Lynn Shelton usually comes up with her movies by geeking out over actors in her head.
“I have a pattern of getting inspired by specific actors,” Shelton says. “I’ll just be like, ‘Ahhh, I have to work with that person!’ So a lot of times that’s my starting point. My brain starts thinking about, ‘What would be an interesting character for this person? Or what would be an interesting scenario? Or if I’ve had an idea for a narrative thread, I’ll try out different people in my head, like, ‘Oh, yeah, that person will work particularly well for that.’”
In the case of Humpday, her breakout 2009 film about two bros who dare each other to make a porn film together, it was Mark Duplass, a friend and frequent collaborator who is the poster child for Shelton’s supremely mumblecore sensibility (her naturalistic films are humanely funny and heavily improvised). In last year’s Touchy Feely, a film about a massage therapist who becomes averse to human skin, it was Rosemarie DeWitt.
“I had the idea (for the film) bouncing around in my head,” she says, “and then I met Rosemarie and was like, Rosemarie would be the perfect person! So then I started writing it with her in mind.”
But Shelton’s new film, Laggies, didn’t originate by way of an actor crush or a eureka moment upon meeting one, nor was its dialogue concocted by way of lengthy improv sessions. In an unprecedented process for the indie darling, Laggies arrived as a finished script by Andrea Seigel. Almost everything about the film, in fact, defies type for Shelton. It’s the first one that cost over $1 million (her previous projects were made for “pennies”), wasn’t shot with a handheld camera, and boasts a cast of major Hollywood names. These include Keira Knightly, who stars as an aimless millennial who deals with her quarter-century crisis by hiding out for a week with a teenager (Chloë Moretz), who, naturally teaches her more about being an adult than any of her peers and loved ones. The result is a film that feels much more polished and mainstream than Shelton’s previous work, even though it still carries the Lynn Shelton imprint of ambiguously-defined relationships, nuanced dialogue and unexpected humor.
“We did want it to feel, for lack of a better term, more like a ‘real’ movie that you would see at a multiplex,” Shelton says. “That people would sit and watch and feel like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m watching 10 Things I Hate About You, or whatever.’”
In a chat with Co.Create, Shelton elaborated on how she tackled the new, creative challenges that Laggies brought; why she firmly believes in creating a “chill vibe” on set; and why she’s obsessed with eating bugs.
Shelton didn’t take Seigel’s script and shoot it signed, sealed, and delivered. Rather, she worked with the screenwriter to flesh out characters, tweak dialogue and, in one instance, rewrite a dog as a tortoise.
“Before I went out to actors, we had two to three drafts with notes,” she says. “It was really close, but there were things about it that I knew I wanted shifted around and changed. Some characters, and just a bunch of things massaged. And it was great for Andrea and I to see how we worked together. And as it turned out, we had a fantastic working relationship. She’s incredibly un-precious about her work and her words. And she was really trusting of my instincts. She was like, ‘I want you to make this into a Lynn Shelton film, I give you my blessing.’ So I’d say, ‘This scene is a problem for me,’ and I’d tell her why, but I didn’t have the exact solution. And in half a day she would come around with a solution that was just brilliant and funny.”
One of the director’s favorite examples involved a dog–the script called for one but budget constraints (trained dogs, and dog trainers, don’t come cheap) precluded it. “I was told just flat out, ‘We don’t have the money for this.’ They wanted to cut the pet all together,” Shelton says. “And I’d had a tortoise when I was a kid. So I was like, ‘Well, what if it’s a pet that doesn’t have to do anything? Like, what about a tortoise?’ And they looked into a tortoise and were like, ‘I think we can afford a tortoise.’ So then I called up Andrea and said, ‘I need this dog to be a tortoise,’ and she came up with this entire schtick for the tortoise, about its (spoiler alert!) anorexia. It was so funny and turned out to be one of the most iconic things about the movie.”
Typically, Shelton spends days, even weeks, with actors before she begins shooting, talking about the film, improvising dialogue, and just getting everyone comfortable with the project. With Laggies, however, there was no rehearsal period. Actors pretty much showed up and starting filming, which is generally how it’s done when working with A-list actors with busy schedules. But Shelton found other ways to bond with her cast.
“I was able to have a little bit of interaction at least on the phone, with some of the actors,” she says. “I was in New York after Sam (Rockwell, who plays Moretz’s father) attached, so I was able to get together with him for a few hours, and we were able to keep talking. We kept chatting, he brought things from home, he had ideas about the character and we would incorporate them in. Same with Keira. She and I were able to talk a little bit.”
Shelton says she’s done the lengthy sessions prior to shooting with actors, typically because the scripts weren’t complete–she was seeking actors’ input about in-progress characters. In this case, it was a more traditional process–the script was all there.
“But what was nice was that the actors weren’t just hiding in their trailers,” she says. “You have a lot of time between takes and set-ups. And even hanging out, as soon as Keira and Chloe were both in town, I took them out for a nice, long dinner, and the two of them bonded and they were able to get comfortable with me. So that really helped. Just that hang out time. If people are willing to be open-hearted and be willing to share personal stories you can start to create that kind of off-screen chemistry that really helps the onscreen chemistry.”
Shelton is known for eliciting strong performances in her actors, a skill that may come from her own background as an actor. But she says the real secret to her art is making the set an emotionally safe place.
“Good actors make it look really easy, but what they do is the hardest thing,” says Shelton. “We’re all working really hard, but they have the hardest job on set. They have to access their emotional vulnerability, and there’s a huge group of strangers surrounding them and staring at them with weird equipment. It’s a very artificial environment.
“So I create a very carefully curated crew because I want the atmosphere to be extremely emotionally safe. And I want there to be this sense of, this is a creative playground, nobody is gonna be in danger of being humiliated. There’s no toxicity. No yelling. When the actors are working, everyone is very respectful and very focused. There’s a sense of ease on set. We’re all focused and we’re all working hard, but there’s a lot of laughter, and a sense of relaxed focus. So I really try to engender that kind of a chill vibe.”
Shelton says she’s been working with some iteration of the same crew since her first feature. “I made these little, tiny movies with them and they’re like second family to me,” she says. “They’re really my best friends. And when I have a bigger crew, when we expand, we carefully vet everyone, and everyone is very comfortable with everyone else they work with, and there are open lines of communication. We work very conscientiously to create that environment and I think it really does wonders. Because then everyone feels respected and valued and they can all bring their best work to the forum.”
Shelton has celiac disease, which means she can’t digest gluten and so has a very limited diet. Eager to find new sources of protein, she started reading about eating bugs and found that “like, 70% or 80% of the population on the planet eats bugs except for Western culture. We’re the weird ones.” She now eats them several times a week and has become quite a gourmet when it comes to insect cuisine.
“The ones I eat, more often than not, sometimes like popcorn, are toasted crickets and mealworms. They’re sort of the most accessible. But the best bug I ever had, the one that would probably win over anyone is the waxworm, which is actually the larvae of the Greater Wax Moth, so it’s not really a worm, they’re larvae, and they’re mostly fat. And when you cook them up with, say, a little garlic or something, and you sauté them with a little salt and pepper, they are like bacon crackling. They are so delicious it’s insane. And so they actually, you can make a really delicious little soft taco with them, with guacamole. Absolutely to die for. It’s the kind of thing where any foodie would be like, ‘This is absolutely delicious.'”