'Outside In': Lynn Shelton Reveals How to Create Naturalism on a 'Carefully Vetted' Set
Lynn Shelton's 'Outside In' is a deeply empathetic character study of life after a decades-long unjust prison sentence.
Minimalist filmmaking is a difficult line to toe. Shave too much meat off a film and the audience grows bored—or worse, is left wondering, "What was the point?" Lynn Shelton knows just the right balance. Her minimalist wonder, Outside In, delivers most of its exposition in moments of organic interaction between characters. What's often left unsaid hangs in the air, refracting onscreen in the form of body language. Here, a glance averted, and a truth avoided; there, unwelcome pity is bestowed with a nervous smile. Where another director might have defaulted to overwrought exposition, Shelton lets the drama of real life do the talking. Cinematographer Nathan M. Miller's camera, meanwhile, captures the Pacific Northwest with a restrained lyricism, finding the poetry in the ordinary.
Shelton lets the drama of real life do the talking.
Outside In stars Jay Duplass as Chris, a recently released prisoner whose decades-long sentence may or may not have been unjust. His guardian angel comes in the form of his middle-aged former high school English teacher (Edie Falco) who took it upon herself to work tirelessly with a criminal justice nonprofit to ensure Chris's release. Back in the small, economically depressed town in which he grew up, Chris has finally tasted freedom. But the specter of the life he left behind—now utterly, irrevocably changed, and steeped in a deep ennui—is not the freedom he bargained for.
No Film School caught up with Shelton before the film's theatrical release to discuss the secrets to a well-oiled small indie set, how she created a "human tripod," and why directing for television improved her skills for indie film.
No Film School: Can you tell me a bit about the writing process? Did you and Jay collaborate on the script?
Lynn Shelton: We did! What happened was that I saw him in Transparent and I freaked out, because I had known him for a few years, but I certainly did not know that he was an actor of that capability, and it just blew my mind. I immediately wrote him and said, "Dude, I will be lightly stalking you until I get you on set with me." And he seemed open to that. That happens to me a lot—I'll start a project with a muse who is an actor, and I'll try on different roles and scenarios for them.
[Outside In] was an idea that had been percolating in me for a while. When I first thought of it, I was like, "Well, [this character] is not a guy who's similar at all to Mr. Duplass. But it might be a fun stretch for him to test his range." I had a really clear vision of the story: a 20-year prison sentence, how the crime happened, the relationship between the teacher and the student, and how that developed. Also, I knew it would happen in an economically depressed little hamlet somewhere in Washington State, where you can feel people struggle.
"Each person on that set is carefully vetted. There are no yellers allowed."
Jay was into it right from the beginning. I started developing the treatment. I would share it with him, and he would give me his thoughts. Even though I had ownership of the documents for the first few months, he was always very engaged. And then, at a certain point, we just started trading drafts. He asked if he could take a pass at it and gave it back to me and I made the changes I wanted. We just kept going back and forth. At that point, we officially became co-writers.
NFS: How did you create an environment on set that fostered the kind of naturalism and authenticity that you do so well in this film?
Shelton: Well, for me, it's all about emotional safety. And that means that each person on that set is carefully vetted. There are no yellers allowed. There are people I love—absolute dear friends—whose response to stress is a little toxic. I just can't have that negativity around. Maybe I'm sensitive to it in a way that other people aren't, but I think that hypersensitivity really does help to foster a very performance-friendly, emotionally safe set. On my sets, there is a lot of humor. There are a lot of good-natured, personable people. A lot of warmth. Departments help each other out. There are dance breaks. We played this one Cher song a lot.
It's hard to make a movie on a small budget. But the thing that's really lovely about it is that people aren't there just to be clocking in for the paycheck. They're there for another reason—they're there to make a work of art. And it's a smaller crew, so it's that much more intimate and family-like. It really is a wonderful way to make a movie.
NFS: On your sets, everyone, in every role, is deeply invested in the story itself.
Shelton: Yes, for sure. Part of engendering that environment is making everybody feel genuinely valued and respected. It's not bullshit. I really do value and respect each and every one of [the crew members] and the skill sets and the work that they bring to the project. Everybody is essential.
That being said, everybody's working their ass off on set, but the hardest job is far and away, in my belief, the actors' job. They have to do their work and remain in this emotionally available state. And if you don't respect that, then you don't have a movie. It could look beautiful, gorgeously shot, gorgeously lit, beautiful production design, and if you don't have naturalism—if you don't give the actor the ability to really bring their best, which means complete vulnerability—then you don't have a movie, as far as I'm concerned.
"If you don't have naturalism, then you don't have a movie."
