Her latest indie drama is in theaters now.
Indie filmmaker Lynn Shelton [MFA 1995 Photo, Video and Related Media] has made quite a name for herself over the last 10 years. Starting out as a founding director of micro-budgeted, highly improvised “mumblecore” films, she moved through the indie ranks while attracting big stars like Emily Blunt, Keira Knightley, Ellen Page and Academy Award winners like Sam Rockwell and Alison Janney to her intuitive and humanist dramedies. (Or, as she likes to call them specifically, “comedic dramas.”) While she generally works within the framework of very personal, small-scale stories as a writer, director and editor, her unique voice and perspective hasn’t gone unnoticed by the mainstream either; producer Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) recruited her to direct episodes of his Netflix show Love, and Shelton's gone on to log thousands of hours working on an array of popular and critically acclaimed television like Mad Men, Zooey Deschanel's New Girl, Fresh Off The Boat, Master Of None, Casual, GLOW and many more.
After a four-year detour into television, Shelton has returned to her indie roots with her latest effort, Outside In. An intimate and absorbing indie, Outside In follows an ex-con (Jay Duplass) who is struggling to readjust to life in his small town, forming an intense bond with his former high school teacher (Edie Falco from The Sopranos). The movie is also what the writer/director considers to be her first full-fledged drama. With Outside In in theaters in limited release and available on digital and on-demand platforms, we sat down with Shelton to discuss advice for young filmmakers, how television can be like a gym for directors to stay in shape, and practical tips about how to work within a small budget.
Let's talk about how you started out in editing and how that helps you now.
It helps me because I can definitely clock things on set because I know what shots I need and I know when I have what I need for the scene, and when I can move on to next scene. So it makes me pretty efficient.
You work in the world of low budgets. What are the things that you feel you are not willing to sacrifice for budget? What is key for you?
Well, you know, people will say, "don't you want to work with a giant budget?" and it’s like, "what's the script?"—what do you actually need to tell the story? The thing is, this was actually a very ambitious script for the budget we had. So, I was a little concerned. For example, there's [the lead character's] house. It was about to be torn down and that's why we got it for no money. It was a shithole, but in real life it was even crazier. So, I was worried there won’t be enough budget for art department to transform this house to make it look livable.
It all worked out great, but it's all about finding the right people who can be resourceful and who know what to do. We didn’t have enough light, but we had these exterior night bike riding scenes, so we figured out if we use this one special camera that does really well in low light, it would work. And then you use available light wherever you can. We found locations with real street lights, things like that.
People tend to forget the human factor with this kind of planning. There are so many people working on a film that you rely on, that are doing so much heavy lifting for a director and a story.
Yes! You really don’t want to skimp on a small crew when they are working really hard and not for a lot of movie. You want to treat them really well. We got a grant from the county so we were able to get the entire crew their own hotel rooms, so that was great.
[You want to] make sure people are really well fed. Give them hot meals, especially when they are out in the rain all day. The producers and production managers went to the crew and said, "We really want to know exactly what would make you smile if you saw it on a craft services table. We want each of you to have three of your favorite food on earth." It's worth it! And it's not that much money. A little goes such a long way to keep your crew happy.
We did all kinds of things. Door prizes, a raffle at every lunch and they would give away chocolates, tickets to movies, I couldn't keep track of it all. It was very sweet and people really appreciated it. The good thing about working with a micro budget is that people are not there for a big paycheck, they are there for some other reasons. If they feel valued and respected they are going to feel like they're part of a team and something exciting.
Great practical tips for sure. What about advice to a young director?
One: Get on other filmmaker's sets. There is no better way to learn and make yourself really indispensable, really useful and learn as much as you can. Even if you're a production assistant, just get onto other people’s sets.
Two: Just start making—you don’t even have an excuse, because equipment is so cheap right now. Find your tribe, a partner or two, and start making things. But the third thing I want to really stress. Take an acting class, for god’s sake! Because, listen, your movie could look like the best-looking movie, with the most beautiful lightning and production and design and camera work and everything about it could be perfect. But if your acting is crappy, you don't have a movie. None of those other things will matter.
Nobody has a harder job than the actor. To be that emotionally available, in those kinds of quick and demanding circumstances—and the best ones make it look so easy—some people forget actors have the hardest job. Create an emotionally safe environment for your actors and learn to empathize with them by taking an acting class. That's my advice.
Do you learn a lot of things from directing television that helped with this project?
Listen, there were four years between being on the set of my last movie and being on the set of Outside In and it's like, Oh my god, I am a totally different filmmaker because I was on set constantly for those four years. Every single time I did a television episode I learned something new but I didn’t really understand the full accumulation of all of it until I got back on the set of one of my own movies. I was just shocked of the confidence and the ease I have, just from clocking all those hours. Plus, you end up working with so many different people—writers, cinematographers, actors, brilliant show runners.
Some challenges are unbelievable. I did a car chase and a shoot-out on one episode of Shameless and it was like 10 years' worth of experience. There was a car crash and a baby being born on a kitchen table, I mean it was crazy town! Some shows require stunts, crazy visual effects, but again, just clocking those hours and learning and getting more and knowledge and gaining an ease around all the departments. I can’t say enough about it.
I can't remember who said it, but being on set all the time is like always working out and then being totally fit for the job.
Exactly. It's the best. I am really grateful that the shows that have hired me are so remarkable. They're just beautiful shows. And you meet so many people, too. I'm just realizing as we talk that two or three of the people that have been in cast in my next movie are people that I've met and worked with in television.
You're going back to your roots and doing a more improvised thing next, right?
Yeah. It's based off a 10-12-page elaborate description, but improv is harder than it looks. I heard Samantha Morton, in a recent interview say, “I’m not a very good actor, but I’m a fantastic reactor” and that's brilliant because that's what acting is and why improv is so exciting. With improv you have to be completely present and there’s this quality you can’t get any other way.
But I don’t think I could do it if I wasn’t an editor, because that’s the where the real script is really written. There was so many bad versions of [2009 bromance film] Humpday I can’t even tell you. If it hadn’t been in the hands of my editor Nat Sanders and I it could have easily been a terrible film because the actors gave us all kinds of crap too! You know, you have an emotionally safe environment to explore, but not all of it works. But you cherry-pick the best stuff. That's how moviemaking works.
Outside In is open now in limited theatrical release and is available everywhere on digital and On Demand platforms.