Filmmaker Lynn Shelton is a staple and integral member of the Washington filmmaking community. From intimate character studies like My Effortless Brilliance, Humpday, and Your Sister’s Sister to ensemble pieces Touchy Feely and, her newest film, Laggies, Shelton embraces fascinating and soulful qualities of everyday people by depicting their natural yet striking relationships and connections with one another. Laggies stars Keira Knightley as a young woman who finds herself floating through life, but gets anxious upon her boyfriend’s marriage proposal and decides to hide out with a new teenage friend (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her father (Sam Rockwell). Laggies is just as insightful and sharp as all of Shelton’s work, but it marks a step forward in budget, scope, and distribution – the film will receive a platform release starting in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle (yes!) tomorrow before expanding nationwide in early November. On the eve of its opening, Washington Filmworks sat down with Shelton to discuss the film and the significance of Washington productions.
Washington Filmworks: Laggies was written by Andrea Seigel. How does your approach change when directing a script that you adopted (rather than written yourself)?
Lynn Shelton: It was a new experience for me to try to turn someone else’s material into a “Lynn Shelton movie” – that was my initial goal. Ultimately, though, I realized that it really is a blending of my voice and Andrea’s. When I read the script, I thought that this was a film I could’ve written and the territory and tone felt very much in my wheelhouse, and felt a real affinity for Andrea as an author. But our voices are each distinct – Andrea is Andrea and Lynn is Lynn – so it finally dawned on me that it really couldn’t completely be a movie by me unless I had gone through and rewritten every line of dialogue. And I didn’t, because I loved it so much and there are things Andrea had written or approached the scene with that I was so delighted by. I totally embraced that, and at the same time there were a couple of things that I did change or rewrite. The process was really about finding that sweet-spot between our two voices and making it become one and having it blend together.
WF: The film’s casting is very interesting, because each actor seems to come from a different background – Sam Rockwell is no stranger to American independent cinema, but this is one of Keira Knightley’s first forays into this world. What was it like to blend their sensibilities and collaborate?
LS: Right, plus you have comic actors like Ellie Kemper, and comedians like Jeff Garlin. I find every actor has a unique process, and one of the things that I treasure the most about being a director is the honor to roll up my sleeves and attack a scene and character with a beautiful array and variety of actors. Part of that process is to find out what works for each actor, and then help them unlock their best work – I think of it as having a drawer of keys, and you’re looking for the right key for each particular actor and find the right one to unlock their performance. You have the challenge of those different actors with all those different keys working together, so it’s an interesting balancing act and, again, you have to find that sweet-spot between their different processes and approaches. Each one of those actors, even though they might have different background, was so open-hearted and came to the project with such a willingness to connect to each other and an optimism and genuine respect for one another. And when you have that open-heartedness, that’s 90% of the work right there! If you have a genuine connection with your collaborators and if you’re sweet and kind, then it’s easy and fun. Then, my job is to create an emotionally safe playground for everybody to do their best work, and that’s easy to do when I work with my crew who know me and what kind of atmosphere I like on set, and they try to set that tone themselves. When you have that spirit of cooperation and sweetness then everybody is able to relax, do their best work, and it all comes together.
WF: Washington, and the eastside of Seattle in particular, plays an important role in the film. In your opinion, what is it about the state that makes it a unique setting?
