There was a clarifying moment for Lynne Shelton even before she knew what her next film would be. A popular writer-director in the indie-comedy scene, Shelton long recognized she wanted to collaborate again with Marc Maron on a new film after directing him in several television series, including GLOW, but their various projects continued to stall. It was then that she took a particularly illuminating ride with a chatty Uber driver.
“I had no idea about a particular conspiracy theory, and that shall remain unnamed [because it] seemed completely Crazy Town to me, and I didn’t know it was a thing,” Shelton says while sitting next to Maron and the other stars of her new film Sword of Trust. “But it is. There are adults who actually believe this shit. It was the end of a long Uber ride, and we had been having this very normal conversation, and at the end of it, he began describing this thing he believes, and I couldn’t wrap my brain around what he was saying. And then I realized he was being completely serious, and there’s some stuff that’s word-for-word in our movie.”
The scene she is describing occurs when a chipper, good-natured character in Sword of Trust tries to explain to another that the truth about the Earth’s flatness is out there. “Just keep Googling,” he insists. This is the brave new world Shelton and Maron find in Sword of Trust, and it’s one they ever so gently mock and deconstruct with some pointed (and largely improvised) comedy.
In the film, Maron plays Mel, a down on his luck pawnshop owner who relocated from New York to Birmingham, Alabama more years ago than he’d care to recall. It’s there his eternally boyish assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) watches in awe when a young couple, Mary and Cynthia (Michaela Watkins and Jillian Bell), comes by and tries to pull a fast one. While Cynthia’s recently deceased grandfather really did leave her a Civil War sword, it’s one he claimed in the grips of dementia to have been surrendered to their Confederate ancestor at a made-up battle. It’s the sword, grandpa and his cash-strapped heirs allege, that proves the South won the Civil War. Mel of course wants to throw the pair out… but the damndest thing happens when he goes online: There’s actually a market for people out there who believe the South won the “war between the states” and will pay top dollar to get their hands on proof.
“So many people now are just prone to [alternative facts],” Maron tells me at SXSW when considering the Trumpian buzz word created by a spokeswoman trying to explain away lies. “It’s so much part of the culture, even people you thought were kind of intelligent people, friends.”
Shelton, by his side, muses if it might just be the state of our education system, but Maron shrugs that folks generally no longer care to learn the truth. “Most people take a lot for granted. So all of a sudden, there’s somebody who can put something in their head, like ‘I don’t know about vaccines’ or ‘I don’t know about this Deep State.’ It’s like they’re relatively smart people who are like, ‘It kind of makes sense.’ … It emboldens stupid people to feel like they’re smart.”
It’s an element their film has a lot of fun with by going back to arguably the source of revisionist history in the South. While everyone we spoke to in Austin last month, including Jon Bass who is from Texas, has a lot of love for the first “S” in SXSW, it’s easy to look no further than at how a large subsection of American culture still considers a war begun by South Carolina firing on Union soldiers as “the War of Northern Aggression.”
“Northerners don’t talk about the Civil War like Southerners do,” Shelton says. “It probably took me well into adulthood to realize it’s a whole different ballgame when you go to the South. Like everybody’s talking about it all the time, it seems like, when I go down there. It’s like a constant background.” It also proved a great backdrop to develop a comedy that allowed Maron and the co-stars to do what he often does so well: talk their way in and out of bizarre situations.
The project is borne from Maron and Shelton’s longtime collaborations. While Shelton might be best known as the director of Laggies and Hump Day, their relationship extends beyond the big screen.
“I met her years ago when she did my podcast, and then she directed a couple of episodes of Maron,” the podcasting-actor-writer begins. Shelton finishes, “That was when we realized we work really well together. I’d give him a note, and he’d be like, ‘What the fuck, I’m not going to do that?!’ And then he’d realize it made it better, and I wasn’t just trying to fuck with him.”
Says Maron, “Now I just take the note and am like, ‘It’ll make her happy, it’s just one-take.”
The partnership blossomed in GLOW, the Netflix comedy about an obscure women’s wrestling league from the 1980s. Shelton actually came aboard the series as a director before Maron was cast as Sam Sylvia, a B-grade auteur who haphazardly directs the series as a would-be patriarchal authority. Shelton calls it serendipity that she wound up directing Maron in his most pivotal “opus” episode during the first season, which led to them discussing writing a new movie together.
“So it was just kind of taking a while, and I just really wanted to get on set with him,” Shelton says. And with Maron saying it was hard to concentrate on writing in the months after Donald Trump’s 2016 election—Maron: “I thought that was a big deal; I was wondering how long before the Jews were herded up”—Shelton came upon doing this mostly improvised comedy about people living in their own alternate universe.
So enters Sword of Trust, which is a chance to make light of a condition that ranges from the mindset behind the 2016 election to the Uber driver dropping conspiracy theory knowledge on Shelton. However, the director does not intend the movie to be mean-spirited, even to those who believe certifiably inane things.
“I don’t want to just say anyone who believes that shit is stupid,” Shelton explains. “I think it’s a human frailty in general for us to all be suckers, and we all have the capacity to be suckers, and I want to point to that.”
Actor Michaela Watkins, who plays one of the opportunizing sword proprietors in Mel’s store, compares it to something she heard Professor Brené Brown say at a SXSW panel.
“The closer you get to a person, the more you see a person instead of this idea of a person,” Watkins says. “And the only time you should never go closer, no matter how much you want to stay away, is if you feel dehumanized. And I feel this movie was great; they got as close as they could until, ‘You’re not going to change me and I’m not going to change you.’”
The movie Sword of Trust is getting closer too though. Since premiering at the SXSW Film Festival, its distribution rights were picked up by IFC Films. It now has the scheduled release date of July 12, 2019.