Tall, blonde, still stunning in her 40s and now a lauded filmmaker, ‘mumblecore’ maven Lynn Shelton explains how a difficult adolescence moulded her as an artist...
“Something about adolescence just crushed it out of me, all my agency, and it took me a long time to regain it. I started making features when I was 40, and once I was on set, I realised that this was always what I was meant to do. But I don’t think I would have been ready for it before. I had to grow and mature and trust myself and try win back my confidence.”
This notion of the female experience is a very important theme in Lynn Shelton’s work, particularly her debut, We Go Way Back, which the director says was “emotionally autobiographical.” In it, a 23-year-old actress is confronted by and speaks to the spectre of her 13-year-old self. A beautifully original and emotional film, Shelton’s aim was not only to confront her own demons, but the experience of many confident young women who become beaten down by the damaging messages society sends them.
“I grew up in a very feminist household, was always told I could do whatever I wanted. But something happens to young women in adolescence, and for me it was that dawning realisation that I was becoming a sexual object against my will and having this bizarre relationship with that sudden sexualisation and objectification; this, ‘Don’t look at me/Look at me’ dynamic that affects all of your relationships with your male peers. And I was a total tomboy growing up, so when that happened I felt somehow betrayed by my body for becoming an object that was for men to look at, not for me to utilise.”
The director admits that she fell prey to t0 the notion that a woman’s worth lies in her beauty, not in her voice, and it affected her career path for many years. “When I was very young, I used to be confident in my ability as a writer and photographer. But after adolescence, I went into acting, because it seemed easier to just become a mouthpiece for someone else’s words than to fight for my own work, which I think is common. Really, in terms of the ramifications of this pyscho-emotionally, I’m still trying to hash it all out!”
But working in Hollywood, it’s easy to see why Shelton feels that female representation is still a burning issue. In the 84 years that the Oscars has been running, only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director, including Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (The Piano) and Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation). It was only in 2010 that Kathryn Bigelow made history by winning the award for The Hurt Locker.
Though Shelton gushes that she was “dancing on the rooftops” when Bigelow won, she says that she doesn’t think the Academy’s decision was transformative.
“I think it’s a step, but I don’t think the industry has changed overnight or anything. In fact, the portrayal of women in film seems to be getting worse! I remember last year I had just read an article about what proportion of the images of women in film are sexualised and then I went to see Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, where Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s character is introduced by that absurdly long shot of just her ass – in 3D no less! I was horrified! And I was there with my son – I didn’t know whether to cover his eyes or start lecturing him about feminism over our popcorn!”
Along with fellow “mumblecore” director – “Ugh, how belittling is that word, I hate it!” – Mark Duplass (Jeff Who Lives at Home), her latest film Your Sister’s Sister stars Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, Sunshine Cleaning) and Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel’s Getting Married, The United States Of Tara). Addressing grief, sexuality, familial relationships and that ever-ticking biological clock, the film is sweet and funny without ever side-stepping controversial topics; with one character in particular reaching levels of crazy behaviour previously achieved only by the Daily Mail’s Liz Jones.
“It’s a really heavy thing that the character does,” Shelton agrees, “but I don’t want the audience to turn against her. I wanted to show people that people can be emotionally selfish and stupid, and make really bad decisions and big mistakes – but they’re not bad people. No-one’s perfect, so the more flawed or damaged or even pathetic characters are the more interesting and loveable, I find. What I find endlessly fascinating are relationships, both between siblings or lovers or whoever, but also your relationship with yourself, and whatever perceived idea of yourself that you’ve developed.
“What can I say,” she laughs, “I put my characters through these emotional difficulties because I’m trying to figure it out – we may as well all suffer together!”