We’ve all fought with our friends. It doesn’t matter how close you are, eventually you are going to do something to annoy your best bud, and likely vice versa. Sometimes, however, the damage can go much deeper, resulting in a break in friendship as harsh as any romantic dissolution. Lynn Shelton’s feature film “My Effortless Brilliance” explores such a fractured friendship when writer Eric Lambert Jones (Sean Nelson) is unexpectedly dumped by his best friend Dylan (Basil Harris). After two years apart, Eric looks to re-connect, dropping in on Dylan at his cabin in the wilderness of Eastern Washington. The rest is a subtle, honest look at friendships gone wrong, and what can be done, if anything, to salvage what was lost. On the eve of the world premiere of “My Effortless Brilliance” at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival, director Lynn Shelton talks to Film Threat about platonic friendships, shooting in Eastern Washington, the “mumblecore” label and Charles Bukowski…
What was the inspiration for your film “My Effortless Brilliance”? Have you ever been dumped by a heterosexual friend?
Lynn Shelton: As a matter of fact, I HAVE been dumped by a heterosexual friend! I’ve had three dramatic break ups with platonic girlfriends (so far) and they were all more devastating than any romantic break up I’ve ever had. I mean, you know: boyfriends come and go but your best buds are supposed to be there for life, through thick and thin. I think it’s fascinating how platonic friendships can be as passionate and co-dependent and f****d up as any other kind of relationship. And I’d never seen that topic dealt with on screen to my satisfaction.
How did this project differ from “We Go Way Back,” in the way it came together creatively?
Oh my god, it was a completely different process. I essentially got commissioned to write and direct my first feature film (on invitation from The Film Company, a nonprofit film studio.) I wrote “We Go Way Back” in about five weeks and it was a real script, which was a torturous process as I don’t consider myself a screenwriter in the traditional sense of the word. Luckily though, I am an editor and I ended up pleased with the result. It was the first time I’d ever worked with a crew before (I’d been making experimental shorts and docs for a decade, filling all the crew positions myself for the most part) and I fell in LOVE with creative collaboration; it completely changed how I approach making art. BUT I hated how stultifying a traditional film set was to the acting process. It drove me nuts. For me, naturalistic acting is what sets successful films apart from unsuccessful ones, especially ones made on a shoestring budget and I was determined that my next project would be centered around performance. I figured I’d make the actors as comfy as possible with elements like a small, unobtrusive crew, 360˚ lighting, characters based on the actors and dialog that came straight out of the actors’ brains.
Can you give me a breakdown of a timeline for making the movie, when you came up with the idea, writing the script, production, completion, first screening?
Since I wanted to create my next film around characters that were based on real people, I started putting a list together of folks that I knew I wanted to collaborate with. This particular film started with Sean Nelson whom I approached about collaborating with me in the fall of 2006. I pitched a character to him that I thought he’d have an easy time playing (a novelist who’d had a brief, intense brush with fame) and a story (one that would start with the dramatic break up of an intense, platonic friendship) and he went for it. He was totally psyched, actually. We had a couple of long lunches over the next few months, I cast the rest of the roles (Basil Harris, who’d been in “We Go Way Back” was a natural since he and Sean are friends and have a great rapport in real life; Calvin Reeder I’d seen in a film called “June and July”… I’d loved him on screen and I needed someone who would seem like Sean’s polar opposite, which he pretty much is), I chatted with everyone about their characters and I kept developing the story line. We shot the first ten minutes of the film in a house in Seattle in February of 2007. It was a two day shoot and it was the real test to see if this was even going to work. The shooting style seemed to work and Sean and Basil did great so it was all systems go. I threw a rough assembly of the scenes together and showed it at a couple of house parties and raised enough money to keep going. We shot five more days in Eastern Washington over two weekends in April and the hotel room scene one day in Seattle in June. I sent a cut off to SXSW in October after going through a number of rough cuts earlier that fall. Audio post and color correction happened a couple of weeks ago and it’ll have its world premiere at SXSW at 11am Sunday March 9th. (Woo hoo!)
