More than talent or connections, success in the tiny Seattle filmmaking community comes to people who think strategically about marketing. Some local filmmakers make topical documentaries for niche audiences (James Longley, Iraq in Fragments and Gaza Strip), others coax investors to pay for shooting in expensive 35 mm Cinemascope in hopes of attracting attention at festivals (Robinson Devor and Charles Mudede, Police Beat), and still others cast B-list celebrities to exploit our provincial fascination with big names at neighborhood haunts (Dan Gildark and Grant Cogswell, Cthulhu). When the films end up having artistic merit, it seems like a freak accident.
Lynn Shelton is different. Maybe it's her 10 years as an experimental filmmaker: Her thesis adviser in art school was Peggy Ahwesh, a video artist who has shown work in the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and MoMA. Or maybe it's her long stint editing films for other directors, the role for which we first shortlisted her in 2004. Or maybe she's just supremely confident. Whatever the reason, Shelton doesn't feel the need to buy attention with money or gimmicks. Instead, she confines herself to miniscule budgets, largely pro-bono talent, and picturesque property owned by relatives and friends to stage productions that put risk-taking above commercial appeal. The financial investment may be minimal, but the results are astonishing: impeccable production values, trenchant dialogue, and themes you don't see anywhere else.
For the record: Shelton did not curry any favor with the Genius committee by using The Stranger's annual amateur porn festival (aka HUMP!) as the setting for her new, unfinished film about heterosexual one-upmanship, called Humpday. (She was already the top contender for this award when we learned about the project.) Nor did she get bonus points for casting former Stranger film editor Sean Nelson in her boy-bonding saga My Effortless Brilliance. (Nelson played a needy, egotistical has-been whose backstory is not dissimilar to Nelson's own brush with pop-culture stardom.) In fact, it made our choice somewhat awkward.
The truth is, Shelton is the only Seattle filmmaker to have made two fascinating narrative features in a row, with her third (I've seen about 30 minutes of a rough cut) shaping up to be her most accomplished yet. According to Adam Sekuler, programming director at Northwest Film Forum, "Lynn Shelton has clearly shown her tenacity as a filmmaker, rolling out a new feature project every year. Her work has been seen throughout the world, and it rings strongly with the Pacific Northwest aesthetic we've been trying to cultivate for a long time." Michael Seiwerath, outgoing executive director at the Film Forum, calls her "an absolute inspiration to the film community," explaining, "She does not wait for big funding or people to approve of her projects. She simply makes excellent work with a tight group of collaborators. And has found a way to sustain herself across multiple projects, skipping the cycle of credit-card debt and depression." Shelton brings the economy and inventiveness of experimental filmmaking to the legibility and attentiveness of the narrative film. She doesn't mind challenging her audiences, but she's not interested in alienating them.
Her first film, We Go Way Back, was commissioned by the now-defunct Film Company. Aside from Guy Maddin's expensive Brand Upon the Brain!, it's the best thing that outfit produced, and certainly the most surprising. The come-from-nowhere film won the top jury prize and a cinematography award at Slamdance, the underdog alternative to the Sundance Film Festival.
We Go Way Back is the story of an exceptional kid growing into an ordinary young woman. After reading letters she'd written to herself at the age of 13, Kate (Amber Hubert), a fringe theater actress, tries to shake off her twentysomething malaise, with limited success. The film is about the difficulty of recapturing the drive and curiosity of early adolescence once real-world experience has dulled your ego and crushed your sense of destiny. It's largely autobiographical. "I think I've always romanticized 13 as being my peak creative year," Shelton explains. Poetry, painting, music, theater—she tried her hand at most every medium. By the age of 20, that eager experimentation had dried up. "My secret shame was that the only thing I could do was be an actor, because I didn't have to come up with my own words."
Lest the subject matter wade too far into the maudlin waters of Reviving Ophelia—the girlhood-in-crisis book Shelton first encountered while she was planning the film—the movie has a thick streak of comedy: Rehearsals for a production of Hedda Gabler spoof the ways a director's runaway ego and his actors' sheeplike commitment can go horribly awry. "I need for you to learn Norwegian... Hedda must speak Ibsen's actual words." No, it is not a good idea for Hedda to speak Norwegian throughout the play, but nobody is about to contradict the black-box dictator.
Best of all, We Go Way Back wards off nostalgia by introducing a bizarre conceit so simple and nonchalant that it seems doubly strange. Maggie Brown, whom Shelton describes as "magnetic—with huge eyes and this calm presence," plays the protagonist as a tomboyish 13-year-old, and she shows up to hang out with her future self. At first, you think the kid is just a memory, or a symbol of Kate's conscience, but in an understated twist, a third character greets her out loud—as though this shadow from the past has been a real person all along. The effect (magnified by otherworldly songs by Laura Veirs on the soundtrack and the damp Northwest imagery of the talented Ben Kasulke behind the lens) is uncanny. It justifies the film.
Recently, Shelton has been moving away from narrative experiments and toward experiments in composition. For My Effortless Brilliance, which premiered at SXSW earlier this year, the filmmaker, cast (Basil Harris, Calvin Reeder, and Nelson), and skeleton crew holed up in a Methow Valley cabin owned by Shelton's father. Shelton sketched out the story in advance, but the cast improvised the dialogue, and the characters bear the marks of the actors' personalities and habitual gestures. The result has been likened to Old Joy—another film, set in Oregon, about mossy male companionship by a female director. It's supposed to be a compliment, since Old Joy got a lot of love from East Coast critics, but that film submitted meekly to the Robert Bly mystique of male bonding, and was far too awed by the urban mountain-man pose some Northwesterners like to affect. My Effortless Brilliance isn't perfect, but it's much livelier and more agile than Old Joy. It has a sense of humor about the choices people make and the ways they define themselves in relation to abstract notions of nature and the city. In the end, the cougar-huntin' wild man is no more or less absurd—and certainly no more masculine—than the citified aesthete.
Shelton says the unconventional methods used to make My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday were an attempt to elicit more naturalistic performances away from the hustle of a film set, where scenes are often shot out of order to maximize efficiency. But improvisation also magnifies the role of a film's editor.
For Humpday, reality TV editor and independent filmmaker Nat Sanders volunteered to work on Shelton's film without charge. But Shelton has edited each of her previous films on her own. Historically one of the few film-industry jobs available to women, editing is also the only component technique of filmmaking that has no precedent in other art forms. From still photography to theater, film borrows much more than it invents. But fashioning material from a loose, improvisational set into a coherent narrative is an act of authorship, not just assembly. Lynn Shelton's experiments in method are a tribute to the one thing that makes cinema unique.