'Laggies' Director Lynn Shelton on Connecting to Film About Growing Up Your Own Way

Star Keira Knightley also shares her thoughts on appearing in four movies being released this year and the awards buzz for 'The Imitation Game'

Lynn Shelton's Laggies, starring Keira Knightley and Chloe Grace Moretz, marks the director's first time helming a film she didn't also script. But she still had a strong connection to the screenplay.

"It felt like something I could have written. And I would have written it differently, but I felt such an affinity with [writer Andrea Seigel's] voice," Shelton, who previously wrote and directed the well-received Your Sister's Sister, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The same things that are important to me as a filmmaker seemed important to her, such as characters really feeling fully fleshed out and like real people, humor coming out of a very character-based place and just the territory of somebody trying to figure out who the hell they are and what their place is in the world and what's going to work for them as opposed to what society's telling them that they should do. Everything about the movie just felt so interesting to me and tonally it just felt like it was all in my wheelhouse."

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In the movie, Knightley plays 28-year-old Megan, who's struggling to grow up in the conventional ways her friends are, still dating her high school boyfriend and working odd jobs for her father. But after spending some time hanging out with Moretz's 16-year-old Annika and her teenage friends, she learns what kind of adult she wants to be.

That feeling of being an unconventional grown-up is something that Shelton also related to on a personal level.

"On paper I'm a pretty successful grown-up in the conventional sense of the word: I have a mortgage and I have a husband and I have a child. But I have also been able to live that life on my own terms and live the life of an artist," she explains. "You know, my husband is the primary caregiver of our kid right now. And … I've made six movies in Seattle instead of moving to L.A. or New York and being a filmmaker there. I feel a lot of affinity with the character in terms of being able to go her own way and do what feels right to her."

Knightley also found that Shelton's Seattle-based set differed from the other films she'd done.

"The atmosphere on set is really extraordinary I think partly because she works in Seattle so she's working with the same people again and again in her crew and it's a very family, really friendly environment," Knightley says. "She stressed that feeling of being relaxed and in it together. She creates a film set that's the least hierarchical film that I've ever been on … and that's quite extraordinary. Ordinarily the hierarchy on film sets is very, very clear. She breaks down those rules and really makes it into something that everybody is an important part of."

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Shelton's distinctive, yet somewhat unconventional, approach to filmmaking has previously involved a lot of improvisation. But not on this film.

"The meat of the story … was all on the page and any improvisation here and there is a little bit sprinkled about but it's mostly garnish — these little tiny moments at the beginnings and ends of scenes mostly," she says. "For us the writing was really working, and we didn't want to mess with it. It wasn't meant to be an improvised movie.… [We added it in] when we felt like we needed to loosen things up a little bit."

One of the improvised moments occurred during a quasi-slumber party for Megan, Annika and Annika's friend Misty (Kaitlyn Dever), when Megan says she's getting some snacks. Annika and Misty's very-teenage goodbyes were both things the actors said on the spot, as they were just behaving like teens, something Shelton said she was a bit worried about because Moretz and Dever were both so mature for their age, even though they were playing and were, when they shot the film, 16-year-olds.

"They were so precocious and so mature and so professional that you forget that they were still kids. It turns out that all you have to do is put them in pajamas and put their hair up in funny little buns and get them with a yearbook and they turn into kids magically," Shelton says. "It was sort of a reminder to me that you can't force these things. If that chemistry hadn't worked I would have been screwed because there's no way you can manufacture that."

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Shelton raves about both Moretz and Knightley, the latter being a late addition to the film after Anne Hathaway dropped out due to scheduling conflicts with Interstellar, it was reported. With Knightley, Shelton was hoping to get the same actress who awed her in Bend It Like Beckham and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and everything she loved about those performances was still part of Knightley's approach.

"I was just in awe of her and how much confidence she exuded and she had so much spirit and life that just came tumbling out of her," Shelton says. "The Pirates movie [had] so much physical comedy and she was so game to dive in and be sort of swashbuckling.… That was the Keira and the side of Keira that I wanted to see again. And it was all still there. I felt she brought so much of herself, her real self, to this part, and I'm so grateful to her for that."

Knightley is a frequent presence on the big screen this year, starring in four films being released in 2014 — Jack Ryan, Begin Again, Laggies and The Imitation Game, which is already receiving Oscar buzz a month before it hits theaters. The actress said she didn't plan on starring in a quartet of titles within 12 months. She's been doing two a year, and they just all happened to come out at once. And she's not letting the awards attention for The Imitation Game go to her head.

"It just means that you've done a good job, and it just means the whole film is communicating with its audience, which is the only reason that you make films," she says. "As far as whether it gets anything, I mean, who knows? I haven't seen everything that's come out this year, and I think it's still pretty early. So who knows what will happen with it? It's always nice for anything you've been involved with to be mentioned in the same breath as awards because it just means that everybody did a good job."

Laggies, which A24 acquired out of Sundance, is now playing in New York, L.A. and Seattle.