Sword of Trust
by director/co-writer Lynn Shelton
Many of my films originate out of a desire to work with a particular actor, and in this case that actor was Marc Maron. I first met Marc when I was a guest on his WTF podcast (episode 627) and soon thereafter had the opportunity to direct episodes of his IFC show, "Maron." We found a real sympatico working together, and began looking towards the idea of collaborating on something else. As serendipity would have it, a new Netflix show called “Glow” cast him as one of the leads, after I’d already been booked to direct on it (!), and we got to work together again only a few months after "Maron" wrapped. After that, Marc asked me to direct his Netflix comedy special, “Too Real,” and I directed him again in two more episodes of “Glow” season two.
By this point I was itching to write a film role specifically for Marc, and when I was struck with the idea of him playing a pawnshop owner at the center of a comedy caper, he was game, and the seed of Sword of Trust officially sprouted.
In addition to wanting to work with Marc, I had an extreme urge to veer in a more comedic direction after making my last film, Outside In, which was a full-blown drama. And I also wanted to go off the beaten track of realism and allow the plot to get a little absurd, which is something I’ve really never given myself permission to do before. To do a comedy caper in the classic realm of films like Pineapple Express and A Fish Called Wanda.
With Sword of Trust, I was extremely excited to return to my roots of working off of a highly structured “script-ment” (half script, half treatment) and letting the actors improvise much, if not most of the dialogue. Over the years, I’ve come to find that there are really only a select few performers who are great at working this way, and that one needs to cast very specifically if well-written, funny-yet-grounded improvisation is the goal. So being good at improvisation was a key feature for each actor I cast. I’ve been keeping a list of folks in mind as I’ve worked in television; Michaela Watkins and Dan Bakkedahl are both actors who I’d worked with in the realm of TV and whom I’d always wanted to approach to collaborate with on a movie at some point. Toby Huss I’ve wanted to work with for years ever since we were both doing downtown theatre in NYC in our twenties. Jillian Bell, Jon Bass, Tim Paul, and Whitmer Thomas were all new to me, but highly vetted by either Mike or other performers who’d already been cast. I am unbelievably grateful for the presence of each and every one of these folks, along with the talented local actors who came in to play smaller roles, such as Al Elliott who plays Jimmy and Elise Mayfield who plays Phyllis. It’s an obvious thing to say, but without this particular cast, this movie never ever would have worked.
With improvisation, I find that actual rehearsal is a terrible idea because often, right out of the gate, the first stab at a scene may be the best, so you always want to have the cameras on to capture potential “lightning in a bottle."
Instead of rehearsing, I like to develop on-screen chemistry by trying to have folks get together before the production who are going to be playing characters in relationship with each other. So Jillian and Michaela and I spent an afternoon hanging out discussing back story together, as did Toby and Dan and I. Marc and Jon hung out together for an evening and Tim and Whitmer got together two or three times. It’s enormously helpful if folks can get used to being in each other’s presence before landing on a set, even if it’s for a minimal amount. I’ll do it on the phone too, if that’s the only option. But physically being together is ideal.
I had actually attached another composer to the project before we started shooting. But as we began the editing process, I kept hearing Marc’s guitar playing in my head as we were cutting together the scenes. He’s an amazing guitar player, and has built up quite a library of solo jam sessions that he’s recorded over the last few years, many of which have been used within episodes of his WTF podcast. Because the character of Mel had been custom written specifically for him, I’d incorporated the idea of the character also being a guitar player, and into the blues, just like Marc. Between that fact and something about the vibe of where the film was set (Birmingham, AL), it just felt right for his actual playing to accompany the story. And sure enough, when we tried it out, it felt completely, organically, perfect for the sensibility of the film. I ended up letting our other composer go and Marc got sole credit for providing all the music.
When I floated the idea of him recording a brand new piece for the end credit song, he called up his buddy Tal Wilkenfeld and they ended up writing “New Boots” together. Tal threw herself into it as producer as well, and brought in some truly incredible studio musicians the day they recorded it, with Marc playing lead guitar.
One thing I love about how the music works within the movie is that it reflects the emotional arc of Marc’s character in the film. At the top of the story, Mel is a bit of a lone wolf; his heart’s been so beaten up that he’s walled himself off from other humans and has created a safe, protective bubble within which to operate. The music throughout the film reflects this because it’s all solo guitar. But through the narrative of the film, Mel is forced to open himself up to trust and work with others in order to get themselves out of the ridiculous hole they’ve dug themselves into. By the end of the film, his heart has opened up a bit after he finds he’s actually capable of playing well with others. The final song reflects this, featuring a bunch of folks, all adding their own unique talents and sounds to the lovely, shaggy, harmonious, collaborative mix.