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Lynn Shelton on Touchy Feely, Onscreen Ecstasy, and Overcoming Casting Hiccups

Lynn Shelton. Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty

After Rachel Weisz bailed on Your Sister’s Sister, Lynn Shelton scrambled to find a replacement, with Rosemarie DeWitt ultimately saving the day. Her reward was that she got to star in not one but two of Shelton’s films, with the latest entry being Touchy Feely. DeWitt plays a massuese who finds herself becoming uncomfortable touching people around the same time that her uptight brother, a dentist, suddenly develops a magic touch. Nothing seems to help, until she takes some esctasy and has an encounter with an ex (played by DeWitt’s real-life husband, Ron Livingston). Shelton chatted with Vulture after a special screening in Brooklyn at the Wythe Hotel about working with a married couple, rumors about a lesbian scene in her next film, and overcoming casting hiccups.

What was it like shooting the ecstasy scenes? Because there have been a lot of films that depict what it’s like to be on pot, what it’s like to be on acid, or even heroin, but it seems like we don’t see ecstasy depicted quite as much, or as realistically …
Well, there was that one film. Was it Go?

Yeah. It’s usually in rave scenes. Or the person just wants to touch a fluffy rug. It’s not the calm, healing, experiencing nature moment we see with Rosemarie DeWitt here.
I really wanted to show using a mind-altering substance within the context of a soul-searching quest for peace and sort of letting go of your fears and embracing the world and a transcendent, even healing experience. And I wanted to represent it in a way that I had never seen before, not just for the sake of freshness, but for the specificity, and the authenticity of it.

If ecstasy weren’t illegal, you could have a marketing tie-in.
[Laughs.] What was interesting was at the same time we were shooting this, there were all these studies coming out, all these articles in the New York Times about these scientific studies that have used that drug and psilocybin, in a therapeutic setting, to help people get over PTSD and the fear of death, in terminal patients. It was so amazing, because it was like, “See? See? See?” I had toyed with idea of having it be a placebo, and have Allison Janney’s character shaking a couple of pills out of an aspirin bottle, because part of me wanted the focus less to be, “Take drugs! Cure everything!” and more about these characters having gotten to this place of really needing to break out and do something so out of their comfort zone, and it was that point. It was like that kid who I remember in the freshman year of college who was so pent up, and so socially awkward, and at a kegger, who would take one sip of beer and become a wild and crazy guy — because he had the permission. He had the hall pass. He was like, “I had alcohol, I can be a totally different human!” So yeah, I wanted it to be that. And luckily people seem to get that, and not think, Oh, take drugs and all your problems will be solved.

When Ron Livingston’s character appears, he’s a bit of a mystery, because you wonder, is she hallucinating him? Is she remembering him? Is he really there?
Yeah, and quite frankly, every time I see the film, it’s something different. The last time I saw it, it was like, “Yeah, he’s there.” And this time, I was like, “No, it’s all in her mind.” It really shifts, even for me!

He has to introduce himself, and say, “It’s Adrian.” Why doesn’t she recognize him, if he’s the guy who broke her heart? How recent or long ago was this heartbreak?
Well, it was twenty years before. The idea was that she lost her virginity to him, and kind of as soon as they had sex, he was out of there. And I don’t think it matters as much as this is clearly a wound, a wound from her past.

And this is her healing process, even if it’s just in her mind, of being able to have him apologize and saying good-bye to him.
It really is this fantasy encounter, to have that person who wronged you in the past come back to you and say, “It was nothing you did. I’m an asshole. I’m so sorry,” with those dewy Ron Livingston eyes. How much better can you get than that? [Laughs.] And you can be like, “I forgive you. All is well. Now I can commit to my boyfriend.”

What’s it like shooting with Rose and Ron? Because they are married in real life …
Indeed. And when I asked Ron, it was interesting, because I had a really hard time filling this role. It was like I needed this really specific vibe from an actor, and I know so many lovely actors, but none of them were quite the right age or quite the right vibe. And then I met Ron, when he came to Sundance with Rose for Your Sister’s Sister, and I hung out with them for one night, and then next morning, it was like, “Oh my God! Ron is Adrian! It’s Ron!” And I pitched it to him, and he had some trepidation, because he is not crazy about couples being cast as couples in the same movie, but he made an exception, because in this instance, they weren’t a paired pair. And I realized how beneficial it could be, because I’m having these two people sitting and staring into each other’s eyes for a long time, it would be nice if they were genuinely in love, or genuinely had this connection.

You’re changing the name of your next film, Laggies, but you just wrapped? How was that experience, considering it’s your first time shooting someone else’s script?
It was my first multimillion dollar production, so it was a bigger crew, bigger scale, lots of trucks. Even though I had my pawprints all over it, the script being someone else’s script was a really different experience. It’s a lot more difficult when it doesn’t originate with you! I made my peace with that, and I was fine with that, but I would have to remind myself, “This is your movie! Better make it something you like!” That was really interesting, trying to make it into a Lynn Shelton movie, because I wasn’t just a director for hire.

There are these weird rumors circulating that Keira Knightley and Chloe Moretz have a lesbian moment in the film.
Keira claims that in everything she does, somebody puts out that it’s going to be a hot lesbian lovefest. She claims that it happens every single time. And it was ickier because Chloe was underage, for sure. But you just got to ignore it. When the movie comes out, a certain number of people are going to be deeply disappointed. But the production company was trying to make it clear that this wasn’t the case, but it didn’t matter. It’s just wishful thinking on their part. It’s not the case. There is nothing there.

Originally you were going to have Rachel Weisz in Your Sister’s Sister, and Rose stepped in and saved the day. Did that prepare you for the casting hiccups on Laggies, because at first you had Rebecca Hall, and then Anne Hathaway, and then finally Keira?
Having that Your Sister’s Sister experience was really good for me, because it made me feel … I remember the day Anne called me and she was so mortified and devastated and apologetic, “I would never had gone this deep if I had known …” and I totally believed her, because we had lots of conversations. She really loved the script. And I was definitely sad, but I wasn’t thrown completely. I had this faith that it was going to be okay, because I had been through it before. I had spent two hours after Rachel had dropped out going, “It’s dead. It’s over,” because it was three days before we were going to start. After having gone through that, I’m totally ready to handle any last-minute casting change. It was a good boot camp.

Lynn Shelton on Touchy Feely and Casting Hiccups