Filmmaker Lynn Shelton on How to Survive Your Quarterlife Crisis and Her New Film ‘Laggies’


In Lynn Shelton’s new film Laggies, Keira Knightley plays Megan, a 28-year-old who’s “in between” in all aspects of her life. She’s an underemployed daddy’s girl with a master’s degree, and is perfectly fine with floating around the same nucleus of friends from high school and the same sweet long-term boyfriend. But when this long-term boyfriend (Mark Webber) proposes to her, Megan freaks out and goes rogue, shacking up at her 16-year-old buddy’s house (Chloë Grace Moretz), and freaking out the girl’s sardonic, lonely, divorced dad (Sam Rockwell, forever charming). One of our favorites at this year’s Sundance, it opens today.

Based on a screenplay by novelist Andrea Siegel (whose books include the excellent Like the Red Panda), Laggies is Shelton’s sixth work in an idiosyncratic career that includes Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister. It’s a charming and funny little movie about choices, maturity, and what it’s like to take a step off the path and start resisting the pressures of society, especially when you’re a young woman. It’s a relatable film, intelligent and emotionally complex, and I was excited to talk to Shelton about the process of making it a reality.

Flavorwire: There’s something sort of delicate about Andrea Siegel’s script, and I’m curious about how you worked with it. In other, more “satirical” hands you can imagine Megan’s other friends as monsters…

Lynn Shelton: When I first read the script, I was really taken it with it and felt like, “Oh, this is a movie I could’ve written,” with the writer’s attraction to wanting to find humor from a character based on an organic place instead of sort of set pieces in general.

But, at any rate, I really wanted to make sure that her friends — her original, old high school friends — were not just lame. I thought it would devalue Keira’s character in our eyes because it would be like, “Why was she ever friends with these people?”

I wanted it to be a heartbreaking story. It’s not easy to break away, it’s not easy to cut ties with people you’ve known for a long time when there’s a foundation of real genuine care and affection for each other. So I really thought that was important. In general, I’m somebody who doesn’t like any role, even a supporting role, I don’t want anyone to be a cipher and be two-dimensional. I want everybody to feel like a real human.

It was something that took a lot of care in rewrites and then also in the execution as well, and trying to cast people who would breathe life into those roles and make them feel identifiable. I just wanted everybody to seem like they were a little out of sync with each other.

It is so funny, too, because when you’re at the age where all of your friends are getting married — let’s say 30-ish — in your head, your friends who buy into the wedding-industrial complex can seem like monsters.

Right! When you’re not operating at the same speed or not on the same page, it can seem very confusing, like how can you be so caught up in this world that feels so alien? It’s a very real thing.

Tell me more about Sam Rockwell, please.

He brought something to that character. I still wonder how he did it. I don’t think he’s ever played a dad of a teenager before. The delivery in the lines, as written, is obviously very dry and he’s obviously very intelligent. But there’s this kind of quirkiness and some kind of texture he brings to the guy. You can see his brain just going, and I don’t know. You just fall for him, you know, he’s so charismatic. Even as this disaffected, disillusioned, bitter kind of guy.

One thing I admire about your work is that you didn’t do the path of, “Now I’m in film school, now I’m a director.” And I think an aspect of the film that seems personal is that Megan’s not on a “path” — she’s figuring it out, and dealing with others who are on a path. I’m curious as to how that resonated and what you wanted to bring to it.

I think that the title “laggies” is a mislead, because it implies a failure of some kind, a failure to launch, a failure to start your life. And I think that it’s not true for her. Megan is marching to the beat of a different drummer, and this is about the moment when she realizes that.

Her gut is telling her that all the pressure that she’s getting from her friends and her parents to fall into step with what society is telling her her life should be is not for her. As soon as she takes a step from out of her familiar surroundings, she can start to give herself the space to see that. Specifically, society is sort of making her feel immature and that she is immature, but as soon as she is hanging out with actual immature people she can sort of see that, “Oh, I’m happy to be with them, but I really am mature, and I’ve been different places in my life.” It really is about being true to yourself, and being OK with the fact that your path might be different from everybody else’s. So, yes, that resonates with me very, very deeply.

And, even today, after having found my way, I’m still feeling like — on paper, I have a house and a mortgage and a husband a kid, you know, I have this sort of conventional life — but I live the life of an artist. My husband is the primary caregiver of our kid. And I don’t live in Los Angeles or New York, I live in Seattle, and that’s not what you’re supposed to do as a filmmaker. So, I still feel like I’ve been able to write my own script — the script of my life. And I think everybody should be able to do that.

Yeah, and I’m impressed with the fact that you don’t follow the having to live in New York or LA axis.

I’m so used to it now, but I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me, especially at a film festival, “Do you live in New York, or LA?” And how it looks like their minds go through a minor explosion when I say, “Neither.”

And then you’re able to bring Seattle into your work —

I’m very city proud. And you can kind of tell, probably, because I am thrilled to be able to put that city on the screen. It was so fun, it was my first time ever getting to do aerial footage, getting to fly around in a helicopter. There’s one aerial shot near the end of the movie that makes me nearly tear up every time I see it on screen because I can’t believe I get to live in this beautiful place, it’s just like “Ah!” I love showing it off to the rest of the world.

I like the aerial shots in Laggies because it got the feel of the suburbs, how they’re this stifling grid.

