On its face, “Sword of Trust,” the latest film by Lynn Shelton, seems like another parable about the dubious nature of truth in the age of Trump. The film, which plays Cinematique next week, follows four strangers as they attempt to sell a Civil War relic (the titular “sword of trust”) to a group of conspiracy theorists eager to prove the South actually won the war. But the script, by Shelton and “Saturday Night Live” alum Mike O’Brien, does more than take swipes at the pro-Confederate right.
“I wanted to make a film that was culturally relevant but didn’t make you feel like slitting your wrists,” Shelton says. Long associated with the mumblecore movement, the director had one theme in mind: “All humans are susceptible to being suckers.” She also wanted to prove all people are capable of deceit—even when they don’t believe their own lies.
As an example, Shelton cites a story she heard about the recently deceased businessman and philanthropist David Koch. For years Koch worked to sew skepticism about climate change, even though he himself allegedly believed the science behind it.
“He was saying, ‘Hey, world, just don’t believe this shit. It’s bullshit,’ even though he fucking believes it! It’s a classic example of, If it’s going to suit your needs, then go ahead and sew doubt about truth.”
The seed for “Sword of Trust” was planted by a Lyft driver who shared with Shelton his flat-earth theory. At the time, Shelton says she was unfamiliar with flat earthers. It led her and O’Brien down a rabbit hole of internet conspiracies. The Civil War storyline began to take shape when Shelton decided to film in Birmingham, Alabama (“Sword of Trust” is the first of her eight movies made outside her native Washington state).
Shelton and O’Brien also found unlikely inspiration in the film’s star, Marc Maron. The comedian and host of the popular podcast “WTF with Marc Maron” brought more than just his trademark acerbic wit to the character of Mel, a pawnshop owner with an opportunistic streak. As a newcomer to LA’s comedy scene in the ’90s, Maron had a cocaine-induced psychotic episode that briefly spawned his belief in deep-state conspiracy theories. (Maron’s 2001 memoir, “The Jerusalem Syndrome: My Life As a Reluctant Messiah,” at least partly chronicles this time.) “He saw patterns and signs and everything,” Shelton says. “It was pretty full-on.”
It took a friend who worked in the government to set Maron straight.
“The friend eventually said, ‘Yeah, people just aren’t that organized,’” Shelton recounts. “That just kind of made the whole thing evaporate for him.”
Maron’s character in the film is less gullible. When a lesbian couple (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) comes into his shop looking to hawk a family heirloom whose documentation supposedly proves the Confederacy won the Civil War, Mel balks hard. But soon as Mel’s internet-addled young assistant (Jon Bass) digs up a group of online Civil War truthers willing to pay big bucks for such an item, the four are off on a quixotic adventure to get rich quick. Shelton appears as Dierdre, a mysterious customer whose complicated past with Mel forms the film’s emotional core.
The plot may be Shelton’s wackiest yet, but the hallmarks of the director’s earlier work remain intact: low-budget production, naturalistic dialogue, and a commitment to character above all else. The film also marks a return to improv-heavy approach that marked previous efforts “Humpday” (2009) and “Your Sister’s Sister” (2011). A key scene late in the film, for example, in which Maron spills his guts to others in the back of a moving van (pictured below), appears in the script as simply, “They get to know each other.”
“Sword of Trust” has already earned plaudits in the South. The film won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham last month, and Shelton was careful to pad both cast and crew with Southerners who could call her out if she got anything wrong. “It’s almost like a cheat when you’re writing for a region that you know so well,” the director says of her earlier work. “[I needed to] make sure I was being authentic and not just some Northerner coming in and misrepresenting the region.”
Next up for Shelton: a return to television. The director, who already has helmed episodes of “GLOW,” “Master of None” and “Mad Men,” is currently filming an adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel “Little Fires Everywhere” for Hulu.