SIFF: A Q&A With Lynn Shelton

It's quite the honor to be selected as SIFF's opening-night feature, particularly when Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister is the first genuinely local film ever to launch the fest. (Battle in Seattle, at SIFF '08, was merely shot here by visitors.) Shelton started at SIFF '00 with a documentary short, then brought three features to SIFF in the next nine years—including her 2009 breakout Humpday, which got a national release and earned Shelton a guest-directing shot on Mad Men. And in the weeks before this year's fest, she's been filming her latest feature (working title: Touchy Feely) in locations around Seattle. (Yet another movie, with Paul Rudd, is planned for later this year.) So, given her prodigious workload, I decided to spare Shelton the usual kaffeeklatsch and pose a lightning round of questions, which suits her warm, effusive conversational style. ("I tend to ramble . . . ") Answers have been condensed and edited. See page 10 for capsule review and screening details.

SW: Growing up in Seattle, were you a theater geek or movie buff?

Shelton: I think I really identified myself as an artist. I was really shy. I started out as an introvert. I started writing poems when I was 8. When I was 11, I took a clown class! It was at what turned into Seattle Children's Theatre. And that was just a total life-changer. Every class they offered, I would take. I was acting and writing and was a photographer.

When did movies enter the equation?

I always loved film. I think one of the earliest influences for me was Woody Allen. And Monty Python! In high school, I went to the movies a lot. In college, I would see two, three movies a day at the Seven Gables, the Varsity, the Grand Illusion. One of the things I remember really vividly was that the Grand Illusion had a Jean-Luc Godard retrospective. And I was at that theater every day for matinees and double features. I saw them all so close together that they're all kind of one big movie in my head!

What happened at UW drama school and afterward?

My freshman/sophomore years, I was really ambitious—I wanted to be Meryl Streep! But the ambition kind of melted away. After college, I remember thinking I could apply to film school, but it just felt too intimidating. I didn't have the confidence. There was this turning point when I moved to New York. I didn't know anybody. It was really difficult to figure out how to break in. The performing experiences I had were at these kind of downtown cafes. I worked on these very downtown, low-rent productions, building the sets and so on. It was exhausting: I'd be working 10 jobs during the day and then do that at night. I never got an agent. I'd be crushed because I didn't get the audition. As an actor, you're waiting around to be chosen. You're waiting for permission to do your work.

Meanwhile, what was your view of showbiz in the '90s, given that your boyfriend (now husband) Kevin Seal was already in the industry?

He was working for MTV for two years before I moved to New York. He'd come back to Seattle to visit, and we'd go out to movies at the mall. And it was insane! People would recognize him and mob him! And I was like, This is horrible! I remember very distinctly seeing what [fame] was like. That helped to dampen feelings I might've had about being a famous actor. I didn't want any part of that. It was really creepy to me—sort of scary and kind of annoying.

Then you turned more to photography and video. Why?

In the back of my mind, I always wanted to be a visual artist. I was in the darkroom all the time in high school. I would take portraits of people for the yearbook and sort of hide behind the lens. [Photography] allowed me to transfer my addiction. I didn't have to ask permission to make my art. Then I took this video workshop, and it's like, This is my medium! I was approaching film as a painter or a photographer, as a solo artist, doing everything myself. The idea of film as a collaborative art was totally foreign to me.

Did you reach a point after nine years when you were done with New York?

It wasn't shared at all. [Kevin] loved it. He didn't want to leave. For me, when I started in New York, it felt like the energy of the city was feeding me. I was fired up. But by the time we left, it was the opposite. I felt like it was sucking me dry. The only way I could drag him back was that I was literally about eight months pregnant when we drove back across the country.

Is success more meaningful now than it might've been in your 20s?

God, yes, absolutely! It really is. When I applied to grad school in acting, I only applied to NYU. I didn't hear anything from them [after auditioning]. It was horrible! It was crazy-making! I called Rainn Wilson, and he said, 'You were at the top of the waiting list. You came a hairsbreadth from getting in. You were very close.' And I think about that a lot! If I'd gotten in, I can't even begin to imagine where I'd be now. You think about those forks in the road. I thought I wanted this other thing, but I don't ultimately think it would've been a great idea for me. As a director, I've never loved acting more.

After marriage, motherhood, and years of striving, what other perspective on filmmaking have you gained?

I can't wait around for years for a movie to get developed. At the age of 40, I had a very clear sense that I had a certain number of years left on the planet that I did not have at the age of 20 or 25. You're fully grateful and fully aware that you are blessed to discover something that makes you so happy and so fulfilled. You don't want to waste a second. I want to make as many movies as I can. I don't want to be sitting around.

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