LS: It was such a thrill to be able to bring the project to Washington State because the story was originally set in Orange County, CA. Andrea grew up in Irvine, so that’s where she set the story. But it was interesting, while I was prepping this film, I got the kind of assurance that the eastside was a solid alternative setting to Andea’s story. I leased a car one day and was doing the paperwork, and chatting with the loan officer while I was signing. We talked about living in Washington, and he said he grew up in Orange County in California but “now lives in Bellevue, which is pretty much the same thing.” [laughs] It made me so happy because it confirmed that this switch is more than plausible, and really made me think that Bellevue is the most OC-kind of place in Washington State. And it’s very underplayed because I don’t think anybody (but the most local people who live in the area) picks up on the fact that about half of the film takes place on the eastside, and half takes place on the westside, in Seattle. I didn’t want it to make it seem like Seattle and urban-ness is good and suburban is bad – it’s just different. The stuff we shot on the eastside was conveying that everything is new and colorful, and it’s a sense of brightness. And Seattle was more lived-in, so we shot in an old development called Olympic Manor on the northwest part of the city – and when those houses were first built, it also was a brand-new suburban community. Now, decades later, it’s become more lived-in, and Sam’s character, Chloe’s character, and her friends all wear clothes with earth-tones and it feels less bright and shiny. So we set up that dichotomy. Also, we got this aerial footage of the characters going back-and-forth across the lake which we use often because geographic specificity is very important to me. I think I got that from growing up and watching films set in Seattle and there will be these scenes where they’re running down the streets and each shot is in a completely different area [laughs] like Kirkland, and maybe Wallingford…and for me, it’s really satisfying if you’re going to be driving from Seattle Center to Broadview/Crown Heights that you’re going to be going across the Ballard Bridge – I needed that. And we were so lucky we got to work with the Seattle Police Department, who let us use the North Precinct where the characters really would have gone, or the Mexican restaurant (setting of a key scene) was really by Sam and Chloe’s characters’ house. And we even used Northgate Mall, and it was fantastic because that’s where those kids really would have shopped and hung out! To be able to use these kind of locations, it really was a privilege – especially the Chihuly Glass House. My gosh, that was the most spectacular location I ever shot in. That was so fun to put on film.
WF: This project received funding assistance from Washington Filmworks. Do you see the incentive program as an important factor in getting your films made?
LS: Oh my god, there was no way we could have shot that film without Washington Filmworks – there was no way. And it’s funny because it’s still not widely known as a great incentive program, and I remember just begging and pleading with the producers to talk to Washington Filmworks and call Amy (Amy Lillard, Executive Director of Washington Filmworks) and they kept deflecting it and talking about other states and their good programs. And I insisted they just talk to Amy, and they finally did – and then they called me back, saying “You know, the Washington State incentive program is really solid and competitive!” [laughs] I was relieved. But the other thing I have to say that makes it really affordable for me is that there is so much great crew here and I didn’t need to fly in or house anybody because there are so many wonderful crew members who actually live here, like all department heads. Also, we got incentive money for all those local hires so it was just fantastic and spectacular and I think that was a huge benefit. It just would have been way more costly if we got crew from LA and flew them out to Atlanta, for example. Even if our production was with a more competitive program, it would have been more expensive to fly all those people in but because I had my crew here it was extra bang for our buck. It was fantastic, and I have slightly bigger projects I want to set in the Seattle area and the only thing that makes me worried is that there won’t be enough money in the pot and yet another reason I’m desperate for those funds to grow and expand.
WF: Speaking of which, what future projects are you currently developing?
LS: In general, I have three projects in development right now. One of them is based on a memoir that’s set in Seattle and so it’s just a no-brainer to shoot it here. It has the same scope of Laggies in terms of number of locations/scenes/etc. Another project is bigger, and it’s a comedy-caper that’s going to be a lot of fun and I’m co-writing it right now with Megan Griffiths (fellow Seattle filmmaker, Lucky Them). It’s so fun to be writing with her, we’ve been friends for years and it’s fun to find a formal way to work together again. We have always been big boosters of each other’s work and it’s very fun to be creative with her in an official capacity. And then I’d really like to do another small, intimate, improv-movie that won’t have too many commercial concerns during production. I’m equally stoked about all three of them and not exactly sure about which one will go first, but it’s nice to have different projects of different sizes on the horizon. I’m excited about that kind of range.
Laggies opens in Seattle tomorrow and expands nationwide in the next couple of weeks – here’s the trailer:
About Lynn Shelton: Critically acclaimed Lynn Shelton is the filmmaker behind local gems We Go Way Back, My Effortless Brilliance, Humpday and Touchy Feely. She has worked in film variously as a director, writer, producer, editor, actress and more. Additionally, she has worked for TV series such as Mad Men and New Girl, and her film Your Sister’s Sister was the feature film of the SIFF 2012 Opening Night Gala, a first for a local director. Her latest film, Laggies, world premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and had its Seattle premiere at SIFF’s Women in Cinema mini-festival in September. It opens in Seattle tomorrow, October 24th.