Lynn Shelton became known as a director with 2009's Humpday, and followed that up this year with Your Sister's Sister. Both films were shaped significantly by improvisation from the actors, a method that gives Shelton's films a unique naturalism. The dialogue sounds unscripted because it often is.
It's no surprise, then, that Shelton prefers to watch films that feel real to her.
The Seattle director is the latest guest on Watch This, Morning Edition's occasional series featuring movie recommendations. She spoke to host Steve Inskeep about four films made over the span of 80 years.
Dog Day Afternoon
Shelton's first pick is Sidney Lumet's 1975 film based on a true story. It stars Al Pacino as a man who is forced to take hostages and stand off against the police after botching a bank robbery.
"It is just this fantastic combination of extreme realism — it's classic cinema verite — drama and comedy," Shelton says.
A particular highlight is Pacino — his character is somewhat of a dumb crook, but Pacino plays him with total sympathy. "He's never winking or commenting on his character. He plays it straight," Shelton says.
Pacino was in many of the great crime films of the '70s — Serpico as well as the two Godfather films from the decade — and Shelton attributes that to Pacino's credibility: "You always completely believe him. He is a flesh-and-blood human being on screen."
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc
Next comes Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 silent film recently voted the 9th best film of all time by British film magazine Sight & Sound.
The film is "based on the transcript of the trial of Joan of Arc," Shelton explains, "so it's a cinematic enactment of what happens during the trial and afterwards until her death."
Again Shelton highlights the lead performance, in this case Renee Falconetti as Joan. "Her face is naked," Shelton says. "It seems like she has no makeup on. She has this very, very short hair and looks incredibly androgynous, and [has] these huge eyes. She just looks like this otherworldly creature. She really does look like a saint. You think that she operates on another plane."
Equally incredible, Shelton says, is the film's poetic, unconventional cinematography. "The thing that appealed to me about the film is the way that Dreyer tells the story — where he places the camera, how he frames the shots. A lot of the time it's just unbelievably extreme closeups. He just fills the entire screen with these unbelievably, eminently watchable faces. Not just Joan, but even the judges. Every single face he puts on screen ... your mind is blown."
Shelton's third pick is 2008's Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Revolutionary Army who led and died in a 1980s prison hunger strike.
"I'm a real actor geek, and I'll say this is the film that made me fall in love as a director with Michael Fassbender," Shelton says. "He is unbelievable in this film."
Shelton notes that the film has "a real relationship to Joan of Arc because it is so cinematic. There's hardly any dialogue, there's hardly any conversation in this entire film."
The use of cinematic language is something she tries to bring into her own films.
"There's always so much more that can be conveyed on screen visually in the expressions of people's faces, in their bodies, in their body language. And also with sound design, with music. Even just juxtaposing certain shots next to each other, you can convey so much in ... purely cinematic language through pictures and sound, as opposed to with dialogue."
Harold And Maude
Shelton's final pick is Harold and Maude, the 1971 comedy about a love story between a 20-year-old man and a 79-year-old woman.
"When I first saw this film ... I was completely enchanted and profoundly moved by the relationship in this film," Shelton says.
"The thing that's amazing about the movie is that you believe in it! You believe that they could fall in love. The young man is such an oddball ... and Ruth Gordon plays Maude as such a free spirit, and somebody who seems incredibly youthful and incredibly full of life despite the stage she's at in her life, that I found it so liberating.
"To me, it told me that I can live my life however I want. I can connect with whoever I want to connect with in the world. And I can also write my own script. I don't have to follow rules. I can sort of just be unconventional."
More Must-Sees From Lynn Shelton
Nenette et Boni
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The movie director we'll meet next is a fan of unscripted dialogue. And when choosing movies to watch, she's drawn to films that feel real. Lynn Shelton directed the new film "Your Sister's Sister," and she is the latest guest to give us movie recommendations in our series "Watch This."
Let's begin with a movie from 1975 - a great movie, with Al Pacino - "Dog Day Afternoon." What is it?
LYNN SHELTON: Oh God, it's an amazing film. It stars Al Pacino that's - as you said. And any Al Pacino fan who has not seen this movie, has to see this film.
SHELTON: It is based on a true story of a 1972 botched bank robbery in New York City, in the middle of August. And it is just this fantastic combination of extreme realism - it's classic cinema verite - drama and comedy.
INSKEEP: He basically plays a dumb crook - or, he's with a dumb crook, and they're a dumb...
SHELTON: Yes, exactly...
SHELTON: ...but he's not playing it dumb. He's never winking, or commenting on his character. He plays it straight. The whole story turns into this enormous media circus. So the bank is surrounded by just hundreds of cops. And then crowds start to appear, you know, and they're behind barricades.
And there was this event that he brings up when he go - oh my, God, it's incredible. He's out in front of the bank; he's keeps coming out. And there's just been prison riots in Attica...
SHELTON: ...and something like 40 prisoners were killed. And at one point, he says, you know, "They don't care. They don't care. They'll kill anybody, the guilty along with the innocent." And so that becomes this rallying cry.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DOG DAY AFTERNOON")
AL PACINO: (as Sonny Wortzik) Robbing a bank's a federal offense. They got me on kidnapping, armed robbery. They're going to bury me, man. I don't want to talk to somebody who's trying to calm me. Get somebody in charge here.
