One of the most prolific directors to come out of the indie film mumblecore movement is Lynn Shelton, who has become a regular at Sundance with her Seattle-based stories driven by truthful, human characters. This year, Shelton returns to Sundance with Touchy Feely, a film about a massage therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt) who suddenly experiences a strong aversion to physical touch and her brother (Josh Pais) who, after many years as a career dentist, is accidentally discovered to have healing powers. Dealing with their own internal struggles to overcome issues around intimacy and human connection, Shelton succeeds to portray characters, once again, that feel real and familiar. More dramatic than comedic, Touchy Feely weaves together an ensemble of great performances and reminds us that healing oneself is an important part of the journey before finding love again.
Touchy Feely is Shelton’s fifth feature film and collaboration with cinematographer Ben Kasulke. With each film comes a more refined image quality and maturity of craft having stemming from a purely improvisational approach which was part of the basis for mumblecore films, to a film that was more scripted. Kasulke’s cinematography is naturalistic with a subtle documentary feel to it, allowing the action and characters play out on screen without drawing attention to itself. Capturing atmosphere and story quite beautifully, Kasulke’s cinematography feels extremely organic to Shelton’s vision, which I sense is a result of many years of creative collaboration and working together.
A Sundance veteran himself, Kasulke returns this week with his eighth festival film he’s lensed. He has also participated in the Sundance Labs that meet in the summer to workshop Institute projects with directors. Always working and always seeking interesting projects to collaborate on, Kasulke has been a noted cinematographer to watch for many years, an Independent Spirit Award nominee, and whose name has become synonymous with independent cinema. I met up with Kasulke at Sundance this week and asked him a few questions about his work on Touchy Feely.
You’ve been a longtime collaborator with Director Lynn Shelton. Can you tell me a little bit about your collaborative process and what it’s like to work with a director that you know so well?
I have been lucky enough to have been working with Lynn Shelton for the past six years, through five features, two web series, and a handful of music videos. Lynn has become a close friend and I always look forward to a call from her with a new project. Our working relationship is just one among the dozens of crew that we are fortunate to work with year after year and project after project. I feel so fortunate to have found a production family that make every passing Lynn Shelton film more fulfilling to create than the previous one.
After working together for years I feel like we have developed a process of developing the look of each film during a preproduction filled with personal movie festivals, hundreds of shared youtube clips, music sharing, dinners, and drives around town. Our days tend to devolve into a frenzied sharing of moments from our favorite films that start with everything we love and slowly get filtered down into the core visual concepts of a given project.
Lynn and I have found a way to trust our instincts and to create a performance centric atmosphere on set. We try an leave the set open to improvisational ideas form the actors and crew in a effort to let the film to grow beyond our initial specific intentions. There is a hope that a successful collaboration with our crew will yield a film that is bigger than the sum of it’s parts. Hopefully an alchemy of instinct, planning, momentary inspiration, accidents,and intervention from the real world give us something better than we ever could have planned for.
There is a level of trust I have in Lynn as a collaborator that comes from years of friendship. We have had our triumphs and we have learned from mistakes and we have had to pick each other up and check in with each other to make sure everything is going smoothly and the resulting feeling of care and trust works wonders for our collaboration.
What look were you going for with the film and what were some of your inspirations?
Lynn’s recent feature films have had a basis in naturalism, of finding a heightened beauty in the world around us. The characters in Touchy Feely have very specific, emotional trajectories. Embracing a beautified version of the world around us allows the audience to come to the film with a certain visual familiarity, one that I hope makes the more universal emotional themes of the film much more approachable. The journey’s of Abby and Paul needed to ring true, and any attempts at overstylization of the visuals could detract from the emotional truth than Lynn is going for. That being said, the script had a few built in moments of true subjectivity on Abby and Paul’s behalf where we could stretch our naturalist tendencies into something more lyrical without taking away from the emotional truth of either character’s journey. During our habitual pre production film screening Lynn and I gravitated towards the films Talk To Her, Friday Night, Morvern Callar, and Hannah And Her Sisters, among others.
As a cinematographer, how do you approach character stories? What do you think about in terms of how you might capture certain characters?
As a cinematographer, I approach character stories with two guiding ideas. First, I try to find the way a character perceives themselves and others within the confines of the story. This helps me find a way into the visual approach: is this person’s worldview set in stone? does it need to have a trajectory that we can feel? do they move smoothly through their life from the beginning of the film to the end? does their story require a reliance on editing or do we see their life unfold in real time? As the characters make themselves known the visual approach from the camera and lighting perspective starts to make itself apparent. Secondly, I try to find the best way to guide the audience’s perception of narrative perspective from moment to moment, this could boil down to something as simple as “who’s scene is this?” or “who’s shot is this?” In Touchy Feely, the plot is as much about what is happening to the characters as it is an examination of how all of them relate to their perception of themselves.
What camera did you shoot the film on?
We shot on a pair of Sony PMW-F3s with two matching sets of Zeiss Ultra Speed Primes provided by Koerner Camera in Seattle.
What was your workflow like?
Our on set workflow was pretty by the numbers. DIT Joe Jacobs was doing some color adjustments and exposure matching as needed while preparing our footage for a Final Cut Pro offline. Color Grading was done by our longtime colorist Tim Maffia at AlphaCine Labs in Seattle.
Did you have any unforeseen challenges on the film?
Our locations and crew resources were a known quantity going into production, luckily the only real curveballs came from some of Seattle’s famous rain on planned exteriors. The real challenges came from our commitment to always using a two camera setup for each scene. Lighting and framing for simultaneous two camera coverage in small practical locations can be a bit limiting from a camera standpoint. I don’t really think of it as a compromise to the look of the film, it is a concession to the preservation of the performance. By shooting two sides of a conversation simultaneously you are allowing the actors to open up the performance and not be beholden to a sound or picture edit. Performers can talk over each other, move where they need to, adjust marks, and adapt blocking within a scene without affecting the edit later on. I feel like Lynn is going for truth in performance, and I would never want to step on that instinct by insisting we sacrifice a camera angle for an accurately placed eyelight…
What was your post process?
Lynn cut the film on Final Cut Pro and Tim Maffia, our longtime friend and trusted collaborator, color graded at AlphaCine Labs in Seattle. I was sadly unavailable for the color correction, but Tim has worked with Lynn and I for years. Lynn has always been intensely involved with the color grade on all of her films so I trusted that the film was in good hands.
Do you have a favorite shot in the film?
I love the first shot of Abby’s Ecstasy trip, it is a soft focus steadicam shot of dappled sunlight dancing on the trees that plays like a POV and eventually allows Abby to enter into her own vision. It was the kind of perfectly soft lit Pacific Northwest day that I love to see on film, gray but hopeful and more well lit by a layer of clouds than anything our gaffer Jeremy Mackie and I could ever have attempted. I think it is a nice visual summary of the films larger intentions as well, a moment for the audience to see Abby’s new view of the world firsthand, to take a breath with her, and then watch her move into the frame and continue the film forward in a moment of empathy through pure visuals.