Interview with Sword of Trust Director Lynn Shelton
Lynn Shelton’s latest directorial effort, Sword of Trust, is a comedy like she’s never done before. She decides to abandon the dramatic comedy approach and go for it all with a true comedy that allows her to create something truly funny and outlandish. The plot revolves around an antique sword that is believed by some to be proof that the South won the Civil War. Marc Maron plays a pawnshop owner who comes across the sword when two women bring it into his shop for sale. From there, things get pretty crazy as they encounter a group of “truthers” who want to buy the sword in an effort to prove that the South won the war.
While the plot certainly sounds bizarre on paper, it plays out in a way that makes you say, “Hey, I could actually see these people ending up in these situations.” This is a testament to the way Shelton keeps her characters grounded in ways that she’s done in the past. Sword of Trust thrives off its use of improvisation with an excellent cast, highlighted by Marc Maron. And while this film is certainly meant to be a comedy, there are many dramatic moments mixed in here that remind us just how good Shelton is as a director and the types of performances that she manages to unlock from her actors.
Below is my in-depth interview with Lynn Shelton. She provides some great insight into some early inspirations behind Sword of Trust, some of her directing methods, and a couple film recommendations that I haven’t even seen!
I want to start off by talking a little bit about how the Sword of Trust developed itself into the type of comedy that it is. After writing and directing Outside In last year, were you intentionally seeking a change by doing a comedy as your next project? Or did the idea of the sword itself and what it represented push you into deciding that this film should be a true comedy?
I definitely was ready to laugh after making Outside In and spending over a year working on that movie. I’m so proud of that film and I love it to death, but I was ready to go back to making a comedy. For a while I’ve been itching to make a comedy that was a true comedy. Every other movie that I made was humorous for sure, but they have all been firmly in the camp of dramatic comedy. I’ve been — kind of to an almost obsessive degree — making sure that every beat of every scene felt like it could really happen in real life with real people going through something that might be dramatic in their lives, but could really happen in real life.
I wanted to give myself permission to get outlandish with the plot. So I still wanted emotionally grounded characters, but I wanted to allow them to get in a little over their heads and go down this rabbit hole of ultimately a little absurd or outlandish plot narrative. That was something that I never allowed myself to do before. I was like “What the hell? It’s art. It’s not life. Let’s have a little fun.”
Some of my favorite movies — A Fish Called Wanda and Pineapple Express — are these kind of comedy capers and screwball comedies that are really genius movies that are ridiculous. But they have characters that you care about. I thought that would be a fun thing to do. I also wanted to return to improvisation, which I haven’t done since you’re Your Sister’s Sister. So those are some of the elements that I wanted to put in play.
The starting point of the movies was that I wanted to work with Marc Maron. So it was automatically going to be funny right then and there. Even imagining trying to make a movie that is dramatic is going to be funny with that guy because he is inherently a funny guy.
At one point in the film, Marc Maron’s character, Mel, talks about wanting to get up close to these people who truly believe that this sword proves the South won the Civil War. Just the idea of how these people think is fascinating to him. Sword of Trust never feels too heavy-handed with its message even with the central plot surrounding the sword and what it supposedly represents. Was there a certain focus on making sure that this film stayed more on the comedic side rather than diving too far into politics and messages?
For sure. I wanted to make a movie that was culturally relevant and specifically one that referred to and skewered the fact that we are in a post-truth era and people just seem to be making up entire sets of alternative facts and revisionist histories that have nothing to do with objective truth. It’s a deeply disturbing truth in my eye. But I didn’t want to make something that made you want to slit your wrists when you walked out of it. I really wanted to make a movie that allowed you to feel validated that you may not be the only person on earth who is feeling troubled by what’s going on; but to also allow for room to laugh.
As a filmmaker, I really am most interested in humans and their deep desire to connect to each other. How do they get through their own lives? Where have I come and where am I now? And where do I want to go from here? It’s all of those humanistic questions. All of the comedy caper and the political messages and post-truth era references, it’s all sort of a backdrop ultimately for what’s happening with these actual human beings in relationship with each other. That’s what’s really interesting to me as a filmmaker.
I want to talk a little more about Marc Maron. I’ve seen him in other things where the comedic side of him is great. But dramatically, he is so good here. Specifically, he has a monologue here in the van scene that is really excellent. It sounds like you had this role in mind for him. But did you expect him to bring so much depth and sophistication to this character beyond the comedic side of things?
I did. The first time I directed him was on the first couple of episodes of season four of his show IFC show, Maron. I was lucky because those two episodes of that particular season were a real opportunity for that character — a character which was based on him, but ultimately was a different version of him — especially that season. The first three seasons of Maron are really based on his life. It’s not him but it’s a version himself. It’s the same stuff that his actual stand-up comedy is based on. He felt like he sort of played that out in the first three seasons.
