Many directors have made the transition from film to television and back in a fairly organic and fluid way. It wasn’t too surprising when filmmaker Lynn Shelton began to become successful directing comedy shows like ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, Fox’s New Girl and Netflix series GLOW and Love, because she brought the humanity from her films to the episodes she directed.
Shelton’s big break-out was her 2009 bromantic comedy Humpday, starring Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard, a Sundance fave which she followed with Your Sister’s Sister with Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, both which used improvisation quite liberally. That was in turn followed by Touchy Feely and Laggies, two scripted features.
Due to her success directing television, it’s been four years since Shelton’s last film Laggies, but this week, she makes a welcome return to film with OUTSIDE IN. It has her working with the other Duplass brother Jay, who plays Chris, a man who has just been released from jail after 20 years who professes his love for his former teacher Carol, played by Edie Falco. Carol is married with a teen daughter named Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever from Detroit), who also starts hanging out with Chris, making his attempts to integrate with society even more confusing.
Outside In is the closest Shelton has come to a full-on drama, although the lovely character piece still has a fairly light tone in the vein of the movies made by the film’s exec. producers Mark and Jay Duplass, the latter who co-wrote the film with Shelton.
The Tracking Board sat down with Ms. Shelton for the following interview.
I guess the first and most obvious question is when did you and Jay Duplass decide, “Hey, let’s do something together”?
Lynn Shelton: Well, it was me bugging him, sort of stalking him. I saw him on Transparent and was just blown away. I just couldn’t believe that he was such a brilliant actor right out of the gate of getting cast on something. I just thought he was emotionally available, believable, vulnerable, mesmerizing on screen. I just loved him.
I wrote him immediately and said, “I will be lightly stalking you, dude, until we get on set together,” and he was like, “You know, that sounds great to me.” It took a couple years, but I often start projects off with an actor as a muse, an actor I really want to work with, and then I try different roles on them in my head and put them in different scenarios. And this was an idea that I’d had bouncing around for a while.
It didn’t occur to me right away, I think, because the life experience of the main character is so different than Mr. Duplass is, but when I was thinking of what I had not seen him do before, and he’s only really started the last few years to be doing acting stuff for one, so it was like I feel like I’ve seen him only do roles within a particular range. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if he could really stretch himself and do something really kind of different? I didn’t know if he’d be into it or not.
When I pitched it to him, it was basically the backstory of this movie, so I knew everything that happened up to the starting point pretty clearly. Because I had been thinking about it awhile, so this whole 20-year evolution of this intimate relationship that had only happened through an Eloisa and Abelard sort of situation of letter writing. Although, they probably professed their love to each other, which Chris and Carol never did in the letters, but just this development of this very intimate confidante kind of relationship where they couldn’t actually really ever see each other. I mean, she visited a couple times, but there’s no physicality.
And I loved that. I love their age difference, I loved the different places they were in their lives, and that entire backstory, the fact that he shouldn’t have been in prison for as long as he was to begin with, that whole thing.
As soon as he heard the pitch, he just loved everything about it, and he was deeply involved. I love to be collaborative, especially if I bring an actor in that early. I love to get their input. At least certainly on the character, who they see their characters as, because it’s just going to fit them like a glove by the time they get to set. It’s only going to help the film out ultimately because he’ll really believe, and they’ll be so invested as well.
I would develop the treatment, send it to him, get some ideas back from him, incorporate them, take them into consideration, get the input. And so that went back and forth for awhile with me as ownership of the document. And then eventually, when it turned into a script, at a certain point, he asked if he could take a pass at it, and I was like, “Sure.” And at that point, we just started trading a draft back and forth, and we became officially co-writers.
So it was different than the movies you made with Mark then…
It was actually very similar. Humpday was because I wanted to work with Mark, and I was thinking of different ideas, and I pitched him an idea, and then it was the same thing. It was like, “Yeah, let’s do this,” and he would give me input, but I would pare it. I’d be the one who was really the gatekeeper and say, “Okay, we’ve got all these ideas about backstory, and how can we incorporate it?” But then I would be the one who would sort of say, “Yeah, but this isn’t really going to work for us.”
