Remaining true to her indie roots while taking a step closer to the mainstream, Lynn Shelton brings her unique directorial voice to Laggies, one of her best films to date about a 28-year-old slacker (Keira Knightley) in the throes of a quarter-life crisis. This is the first time Shelton has directed from a script written by someone else, but Andrea Seigel’s well written screenplay is a nice fit with the rest of Shelton’s body of work. Laggies is also the largest scale film production of Shelton’s career and was shot in and around her hometown of Seattle. Opening October 24th, the romantic comedy also stars Sam Rockwell and Chloë Grace Moretz.
In an exclusive interview, Shelton talked about how the project first emerged, what appealed to her about the story and characters, her fantastic collaboration with Seigel, letting others worry about the film’s financing while she focused on directing, creating an emotionally safe environment for her cast to take risks, what the actors brought to their roles, how her experience in television has made her a better director, directing the pilot for the Fresh Off the Boat TV series, her comedy feature in development entitled I’m Down, and aspirations to eventually develop her own show. Hit the jump to check out our interview with Lynn Shelton.
LYNN SHELTON: The story that I heard from Andrea (screenwriter Andrea Seigel) is that she was driving down the street in Los Angeles one day and actually saw a sign twirler and she was dancing her butt off and really having a good time and just throwing herself into her work. Andrea was listening to a song on the radio that really moved her and made her feel very inspired. It just sparked something and she started thinking about making up this whole inner life, this story of what this woman’s life might be. I just love that story so much. I think it’s so funny and sweet. She drew from her own life to a certain extent, but mostly it’s just completely made up and inspired by this one experience. And then, she developed the script for two or three years. I was her first choice I’m honored enough to say. She sent it to me and I immediately read it and thought, “Oh my God, I have to direct this.”
What was it about the material and the premise of a woman with a case of arrested development that spoke to you and made you say I’ve got to do this?
SHELTON: I’ve seen so many films where men get to explore that territory and it was very refreshing to see a woman who was allowed the opportunity to be flawed and to make mistakes and find out about herself by fumbling her way towards finding her own identity. Especially when I read the script, what’s nice actually and very heartening about what I’ve seen is I think it’s starting to open up for women. I feel like there are more women characters like that on television and in films in general. When I first read it, there weren’t very many at all. That was something that was very appealing to me, plus the way the story unfolds and the particular relationships that she develops, which don’t seem like they would necessarily work on paper, but really felt believable to me. I mean, they were surprising but believable and that’s a dynamite combination as far as I’m concerned. I liked this because it’s out of the box and it has these kinds of arcs and relationships, and then actually being able to make it work and resonate because it feels like, “Oh yeah, I could do that.” I believe that.
This is the first time in your career you’ve directed from a script written by someone else. Not only is Andrea Seigel’s screenplay beautifully written, but it’s a nice fit with the rest of your body of work. What was that experience like?
SHELTON: It was really different and I was excited to give it a try and to experience what that was like. I work with other people’s scripts when I direct television episodes, but that’s the domain of the writers, so I’m really just fulfilling somebody else’s vision in that circumstance. This is the first time I’ve ever tried to take somebody else’s material and put my own stamp on it and make the movie my movie, which she gave me permission to do with her blessing. She was just a fantastic collaborator. She was a very efficient writer, even for me, and I would give her notes and she would embrace them and solve problems that I needed solving. She was so fast. It was ideal. As a first-time experience working with another writer, I could not have asked for more. She was wonderful.
You have an amazing cast. How did you convince Keira Knightley, Sam Rockwell and Chloë Grace Moretz to be a part of this?
SHELTON: I think they really clicked with the script. I just got on the phone. Actually, I happened to be in New York at the time and we went out to Sam’s, so I got to meet with him in person. But with Chloë and Keira, I had a little meeting with each of them on the phone after they had read the script. Immediately after we spoke, we conversed a day later and all three of them said yes. I think it’s just one of those circumstances where they all really liked the things about the script that I liked. They were drawn to the characters, drawn to the relationships, drawn to the tone, and drawn to the way that humor comes out of very character-based, realistic place. They all worked with each other as well. So that was actually pretty easy. It was great because it was easy. They didn’t need a lot of convincing.
All three actors really own their roles. Can you talk about what they brought to the film?
