvisational. Takes would sometimes last 40 minutes, and she would cut them down in post-production.
But even that became constraining. “It just got a little exhausting,” she confesses. “I wanted to say, ‘Screw this collaboration thing for once! Let me make them say what I want them to say!’ I just wanted to shake it up a bit. I was interesting in going back to my initial impulses as a filmmaker, now that I had four films under my belt.”
Her fifth feature, “Touchy Feely,” had a proper script. Also unlike her last three films — each starring three people in one location over a weekend — there was an ensemble cast. Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais and Ellen Page play family members, but there’s also Scoot McNairy, Ron Livingston and Alison Janney as friends and lovers.
Shelton blames the shift to a more traditional shooting method on her stint shooting an episode of “Mad Men.” “It was so heavenly, after working on ‘Humpday,’” she says. “It was so much less stressful. They say the words and you don’t have to be writing them on set!” She started as an editor, and says while watching improv on her own movies, she’s always making sure everyone’s getting all the right info in. “[‘Mad Men’] made me realize how stressful it is to work with improvisation.”
Still, there was room to fiddle with the material. “I would say 75 percent of what is on the screen is what I wrote down,” she says. With “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” her first with major stars (including DeWitt), the percentage was flipped. “There’s a lot of gray area, where they say my words but slightly out of order. Josh [Pais] talked about how the words were in his bones, but he wasn’t sure exactly how they would come out.” Sometimes her actors would stick to the script but launch into a digression together.
“I’m such an actor geek. I’m so obsessed with them,” she says. “I’m so interested in how each of them has a completely different way of working. It’s like I’m trying to find the specific little key to unlock their full potential in playing these particular parts. Not that I take credit for what they do, but giving them the space or the right nudge to help them find it themselves — it’s just endlessly thrilling to me.”
Her films are noted for the believable relationships between actors, which is especially impressive in “Your Sister’s Sister.” DeWitt joined only that film only three days prior to filming, and yet her and Emily Blunt have the lived-in camaraderie of actual sisters. She says she tries to get them to spend as much time together as possible. She said before filming, she came from Seattle, where she lives and shoots, to Los Angeles to make dinner for DeWitt, Pais and Page.
“I didn’t want to rehearse, because I like to keep the freshness," she recalls. "We just hung out. I made vegetable fish curry for everyone. Those three had to have a family dynamic. It helps to create an intimacy that’s going to carry over onto the set.”