I did that here, too, but it was just a little bit more… since I was actually sharing the document with him, it shifted a little bit. Ultimately, I was going to be the director, so ultimately if there was a dealbreaker of an idea that he had, I just was like …
It was just a little bit more collaborative at the script level. With Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, it got super collaborative on set because I was asking them to improvise the actual dialogue, the words. But in terms of what happened structurally, that was a little bit more in my box.
I didn’t even know Jay had aspirations to act.
The few times I’ve spoken with him and Mark, it seemed like he was more the guy behind the camera while Mark worked with the other actors.
And that’s all he wants to do. He’s so into it now, and it’s like once he dove in, he just was like, “I love it so much,” and as well he should. He’s so good at it.
He’s really great in this movie. How did you end up with Edie Falco as his love interest?
Well, Edie, she sort of came in later… really late. She was the last kind of jewel on the crown, because I knew I wanted to work with Kaitlyn [Dever]. I called her right after I talked to Jay, because I’d been dying to work with her since Laggies and give her a slightly bigger chunk of a role. She was in from the very ground floor as well. I think even Ben [Schwartz] was in before Edie, and then it was just hard to find exactly the right person, and somebody who’s schedule would work out and everything.
Edie was somebody we went to and luckily, Jay had made his very usual, personable, and charming impression on her, and she had very warm feelings towards him because of the couple days they’d spent on set together on Gillian Robespierre’s movie Landline. They had met there just briefly, but enough for her to have a very warm impression of him.
And then she loved the script. She was available, she loved the script, and felt really like, “Oh, you don’t see roles like this very often for women my age” and, “Oh, these people talk like real people talk.” The dialogue. Just everything about it. The small, human moments of it attracted her. Luckily, she was willing to come and do our little, tiny indie budget movie with no trailers and nothing fancy, and [she] was a super, super, sweet trooper about it, being wet all the time. (laughs)
I liked that you returned to directing films with a small, but sweet character piece. You’ve been directing for the past few years, so was it nice to get back to a smaller, more personal indie?
It really was. It really was. I’d forgotten, because I’ve had such great experiences on larger sets now, so at first, I had to really [go] “I don’t know if I want to be on a big set,” but you can really put together a big crew that’s lovely and nice to each other, and has a convivial atmosphere. But there’s something about that small, indie movie experience where nobody is there to do it for the big paycheck. We’re all there for a different reason, and there’s so few of you that it’s just like a family. You just get an intimacy that you just can’t get when you have so many people sort of dispersing your energy. To spend 20 days on set with people who have all been very carefully vetted, because I want to create a very emotionally safe, extremely positive experience especially for the actors, but also for everybody who’s risking emotional vulnerability by being creative around each other. Yeah it was kind of utopian, it was really lovely.
How long did it take to shoot the movie, and do all that?
It was 20 days. Four weeks. Yep. Mm-hmm. We were embedded in this little town that was so tiny there weren’t even any hotels, so the crew had a hotel we found near town, and the producers and I stayed with the key cast in kind of a bed and breakfast in another town, and we all commuted. Once we were there, we had our base camp in the American Legion Hall of Granite Falls, Washington, and then we usually walked. Sometimes it was like … There was one, Ted’s brother’s house, was half a block away, and then all the other houses were within three blocks. And then there were businesses right around the corner where he first meets her. And then the little pizzeria, and all those little places were all super close, so you’d see us with our carts out there. And the entire town knew us by the end, you know.
One thing I like about the movie is that it’s not just about Jay’s character, and you spend time developing the relationship between Edie and her husband, as well as their daughter Hildy, played by Kaitlyn.
