”I wanted to give myself permission to make a comedy caper.”
Seattle native Lynn Shelton has been steadily making films since the mid-aughts, championing mumblecore tenements, giving her performers a vast opportunity for creation in the moment. Films like Humpday and We Go Way Back set the stage for her burgeoning talent but the writer-director touched a nerve in the independent film community with her 2011 film Your Sister’s Sister, which starred Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, and Rosemarie DeWitt and involved a messy familial love triangle triage in a far-flung cabin. Shelton cranked out Touchy Feely, a comedy about the powers of physical touch, and Laggies, about late-onset adulthood, working with actors like Ellen Page, Sam Rockwell, Chloe Moretz, and Keira Knightley. Over the second half of the decade, Shelton has poured herself into television work, directing episodes for shows like GLOW, The Good Place, Maron, Master of None, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Shameless, and a long stretch on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.
With her latest film, Sword of Trust, Shelton returns somewhat to her roots, working in a more freehand capacity, allowing for improvisation in the moment, outside the expectation of diligent script shooting that television shows often demand. I spoke with Lynn about the politics of conspiracy, her freewheeling creative process, working with Marc Maron, cutting down a movie that’s largely improvised, and her “superhero” movie of choice.
Sword of Trust very deliberately takes shots at Trump-era “fake news” America – can you speak to a political message that you hope the film communicates or at least stirs in audiences? And further, Is this a movie for “one side of the aisle” in an increasingly polarized country?
Lynn Shelton: I think it’s pretty objective. Conspiracy theories have always flourished – especially in our country – but we’re having a peak moment with that particular brand of thinking where people just like to make up their own versions of reality or history based on their whims or thoughts or furthers their belief system. We have a Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief so it’s been given a sort of credibility that it didn’t have before so we have a rise in its popularity that can sort of be expected. But I didn’t want to make a heavy-handed political screed but I certainly wanted to make something that had some kind of relevance to what is going on in the world and maybe point out some of the dangers of this kind of issue that’s going on in our country. But still in a way that’s not going to make you feel like ending everything. Things are pretty dire and I wanted to make something relevant but also something that you could laugh at and laugh with and I wanted to create characters that were entertaining to watch but not cartoons. I didn’t want to completely make fun of an entire region and make people seem stupid or dumb. Everyone is fallible to this kind of thing and we’re all suckers and have the capacity to be suckers. That was an important part of it as well. Everybody’s got their own propensities to believe what they want when that’s convenient for them, whether that’s on a personal level or on a broader scale about the world.
This is a movie predominantly driven by characters and character intrigue. In terms of the chicken and egg of this story, as you were writing and crafting this, which came about first: the plot or the characters?
LS: The latter. The seed of this entire project was my desire to work with Marc Maron and direct him in something. We had worked together in television quite a bit – I had directed his last special – and we had been writing but it was hard because there would be month-long periods where we weren’t able to get into the same room and I started to get frustrated because I really wanted to make a movie with him. He said, “Why don’t you go write another movie and write a part for me and I’ll give you a couple weeks and we’ll shoot something.” So I knew I had two weeks and that he was willing so I tried to think of a character and a scenario that would be interesting. So I started with the character and occupation. I was in a Lyft and it stopped at a stoplight in Los Angeles and I looked over out the window and there was this incredible looking pawn shop with a lot of character to it and it just struck me that Marc should be a pawn shop owner. So I called him and said, “How about a pawn shop owner?” and he said, “That sounds great.” So it started from there and then it kind of wound organically out from there. I also had in mind the next idea – and I wanted there to be some kind of a con of some kind. I didn’t know if I wanted somebody to pull a con on him or him to pull a con on somebody else or exactly what it would be but I wanted to give myself permission to make a comedy caper. I had just made my first and only drama – well all of them have been dramatic comedies but my seventh film, Outside In, which was a full on drama so I was ready to laugh and allow myself to go a little bit screwball with the plot but have characters that felt entertaining yet real and grounded and emotionally truthful.
