Lynn Shelton: Hannah, her sister and their lover

The Times

June 19, 2012


It is chilly and raining in Seattle, but inside a warm coffee shop the film director Lynn Shelton is laughing over recently describing herself as a “shy bisexual”. “What does that even mean?” she asks, incredulous. “The interviewer misheard. Maybe I said ‘shy-sexual’. I’ve been married monogamously, to a man for over 20 years, but I’ve had sex with and fallen for men and women — the last woman decades ago. I’m tending to skew a bit straight these days,” Shelton says, “but some people really are straight,” the 46-year-old director says apologetically.

Shelton, who was recently tipped as a future Best Director Oscar-winner, is known most for the 2009 festival hit Humpday, winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and many other gongs. The film is about two straight men played by Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard who decide to have gay sex to win a porn film-making prize. “There was a time I believed anyone could fall in love with anybody,” Shelton says, “but some people really are straight, and some really are gay”, though the idea of “non-conventional, non-traditional family structures” appeals to her. She is firm on the subject of her own, however — “Sorry, I’m off the market. I’m married and have a son.”

The blurred lines are saved for her movies. Her latest, Your Sister’s Sister, features Jack (Duplass), his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) and her sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) involved in an uncomfortable triangle after Jack and Hannah drunkenly sleep together, even though Jack and Iris love one another. Moreover, Jack is grieving for his dead brother and Hannah is a lesbian. As further secrets are revealed, prepare, as in Humpday, to wince: Shelton unpeels her characters as their complicated, messy selves, rather than according to the sexual and emotional labels they sport on the surface. “I don’t understand some themes I’m dealing with until people explain them,” Shelton admits.

Her films interrogate “how people define themselves and their relations to one another”. In Humpday she was fascinated by intense male friendships. “You couldn’t make Humpday about two straight women. Not all, but many women can be physically intimate; they’d just have sex. There’s something poignant about two guys who adore each other. The more they try and connect, the more they bump off one another. I was worried Your Sister’s Sister might feed into that ‘See, all that lesbian needed was a penis all along’, but it makes sense if you watch the film.”

Born in Ohio, Shelton moved to Seattle when she was 18 months old with her father, a lawyer, and mother, a developmental psychologist, who divorced when she was 8; she has “fabulous” step-parents. At 7 she began writing and at 11 acting. “I was doing lots of painting, taking photographs. I was exploding creatively. I was very tomboyish, androgynous.” Her mother’s sister, a singer, and father’s brother, a sculptor, were role models. Adolescence “squashed” her, however. “It was about coming of age sexually. I felt betrayed by my body which became very womanly. It screwed up my head and my friendships. From being on a par with boys, suddenly you’re objectified. It was very much, ‘You’re looking at me, don’t look at me, look at me’. I have visceral memories of that time.”

Shelton refound “that thread of audaciousness” of her early teens in her twenties when she studied acting, photography, painting and poetry: “Acting gave me the permission to be other people.” She went to New York to work and pursue her relationship with future husband Kevin Seal, then an MTV presenter. “I didn’t have a healthy relationship with acting.” A turning point came while “getting raped, mutilated and murdered every night” in a Grand Guignol piece. Although she had been “a total theatre slut” at college, “revelling in that electrical buzz between you and the audience, it had become too narcissistic and I was dealing terribly, like most actors, with rejection”.

Taking a video workshop, Shelton’s “head was turned. People would walk past your photographs, but a moving image kept them in their seats.” Her inspirations were her parents’ favourite director, Woody Allen — “I loved how he intersected characters and stories, especially in Hannah and Her Sisters” — Noah Baumbach and Robert Altman. She began making experimental films, then documentaries and worked as a film editor.

After New York “sucked” her dry she and Seal moved back to Seattle, where they had a son, Milo, now 13. Her debut film, We Go Way Back (2006), featured a twentysomething version of herself encountering her 13-year-old self. Until now, Shelton has written and shot her movies in under a fortnight, typically for under $1 million each, featuring three characters. In Humpday, a treatment was written, the actors constructing the dialogue; “80 per cent” of Your Sister’s Sister was improvised, the cast and crew holed up on an island with “incredible home-cooked meals and campfires. It feels like I’m kidnapping them. A friend calls it ‘crewtopia’.”

Shelton’s next two films mark change: Touchy Feely, about a masseur (DeWitt) repulsed by bodies and her brother, a dentist who discovers he can heal people, features multiple plotlines and locations which Shelton found “challenging”. Laggies, starring Paul Rudd and Rebecca Hall about the friendship between a 28-year-old woman and 16-year-old girl, will be the first film Shelton has directed but not written, though filmed on the small scale she likes. The idea of directing a Hollywood blockbuster doesn’t appeal. “My fascination is with relationships at their most microcosmic. The more epic, the more uninteresting the film-making becomes. It becomes about getting the perfect crane shot.” Still, directing an episode of Mad Men in 2010 “blew her mind” and she is looking to create her own TV drama.

Shelton “works hard” to balance directing and home-life: Seal is a stay-at-home “superdad” to Milo who is hearing-impaired. She tried to get pregnant while making her first movie: “But I was ambivalent and didn’t want to cheat Milo or his sibling. I decided every baby would be a film. There are so many parallels: conception, gestation, a rough edit feels like a newborn and when a film is about to be released it’s like waving it off to college: ‘Goodbye, good luck’.”

For Shelton, “It’s rare for a romantic comedy to tell its story without telegraphing what will happen. I want to make films where every little step is credible but not what you expected. Humanity is a pretty messy business. Some gay men were pissed off because the Humpday guys didn’t have sex. I wanted them to, but I wanted authenticity and didn’t believe they would have.” She recently found herself on the soundstage of the French remake of Humpday: the director Yvan Attal filmed everything before and after the men’s fraught kiss, before a “slow pushing in” for the smacker itself. “I can’t believe they took my improvised script and wrote it down. Yvan sweetly thought I would be nervous about it, but I think it’s f***ing gorgeous.”

An English playwright, whose name escapes her, is planning a stage adaptation. “There was going to be a Bollywood version,” Shelton roars. “I’m so glad that didn’t happen. Maybe the French version will inspire a spate and there’ll be Humpday festivals.” We’re both laughing as we head into the rain.