It isn’t always the case with filmmakers and their work, but to talk to Lynn Shelton, you get a sense of what makes her films special and the reverse is equally true. There’s a generosity of spirit that can infiltrate a conversation in a number of ways, whether it’s a liveliness in the way she speaks about minutiae of her latest production with an excitement as if she’s still in the moment of discovery or offering a hearty laugh to accompany amazement at how something came to pass beyond her wildest expectations. She’ll make these things sound like happenstance, and perhaps there was some involved when she was making more heavily improvised films such as her breakthrough “Humpday,” but the title of Shelton’s beautiful second feature “My Effortless Brilliance” has proved prophetic as she’s become masterful at making emotionally complex, deeply humane movies that unfold naturally with wit and immeasurable grace, a feat in capturing life as it is that seems easy enough until you consider nearly every other movie you’ve seen.
Shelton’s latest, “Outside In” is a high watermark, even by her standards, centered on the recent parole of Chris (Jay Duplass), an 18-year-old at the time of his arrest who comes into an entirely different world two decades later, even though his small town of Granite Falls is the kind that doesn’t change that much. Surrounded by friends and family he doesn’t entirely recognize at his welcome home party, he still feels connected to at least one person in town – Carol (Edie Falco), his old English teacher who sent him books to report back on before spearheading a campaign to secure his release from prison. While prison set back Chris, whose arrested development leaves him with more in common with Carol’s daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) than her mother, Carol finds a renewed sense of purpose in her advocacy for him, intrigued with the possibility of fighting the scourge of mandatory minimum laws while her teaching career and her marriage seem less fulfilling than they once were.
Figuring out three coming-of-age stories for the price of one is a nifty enough hat trick, but Shelton doesn’t allow her characters to grow in isolation, watching Chris, Carol and Hildy find unexpected connections with one another, pushing each other to see through their perspective and learning to articulate what their needs are in the process. If the sheer beauty of what Shelton and an impeccable cast achieve here didn’t make “Outside In” an event already, the fact that the director has become an in-demand television helmer, recently directing the series finale of “Love,” among other shows, makes her return to the big screen especially welcome, although there’s no screen big enough yet to contain the emotions she’s able to draw out from either her characters or an audience. On the eve of “Outside In” hitting theaters, Shelton spoke about how her rigorous work ethic has made her a sharper director and how the revelation of seeing Jay Duplass as an actor inspired her to find a role worthy of him, as well as getting the most out of sound to craft a crucial story point and an evocative score from Andrew Bird.
You’ve said that you started out wanting to figure out how to work with Jay as an actor. How did you figure out this character for him to play?
I often start a project by being inspired by a particular performer and I was trying on different roles in my head for him. He only just started acting a few years ago, but I felt like what I had seen was the same kind of Jay — and he’s great and I love him — but I [wanted him to do] something that was different than what he’d done before. One of the things that drew me to this character was that it was so [different to] what we’d seen him do before, so that was really interesting to me and I felt like maybe it would be interesting to him. Probably a little scary, but also I felt like he was definitely capable of stretching himself in that way. But alongside of that was the idea of a true, deep, intimate soul connection between two humans that develops under these very specific circumstances of not being able to physically see each other, much less touch, over the course of 20 years. It’s a very “Eloisa and Abelard” kind of scenario where there’s a lot of letters, but they’re never actually professing love because that’s not supposed to be what their relationship is. It starts as a pedagogical discussion of literature and intellectual ideas and then it just deepens in an organic way into confiding in each other and giving each other emotional support — mostly her towards him, but also she’s in need of something to anchor her emotionally — and they end up really finding each other in that way.
In general, I’m really attracted to relationships that aren’t really sanctioned by society as being appropriate. [laughs] And I’m not saying sexually. “Laggies” is about a 28-year-old woman who becomes genuine friends with a 16-year-old girl and it’s like, “What the hell is that?” But that sometimes happens. People of different ages and different places in their lives that aren’t supposed to on paper have a connection, and I love that. It’s liberating and beautiful and human, so I’m drawn towards relationships like that and this was one that I just thought not only there’s this age gap, but it’s also the place where they are in life, their upbringings and that [idea they’re] from different worlds, which was the other interesting point for me.
You’ve also said that when Edie Falco came aboard, the role of Carol was more strongly defined than is usual for when you bring an actor into a production. Did that change the relationship in any way from the usual process?
It’s interesting because I’ve discovered over the years that it’s been a goal on a lot of my projects that I bring the actors in as early as possible and I have a lot of time to really develop backstory and the characters just for them and with them. But I’ve found that, especially with an amazingly trained, experienced, and just naturally brilliant actor like Edie, it’s not required. “Your Sister’s Sister” is a great example. Rosemarie DeWitt literally came into the project two days before we started shooting because we lost our original actress very suddenly and I did spend a few hours with her [before the shoot], I had a backstory bible to give her and we talked on the phone for a couple of hours the day before she traveled up to the San Juan Islands. Then she put her own stamp on the gal. It was not as short term as that [with Edie], but I had a Skype call with Edie and we talked about how Carol might present herself to the world and she said, “Listen, I may be an unusual case, but I really put all of that into the hands of the director, so whatever level of makeup you want me to wear or not wear, whatever you want my hair to look like, whatever clothes you want to put me in, I’m down for whatever your vision is.” She totally brought her own interpretation, but because we had a full script and it wasn’t half-improvised or all improvised, that helped. It was all there. We had a backstory bible, for sure, because the backstory was so important to this film and the three of us about those relationships between these two and how it developed. But then [Edie] just brought her own beauty to it.