So that’s where it started and I was talking with a friend of mine who I used to make movies with in Seattle but he had moved back to Kentucky and he drew me back and made it sound appealing as a territory for a narrative so I ended up deciding to set it there but then moved it to Alabama because my producer said that were I to move it to Birmingham where he lived that he would happily produce it. So it was easy at that point because it just needed to be in the south somewhere. The whole south aspect was something that came later and was a later progression of how it was written.
You are known for working loosely with scripted dialogue and allowing your performers a lot of trust and openness on set – what was your favorite line of improvised dialogue that made it in into the final cut and, conversely, what’s your favorite bit that you had to cut?
LS: There’s so much gold on the cutting room floor, comedy gold! Early in my career, my second, third and fourth film were pretty darn improvised – either completely or very heavily – in terms of the dialogue. I always had a pretty tight plot and knew what was going to happen. But I hadn’t worked that way since Your Sister’s Sister and I made several films in between with scripts. That was a long time ago, it came out in 2012 and I made it in 2010, and I really wanted to go back to that. It’s a terrifying high wire act because you’re actually writing on set to a certain degree. This movie had a lot of complicated plot twists and turns and I needed a lot of set up so I was a little more handsy. Some of my earlier films had like a 10-page treatment where this had a 45-page treatment because it was just a little bit more detailed. I worked with each of the actors to make their characters and relationships but I really wanted to work with them to develop the specificity. So there are details about their backstories and hopes and dreams to the characters that the actors really really came through with and came up with the most wonderful, delightful sidebars and interactions and details which makes it so hard for me to pick out a certain one.
Marc’s character, whose name is Mel, his reactions, because he’s the anchor of the film where there’s a lot of wackiness going on around him and he has these priceless reactions. One of the moments that gets me every time – and it’s a combination of his delivery and the line itself – where these gals have come in with a sword and says that it’s a piece of evidence that proves the south won the Civil war. And he says, “The South won the Civil War huh?” And they say, “Yeah” and as they’re showing him the documentation he says, “Have you told anyone else this? Seems like pretty big news.” And it’s just so wry and the way he hits it is so funny. But it’s basically just him commenting on just how ridiculous the situation is.
Tim Paul is a great example too, he plays a character named Zeke and is on screen for only two scenes, and him and a character named Jake are a pair that travel around together, and he’s a brilliant improviser. They all are. What I’ve come to realize over time is there’s actually a very small number of actors who can improvise. Great actors – some of my favorite actors – cannot improvise. Certainly not to the degree that I would require. So I’ve been collecting improvisers so when I find a really one good, I ask if they can find other people. Some come from the comedy improvisation world and some are just actors, like Marc. He was never in improvisation land but he’s a great actor and writer so is just good with words coming out of his mother. Tim Paul is one of the guys who came out of the Chicago improv scene and there were things that my editor and I didn’t want to get rid of because there were so many surprising and unexpected things to come out of his mouth that were beautiful and wonderful and interesting but if it ultimately wasn’t serving the story, it had to come out. Our first cut of the movie was two-and-a-half-hours long, so we had to cut out an hour, but it was all funny and all so great. The movie got sharper and sharper and better and better but we’re gonna have a whole bunch of outtake reels. So hopefully we have that on DVD or on YouTube or something because taking it out was so painful.
I did a little digging into the “south actually won the civil war” conspiracy and didn’t seem to come up with much, and what I did was totally insane – including one person who wrote about the ghost of George Washington’s and a flaming sword. Was this actually an idea that you stumbled upon on some dark corner of the internet or something that you cooked up?
LS: (Laughs) No I made it up. But you’re far from the first person to think that. It’s like when someone told me the Flat Earth theory, I assumed that they were crazy and made that up on their own but came to find out that it was a whole thing and people believe it. And I was like “What?!” So you never know what people might believe. They might believe anything. So maybe this will spark that new conspiracy theory.
In the era of the superhero, if you were given the reigns to make any superhero story with some ungodly budget – and by that I mean anything from Wonder Woman 3 to a Susan B Anthony blockbuster – what would it be?
LS: Ok, so this lady is having a moment right now, with a TV series and a couple of films, one is serious and the other is a dramatic comedy, so I think to round out the genre, I would probably make an Emily Dickinson superhero movie. Why not?
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