In her new independent dramedy “Laggies,” filmmaker Lynn Shelton has directed a movie she actually didn’t write herself for the first time in her 8-year career. “Laggies” follows a twenty-something slacker named Megan (Keira Knightley), who is experiencing a quarter-life crisis and trying to figure out what she is going to do with her life. When her boyfriend proposes to her, Megan decides to take a week off from the real world and lay low with Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a 16-year-old friend she made during her quasi-meltdown. Annika’s father Craig (Sam Rockwell), however, questions why a woman like Megan is hanging around with his teenage daughter.
During an interview with Shelton, the director of such films as “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” talked to me about how an emotional crisis like the one Megan is experience in “Laggies” can happen at any time in a person’s life. We also talked about what it was like directing a film written by someone else and whether or not she’d be interested in directing a superhero movie since DC Comics has made it clear they’re looking for a female director to helm their upcoming Wonder Woman film.
Did you experience your own quarter-life crisis like Megan does in the film? Were you still trying to figure things out at 25?
I was still trying to figure things out at 39, which is when I started making feature films. I feel like I had this very long route to figuring out what I was meant to do with my life – what my place in the world was meant to be. I relate quite personally to [Megan’s] story. Not only that, but I feel like the title “Laggies” is a little bit misleading because I think it implies some sort of failure to launch. I don’t think that’s what going on at all. I think what’s really going on is that she’s realizing that she marches to the beat of a different drummer. The story is about her figuring out what adulthood means to her and taking her time to figure out her own path.
I’m being kind of facetious when I asked this question, but now that you’re 49, do you anticipate going through a mid-life crisis? Is that something you can plan for?
I feel like the moment where you can ask questions like, “Who am I?” and “What is my place in the world?” and “Am I meeting the expectations I had for myself?” can happen to you at any point in life. For some people, that happens all the time. Most of us go through life day to day trying to get through our mundane existence. It takes some special moment to make us sit up and say, “Oh, wait a minute. Who am I? What’s going on here?” But I really think that can happen at any point in time. I’m sure it’ll happen to me again at some point or another. (Laughs) Right now I feel pretty solid with those questions. But I’m sure I’m just fooling myself and I’ll have to take stock of the situation again.
What about as a filmmaker? Do you feel like you know what kind of director you are? Have you found your voice yet or is that something you’re still exploring?
I like the idea that the body of work I have so far has something that kind of ties them together. In that sense, I guess you could say I have a “voice.” But one is always evolving as a person. I think I change from project to project. Each one is a unique animal. For each new project, I’ll sit down with my cinematographer and we’ll have a mini film festival and watch films that might instruct or inspire us or help us create a vocabulary. Those films are always different. There’s always a reset button for each project. I’m always trying to explore something new.
For “Laggies,” were there any specific films you looked at that helped inspire the story or the tone?
Not so much tonally, but in kind of a way where a relationship in a story isn’t supposed to work out on paper – mainly people making a connection to each other across boundaries. [Screenwriter] Andrea Seigel and I like the film “Harold and Maude.” That was an interesting touchstone for us. “The Graduate” was another reference point I had in my mind’s eye. Again, I feel like “Laggies” has nothing in common with those films in terms of their approach to the story. Yet, I feel they’re in the same canon in some ways of people in a search of how to write their own script and the way their lives play out.
You explored a theme in your first film, 2006’s “We Go Way Back,” where the lead character feels disappointed in herself. Do you feel Megan is in that same place? Is she disappointed in herself and where she is in life or is she content?
For me, Megan has been a sort of floater. She has been a passive passenger in her own life. She’s gone down the path of least resistance. She is surrounded by really loving friends and a boyfriend who adore her and have very specific ideas about the way that one should move towards adulthood. What’s happening to her is this creeping realization that her life is not working for her. She’s been floating down this river. This movie is the moment where she puts her feet down, stands up in the river and looks around and says, “No, this isn’t the right river.” It’s really about this moment where she takes agency of her life. In that regard, I guess you could say she’s disappointed in herself when she realizes that she’s just been floating along and hasn’t taken responsibility for what she really wants. She’s allowed other people to make decisions for her. But that disappointment leads to discovery.
