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Originally published Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton prepares for SIFF homecoming

Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" will anchor Seattle International Film Festival, with a June 5 Centerpiece Gala showing. Shelton recently spoke to Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald about filmmaking — and living — in Seattle.

Seattle Times movie critic

Seattle International Film Festival

May 21-June 14 at several venues in Seattle and Kirkland. For complete schedule and ticket information, call 206-324-9996 or go to www.siff.net. "Humpday" premieres at 7 p.m. Friday, June 5, and repeats at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, June 7, both at the Egyptian, 801 E. Pine St., Seattle; $11-$25.

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Late at night, across the country, independent filmmakers are dreaming about having the kind of year Lynn Shelton is having.

In January, the Seattle writer/director's third feature, "Humpday," made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was bought for national distribution by Magnolia Pictures. In February, she won the Someone to Watch Award at the Independent Spirit Awards for her second feature, "My Effortless Brilliance," accepting the honor from actors John C. Reilly and Claire Danes. This month, she's headed for the Cannes Film Festival. And now "Humpday" will make its hometown premiere as the Centerpiece Gala at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 5 at the Egyptian Theatre.

"I'm so honored," said Shelton, in an interview last month at a restaurant near her Greenwood home. It's a year that she can only describe, with a broad smile, as "amazing."

Shelton, 43, is a true local who went to school at University Heights, Madrona, Meany and Garfield, took acting classes at Seattle Children's Theater, and graduated from the University of Washington with a B.A. in theater in 1987. During a postgraduate nine-year stint in New York, she became less interested in acting and "addicted" to photography, studying the art at the International Center of Photography and the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. There, she began making short experimental films.

With husband Kevin Seal, she returned to the Northwest in 1999; they were expecting a child, and wanted to raise him in Seattle. Shelton's first experience with the local filmmaking community came soon afterward, through 911 Media Arts. She applied for a grant to finish a project she'd been working on for some time; a short film about the experience of a miscarriage.

"I went in and handed in my grant application, I didn't know anybody, and they gave me this grant. It was so encouraging. Literally it gave me exactly the boost I needed, just to hear yes, this is worth finishing, this is a worthy piece. It gave me a new burst of energy." The film, "The Clouds That Touch Us Out of Clear Skies" (the title is from a W.S. Merwin poem), screened at a number of film festivals and established Shelton as a up-and-coming talent.

"We Go Way Back," Shelton's first feature, won two Grand Jury awards at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2006. It was, Shelton said, "a traditional set, with 35 mm cameras and lights and a big crew." Though pleased with the film, she was frustrated with the process and wanted to find a way to give actors a haven in which to learn the art of screen acting (which is very different from stage acting). So her second feature, "My Effortless Brilliance," was "an experiment to see if I could make a completely actor-centered set, and make it as easy as possible." She cut the crew way back, used natural lighting and digital cameras, and invited the actors to help her create the characters through improvisation. Shelton wrote outlines, then the dialogue evolved with the cast.

"Humpday," the story of two straight male friends who decide to make an amateur porno film, was created in the same way. The experiment of "My Effortless Brilliance" paid off in many ways, said Shelton: The actors felt more engaged with the project, the performances became more naturalistic and authentic. And, as an unexpected bonus, the whole thing became much more affordable.

"If you have that few people on set, not a lot of lighting setups, you can reduce the number of days you're shooting, you don't have as many people to feed. So, all of a sudden, you think 'Oh, I can write some grants, do some fundraising parties, get some donations and make it happen,' instead of waiting around for someone to tell you that you can make art."

Like "My Effortless Brilliance," "Humpday" was helped along by many in-kind donations. "I don't know how I would have done it if these angels hadn't just swooped down," said Shelton. A friend offered his Phinney Ridge house for much of the shoot; Shelton's brother's office (he's a transportation planner, just like Ben in the film) was used for location shots. The film was shot last summer, with Mark Duplass ("The Puffy Chair"), Joshua Leonard ("The Blair Witch Project") and local actor Alycia Delmore in the lead roles and Shelton herself in a supporting role.

Since Sundance and the Independent Spirit Awards, Shelton's had meetings in Los Angeles with agents and managers interested in working with her. She's intrigued but wary. "It's an interesting position to be in," she said. "I never had the ambition to intersect with Hollywood, to have an agent and that stuff. I never thought I would have the opportunity. It's a little bit overwhelming, an interesting challenge to see how it's going to unfold exactly. It's helped me to articulate to myself the kind of movies I want to make, what I want to include in them, what I don't want to include in them."

The next few months will be busy for the filmmaker, doing press in preparation for the national release of "Humpday" in July, working on a proposal for a Web series about the Seattle music scene (brought to Shelton by MTV exec David Gale, who saw "Humpday" at Sundance), and planning her next project. "It'll be like my last two films, completely local," said Shelton of her upcoming fourth feature, a "My Dinner With Andre"-like tale of a journalist interviewing a novelist, starring Sherman Alexie and Sean Nelson ("My Effortless Brilliance"). "They're both so funny and so smart; I'm really excited."

No matter what comes of the L.A. meetings, Shelton says, "I never want to leave Seattle." And she sees a parallel trajectory between herself as a filmmaker and Seattle as a film town. "The thing I love most is the sense of community. There's such a strong sense of support from other artists. If it's competitive, it's a healthy competitive. The support has kept growing and growing." She remembered, smiling, the realization that came to her after completing her first feature: "This is what I was meant to do."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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