So that's why that emotionally safe set is particularly important. The problem is that the better the actor, the easier it is to forget how hard that job is because they make it look so easy. The heavy lifting is not really visible, but it's so freaking hard. I started as an actor in the theater, but occasionally I get asked to do some small part, and I will always take that opportunity if I can. I want to retain empathy on a very visceral level with what the actors have to do. When you're trying to say some lines and feel like a human being, it's so hard! It's frustrating. It's really important for me to be reminded of that.
In a creative endeavor, every single person in that collaborative environment is taking a risk by offering their creativity to the project. If they feel like they're gonna be somehow judged harshly or treated unkindly, or just not respected and valued, then they're gonna be like, 'Well, why should I even try?' So it's all, ultimately, for a selfish end, because I want the best movie possible, and I know I'm just gonna get the best out of people if I'm nice to them and if they're nice to each other.
NFS: Well, that works out nicely!
Shelton: Yeah, it all works out. And it's just a better time, too. We're all working so hard. Why make it a miserable experience? You should all have a great time.
NFS: To that end, if you're ever on set and there's a scene that you're doing that just doesn't feel like it's working for some reason—it feels stilted, or it's just not coming off the page— how do you tackle that?
Shelton: I'm totally not precious at all about the words. We basically rewrite. We're all there in the moment, and if this one emotional thing we're looking for is just not happening, or this one line just feels weird, we would rewrite and tinker and tinker and figure it out.
In this movie, there was actually quite a bit of overwriting, because the final draft of the script was really written in the edit room. The first cut of this film was two and a half hours long. We cut out about 45 minutes. Edie [Falco] saw it recently for the first time with an audience and said that her experience was really interesting because she had these flashbacks to us shooting, and she would be like, 'But wasn't there more?' Then she'd realize, 'Oh my god, it's so great that she cut that out. So much better without that. Oh yeah, we don't need that.'
"It's almost like the camera is a person in there, guiding us to look where a person would want to be looking."
It was about finding a balance. I wanted to give ourselves options. But how much exposition do you really need? How much can they express just with their eyes? I didn't want it to be so bare bones that the audience gets frustrated, but I don't want to give too much. I wanted to try to convey as much as I can without dialogue.
NFS: How did you incorporate that kind of minimalism into working with your cinematographer?
Shelton: This sounds cliché, but it's really true...for a film like this, the camera really is a character. I wanted this to have a lot of subjective filmmaking in it. We're usually behind Jay's head. You sort of see a little bit of the side of his face, and then we're seeing what he's seeing, but he's the one who's in focus. It gives you this sense that you are somehow in his mind as the audience. That's a great example of a way that the cinematography can help the audience feel like they are experiencing the world through this character, and feel what this character's feeling.
Most of the handheld work is pretty subtle. We call it the human tripod—where the camera is being held when there are two people cocking, but the person holding the camera is standing as still as they can. It's this very subtle, organic, human movement.
But there are a couple of sequences that are handheld. There's this one sequence where Jay's character comes into the garage for the first time. His brother shows him his old stuff, and says, "I kept everything, even your tighty-whiteys." The camera is floating and going to different points of interest. It goes down to his hand as he opens this letter from his mom, and then goes down to what he's looking at, at the box of CDs. It's almost like the camera is a person in there, guiding us to look where a person would want to be looking. But because it's handheld, it just has a different feeling than if it were a Steadicam or dolly.
You can convey so much with the lighting, as well. We had a lot of beautiful, subtle little eye lights. A lot of portrait lighting that looks very natural. It invites you into the frame.
NFS: You've done a lot of directing for TV recently. How do you think that has informed your ability to tackle these smaller indie movies?
Shelton: Well, I can't even tell you. It's just made me a better director. I mean, you're constantly learning on set every time. My first few years directing, I would do a film once a year, usually [shot] in seven or 12 days. Not very long shoot. Then, there'd be an entire year between movies.
When I started doing television, I'm on set more. When I got on the set of Outside In, I was like, "I don't know why, but I feel like a totally different filmmaker. I feel so much more confident and at ease, and kind of like I'm bringing more to the table here." And it was because I'd been spending the previous four years on set constantly. I did so much TV. It was really fascinating to see what that did to me, just racking up all of those hours of experience—working with different crews, learning from different amazing directors of photography, from different showrunners, from different actors.
Directing TV, I love throwing myself in as a collaborator and being part of the crew, and not having to be responsible for the ultimate creative vision. It's sort of a relief to be serving somebody else's vision, but yet bringing all of my skills to the fore. It's a great way to make a living. But then to be able to see just how directly I can bring what I've learned to my own projects—wow, what a privilege.