I always saw it as being at least a two-hander. I mean, it is basically a two-hander, but Hildy’s character is quite prominent as well, especially because Carol can’t really spend the time Chris wants to, so he’s alone a lot. He also ends up developing this whole relationship with the daughter, which I think is also really interesting and layered, because it’s like they both really want to connect with Carol, but they can’t for various reasons, so it’s almost like they’re sort of connecting to her through each other.
There’s that, but then there’s also that it’s a natural draw because they’re sort of socially and emotionally in the same age, because his development as a human adult kind of stopped at the age of 18, which is how old Hildy is. Because of being tossed in a prison, he’s kind of stuck [at that age]. He’s like a boy arrested in a way. “Boy interrupted.” So that’s kind of a natural fit.
But then it’s like, “Oh, this seems inappropriate,” and “Is this creepy?” You know, and so there’s all this weird, “What’s happening here?”
Especially with someone who is already on probation…
Yes, so many complications. Exactly. I don’t know. It’s interesting to go there because I want it to be clear that he really doesn’t have any creepy, perverted designs on her. He’s totally in love with her mom, but he really feels this genuine connection to her, and an affection for her because of the mom. Again, all of that, but then it’s easy to get along with her because it’s kind of where he’s at. He’s still sort of a teenager. She’s like the kind of person he should’ve been hanging out with in high school. If he had been, he probably wouldn’t be just getting out of prison now.
You’ve been doing TV for a couple years now, and it’s not exactly known as a director’s medium, but were you able to take anything from your experience working in TV to make this movie?
Oh, my God. It was four years between being on the set of Laggies and being on this set, and that was my sixth film, Laggies, so I’ve made a lot of movies, right? But I got on the set of this film, and I am a completely different filmmaker because I’d been on set constantly. I’d been on so many TV sets, and just clocking in that number of hours.
Now, when you say it’s not a director’s medium, the ultimate final creative vision of the show is not up to the director. However, when you work on a show, especially the shows I’ve gotten to work with like GLOW and Maron and Love and Casual, Shameless, Mad Men… shows that are so cinematic, you’re especially valued and respected, and asked to bring as a director all of your creative energies. You’re still doing the job of a director. It’s just that you’re channeling the vision of the head writer as opposed to your own creative vision. That’s really the only difference.
In some ways, it’s a lot harder, but you’re still, like, “How do I cover the scene?” and “How do I set up as shot?” and “What’s the camera move I’m going to use?” “Is the ashtray here, or here?” It’s all the same thing, the same decisions. Yes, the actors know their characters through and through, but it’s just like they have great backstory, which is what I want them to have in the movie that I make. In any movie that I make.
On set, it’s like, “What is the shape of this scene now in this moment? Let’s find that together.” There’s still plenty of directing to be done, right? It’s all the same, and I learn something every, single time. I’ve worked with the most amazing directors of photography. Christian Sprenger, who also DPed Atlanta. John Guleserian and Mark Schwartzbard, who have both lensed a whole bunch of films in addition to Casual and Love and Master of None.
So yeah, it’s been unbelievably helpful. It was like an accelerated … I don’t know, Masters of Post Doctorate degree or something. I just couldn’t believe how much more confidence and ease I had, and how much more I felt like I was bringing to the table with this film. It was fascinating.
You’ve also done a few TV shows where you’ve directed enough episodes to be part of the family like Fresh Off the Boat…
Yeah, because I did the pilot, so I was the pilot director on Fresh Off the Boat, so yeah, I definitely was a member of that family. Also, yes, I did five New Girls and that was probably the only other show I’ve done a whole bunch of episodes of. But it is always nice to return, coming back a couple seasons to Casual and to Love and to GLOW. I got to do two this year for the second season. It is really nice to return.
I really liked the music for Outside In also, because I found the musical choices and instrumentations interesting…
I’m so glad you brought that up.
I also really liked the final song that ran over the credits…
There was a screening at the SVA Theater last night, and was only the first third or quarter of the song…
And they stopped it.
