“Touchy Feely” at Sundance 2013
Here’s the logline for “Touchy Feely”: “What happens when a family’s delicate psychic balance suddenly unravels? Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a free-spirited massage therapist. Her brother, Paul (Josh Pais), an emotional zombie, owns a flagging dental practice, where he enlists the assistance of his equally emotionally stunted daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page). Suddenly, transformation touches everyone. Abby develops an uncontrollable aversion to bodily contact, which seriously hinders her chosen profession and the passionate love life she once shared with her boyfriend, Jesse (Scoot McNairy). Meanwhile, rumors of Paul’s “healing touch” begin to miraculously invigorate his practice. As Abby navigates through an identity crisis, her brother discovers a whole new side of himself.”
I’ve known the director Lynn Shelton through the Seattle music and film community, and we became friends after she saw my performance of Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” at the Fremont Abbey. She told me that performance in particular affected her deeply, and when she called me out of the blue one day and told me she wanted to recreate that moment for her next film, with me in a small role as a character healed by Paul the dentist’s powers, I jumped at the opportunity. Because the lyrical content of “The Man That Got Away” did not really fit with the tone and theme she had in mind, we decided to use one of my own songs instead. We spent a few days going through my back catalog, but I eventually ended up writing a completely new song for the film, called “Horses.” With the song selected and the character of Henry written to mirror my actual life and personality (he is a somewhat reserved but friendly barista who also happens to be a local musician with no dental insurance), we filmed “Touchy Feely” in April 2012. Lynn did not want anybody in the cast or crew to see the film until it was completely finished, so when the film was chosen for Sundance’s Dramatic Competition, my wife Frida and I decided to fly down to Park City, Utah, for the film’s world premiere.
When we got to Sundance, I was informed that I would be a part of the film’s promotional press day, which meant I would travel around town with the principal cast visiting various press outlets such as Entertainment Weekly and the LA Times, taking photos and doing on-camera interviews. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do or say, but it was really fun to hang out with Lynn and the cast, and to experience Sundance from their perspective. I learned actors and directors have to do dozens of interviews and events in a single day. It’s a process that’s both physically and mentally draining, and it gave me a whole new level of respect for their profession. I was really grateful to have my wife with me to keep my head on straight in what was honestly a pretty overwhelming environment. Despite the hectic schedule though, it was great to see Ellen Page, Josh Pais, and Rosemarie DeWitt again, and to meet Ron Livingston and Allison Janney for the first time (we didn’t share any scenes during the shoot). They’re all lovely, funny, and fantastically intelligent people, which is a testament to Lynn’s gift for finding the perfect collaborators for her films.
The premiere at the 1270 seat Eccles Theater was completely sold out. I was nervous to see myself on screen, but once the movie started I forgot all about that and was lost in the story. “Touchy Feely” is a beautifully hypnotic film, with a deliberate and quiet energy that contrasts with Lynn’s previous two films, “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister.” Vinny Smith’s score, Ben Kasulke’s cinematography and Kelsey Wood’s sound design are especially brilliant. It’s a brave, ambitious and incredibly warm-hearted work about flawed people and healing. The stillness of the camera and honest depictions of human relationships reminded me a little of Yasujiro Ozu and, later, in the dreamy, poetic climax, Terence Malick. There’s also some beautiful shots of Seattle that could have only come from someone who lives and breathes the 206. It made me really proud of our city. Lynn said it’s the most personal movie she’s ever made, and that comes across very clearly, especially to anyone who knows her. The scene in which she uses my song to bring all the different story arcs together is incredible. I’ve never been moved to tears by my own music, but to see it used so perfectly and personally to tell someone else’s story was an amazing and humbling experience.
After the screening I performed at the after-party. It felt really great to sing and do something familiar, after spending all day in a strange new world of posing for cameras and talking into microphones. Rosemarie DeWitt and her husband Ron Livingston had both told me how much they were looking forward to seeing me sing, but I was still shocked and touched when Rose kneeled in front of the crowded, otherwise chatty room and recorded my set on her phone. It was an incredibly generous gesture, and it really reminded me how much I love playing music for people.
Frida and I had a great time the next day hanging out with our friends Jenn-Marie (who lives in Park City and was kind enough to show us around town), Luce Cousineau (who did hair and makeup on the film), and actress Shannon Kipp. We walked around Main Street and took in the crazy scene of film lovers, film makers, celebrities (and papparazzi) one more time before we said good bye and headed home to our little house in Seattle.
Sundance is an experience I won’t soon forget. Thank you, Lynn Shelton for letting me be a part of it. I hope you’ll all go see “Touchy Feely” when it comes out!