Lynn Shel­ton

Direc­tor Lynn Shel­ton is in­ter­ested in how to de­pict shifts of sex­u­al­ity, Tim Tee­man finds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

IT is chilly and rain­ing in Seat­tle, but inside a warm cof­fee shop film direc­tor Lynn Shel­ton is laugh­ing over re­cently de­scrib­ing her­self as a ‘‘ shy bi­sex­ual’’.

‘‘ What does that even mean?’’ she asks, in­cred­u­lous. ‘‘ The in­ter­viewer mis­heard. Maybe I said ‘ shy-sex­ual’. I’ve been mar­ried, monog­a­mously, to a man for over 20 years, but I’ve had sex with and fallen for men and women — the last woman decades ago. I’m tend­ing to skew a bit straight th­ese days,’’ Shel­ton says, ‘‘ but some peo­ple re­ally are straight,’’ the 46-year-old direc­tor adds apolo­get­i­cally.

Shel­ton, who was re­cently tipped as a fu­ture best direc­tor Os­car win­ner, is known most for the 2009 fes­ti­val hit Hump­day, win­ner of the spe­cial jury prize at Cannes and many other gongs. The film is about two straight men, played by Mark Du­plass and Joshua Leonard, who de­cide to have gay sex to win a porn film-mak­ing prize. ‘‘ There was a time I be­lieved any­one could fall in love with any­body,’’ Shel­ton says, ‘‘ but some peo­ple re­ally are straight and some re­ally are gay,’’ though the idea of ‘‘ non-con­ven­tional, non-tra­di­tional fam­ily struc­tures’’ ap­peals to her. She is firm on her own fam­ily, how­ever. ‘‘ Sorry, I’m off the mar­ket. I’m mar­ried and have a son.’’

The blurred lines are saved for her movies. Her lat­est, Your Sis­ter’s Sis­ter, fea­tures Jack (Du­plass), his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) and her sis­ter Han­nah (Rose­marie De­witt) in­volved in an un­com­fort­able tri­an­gle af­ter Jack and Han­nah drunk­enly sleep to­gether, even though Jack and Iris love one an­other. More­over, Jack is griev­ing for his dead brother and Han­nah is a les­bian. As fur­ther se­crets are re­vealed, pre­pare, as in Hump­day, to wince: Shel­ton un­peels her char­ac­ters as their com­pli­cated, messy selves, rather than ac­cord­ing to sex­ual and emo­tional la­bels. ‘‘ I don’t un­der­stand some themes I’m deal­ing with un­til peo­ple ex­plain them,’’ she ad­mits.

Her films in­ter­ro­gate ‘‘ how peo­ple de­fine them­selves and their re­la­tions to one an­other’’. In Hump­day she was fas­ci­nated by in­tense male friend­ships. ‘‘ You couldn’t make

Hump­day about two straight women. Not all, but many women can be phys­i­cally in­ti­mate; they’d just have sex. There’s some­thing poignant about two guys who adore each other. The more they try (to) con­nect, the more they bump off one an­other. I was wor­ried

Your Sis­ter’s Sis­ter might feed into that ‘ See, all that les­bian needed was a pe­nis all along’, but it makes sense if you watch the film.’’

Born in Ohio, Shel­ton moved to Seat­tle when she was 18 months old with her fa­ther, a lawyer, and mother, a de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist, who di­vorced when she was eight; she has ‘‘ fab­u­lous’’ step-par­ents. At seven she be­gan writ­ing and at 11 act­ing. ‘‘ I was do­ing lots of paint­ing, tak­ing pho­to­graphs. I was ex­plod­ing cre­atively. I was very tomboy­ish, an­drog­y­nous.’’ Her mother’s sis­ter, a singer, and fa­ther’s brother, a sculp­tor, were role mod­els. Ado­les­cence ‘‘ squashed’’ her, how­ever. ‘‘ It was about com­ing of age sex­u­ally. I felt be­trayed by my body, which be­came very wom­anly. It screwed up my head and my friend­ships. From be­ing on a par with boys, sud­denly you’re ob­jec­ti­fied. It was very much, ‘ You’re look­ing at me, don’t look at me, look at me’. I have vis­ceral mem­o­ries of that time.’’

Shel­ton re­found ‘‘ that thread of au­da­cious­ness’’ of her early teens in her 20s when she stud­ied act­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, paint­ing and po­etry: ‘‘ Act­ing gave me the per­mis­sion to be other peo­ple.’’ She went to New York to work and pursue her re­la­tion­ship with fu­ture hus­band Kevin Seal, then an MTV pre­sen­ter.

‘‘ I didn’t have a healthy re­la­tion­ship with act­ing.’’ A turn­ing point came while ‘‘ get­ting raped, mu­ti­lated and murdered ev­ery night’’ in a Grand Guig­nol piece. Al­though she had been ‘‘ a to­tal the­atre slut’’ at col­lege, ‘‘ rev­el­ling in that elec­tri­cal buzz be­tween you and the au­di­ence, it had be­come too nar­cis­sis­tic and I was deal­ing ter­ri­bly, like most ac­tors, with re­jec­tion’’.

Tak­ing a video work­shop, Shel­ton’s ‘‘ head was turned. Peo­ple would walk past your pho­to­graphs, but a mov­ing im­age kept them in their seats.’’ Her in­spi­ra­tions were her par­ents’ favourite direc­tor, Woody Allen — ‘‘ I loved how he in­ter­sected char­ac­ters and sto­ries, es­pe­cially in Han­nah and Her Sis­ters’’ — Noah Baum­bach and Robert Alt­man. She be­gan mak­ing ex­per­i­men­tal films, then doc­u­men­taries and worked as a film edi­tor.

Af­ter New York ‘‘ sucked’’ her dry she and Seal moved back to Seat­tle, where they had a son, Milo, now 13. Her de­but film, We Go Way

Back (2006), fea­tured a 20-some­thing ver­sion of her­self en­coun­ter­ing her 13-year-old self. Un­til now, Shel­ton has writ­ten and shot her movies in un­der a fort­night, typ­i­cally for un­der $1 mil­lion each, fea­tur­ing three char­ac­ters. In

Hump­day, a treat­ment was writ­ten, the ac­tors con­struct­ing the di­a­logue; ‘‘ 80 per cent’’ of

Your Sis­ter’s Sis­ter was im­pro­vised, the cast and crew holed up on an is­land with ‘‘ in­cred­i­ble home-cooked meals and camp­fires. It feels like I’m kid­nap­ping them. A friend calls it ‘ crew­topia’.’’ Shel­ton’s next two films mark change.

Touchy Feely, about a masseur (De­witt) re­pulsed by bod­ies and her brother, a den­tist who dis­cov­ers he can heal peo­ple, fea­tures mul­ti­ple plot­lines and lo­ca­tions, which Shel­ton found chal­leng­ing. Lag­gies, star­ring Paul Rudd and Re­becca Hall, about the friend­ship be­tween a 28-year-old woman and 16-year-old girl, will be the first film Shel­ton has di­rected but not writ­ten, though made on the small scale she likes. The idea of do­ing a Hol­ly­wood block­buster doesn’t ap­peal. ‘‘ My fas­ci­na­tion is with re­la­tion­ships at their most mi­cro­cos­mic. The more epic, the more un­in­ter­est­ing the film-mak­ing be­comes. It be­comes about get­ting the per­fect crane shot.’’ Still, di­rect­ing an episode of Mad Men in 2010 ‘‘ blew her mind’’ and she is look­ing to create her own TV drama.

The Times

Lynn Shel­ton, left, and Emily Blunt on the set of Your Sis­ter’s Sis­ter

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