SHELTON: Oh my God, I really appreciate what they all brought. The whole movie is dependent on the chemistry between these characters. What I really appreciated was this open heartedness that they all brought – this real warmth and willingness to connect with each other. And then, they just did it immediately. We shot this in Seattle. As soon as Keira and Chloë came to town, I took them out to dinner in the hopes that they would bond or at the very least get comfortable with each other. They connected right away. But that wouldn’t have happened without the willingness to connect and they have that in spades. It’s the same thing with Keira and Sam. Sam came out a couple of days early so that we could do the same thing with him, but unfortunately he was sick. He went into a hospital. He had this weird spider bite from his previous shoot. He got infected. Something was going on so he had to go and get antibiotics before he came on set. He was such a trooper. So he had to get to know the two of them on set and they would hang out. They didn’t just go hide in their trailers. They’d hang out between scenes and during lighting set-ups and get to know each other. Again, that willingness to connect was always there and the chemistry, the payoff, is right there on screen. We really believe in those relationships.
SHELTON: Well, you said it in a nutshell. Definitely the best art is only made if you’re willing to risk and be vulnerable. What I try to do is create an emotionally safe creative playground so that everybody feels taken care of and they feel like they’re not going to be in any danger. They feel emotionally safe and that means a real intimacy and a real sense of trust. Not only is there that, and I try to engender that between the actors and myself, but I also really try to create an environment on the set with the crew as well so that everybody feels emotionally safe and the crew understands that that’s the goal as well. I’ve done it on small, intimate sets, but also I’ve been able to do it on larger sets as well. I think it just makes all the difference. It’s hard working on movies as well, so it makes it a lot more pleasant if everybody can have a nice time instead of it being a miserable experience. That’s really important to me, too.
This is your first feature film with a multi-million dollar budget. Was it easier to get the financing this time around or is it always a battle? What were some of the challenges?
SHELTON: There was some drama, but luckily I was really protected from it. I found out after the fact that there was drama and there were little war stories in that regard. But at the time, I was completely oblivious because I had producers who just wanted me to do my best work and not to have to worry about that stuff. And so, they really took that away from my scope. I didn’t even realize that was going on. I think that’s pretty par for the course with independent film. I haven’t had the studio experience, but I’m imagining it’s a little easier there. I mean, it took a long time. It took a couple years once they brought it to me. Alix Madigan was the producer and it was written before I came on board. Andrea and I worked on it and it took a couple of years to develop it and get the cast and get the financing in place. Once I got on set, I was just pinching myself, “We did it. Here we are.” So I’m very grateful.
How does it feel to take a step closer to mainstream while also remaining true to your indie roots?
SHELTON: I’m so happy to hear you say that because that was exactly what my goal was. I wanted to make something that would be accessible to a broader audience but would not feel like… I still wanted it to have the… The problem I have with a lot of films, just your general Hollywood films, is when… Raw edges are such a huge part of the characters and so we begin it in the hopes that we don’t have to live in the fear that they’re not going to be likeable enough, or that they’re not going to be clearly drawn enough. Then you get these cardboard cut-out Hollywood facsimiles of a human being as opposed to real flesh and blood people. That’s always going to be my main concern no matter what the scale of the project or the budget size or what have you.
SHELTON: I have a few things in development. I directed a pilot for Fresh Off the Boat. I didn’t create the pilot but I was hired to direct it. I had a wonderful, incredible time with Nahnatchka Khan who is the showrunner and she tapped Melvin Mar who was the producer. We produced a pilot in the spring and it got picked up. It was a new season pick-up for ABC. So I’m going to direct a couple episodes of that. It’s based on the Eddie Huang memoir of the same name. It’s the first Asian-American family centered series. The most well-known name is the father of the family played by Randall Park who’s an incredible actor. He’s been around for a while. Constance Wu plays his wife. And then they have three kids. The young Eddie Huang is played by Hudson Yang who is a first-timer and a complete newcomer to the scene and is just an amazing talent. We looked far and wide for the star of the show and kudos to the studio network for letting us hire someone who was so inexperienced, but we just really believed in him. And boy, he delivered in spades. He’s fantastic.
I’m Down is another project in development that’s also based on a memoir of a woman, Mishna Wolff, who grew up in Seattle. I live in Seattle and I like to work in Seattle whenever I can. It’s an amazing story that I really related to about an intersection of cultures. It’s another fish out of water story of a white girl growing up and her family is the only white family in an all-African American neighborhood. It’s just funny and honest and a beautiful story. So that’s in development as well.
You’ve been very successful crossing over to television. Do you enjoy television as much as film and do you think you’ll continue to go back and forth?
SHELTON: I do. Because my films are really my babies, I’ll definitely hold to film. But the thing I appreciate about being able to do television as well is that it gets me on set more often than if I just did movies. And that’s where I always learn so much and I love keeping my muscles exercised as a director. I also enjoy the opportunity to fulfill other people’s visions and to be a real collaborator and to be a part of something else as opposed to always having to be the one that’s responsible for the overall vision. That’s actually a nice change for me. I hope to continue to get work on television shows that I really enjoy and perhaps someday to actually develop my own. That would be a great thing, too.