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Flavorwire Interview: ‘Touchy Feely’ Director Lynn Shelton on Making Movies in a Time of Mediocrity

Lynn Shelton’s new film, Touchy Feely, is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But sort of like black licorice or olives, it’s one of those things you’ll be really into if you do like it. (I did.) In it, a masseuse (Rosemarie DeWitt) comes up against a midlife crisis, unable to commit to her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy), and suddenly she can no longer bear to touch the flesh of her clients. Meanwhile, her brother (Josh Pais) is suddenly gifted with the kind of magic touch that can cure a patient’s jaw issues, and having been a loser with a middling dentist practice for much of his life, he’s not quite sure how to react. Sure, it’s about relatively privileged white people in Seattle, but the thing is, their crises have a way of worming at you, past the initial appearance of quirk. Shelton was kind enough to sit with me recently and discuss the film, and the perils of making movies in general.

Flavorwire: The first thing I wanted to ask you about was the title, and why you chose it?

Shelton: I was talking about my idea for the film — and it was still kind of half-baked — to my friend Megan Griffiths. We go on these lunches and we always just — we’re really dear friends, but all we do is talk shop and we just talk about movies. And I was telling her about this idea that I had and the kinds of territory that it was going to cover, and she said, “Well, you know what you should call it?” [And] she said Touchy Feely and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s genius!” I loved it, and it was such a nice change of pace, because my previous film, Your Sister’s Sister, took forever to figure out the name of that movie, and well after it was finished. While we were shooting it, it was ULSP: The Untitled Lynn Shelton Project. But it just seemed perfect because I like titles that have double meanings and different layers to them, and so Touchy Feely really does. [It’s] being somebody who likes a lot of hugs or is super emotional, and it’s really kind of ironic because there’s a lot of folks struggling with those issues. It also works on an emotional level as well, as it really is about touching and feeling too, so it’s kind of about becoming comfortable in your own skin, both figuratively and literally, and your skin and other people’s skin as well.

The reason I asked is because it seems like the expression “touchy feely” is almost a pejorative at this point, and it’s interesting that you put it out there as a banner for the film, starting off.

Well, My Effortless Brilliance was the name of my second film, and it’s ironic, you know. It’s not necessarily supposed to be… but you’re right. It might not be the best banner. It might immediately turn some people off, for sure.

But probably not the people who are meant to see the movie.

But probably not the people who are meant to see the movie anyway, exactly. I saw my friend Joe Swanberg last night and his movie, Drinking Buddies, is doing really well on VoD, and we were talking about why he thought that might be the case, and he said, “Well, it’s got a great name.” I was like, “Oh my god, you’re right!” You know, for people just kind of scrolling through, and recognizable faces, and also great reviews. But you never know how people are drawn to these things online. It’s sort of an interesting psychology, but that got me thinking about, “Ohh, OK, yeah, I think those people that are drawn to “drinking buddies” probably won’t be drawn, some of them won’t be drawn to “touchy feely,” because they’ll be like, “Eugh, what’s that?”

It’s so funny, that movie titles now have a clickbait value. And also kind of scary to think about as On Demand becomes more important. I wonder how many frat guys are clicking on this movie.

Yeah, that’s so funny!

I’ve seen that film, and it’s not a frat guy movie.

Exactly! They’re probably just out for blood if we misguided them to think it was going to be Donkey Punch 2 or whatever.

You make emotional movies, and they’re specifically rooted in a female experience. Do you ever find it hard to get your movies funded as a result?

No, but it’s because I’m funding them mostly out of the traditional funding system. I was really blessed with my first feature. We were sort of commissioned to make it by this nonprofit film studio that doesn’t exist anymore in Seattle this amazing, short-lived organization that funded my first feature and got me going.

I made a lot of experimental films and a lot of films that just really were non-commercial, not commercial in any sense of the word, so I was very used to writing grants, and my second and third films were both funded by grants, and also by hosting house parties and passing the hat, basically, and getting nonprofit status through local 501(c)(3) organizations.

I mean, also [my avoidance of the traditional funding system] was fear and not knowing. I was very comfortable in the grant-writing world, but I was very uncomfortable with the idea of a business plan and trying to get investors, and I didn’t want to make false promises to anybody. I wasn’t interested in making film as a commercial venture; I was interested in art and treating cinema as art, so luckily, those second and third films were really produce-able, and for not a lot of money. I wanted a stripped-down set, I wanted a stripped down narrative, I wanted a streamlined movie with essentially one location in each case and very few characters, and it meant that I could shoot those films.

Right. It makes it easier.

My second film was shot in, like, seven and a half days or something, over a couple of long weekends, and my third film, Humpday,was shot in ten days. It just meant it was cheap to do, and it wasn’t the other way around. It wasn’t like, “Well, here, you’ve got $20,000 or whatever, and that’s what you have to make a film.” It was like, this is the kind of film I want to make. It was all performance-centered, and I just want to be a fly on the wall and make it feel very naturalistic for the actors, the experience of shooting it with very few bodies on set, and so that just ended up being, “Oh, my gosh, well this is lucky for me! It seems like it’s not going to cost a lot of money to actually make this movie!” So it was kind of like function follows form for a change.

