Sundance: ‘Laggies’ Director Lynn Shelton Reflects on Rising Trajectory of Her Career

Variety's Indie Impact honoree has new film debuting at festival

"Laggies" Sundance 2014

It’s unusual to hear directors describe their most recent project as anything other than a bold step into brave new territory, but for Lynn Shelton, Variety’s Indie Impact honoree, whose seventh feature “Laggies,” pictured above, will bow in Park City, that description is more apt than most. The film is Shelton’s first feature that she hasn’t scripted, and in fact her first to be fully non-improvised, after making her name with the loose, extemporaneous “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister.”

“Laggies” also boasts the largest cast of any Shelton pic, with Keira Knightley toplining with Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell, as well as her longest-ever film shoot, a comparably robust 25 days. It’s also, as she puckishly notes, “my first multimillion-dollar movie. And my first million-dollar movie, period.”

The film, which casts Knightley as an unmoored young adult who fakes a business trip to spend time with a teenage buddy, is based on a script by debutante screenwriter Andrea Seigel, developed with producer Alix Madigan.

“For my first three movies, I had no representation, no manager, no agent,” says the 48-year-old Seattle native. “Then when I picked up management after ‘Humpday,’ I started receiving scripts to read, which was a new experience for me. And they were all pretty good. But it was rare that I felt a connection that was personal enough to make me feel like I was a good fit for it, until this one.”

Seigel’s theme of arrested adolescence fit nicely within Shelton’s oeuvre, which has seen her turn such “South Park”-style premises as two straight men filming a gay porn on a drunken dare, or “sperm stealing” hijinx between two sisters, into genuinely moving character studies that examine adulthood, friendship and sexuality with often startling insight.

“It was surprising,” Shelton says of Seigel’s screenplay. “After reading so many scripts, you start to notice patterns, such that by page 20 you generally know the direction the story is going to go. And this was an exception. I really didn’t know where she was heading with this, and the unexpected turns it took were surprising but also believable.”

Of course, working from someone else’s script meant tamping down on the freewheeling shooting style that characterized her previous work, though Shelton endeavored to keep the performances just as fresh.

“It was not at all an improvised film, but there was still that leeway for freedom and looseness,” she says. “Here’s the thing about improv — it totally affects your shooting style. As much as humanly possible, I always have double coverage. You’ve got two cameras on, sometimes three, so that you never have to repeat a moment if lightning strikes. (On ‘Laggies’) I fought very hard to have two cameras always available — originally it was a one-camera shoot. Even when you’re not improvising, I find cross-covering a scene to be extremely advantageous for the performances, because everybody’s on the same page.”

In addition to shooting a TV pilot prior to pre-production on “Laggies,” Shelton has notched TV directing gigs on “Mad Men” and “New Girl” over the past few years. For someone of Shelton’s DIY provenance, working within such a hierarchical system, with its endless rounds of studio notes and showrunner tweaks, was an invaluable primer to making a film with multiple production companies and investors.

“It’s very easy to have creative freedom when you’re making movies for a very small amount of money,” she says. “The more money involved, the more complicated it becomes because there are people involved who want to make sure they’re not throwing their cash down a big hole. As the director, you need to be ready to have conversations with those people and make sure everyone feels heard and feels part of the project. It was the first time I’ve ever had that component as a part of the creative process.

“And honestly it only really came into play in the edit room,” she continues. “I felt pretty darn free on set, but once we got into rough edits, there were a lot of rounds of feedback and a lot of notes. Next time around I’ll be more prepared for the amount of time and effort that part of the process takes. But it was well worth it for the trade-offs I got, being able to work with a much larger crew, with larger toys. I mean, I got to take aerial footage — I’ve never been able to do things like that before.”

By graduating to films with helicopter-rental money, Shelton follows her close associates Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, who have also managed to move steadily up the financial ladder after initially being grouped together under the “mumblecore” tag. Much like “alternative rock” and “remodernism” before it, the amorphous term was ambivalently received by those within the movement, yet Shelton concedes it had its benefits.

“The first time I ever saw an article using that word, it was originally characterized as ‘all these young white guys in their 20s making movies about Generation X’ers.’ I had never made any movies like that, and I myself didn’t fit into that category, for obvious reasons,” she says. “Besides, we all had such different styles. It’s like saying that every film made for more than $10 million that uses a script and a tripod is all part of the same genre.

“But whatever moniker that movement was given, the sense that there was a movement shined a light on a number of tiny movies that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten any attention at all. And there was a certain amount of mutual support for sure, in the way we were all editing and acting and shooting for each other, which was really beautiful.

“I think the main problem is that it’s just such a horrible word. It’s the worst word ever! It’s not attractive at all. Why couldn’t we have had something cool like Dogme 95? Why couldn’t we name it ourselves?”