CHARLES DURNING: (as Detective Sergeant Eugene Moretti) I am in charge here.
PACINO: (as Sonny Wortzik) I don't want to talk to some flunky pig trying to calm me, man.
DURNING: (as Detective Sergeant Eugene Moretti) Now, you don't have to be calling me pig for...
PACINO: (as Sonny Wortzik) What's he doing? Hey, what are you doing? Look at him!
DURNING: (as Detective Sergeant Eugene Moretti) Get over there! Get over there, will ya?
PACINO: (as Sonny Wortzik) He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it. Huh?
DURNING: (as Detective Sergeant Eugene Moretti) No one's gonna kill anybody.
PACINO: (as Sonny Wortzik)Attica! Attica! Attica!
INSKEEP: Tell me about Al Pacino as an actor. I mean, this is one of those films from this period where he was in every great crime film of the '70s. I mean, he was in "Serpico" - this, also based on a true story; and of course, he was in the "Godfather" films. What is it about Al Pacino that makes him carry these kind of crime-based movies this way?
SHELTON: You know, his credibility. You always completely believe him. He is a flesh-and-blood human being on screen.
INSKEEP: Now, you sent us this list of movies that is going to range us back and forth through film history, and back and forth through time. Let's go back to the earliest - one of the earlier ages of movies here. You've got a movie called "The Passion of Joan of Arc," and the date on it is 1928.
SHELTON: Yes. This is a film made by Carl Dreyer. It's a silent film. It was based on the actual - the transcript of the trial of Joan of Arc. So it's sort of a cinematic enactment of what happens during the trial and afterwards, to her death. And...
SHELTON: ...it features one of the best performances ever captured on film. This woman named Renee Falconetti - her face is just naked; it seems like she has no makeup on. She has this very, very, very short hair, and looks incredibly androgynous. She really does look like a saint. You think that she's sort of - she operates on another plane. And the way that Carl Dreyer tells this story is so poetic, and so unconventional. And it's funny to use that word "unconventional" for a film that was created so early in cinematic history.
INSKEEP: Before we had the conventions, yeah.
SHELTON: The conventions were still being figured out; where he places the camera, how he frames the shots. A lot of the time, it's just unbelievably extreme close-ups. He just fills the entire screen with these unbelievably, eminently watchable faces. It's really worth seeing.
INSKEEP: I feel like we're developing a theme here on your list, Lynn Shelton, because we're finding movie after movie where a filmmaker has done something brilliant with some underlying reality. And I suppose that's true of this next movie on your list - "Hunger," from 2008.
SHELTON: This film - I am a little bit of a wimp, you know, when it comes to difficult material. I really am. And I will be eternally grateful to a friend of mine who came to visit one day, and he had just seen the film. He plopped me down into a chair, and he made me watch this film. This film had a profound effect on me. It's by the great Steve McQueen; he's an English director.
And I'm a real actor geek and I'll say, this is the film that made me fall in love, as a director, with Michael Fassbender. He is unbelievable in this film. He plays Bobby Sands, who was an IRA prisoner in a Northern Irish prison in the early - I think it was 1981. And he led a hunger strike, trying to gain political status for the IRA prisoners in that prison.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HUNGER")
SHELTON: The film - again - actually has a real relationship, I think, to "Joan of Arc" because it is so cinematic. There's hardly any conversation in this entire film. We don't even meet the protagonist, Bobby Sands, until about a half an hour into the film.
INSKEEP: Do you find yourself doing this in the films that you make; stripping out dialogue until what remains - that the characters actually say - really has an impact?
SHELTON: Absolutely. There is always so much more that can be conveyed in the expressions in people's faces, in their body language; and also with sound design, with music. You know, even just juxtaposing certain shots next to each other, you can convey so much in cinematic language through pictures and sound; as opposed to with people telling you how you're supposed to feel, and what you're supposed to think. And it resonates with people more deeply.
INSKEEP: So we've ranged through recent history, rather distant film history. And we also have on this list "Harold and Maude," from 1971.
SHELTON: Oh, got at least...
INSKEEP: You love this movie; I can tell already.
SHELTON: ...one comedy. I love it so much. It was really the top, top on my list, yeah. So "Harold and Maude," for those who don't know, was made in 1971. It is about a love story between a 20-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman. And when I first saw this film, I was a teenager. And I was completely enchanted, and profoundly moved, by the relationship in this film. I mean, by the entire film but especially by the relationship; by the idea that two souls can connect across all kinds of boundaries.
And the thing that's so amazing about the movie is that you believe in it. You believe that they could fall in love, you know. The young man is such an oddball - played by Bud - the great Bud Cort. And Ruth Gordon plays Maude as such a free spirit, and somebody who seems incredibly youthful and incredibly full of life, that I found it so liberating, you know, because it - to me, it told me that I can live my life however I want. I can connect with whoever I want to connect with, in the world - you know. And I can also write my own script, you know. I don't have to follow rules, you know. I can sort of - yeah, just be unconventional.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU WANT TO SING OUT, SING OUT")
INSKEEP: Lynn Shelton, it's been a great pleasure talking with you. Thanks very much
SHELTON: Thanks for having me, Steve.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU WANT TO SING OUT, SING OUT")
INSKEEP: Find Lynn Shelton's full list at NPR.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU WANT TO SING OUT, SING OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.