So then, Your Sister’s Sister, I could start expanding a little bit, when I started getting actors who were, you know, name actors who might be interested in working in this way. Then the budgets could go up a little bit and my plots could get a little more expansive.

As in Touchy Feely.

Touchy Feely, after making three movies in a row that were basically one location, three characters over the course of a long weekend, I really felt like I wanted to break out and do something a little more expansive and have more narrative threads, more characters, more locations, and I could actually raise the money to do that. My producer, Steven Schardt, came in for my last two films and was able to just take over. I’d worn more of a producer’s hat before that, but I didn’t enjoy it. It was just kind of because I was asking friends to give up their house or whatever, so it was kind of a necessity. But the budgets were still small enough that Steven could find private investors who were totally hands-off. Nobody was wringing their hands over millions and millions of dollars, as well they should — if they’re responsible investors or financers, they’re going to care where they’re putting their money, and are they going to make it back?

It’s funny to hear such a sunny story in a summer when everybody’s been talking about how hard it is to get a decent movie made.

Yeah. I’ve been incredibly blessed. I haven’t had any problem for any reason, being female or any other reason. And the other thing is living in Seattle, I’ve never had the sense that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I’m outside of LA, I’m outside of New York, I never went to film school even, so I never was told, “Only 4% of movies are directed by women! You are going to have a hard time!” In fact, in Seattle, the film scene is, if not dominated by women, we are definitely a very strong presence, so the men who work, who are collaborators, the crew members and grips and production designers and DPs who are men, they better damn well be able to work with women, because the likelihood of them encountering a director or producer who is a woman is very high. And so I think it’s one of the most comfortable environments, certainly, in the country, maybe the world, to work.

I only appreciated this after being put on the fifth or sixth or tenth panel at film festivals, for, you know, “What is it like to be a woman in the film industry?” And I was just like, “I don’t know, I don’t have anything to offer. I’m not a guy, but I haven’t had a problem.” And then I sat on this panel with these other women, one of whom was a doc filmmaker from the south, and her war stories were just like, “Oh… my god! OK!” It was really like, “OK, now I see why it could be a problem.” Nobody would give her respect and she had to turn herself into a raging bitch to have any sort of authority on the set, and then after listening to me, she was like, “I gotta move, man. I gotta go to Seattle.” I was like, “Yeah, come on up!”

The fact that this last Sundance was the first time that there’s been anything close to equanimity in the narrative film category, and it was half women directors — again, compared to how many — I think it’s like 4% of studio films are directed by women? And so, again… I think, here, we are in an environment that’s all about independent film. I think it’s just going to be a much [more] enjoyable, much friendlier, more feasible place for women to break out.

Can you talk a bit about how you broke out? I understand you did it quite late.

Something about my adolescence is really — there’s a book called Reviving Ophelia, and it really was that experience. I realized in retrospect, because I didn’t know at the time, but becoming a sexually objectified human being and dealing with, “Look at me! Don’t look me!”… It just screwed me up, it really did, and by the end of my adolescence, the only thing left in me was acting, of all the art forms, because I didn’t have to come up with my own words. I just lost my voice completely, and I knew I still was devoted to being an artist, which was something I really wanted to be early on. I really was like, “How can I be an artist? How can I be an artist?” I just really wanted to be an artist. I knew that was the life for me, but I couldn’t. I was reduced to pretty much one thing because I sort of just lost my vision and my voice. And then I grew up in Seattle and went to school in drama and got a degree in acting and became an actor and moved to New York to do acting and then sort of just fell out of love with acting. I just realized it really wasn’t healthy because I think of all of that weird, “Don’t look at me, look at me,” thing.

I remember thinking about [applying to filmmaking school] just being like — all I knew about film was that it cost millions of dollars and it was somebody else’s money and I would be responsible for somebody else’s money and there would be a huge crew and I’d be responsible — I just didn’t have the confidence. I really didn’t. I just couldn’t imagine doing it.

For me, [waiting] was a path that really worked, because I gained all this life experience, I really plunged into acting, plunged into photography, plunged into editing, all of the things I know inform my work as a director now, and with the places I’ve come to in my life and all of those skills under my belt, I feel like, “OK, I can be a leader now.” And I have confidence in my voice; I have something to say. It’s all worked out for me fine. When I made my first feature, I felt like, “Oh my god, this is what I was always meant to do,” but I could not have done it any earlier.

But at the same time, it’s very heartening and moving for me to see young women in the field. I mean, Lena Dunham is a hero for me, and she reached out to me when I made my first feature. She MySpaced me; she was still in college. She was like, “I think you’re awesome, blah blah blah,” and here I am now, worshiping at her feet, because I think it’s so wonderful that women are able to do it, starting out that way. There’s a great organization in Seattle called Reel Girls, and it’s all about empowering women with these skills and media-making skills early on, and I’m a big supporter because I just think if that organization had been around earlier, I wonder what I would’ve been making.

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