You have a really elegant way of acknowledging what Chris went to prison for while leaving it somewhat ambiguous through having him return to the scene of the crime and having the memory play out sonically. It’s one of the most boldly stylistic moments I’ve seen in one of your films and wondered how it came about?
It’s really funny. I do not think that was in the script. We had the scene of him stopping in front of the scene of the crime in the middle of an angst-ridden nighttime bike ride, but we didn’t have any of that sound design in there. And throughout the production and script phase as well, we were trying to find the balance of how much information and in what way that information should be conveyed to the audience. I’m just not somebody that likes overexpositional movies. I don’t like to just spoonfeed to the audience, “Did you get this? Because we’re not sure you really got this, so let’s just make sure you really get every little detail.” So we [the filmmakers] knew exactly what the backstory was and what went down during the crime, but we played around with different ways of conveying what happened. We had feedback screenings, where we’d be like, “What do you guys think happened?” and people had varying degrees of understanding.
We got to a place where people said, “I don’t know exactly what went down, but it doesn’t matter. I understand he went away for too long. He probably didn’t [belong] in prison at all,” and you got enough of it. So in the edit room [when we got to the physical location of the crime], it was like, “Yeah, like this is the perfect place to just give a little hint about what the freak happened.” But it didn’t occur to my editor [Celia Beasley] and I until we were in the middle of the edit, looking for breadcrumbs to drop and how to make it seem interesting and subtle and not just overly clunky. [We didn’t want Chris] to leave the room and then there’s a conversation between two people about a lawyer or blah blah blah.” So it was one of those moments that came actually about later.
The Andrew Bird score is also quite wonderful, and given Ben Gibbard’s score for “Laggies,” have you actually sought out musicians to score films rather than more traditional composers?
It’s interesting [because] I got to know Andrew back when I was editing “Touchy Feely,” the one right before “Laggies,” which was an extremely personal film. I didn’t know if it would have any commercial value, but I just had to make this film, and I ended up editing it [myself], so I was looking for a temporary soundtrack. I had a composer, but it was always a nice way to communicate to him if I could find music that would create the vibe I wanted. My friend Megan actually suggested Andrew Bird and I did a deep dive into his catalog and I really fell in love with him. I realized his stuff is already so cinematic — half of it just feels like score — so I used that as temporary soundtrack and I really felt like I got into an interesting creative relationship with him long before I even met him. I then begged and pleaded with him through friends of friends to ask if I could use a song of his for the end credits of that movie. It was just perfect. And he was very generous and let me do that and then he happened to be at Sundance the year that film was premiering there and he made an extra effort to make sure to get to a screening.
We met and he really loved the film and felt like we’d be a good match aesthetically and we kept in touch ever since. And I [asked] at that time, “What are you doing? Are you on tour? Are you making a new album?” And he said, “I’m about to move to L.A. because I want to do score work for television and film,” and I’m like, “What?!?!” [laughs] He’d done a little bit [of that], but not very much up to that point, and he had a kid and he wanted something that wasn’t going to have him on the road all the time, so I was like, “Well, I hope we can keep in touch because I would love to work together some day.” [With] “Laggies,” I just didn’t feel like that was quite the project, and what was interesting about “Laggies” was I got this random e-mail two months before I had to decide on a composer from Ben Gibbard, who said, “Listen, I love your movies and if you ever need help musically, keep me in mind.” I was a big admirer of his and it felt like the right match for that particular project for a number of reasons. When the [lead character played by Keira Knightley] who is now 28, had been in high school, The Postal Service would’ve been the music they would’ve listened to, so it just felt like exactly the right vibe for this film.
You’ve generally been working with the same people over the years, so it was slightly surprising when I saw what looked like department heads for “Outside In,” yet in fact, in many cases these are people who have risen through the ranks on your films. Has it been a point of pride to build careers as much as movies?
I’ve got to say I did a web series, right after “Humpday,” called “$5 Cover” for MTV back in 2009 and Mel Eslyn was our key set PA. She just skyrocketed after that, to the point where the year before last, she got the Piaget Creative Producers Award at the Independent Spirit Awards. She’s a total rock star, and she’s worked on my films in various capacities – from the PA position to associate producer and now she’s produced this film, so I can’t even tell you how incredible that was. It is very personally satisfying.
And it’s exactly the same thing with Nate Miller, my [cinematographer]. He’s worked with me since my second film “My Effortless Brilliance” where there were what? Five people on the crew? And he was holding the camera the assistant editor on set, dealing with the digital information, and he was the gaffer – he did everything on that film except be the DP. Whatever the film needed, and a lot of them were very small, he would wear many hats through the years and then a few years ago, he basically said, “Okay, I’m going to make a transition now to be a director of photography.” So he didn’t work on “Laggies” because he didn’t want to be a camera operator, and he now has several films under his belt as a director of photography and when Ben Kasulke, who was the guy who shot all my other movies, who’s amazing and I’m grateful for, wasn’t available, I realized it was this perfect opportunity because I always loved having Nate on set. I loved being around him. His presence is very soothing to me. [laughs]
So it was beautiful. It was just such an exquisite feeling to have known somebody for so long and to have just seen them rise in their skill level, just as I have. Being on set the first couple days of this film, I was like “Oh my God, I’m a totally different filmmaker than I was four years ago on the set of “Laggies,” which was my last film because I’d been on set constantly doing television. So the experience level under my belt has just put me immediately at ease and given me a sense of confidence way more than I had in the past. It’s just a lot less angst to get the results that I want to achieve, so it’s just been really fun to evolve and have folks around me evolving at the same time.