Lynn Shelton has one goal for when she attends this year’s Sundance Film Festival: Don’t get sick. “It’s my number one priority, beyond selling my movie, beyond anything else,” says Shelton with a laugh. When Shelton first attended the festival in 2009 with her breakthrough hit “Humpday,” the results were mixed. On one hand, she says, “the day it premiered was the best day of my life.” But by the end of the festival, things had changed. “It was the sickest I’d ever been in my life. I lay on the couch wanting to die. We won a Special Jury Prize and I had to accept it. I went up to the podium, and the first thing I said was ‘I am so high on DayQuil right now!’ I was literally hallucinating, trying to give my speech. I never want to be sick like that again.”
Things were much improved last year, when Shelton returned with “Your Sister’s Sister”—she managed to avoid the dreaded “Sundance flu” that strikes so many attendees. And she has high hopes this year for her new film “Touchy Feely,” which reunites her with one of the title sisters from her previous movie, Rosemarie DeWitt, also a Sundance veteran.
“Touchy Feely” marks a bit of a departure for Shelton, who is considered at the forefront of the mumblecore movement. Both “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” were made without formal screenplays; actors worked off an outline and a “scriptment” and improvised their dialogue. And those films were both set largely in one location over the course of a long weekend with a small cast. “Touchy Feely” uses a variety of locations and features a larger ensemble that includes Allison Janney, Ellen Page, and Josh Pais. In the film DeWitt plays Abby, a massage therapist who suddenly develops an aversion to touching people, while her brother (Pais) suddenly finds he has a healing touch. “It’s about healing, being healed, and practicing healing,” says Shelton. “But it’s also about thinking you know who you are and being presented with evidence to the contrary. About how you live in your own skin, literally and figuratively.”
I understand you two first met because Rosemarie was a fan of “Humpday”?
Rosemarie DeWitt: I was a huge fan of “Humpday,” so much so that I grabbed Mark Duplass in an airport in New Orleans at one in the morning to tell him so.
Lynn Shelton: Thank God she was, because when it came time to cast “Your Sister’s Sister,” I called her two and a half days before we were supposed to shoot. We had an actress drop out and needed a replacement quickly. When I thought of Rose, she went right to the top of my list. And Mark said, “I think she’ll say yes because she accosted me in an airport once and told me she loves ‘Humpday.’ ”
DeWitt: I even got a call from the actress who had to drop out, and she said, “You’re going to get offered this really cool thing, and I’m so heartbroken I can’t do it. Just say yes.” The catch was I was shooting the second season of “United States of Tara.” I had to go to my producers and ask them to move the schedule, and to their credit, they did. So I shot two episodes of “Tara” and the entire movie in two weeks. I remember one morning flying up from L.A. on a little seaplane, and it was so dark and foggy, and I thought, “If something happens to my pilot, this is it. I’m doing all this for a movie I’m making $100 a day for and there’s no script.” But I was so in love with everyone, I had to do it.
Lynn’s films are known for her improvised dialogue. Rosemarie, was that intimidating to attempt?
DeWitt: I’d improvised before, but I’d say pretty unsuccessfully. Some things on “Your Sister’s Sister” were very laid out. Then sometimes it would be “The three of them have dinner and talk about life.” It was a new way of working; your brain would get a little fried because you’d think, “Did we already make this point in that other scene? Oh, we didn’t, so now we have to find a way to work that in.” Lynn and Mark have done this before, so they were great coaches.
Shelton: Improvising is stressful. It’s stressful for the actors and for me to be writing words on set. It’s terrifying to be flying without a net.
DeWitt: It’s exhausting but it’s great. You just get out of your own way and serve the moment. I can’t wait to do it again.
But “Touchy Feely” is scripted?
DeWitt: It’s scripted, but there’s room to improvise if you have an inspired idea.
Shelton: What’s interesting is my very first film, which nobody has seen, was scripted. That experience pushed me towards wanting to completely not have writing on the page. I feel like “Touchy Feely” is me coming full circle back to my initial impulses as a filmmaker but knowing a little bit more what I’m doing.
What else is unique about the way your films are shot?
DeWitt: The way Lynn works, she shoots cross coverage a lot of the time, with two people talking and being filmed at the same time. [She’s] ruined me because now I’ll be on movies and say, “Can’t you shoot both of us at the same time?” Also when you work with Lynn, you’re not waiting and waiting for lighting and equipment to be set up. To get to work this way and have the moment live is amazing.
Shelton: Mark pointed something out to me on “Your Sister’s Sister.” Most films, you work a 12-hour day where you spend all day setting up and an hour and a half actually shooting. On “Your Sister’s Sister,” it was the opposite ratio. Which, for me, is complete heaven.
DeWitt: There’s something about that full immersion you don’t get on most films. We all like to make bigger movies and get paid and reach audiences because of what you can accomplish with cinema. But it’s hard to only say four words all day. Or be in a scene for three days.
What is it about Sundance that makes it such a special festival?
Shelton: Even the layperson who’s not involved in the film industry has heard of it. It has an instantaneous buzz to it. I’ve wanted to be at Sundance since I was a kid. There’s something romantic about it, about Robert Redford having founded it; it’s built this mystique.
DeWitt: Sundance audiences are amazing. It’s funny, when we first screened “Your Sister’s Sister” there, I suddenly realized it was a comedy! When we were inside of it, it felt very serious. I knew there were some funny moments, but I had no idea the degree. It felt like a rock concert! People were cracking up. There were waves of laughter and tears and gasps. You realize it’s kind of sad that we’re losing this communal experience in a movie theater with films moving to Netflix and Apple TV.
Are there any films you’re looking forward to seeing there?
Shelton: When you’re in competition, there are so many screenings and press to do, and if you’re trying to sell the film, there are so many meetings. It’s really depressing how few movies you get to see. I have so many films I want to see, friends of mine! And I’ll be lucky if I get to see two or three.
DeWitt: It’s very tiring, I think partly because of the altitude. And you’re there, you’re busy, and it’s very physical to get up and down Main Street in your giant snow boots. I do like that one hour that happens somewhere in the middle where you meet up with your great friends somewhere for a burger and a glass of wine. But it’s usually so crazed.
Shelton: It’s nuts. And there are a lot of parties. So I feel like I get to see 20, 30 of my friends, but it’s usually waving across a crowded room.
DeWitt: We had a party last year, and I’d done an editorial fashion shoot that day. I remember having a moment where I thought, Why am I here at 3 a.m., standing in snow boots with fake eyelashes?