Updated Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 07:31 AM
For filmmakers headed to their first major film festival, the experience is a whirlwind full of surprises and unexpected rewards. And for those who’ve been a few times ... it’s pretty much the same way.
Seattle writer/director Lynn Shelton is headed back to the Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 17-27 in Park City, Utah) with “Touchy Feely,” a feature about a massage therapist who suddenly can’t bring herself to touch other people. It will screen as one of 16 films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition; if all goes well, she could leave with the kind of national distribution deal she’s been able to make at previous festivals.
This is Shelton’s fourth trip to Sundance in as many years, starting with “Humpday” in 2009. Is it getting to be old hat? “Oh, you know, what a yawn,” she said during an interview, with feigned nonchalance — and then laughed. “Oh, my god, I’m so happy, and I’m so relieved.”
Despite a history to the contrary, she fears rejection every time she sends a film to Sundance programmers. “It was a total nail-biter for me,” she said. “I know people who’ve been at Sundance and who’ve been rejected. There’s no such thing as a sure thing.”
She was especially worried because “Touchy Feely” is a bit of a departure from her last two features, “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister.” With those, she worked intensively with actors to build characters rather than detailed scripts, then had the actors ad-lib much of the dialogue.
That wasn’t feasible with the bigger cast and more complex, multilayered plot in “Touchy Feely.” The movie, shot in Seattle using a local crew, stars Rosemarie DeWitt (“Your Sister’s Sister”), Ellen Page and other Hollywood names as well as Seattle-based actors such as Alycia Delmore (“Humpday”).
“The weaving together of the story arcs was a big puzzle,” Shelton said. “It felt like more engineering on my part.”
The movie also required a larger crew, and she’ll be bringing some of those new folks to Sundance. “There are a bunch of Sundance virgins in my crew,” Shelton said. “It’s nice to be able to vicariously experience that again because you only get your first Sundance one time.”
This will be the first Sundance festival for Tomo Nakayama, a multidimensional Seattle musician best known for his band Grand Hallway. Shelton met him when he was playing with The Maldives, one of the bands she profiled in a 2010 “$5 Cover” MTV series about the city’s music scene. But he really intrigued her later with an a cappella rendition of Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” during a show in Fremont.
“It was transcendent,” said Shelton, who decided she had to have him in her next film. He both acted in and wrote an original song for “Touchy Feely.”
Nakayama took film classes as a student at the University of Washington, but that didn’t prepare him for Shelton’s breezy, efficient filmmaking style. “I’d always read about Stanley Kubrick needing 100 takes of a man walking through a door. Lynn’s not like that. She just goes with the flow,” he said.
It helped that much of his character was based on his real-life personality. “My whole role was to be bewildered and freaked out, so that worked really well.”
Although he’s used to performing, seeing himself act will be an odd experience for him. He once worked at the Neptune Theatre in the U District during its movie-palace days, so “it’s really surreal, being on the other side of the screen,” he said.
Paul Eenhoorn, an actor who lives in Seattle, got a taste of the festival when had a bit part in the local film “Zoo,” which screened at Sundance in 2007. This year, he’ll be there as the title character in writer/director Chad Hartigan’s feature “This Is Martin Bonner.” It screens in the festival’s NEXT category, which showcases low-budget films.
Eenhoorn’s overnight-success story is the kind that takes decades to achieve. An Australia native who moved to Seattle with his American wife, he has always worked as an actor and has many regional film and television credits. But he’s had to take seasonal jobs to pay the bills. This could be the break that makes it possible to pursue his acting career full time.
“Sundance is a defining moment in a career,” he said.
“Martin Bonner” is the kind of character-driven film that depends on good performances from its lead actors. Working in Seattle, Eenhoorn said, has given him that kind of experience. Although prevailing wisdom says that you have to live in Los Angeles to be a successful actor, “I’ve shot a lot more films here as a lead than I ever would have down there.”
Eenhoorn sympathized with his character, a down-on-his-luck dad who travels to Reno, Nev., to take a job helping former prison inmates get back on their feet. “In ‘Martin Bonner,’ the [character’s] goal was to survive and make something there,” he said — as he’s doing here.
He inspires himself by watching Susan Boyle’s original “Britain’s Got Talent” audition, when the frumpy singer first displayed the surprising talent that catapulted her to stardom.
“I know what it feels like to have all that pent-up talent or desire, that wanting something and then getting a chance. That’s what makes you cry, that getting a chance to shine,” he said.
He looks at filmmakers such as Shelton and Megan Griffiths (whose “The Off Hours” screened at Sundance in 2011) with admiration. “They did it by working and making film and believing in themselves. There’s no quit at all in them. They’re inspirational because you look at them and say, if they can do it, I can do it.”
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based free-lance writer.
Seattle at Sundance
The Sundance Film Festival is Jan. 17-27 in Park City, Utah. Here are some Seattle films with local connections that will appear:
“Touchy Feely,” a feature written and directed by Lynn Shelton and shot in Seattle with a local crew. (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
“This Is Martin Bonner,” a feature starring Seattle actor Paul Eenhoorn as the title character. (NEXT)
“The Rambler,” a psychological suspense/horror feature written and directed by former Washington resident Calvin Lee Reeder, based on his 2008 short. (Park City at Midnight)
“The Roper,” a short about a man hoping to be the first to compete in the National Finals Rodeo, made by Seattle film studio Lucid Inc. (Documentary Short Films)
“Sound City,” a documentary about an unsung California music studio, directed by Dave Grohl, formerly of Seattle-based band Nirvana. (Documentary Premieres)
“Touchy Feely,” a film about a massage therapist, was shot in Seattle with a local crew and stars Rosemarie DeWitt.
“Touchy Feely” director Lynn Shelton is making her fourth trip to the Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance Film Festival
Paul Eenhoorn, who plays the title character in “This is Martin Bonner,” is an Australian native who now lives in Seattle.
Directed by Lynn Shelton, “Touchy Feely” stars Josh Pais and Allison Janney.