PARK CITY, UTAH — Breaking out of the mumblecore ranks with the brilliantly uncomfortable 2009 film Humpday, director Lynn Shelton has specialized in exploring the secret cracks in human relationships. Finding her scenes through improvised dialogue, the ambling, fragile style of Shelton's work has in the past served to wonderfully heighten the awkwardness and pain her stories uncover.
In her latest, Touchy Feely, which debuted this week at the Sundance Film Festival, Shelton's improvisational technique is married to a minimalist, almost ambient structure, in an intensely personal film that explores the inner unravellings of a brother and sister from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.
Touchy Feely tells the story of Abby (played by the great Rosemary Dewitt), a massage therapist who suddenly, to her despair, finds herself repulsed by human bodies. Meanwhile, her brother Paul (Josh Pais) — an emotionally comatose dentist — crawls forth from his shell when he discovers his hands hold the power to heal. The supporting cast includes Ellen Page, Ron Livingston, and the delightful Allison Janney playing against her hard-edged type as a Reiki therapist who leads the family through their new emotional landscapes.
Whereas in Shelton's previous films, the characters verbally knock one another down, mix it up, and grapple their way to resolutions, in Touchy Feely the characters glide by one another and swim gently in each other's wake. The style is much more controlled than Shelton's past works, with her powerful improvisational discoveries unfolding in narrow slivers of space.
Speaking to reporters about the film after its premiere at the Sundance festival, Rosemary Dewitt, who also starred in Shelton's previous film Your Sister's Sister, compared working on Touchy Feely to the more free-form style of that effort. "This," she said, "was more Lynne in a room by herself toiling away. This was about 80% scripted and 20% improv. The opposite of Your Sister's Sister."
Typically in Shelton's shoots, she knows the destination she wants each character to get to in each scene but leaves the actors free to find the words and emotions to get there. Ellen Page, who plays Dewitt's niece torn between a sense of duty to her constricted father and her desire to pursue her own dreams, discussed the challenge of such an intimate shoot. "Improv was nerve-racking for me because it's not something I'm really familiar with. I went in the first day and was like, be cool, be cool. Then after a couple hours I was like, I can't improvise as Ellen. I still have to remember I'm playing a character."
Shelton talked about making a space, even within a more controlled story, where the actors can explore the story on her little productions, built around casts typically numbering in the half-dozen range. "I like to create an environment that feels emotionally safe for cast and crew," she said. "You have to feel that you can take risks. It requires a certain amount of intimacy or at least good feelings. It's important that there aren't folks that lash out at people. It's also nice to have people who really want to be there, not just to get their paycheck. Their whopping paycheck. It's easier to do that on little sets."
Janney, who was a cast member of the West Wing and is no stranger to big, imposing sets, waxed about the pleasures of working on Shelton's little team: "I had so much fun working on this. One of the best times I've ever had. Such a great atmosphere. Like a family. Everyone working towards the same goal."
The gentle, harmonious atmosphere was particularly relevant for a film that explores individual connections and flows of energy, both metaphorically and literally via Janney's Reiki therapist character. Josh Pais described the enormous lengths Shelton went to manifest the energy the actors summoned into the film. "Alison's character was doing Reiki on me," he said of his uptight dentist character, "trying to relax me, and she says, 'Think of a beautiful place that you like to go.' And I said, 'My office,' and I started describing the back room of my office. At that point there was no back room in the script. Then [Shelton] put a couple scenes in this back room."
Shelton described preparing the Reiki scenes and how exploring that process shaped her concept of the film: "I love the bodywork, I love the energy work. The first time I got Reiki was as research for this film. Reiki is energy work where you don't have to put your hands on another person. So I thought, I'd better go get Reiki. I went and fell completely in love with it. For me it's very powerful. It was fun to be able to put on screen massage therapists and Reiki practitioners — I don't see them depicted that often on the screen in a way that's affectionate but you're not just worshipping them. Not just for comic effect. Honest, clear-eyed representations of them."
Dewitt talked about exploring this energy and the honest filmmaking that results. "There's an inherent depth to the female characters that I don't always experience. I don't ascribe it to the directors that I work with when they're men. Ron hears me bitch sometimes about how things are a male's fantasy of a woman. There's an unspoken vocabulary that that doesn't come up on a Lynne Shelton set."
For Shelton, the discovery of this very informal process came from finding her way as a filmmaker a long way from Hollywood. "I never went to film school," she recalls. "I started making narrative films while I was in Seattle, outside of the bubble, traditional wave of how things are done. Touchy Feely is my fifth. I took a queue from the Dogma 95 movement. I think we had three or four people on the crew. Just an experiment to see if I could make something feel so real, put it together in the edit room. Humpday was an evolution of that process. Those movies were so cheap to make, and I had been an artist before that. So I just wrote grants, just passed the hat, didn't have investors."
Shelton's previous films have radiated the grungy, subdued sensibility of their Seattle locations. Touchy Feely speaks to a different side of the Pacific Northwest experience, the green, vibrant sense to life in the lush region. "This is an amazing way to work," Shelton said about settiing up her compact, low-frills productions on shoots around her hometown. "You don't have to wait for permission, artistically. I've been able shoot all five films in Washington state. They are all in places that I know. I cast my locations like I cast my actors: Street intersection in my head, feel or vibe of a particular neighborhood. It's nice because I want my movies to have a real sense of place. It's easy because I already know it."
In the end, however, the intimacy of working in her hometown with a tight-knit crew and exploring these characters has given Shelton the room to find the stories she wants to tell of little changes that have profound effects on people. "I think of it as being so much about these individual experiences. Individual journeys. Epic things that happen within ordinary lives."