She made it look easy. That is the unmistakable impression you get from watching Lynn Shelton's movies.
How she got Allison Janney and Keira Knightley and Emily Blunt to appear in her low-budget locally made films was always kind of a mystery, but it seemed related to the idea that everyone loved Lynn, that Lynn could do anything, and that she could do it without breaking a sweat. She directed eight feature films in 14 years, and most of them she wrote as well, and some of them she also acted in.
But as dramatized in We Go Way Back, Lynn Shelton's first feature film, from 2006, which Northwest Film Forum is streaming for free via Facebook Live on Thursday at 6 pm, she was a lost soul as an artist in her 20s.
Made before we had the phrase "toxic masculinity," We Go Way Back tells the story of a 23-year-old theater artist named Kate being treated like an object by all the different men in her life. Every guy around her seems to want something from her, and none of them seem at all interested in what she wants. Why doesn't she have the creative confidence that her own self at 13 years old had?
Early on, 23-year-old Kate gets cast as Hedda Gabbler in an arty production of Hedda Gabler, directed by a lunatic and capricious director who demands that she learn Norwegian so that she can deliver all of her lines in Ibsen's original language.
You can tell she thinks this idea is perplexing—the rest of the actors will be speaking English—but Kate works very, very hard to make the director happy (including hiring a Norwegian tutor, whose interest turns out to be in making out with her). Then right before opening night, the director changes his mind about the Norwegian and tells her to go re-learn all her lines in English after all—tells her this as if it's nothing.
This material is inspired by Lynn's own experiences struggling to be taken seriously as a young woman who wanted to make art. She talks about that struggle directly in this 2015 interview with Marc Maron that he reposted on Monday.
As Lynn tells it, starting around 47 minutes into that podcast, she tried to study poetry in college, but an arrogant male teacher rejected her from his course. "I had a really bad experience where I found out later that the guy hadn't even read my poems," she says, "and then I stopped writing because of that, for a long time." Then she moved to NYC to put her UW theater degree to use as an actor, a period of time when she felt "like I was a puppet—I was saying what other people told me to say."
Only once she started studying photography did her self-consciousness about her body go away: "Being the looker and not the looked at was much healthier for me."
As Lynn puts it, "There's this thing that happens, when you become sexualized, for some girls, some women—a lot of them—where I felt like I was at my peak, top of my game, at 13 [years old]: writing stories, writing poetry, painting, playing music, acting, and taking photographs. I had such a clarity of vision and confidence in my voice, and then cut to, like, 20... I got boobs... and I was very androgynous and tomboy before, and then I felt sort of betrayed by my body, and it felt like that was the first thing people noticed about my body even though I don't know if it was or not." Being sexualized this way "ground out my sense of agency."
"And all this weird attention and self-consciousness diminished your creativity?" Maron asks.
"It did," she says.
In We Go Way Back, Lynn dramatizes the relationship between her 13-year-old self and her 23-year-old self by having Kate played by two different actors, in conversation with each other. The film "is really about the way that we are different selves in different points in our lives. And pre- and post-adolescent selves were something I was looking back on, like, 'Wow, that is fascinating,' because those were polar opposite personalities [that I saw in myself] when I was looking back on that in my 30s."
She reiterates, "I was so horrified by my body. For me, it was really tough to get over." But being behind the camera unlocked that problem for her. Now it was not her body she was using to make art, but her mind, her sensibility, and her eye.
Even though it was her first feature, the fullness of her talent is evident in We Go Way Back, which is very funny (there's some hilarious stuff involving potatoes) while also being introspective, nuanced, smart, and beautiful. And like almost all of her movies, it was made in Washington State.
The screening on Thursday has been scheduled for some time, and originally the plan was that Lynn was going to participate. Despite Lynn's death last week, Northwest Film Forum is "going ahead with Thursday's livestream," according to Megan Griffiths, first assistant director on We Go Way Back. "The intention was for Lynn to commandeer the comments section with stories from the set, but in her absence, we'd like to use the space as a place for this community to come together and remember Lynn. Please join."
The film stars Amber Hubert as 23-year-old Kate, Marguerite Brown as 13-year-old Kate, Robert Hamilton Wright as the theater director, and Basil Harris as a potato salesman who gets to say the word "chèvre."
Watch it as an expression of the difficulties of making art, or watch it as an expression of the difficulties of being a young woman, or watch it for information on Lynn's own formation as an artist—but just watch it.