“Laggies” is the first film that you didn’t write yourself. Do you still feel as connected to the work emotionally in comparison to your other projects?
Yeah, I do. It’s the reason I said yes to this script and not to other scripts. I’ve read a lot of scripts that my reps send to me consistently. I get really well written scripts with beautiful stories, but I have to feel really passionate about something to give however many years it will take to get it developed and funded and actually made. It’s quite an arduous process, so it’s not something I undertake lightly. The thing that happened to me when I read this script was so rare. I felt like, “Wow, I could’ve written this story!” I wish I had written this story. I went through a few drafts with the writer and gave her some notes, but, really, overall the script was in great shape. I felt connected to it immediately.
What if it was the other way around? Would you be open to write a script and have someone else direct it?
You know, I recently read an article by [director] Ingmar Bergman that he had written back in the 60s and he said that he only writes in order to direct. That is exactly how I feel. I don’t consider myself a screenwriter who can write from a typescript and sell it. Well, maybe I could do it, but I wouldn’t want to. It’s not something that interests me. It was interesting working with Andrea because she really is a writer. I would give her little assignments. For example, there was originally a dog in the film, but we couldn’t afford a dog and all the training we would’ve needed. It would’ve been too much trouble. So, I called her up and told her, “We need to change the dog to a tortoise. The tortoise doesn’t have to do anything and it’ll be a lot cheaper.” The next day, she had written all this funny stuff about the tortoise. That’s sort of an example of how fast she was with solving problems. For me, sitting down in a room by myself is kind of torture. (Laughs) It takes me a long time to come up with my own material. Anyway, the answer is no. I would never write anything for anyone else to direct.
Do you go out of your way as a female director to have a female crew on your set to work with? I read somewhere that the “Laggies” crew was mostly women. Is that important to you?
Well, I’ll tell you that overall I love the idea of women supporting one another in the industry. It’s something I think we have to start doing if we want to create more stakes for women in the industry and make sure there is a presence of females in the industry. I’m all for creating a new network as opposed to the old boy network. “Laggies” started out quite top heavy with women because the producer was a woman and the writer she was working with was a woman. When it came to me, there were already a lot of women involved. Then other producers started coming on board who were women. It started happening in this very organic way. I mean, there are still a lot of men like my cinematographer and my production designer that I’m still very loyal to. It’s important, but not so important that I’ll fire someone I’ve worked with for years in order to hire a woman instead. But it is an absolutely lovely thing when there is a lot of estrogen on set.
Although I know as an independent filmmaker, you’re pretty far removed from the movies Marvel and DC Comics have been putting out in recent years. However, both companies are planning to release a handful of female-lead superhero movies in the next few years and DC Comics, specifically, has said they’re looking for a female director for their Wonder Woman film. If an opportunity presented itself to you to do something like a comic-book inspired movie, would you like to try?
It would be something I’d like to do if it was the right project. I have a 15-year-old kid, so in the last few years I’ve seen just about every action movie out there, especially the comic-book movies. I really enjoyed a lot of them. Some of them I didn’t think were so great, but the ones I think are good I find highly enjoyable. It’s not a genre of movie that I dislike. For me, it would all come down to if there was something I could personally connect to. Is there something character based and interesting and authentic enough within that realm of fantasy? I’d have to feel genuinely drawn in to the characters in order for a film to work. That’s what makes me like one comic book movie over another. If I don’t feel like there is any resonance or humanity to it, then I’m just left cold. Blowing up stuff isn’t going to do it for me. I think it’s wonderful that there is a goal to make more female-driven action movies. With the success of films like “The Hunger Games,” it’s kind of a no-brainer. So, if there is an opportunity to have strong, interesting heroes and antiheroes who are of the female persuasion, that’s really exciting. Yeah, I’d be totally open to it, but it would have to be the right fit.