“Do you consider yourself mumblecore?” The question was lobbed from the back of the Egyptian Theatre, over the heads of a full-house crowd, during the Q&A session at the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival premiere of Lynn Shelton’s feature film My Effortless Brilliance. From the stage, hand over her eyes to block the lights, the effervescent Shelton quickly defined the term (contemporary, low-budget, indie movies with muted drama and improvised scripts) and answered that if the label helped draw attention to smaller films, then sure, stick it on her.
A Seattle native, breakout filmmaker Shelton saw her path from an early age. “I started writing poems when I was 8,” she says. “I started painting pictures when I was 10 and acting when I was 11. I knew I wanted to be an artist.” She went on to spend 15 years as an actress, earned an MFA in photography from New York’s School of Visual Arts (1995) and, while there, took a video workshop. Of the latter, she says, “That was that.”
Shelton returned to Seattle in 1998 to pursue filmmaking, and wrote her first feature-length film, We Go Way Back, over five weeks in 2005. It served as her film school and was, she says, “completely terrifying and completely liberating.” The film tells the story of Kate, a young actress who finds a box of letters written to her present self by her younger self, which prompts her to grapple with how her life has turned out. Shot in Ballard and on Whidbey Island, Way Back won several honors, among them Best Narrative Feature and Best Cinematography at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2006.
“While I was working on Way Back,” Shelton says, “I started fantasizing about making a movie that was focused on performance.” Thus was born the idea for My Effortless Brilliance, a film where, instead of writing a script and finding people to play the roles, she went about the filmmaking process in “an upside-down way.” She started with a theme—an unsustainable, co-dependent yet platonic relationship between two men—and built the characters from there. Her “script,” shot in a cabin in Okanogan County over two long weekends, consisted of a list of scenes. She relied on her actors to convey the emotional truth of the story. Like Way Back, the film is quietly powerful, focused on the small gestures and subtle cues of a highly personal relationship. The movie has been in eight film festivals so far, and won the Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Direction at the Atlanta Film Festival. She recently signed a distribution agreement with IFC Films.
Over the summer she shot her next feature, Humpday, another unscripted story, about what happens when estranged friends take male bonding too far. “I know exactly where the story is going to go,” she says.