I thought that was going to be more overt, and it ended up being kind of underplayed, and some people just miss it completely. That idea of her growing up in this sort of suburban, newer area — we really tried to show that with production design. All of her friends wear these bright jewel tones and they’re in this extremely shiny kind of suburbia. Then Seattle is on the other side of the lake. This is the divide, where Sam and Chloë hang out, and it’s in more lived-in, earthier tones. I wasn’t trying to make it, like, “urban good, suburban bad,” it wasn’t a dichotomy. Just a different vibe for each side.

How do you balance the variety of things that you do? I see your name when I watch New Girl and The Mindy Project. You directed a Mad Men episode.

I am so happy I can get some work in television. I’m so grateful. It takes pressure off of me having to be wildly commercially successful and making all my money in movies, therefore feeling that I should take this studio gig because I need the cash or whatever. So it’s helpful to have a little bit of an influx of cash in that way. But it’s genuinely enjoyable for me to not have to be the one who is completely in charge of every creative, visionary detail. And I can just be on the team helping.

This is really goofy, but I’m a huge fan of the show Chopped, and I realized — I had this revelation that TV directing is like Chopped, because you’re given this basket of restrictions: Here’s the script, here’s the cast, and you’ve got this many days to prep, and this many days to shoot, and see what kind of meal you can make out of these elements. And see if you can make it all come together. And it really is like, “Okay, let’s do this!” I get to be on set and work with actors I would’ve never worked with and have challenges I wouldn’t have had to do otherwise. I just feel like it flexes my muscles as a director, I really do. If I had to do it like twenty episodes a year, I might get burnt out.

The pace is exhausting.

Yeah, it’s exhausting. But it’s exactly the same pace as independent film, so that is a good fit for me, I think.

Was there much improv in making Laggies?

As Sam says, it was really there on the page. The meat of it was all written so beautifully. We used improv and ad-libbing as garnish. I was watching it again last night and realizing that there actually are a few lines here and there, but it’s mostly peppering a few lines at the end of the scene, you know? Somebody will say something at the end and it was funny and someone sort of added to it. But, yeah, for the most part it was so beautifully there on the page that we were able to just rely on those words.

How did you get the “kids” (Moretz and Kaitlyn Dever) to seem like real teenagers? Aren’t all teenagers in movies supposed to be 28-year-old actors in roles where they’re huffing paint and stuff?

I love Kaitlyn so much, seriously. If you count up the minutes of screen time, I think she’s the one who makes the most impact in the least amount of screen time. She just creates this indelible mark with that role. It’s just hysterical. It’s so well deserved.

Funny thing is, my editor, who edited Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister, and Laggies, also edited Short Term 12, and he became obsessed with her. He was constantly telling me, “You have to see this movie, you have to cast her!” And we’d already cast Chloë as Annika, but we were looking for a Misty. And he was like, “Cast her, cast her, cast her,” and I saw Short Term 12, and she was fantastic, but the role was nothing like Misty. I don’t know if she can play this funny part. But then she auditioned for it on tape and she blew everybody out of the water. The range of this kid is insane.

But what was so nice about both her and Chloë was that they are two of the most professional actors I’ve ever worked with. Completely easy to give notes to, they aren’t like delicate flowers, and they’re very mature. Very precocious. What’s funny is that the scenes I was most worried about — I think because they are so mature when you talk to them they don’t seem like kids, but they are in touch with their kid side, thank god — because I was like, you’re supposed to be giggly teenage friends? How am I going to make that work? I can’t manufacture that shit.

How do you have an authentic-feeling sleepover with precious teen actors who live on sets?

Turns out, you put ponytails on the top of their heads and put a fake yearbook in front of them, it’s amazing. That was one of my favorites, the adlibbing that happens at the end of this little glimpse of them, where she’s like “I’m going to go fix the snacks,” and Keira leaves the room, and they’re like, “Okay, bye! Peace, woo!” They were cracking each other up, and they’re genuinely buddies now.

Keira Knightley is really great in this film. It’s a really different-feeling role for her: she’s not super made-up, she looks goofy and awkward.

She’s so often fetishized by the camera and the male gaze. And I feel like she’s only allowed to be gorgeous, and only be untouchably gorgeous. I wanted to see her as someone who was humanized, and accessible, and real. And stripped down of makeup. She has an incredibly expressive and goofy face, and I just wanted to see her face. I read an interview where she said something like, “I like working with Lynn because she just lets me do whatever I want with my face.”

I think she’s been told in the past, “No, don’t do that. It’s not lovely.” God, what is wrong with people? It’s just so wonderful to see that part of her come out.

This film had women talking to each other about women. It was awesome, it was nuanced, and I just really liked that factor. But I hate that it feels rare in movies and TV.

Well, less rare. When I first read this script three years ago — we made it a year ago, and it was two years in development — I could think of so few movies and so few television shows, so few projects that had that room for a protagonist who was female who could be flawed and fumbling toward finding her place and having a quarter-life crisis, just that kind of messy. I feel like, since then, it’s definitely starting to creep in. I think about Broad City, I love that show! Of course, Girls, it was on the air, but just on the air then. It definitely seems like it’s starting to become more of a thing — Obvious Child. All these movies are allowing for these kinds of characters, real space for them now. It makes me so happy that Laggies is one out of ten instead of the only one.