So in season 4, he decides to go Into an imagined narrative for this character. He falls off the wagon. He’s back on drugs. He has lost everything — his podcast, his house, his friends, everything. He’s living out of a storage unit and he’s sleeping with a home health nurse to get a hold of the drugs he needs. He ends up bottoming out and going to rehab. The whole sequence is really vulnerable. So Marc as an actor had to really bring it in those two episodes in a way that he hadn’t had to do before. Previously, he was playing someone who had it together and playing out real life scenarios — and really playing it for laughs. The fourth season gets really heavy and intense.
I saw somebody who not only has a really compelling onscreen presence, but somebody who was this raw talent and sort of this untrained natural actor who I could immediately tell had untapped depth. I knew I wanted to work with him immediately and I knew that he was capable of great things. The monologue that he has in the back of the van in this movie is one of the best performances by anyone I’ve ever seen in anything. And I’m so happy and proud that I was able to be a part of that and help unlock that performance. It’s all him, but just giving him a stage on which to actually perform that was deeply satisfying.
The four main characters here feel like the kind of characters that would be fun to revisit at some point down the road. Have you ever considered revisiting any one of your characters from past films and doing some sort of follow-up or sequel?
I never have. It’s been brought up several times. A lot of people wanted to see a sequel to Your Sister’s Sister. Also, this year is the ten-year anniversary of the release of Humpday. And many people have said “Let’s revisit these guys!” I just have no interest. For me, one of the things that I like to do as a filmmaker — and I think I’ve done it for most of my movies — I like to feel like I’m paratrooping into some group of characters’ lives. And I’m just along for the ride on their journey of life for a little while. Sometimes it’s a long weekend. Sometimes it’s a month. It’s just a limited period of time. And then I fly up and out again. It’s why I don’t like tightly wrapped-up-with-a-bow endings. Because I want to feel like they are still going to keep living their lives past the story. It’s not all said and done at the end of the story for these people. There’s almost a sacred quality to the fact that I just want them to go on and live their lives. I want to leave them alone and let the audience imagine their futures for them.
All of your movies, including Sword of Trust, have a very natural/realistic feel to the interactions and conversations between the characters. Your incorporation of improvisation is what creates this setting and allows this authentic feel to work so well. When it comes to directing TV scripts and other source materials, such as the episodes of Little Fires Everywhere that you are directing, what are some of the changes that you make in your approach to directing to make sure that you are still getting authentic performances from your actors?
My approach to working with actors is the same every time. Every actor has a different process. And as a director, sometimes I feel like I am looking through a little drawer of keys, and I am looking for the right shape of the key to fit each actor. I want to help unlock their performance. But I have to adapt to their process. Sometimes there is some overlap or some similarities, but ultimately they all are so individual. They all want to engage in a different way. And some don’t want to engage at all and they just need their space. It’s very interesting.
As a guest episodic director, the trick is, you have to jump in and establish that instant sense of rapport and size up what their process is — immediately. Sometimes you meet the actor seconds before you start rehearsing a scene. It’s a very intense triage situation! Most of the time, you are blessed with casts that are casted very well, certainly with the shows that I have been working on. If you are blessed with the opportunity to have a little rehearsal time and to get to know them a bit beforehand, it certainly helps. But it’s not always the case that you have that opportunity.
But ultimately, the approach is always the same. I am there to service them and help them in any way that I can. My job is to have the bird’s eye view. You establish an emotionally safe space for the actor to know that I can guarantee them, in the edit room, I am not going to let one frame of them making a misstep go on screen. They can feel safe enough to emotionally and creatively take risks. It’s better to try and fail in that moment because you’re much more likely to actually achieve something great. That van scene with Marc is a case in point. I tell them to go for it and that they can trust me. We’re out there together. We are there supporting each other.
What is one underrated film that you like to champion whenever you can to make sure more people get a chance to see?
Well, I’m going to mention two. Megan Griffiths’ last film is spectacular. It’s called Sadie. It’s a really beautifully made independent film that premiered a year ago at South by Southwest. It’s just one of those perfect little gems of a film that is really culturally relevant. It’s a really worthwhile and wonderful film.
The other movie that I absolutely adore and not nearly enough people have seen is from Director Chris Kelly, called Other People. It came out in 2016. When I saw this movie, I was completely floored. It’s a dramatic comedy and it is so moving. I cannot recommend it enough and it seems like nobody ever talks about it! Both Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons are spectacular in it! The performances in it are insanely good!
Sword of Trust opens on July 26th at the Ritz at the Bourse.