How did you go about casting? Sean I know from being a fan of Harvey Danger (and every other musical project he’s been a part of), but I never knew he acted too, and Calvin I know personally, and he never fails to amaze me with the creepy performances he is capable of (that’s a compliment, Calvin).
Although we didn’t know each other well, Sean and I had had a handful of pleasant past encounters (he’d written kind things about my work in a newspaper called “The Stranger;” he found all the wonderful music for “We Go Way Back’s” soundtrack; and I directed a music video for free for the Harvey Danger song “Moral Centralia.”) I found out that Sean had a theater background and was really interested in exploring acting, especially on screen. I had only really seen him act in his music videos but in those little snippets (especially in “Save It For Later” and “Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo”) I found him a completely compelling presence as well as hysterically funny. I just had a feeling that he’d be really great on film. The way I cast the other two dudes I explained in my last answer I think.
How truly collaborative was the script, honestly? Did you have simple plotline that you just had everybody create on top of, was there a lot of improvisation along how the plot would turn out or was it all word-for-word scripted?
It was a really organic and collaborative process. The plot couldn’t really be developed until I knew who the characters were and since they were based on the actors I started off the process by getting a lot of input from them. Then I went off on my own and wrote up a detailed treatment. By the time we got to set I had a list of all the scenes with descriptions of what would happen in each one, but no lines written out. Each scene as well as the entire movie was mapped out emotionally though, ahead of time. We shot in order as much as we possible and would talk at length before we shot every scene. Once the cameras were rolling though, it was all them: the dialog was totally improvised. I felt like my writer/director’s hand came in most heavily during the editing stage. Which was much more akin to the way you piece together a documentary, by the way; writing and shaping it from hours and hours of awesome but unformed footage.
How remote was the location in Eastern Washington? Did that cause any trouble?
The location was heavenly. It was about five hours outside of Seattle so getting everyone there was a trek. But once they were there, I had them in my clutches. Two long weekends in a row. It was awesome. There was a house that the cast and crew lived in and all the locations were seconds or minutes away by foot… the little log cabin where Dylan lived, the river, the woods, it was all right there. So great. I’d say my biggest problem was not having an assistant director or co-producer on set. So I was being hostess and fire putter outer in addition to director and that’s too many roles to fill. I don’t think I’ll make that mistake again.
Is there an alternate, “gritty indie” ending where everyone gets mauled by a cougar?
There’s a sequence where the merits of Charles Bukowski are debated, so I ask you: what are your personal thoughts and feelings about Charles Bukowski and his contribution (or non-contribution) to literature as we know it?
Charles Bukowski is the Shakespeare of drinking, puking and f*****g. At least, that’s my understanding.
What is your opinion on the whole “mumblecore” thing: pointless classification, new cinema movement or fad? I only ask because, if you’re a filmmaker and you know or have worked with Joe Swanberg, there’s the sudden label of “mumblecore filmmaker,” usually without explanation.
Joe and I met at the Maryland Film Festival in 2006 and hit it off immediately as filmmaker buddies. I was already scheming to make a low budget, cinema verite project for my next film and the thing that was great about meeting Joe and seeing “LOL” at that moment in time was that I now saw that the style of filmmaking that I’d been dreaming about could be done in reality. Not that my method is his method precisely… but certain elements are definitely shared (ridiculously low budget, teensy crew, shooting on video, improvised lines, etc.) The thing that’s funny about lumping all the “mumblecore”-labeled films together is that to me it seems like the films and the directing styles are all quite distinct from each other. It’s like saying that all films derived from a script, shot on film and made for $8 million can be pigeon-holed together somehow. But as Mark Duplass says, if lumping these small films together in this way gets them more attention than they may have otherwise received, bring on the lumping!
Do you have any projects coming up, or is it just time to focus on this film?
I am hoping to shoot my next film this summer, knock on wood. It’s the story of another platonic male friendship, the trajectory of which goes in a slightly different direction than the one taken in “MEB.” The working title is “HumpDay.” Or, alternately, “Beyond Gay.”