… and they just chopped it! It literally, physically hurt me because that end credits song, I love it so much. I actually was realizing last night, oh, my God, what is wrong with me? I cry every single time at certain points in the movie, and one of them is when Chris is bicycling for the first time. He’s riding free, and feeling free for the first time, and you get a real sense of place, which is what I want this movie to have. One of the things I really wanted this movie to have, and the music in particular just kills me in this one section where it’s a montage of him riding, and he ends up at the skate park. That whole section.
I just get so moved by it, and I realized, oh, one of the reasons I think I cry every time is because I also have flashbacks to being in the room when Andrew Bird, who is the genius who composed and played and recorded every instrument on that track. I was there while he’s watching my movie and probably filming it with my iPhone because I can’t believe where I’m at, and he’s doing every little part, and I just think he’s a genius. I’m such a super fan anyway. I remember him creating it and how moving that was and then I’m just overcome every single time because I can’t believe I got to work with such a genius on that, and I love the soundtrack so much. To me, it just doesn’t sound like any other soundtrack I’ve ever heard. The quality of it, the instrumentation of it. The kind of counterpoint to the location of it. Somehow, it has a dreamy atmosphere to it that adds some sort of emotionality. I just love it so much. I really do.
Not to dis the music from your previous movies, but I don’t think the scores really jumped out, while for this, the music really brought a lot to some of the scenes with no dialogue at all.
Yeah, and you’re reminding me that there were sections where I was actually inspired by the music. One of my favorite things about Jackie was that the score was so forward, and it was so bold. I was inspired by that. I remember there’s one scene. I usually don’t like to bring music into dialogue scenes, because I feel like it pushes you away, or generally, it’s sort of like to have this bed. It’s just weird. I really wanted to see if I could make it work with this one scene where Carol convinces Chris to stick around, to go in and try and make friends at this party, and then the guy who is the cause for him to go to prison, the bad guy basically shows up. It’s almost like Jaws. There’s just this (growls), just a little bit in between. He sort of sees him and then there’s this dark, like, (growls) note that comes in. I’ve never worked with music in that way, to kind of accent an emotional moment like that.
And then there are these other very emotional … like he’s riding the bike a couple of times, a few of those bike riding scenes. There’s always music to accompany and sort of strengthen what’s going on emotionally, dramatically in the scene. So there’s a scene where it ends up building into this whole sound effect montage where he goes and he’s having basically his auditory flashback of the scene at the crime. He’s in front of the convenience store where it all went down, and the music there really builds, and we layered and worked on that so hard to make it kind of this combination of different emotions. We so deeply went into what are themes we can bring back up in different ways, and how should we play with instrumentation here, and same chord progressions there. It was a very intense and exciting process to do that.
By the way, I talked to Josh Leonard I think it was last week for Unsane. I didn’t recognize him in that movie at first. When I spoke to him, one of the things that came up was the fact that Humpday will be ten years old next year, so I asked him…
About a sequel…
Yes, about the possibility of a sequel.
He’s on this campaign. I’m just like, “Oh, you guys? Really?” I don’t want to revisit you people, but they keep coming up with these really interesting ideas, pitches, for what would’ve happened to them ten years on. So, we’ll see. We’ll see. It’s very funny.
I’m sure some people out there must be wondering about that, and Richard Linklater has done that a few times now with both direct sequels and thematic ones.
That’s true, and I don’t know how many people actually saw [Humpday]. In the indie film world, there’s a very small circle, but I don’t know. I don’t know. We’ll see.
What else are you doing? Are you working on anything else?
I am. I’m about to shoot another movie. I’m so excited. It took a few years for this desire to build, but by now, it’s burning and I really, really want to do an improvised dialogue movie again. Because I just made this my first drama, I’m totally ready to do a really kind of out-there comedy. So it’s a comedy with a nice cast of folks who I know can really nail the improv thing, because it’s definitely not something everybody can do, I’ve learned over the years. And yeah, I’m super stoked about it, but that’s all I can say at the moment.
Outside In opens in select cities on Friday, March 30, and then it will be available on digital platforms starting April 3.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor