A film about massage, reiki, ecstasy, a family dealing with emotional issues and unresolved grief? It’s not your average Hollywood film, and that’s what makes it so intimate and endearing, and uniquely Lynn Shelton. Written and directed by indie filmmaker Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister), ‘Touchy Feely’ takes you on journey through uncomfortable relationships (of all kinds), identity crises and emotional roadblocks all with the underlying soul-searching quest to find the ultimate, and terrifying, space of letting go.
Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a massage therapist who suddenly develops an intense aversion to skin and bodily contact. As you can imagine, this poses a problem. Her brother Paul (Josh Pais) starts out as just the opposite, an uptight, routine-oriented dentist whose humdrum life is soon turned upside down by his own newly discovered healing powers, enhanced by a reiki master (Allison Janney). Ellen Page lends her stellar acting as Jenny, Paul’s teenage daughter, who’s dealing with her own emotional battles besides being the sole support for her lonely father.
‘Touchy Feely’ is a film about being ok with living in your own skin, both literally and figuratively, by exploring the different methods the characters try and paths they take to lose themselves in order to find themselves again. Hm. Any of this sound familiar? Ahem.
YD was lucky enough to catch up with filmmaker Lynn Shelton and chat with her about her latest film, the role reiki plays in it, her experience with yoga and what it’s like to be a female independent filmmaker today. Read on!
YD: There’s a definite new agey theme going on throughout ‘Touchy Feely’, and it’s really interesting to see alternative treatments like reiki play a big role in a movie. How did reiki become part of this particular story? And just curious, why did you choose reiki rather than something a lot more popular like yoga?
Lynn Shelton: Reiki came up for this because I had this idea of a massage therapist [played by Rosemarie DeWitt] who loses her sense, her ability to touch people or be touched. And I wanted her to be the kind of character who tries to heal herself and who would try to figure out ways to do that like through meditation and through thinking back and relaxing and try to get back in touch with herself and a soul searching thing. And I thought well she would have friends who are also massage therapists. She can’t get massages from them because she can’t be touched!
Then I realized oh, but reiki energy work you don’t have to actually be touched and that is how I first thought of it. And what if she had a friend or a mentor or something who is a reiki master and she could try to get help that way. And that was where that character was born.
I would say even though there’s no actual yoga in the film (you do see her try to meditate at one point as part of the vedic traditions), it doesn’t feel very far out of the realm that some people would call new agey, you know, energy, touchy feely. So I think it’s definitely in that world where a lot of people who do yoga and all these other kinds of modalities as well.
YD: That’s right, she does sit and meditate at one point (unsuccessfully). Are you yourself into new agey stuff or into practicing yoga?
LS: That’s been a part of my life. I have had a yoga practice for 15 years now and I started exploring things like acupuncture and natural medicines, Chinese herbs and things like that. I was trying to get pregnant around that same time and that is when all that started to come into my life. Western medicine didn’t know what to do. They took my hormone levels and literally my doctor said “I’m stumped. I don’t know why you’re not ovulating.” It was crazy and so I went to this Chinese herbal doctor in Chinatown. I was living in New York at the time. He brewed up a big bag of herbs and two weeks later my period started again, and you know, I hadn’t had it for years. And it started my journey. Yoga was a part of that, acupuncture was a part of that. And energy work. It just became a part of my life.
YD: Had you ever experienced reiki before?
LS: I did reiki for the first time while evolving this script and I fell in love with it. There’s research, right? So I did it for research because of a film! And now I go see this woman all the time. It blew my mind and I love it. So that’s how reiki came into the picture.
YD: Did any of the other cast members try it out? How did Allison Janney prepare for her role as reiki master?
LS: What was interesting with Allison is that when I called her up and I pitched her the character she said, “I have to tell you, that years ago I went to see a reiki practitioner and I had a terrible experience.” She had a very bad taste in her mouth left over from this experience. And she said, “that was a while ago. And it could have also been because of my attitude. I might not have been in the right place for it but I don’t know if the person was that great.” She goes, “if you can find me a good practitioner, I will go again.”
And she did. And she had a much better experience. And she then grilled the practitioner and got a lot of advice. She called me up and had all these ideas about what she should be wearing. And how if you’re wearing the wrong clothes the energy won’t flow properly. She really knew who this character at that point. It was truly fantastic. And then we have the gal that I had seen [for reiki] who was our consultant on the film. So she was there on set during all of those scenes, the same with our massage therapist [for Rosemarie’s character]. She was on set with us all the time so we didn’t do anything wrong, you know.
The other interesting thing that I just found out from Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais, is that they both said that Allison was giving them reiki. On the set during the scenes they could totally feel her doing something to them. So that was pretty cool.
YD: Bringing in reiki and having this sort of new agey feel, did you worry about the film being too “woo woo”? Did you reel it back in or did you just let it go?
LS: You know, no. It was the role for a couple of the characters and I wanted to be playful with it. I didn’t want to get slammed or make fun of it. Like make it seem, in their words, dumb. But I also didn’t want to glorify. I just wanted it to be very kind of frank, but playful.
There are also a lot of different aspects to it. It can get silly or there can be people who can be silly around all of these different practices or they can get kind of cocky, you know. They can really feel superior. Which I think is really a bummer.
YD: That first dinner scene where the whole family is together, I think, speaks to the yoga world and people that are into wellness lifestyles where encountering a holier than thou attitude is not that unfamiliar.
LS: So there’s a dinner scene in the beginning of the movie where Abby really is kind of full of herself. “I am healthy and I’m doing great.” And she’s telling her brother, “you look a little wan. You should get reiki done. You know what you should do? You should have this elixir.” And it’s like who is she to be ordering everyone around? And she gets kind of cut down at the knees later and has a hard time with her work. But then he gets really transformed and starts to explore.
We set up these two worlds of these people who are completely different. Like when he gets on the reiki table, he has absolutely no idea what to do in that room. He has never gotten a massage. He’s never seen a massage table before! He’s so out of his body. Talk about something as far away from yoga, so far away from body work at all. So just to see somebody so out of his comfort zone and encountering that world. Playful is definitely how I wanted to approach it.
YD: That part where Josh’s character first meets the reiki master is a pretty funny moment!
This film gets especially interesting when, even with all the use of alternative remedies, drugs end up entering on the scene, too. Ecstasy to be precise. Though it’s used to help the characters face their fears and issues rather than escape them. How did that idea come about?
LS: For me, it is a device towards transcendence and trying to search for something. A quest, a vision quest or a soul searching mission. And I toyed with the idea of actually having it be a placebo. Like setting up that they were actually aspirin. Because I wanted to focus on the point the character had gotten to when they actually take it. That’s what it was actually about for me. It’s this point of doing something completely out of your comfort zone. Being in a place where “I don’t know what to do. I am going to do this thing that is terrifying for me but it will open doors and it will give me permission to let go of all my fears and embrace the world and really open my eyes.”
For Josh’s character, it enabled him to connect with people in a way he couldn’t do normally. He would never be able to loosen up. And for Abby’s character, it works in different ways. It creates a way for her to actually just really see the beauty of the cracks in the world and in her own skin and the beauty of the world again instead of being terrified by it and feeling like it’s suppressing her.
But it’s more about this point of surrender and letting go and saying ok, I give up. Help me universe. I need something different.
YD: That montage towards the end hits a real emotional and pivotal moment in the film, and probably my favorite part. The music is especially heartstring-tugging and almost haunting.
LS: One of the most transcendent experiences I’ve ever had was listening to a piece of music in a live situation that was actually a song sung by the guy in the movie. Tomo Nakayama an amazing musician in Seattle. My body and mind was strumming from this live show. It was a cappella there was no instrumentation it was just him and this former church singing a Judy Garland song and I said to myself, “ok that voice in this space is going to go in one of my movies.”
And it was specifically used because I wanted to recreate that kind of cathartic experience that can be experienced without any mind-altering substance. You can achieve that true meditation by listening to music in the right circumstances. There are different ways to achieve to that transcendent state. I really wanted that in there too, that juxtaposition.
YD: One final question: When it comes to making movies, women are still by far a minority. As a female filmmaker, what’s your opinion and perspective on the landscape of women in film today? Do you see any progress?
LS: You know, this touchy feely opened at competition in the Sun Dance festival back in January. That was a big milestone year at the festival because it was the first year that there was gender parity in the competition category. There were 16 films in the narrative competition category, 8 of them were directed by men, 8 by women. And they haven’t come close to that in the past. That was a big big deal. And this sort of theme happened a lot at that festival because of that panel.
In the studio system, you know Hollywood movies made by the industry I believe it’s still at 4% of films are directed by women. That kind of says it all. Because what I find is that in the independent world, when you actually can make your own way and can pull together smaller projects that don’t cost as much money and you’re not asking for special permission, you can really create your own career, in a way. That is a much friendlier place. There isn’t the kind of glass ceiling that there is in the industry, in the studio big budget films. So there’s still a lot of work to do in that realm.
I feel blessed because I’m not really interested in making most of the films that come out in the studio system, they’re not films that I would be interested in directing. So it’s not my vision as an artist to be working with multi-million dollar exploding things. I’m not really interested in that. So I am lucky because I don’t feel like there are any obstacles. I never felt like there are any obstacles for me as a filmmaker in making movies. And a lot of that has to do with being in a real independent role.
– Find showtimes at http://bitly.com/TouchyScreens
Watch the ‘Touchy Feely’ trailer:
And here’s that heartstring-tugging moment with Tomo Nakayama singing “Horses.”