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January 13, 2000

You &... Angela Shelton

Angela Shelton's road has already brought her more adventure than most people ever see. She's turned the story of her childhood into a critically acclaimed new film, "Tumbleweeds," starring Janet McTeer, Kimberly J. Brown, and Gavin O'Connor, who also directed. In the film, a Mary Jo and her daughter Ava are held together by love and a powerful friendship as they ramble from town to town, always one step ahead of Mary Jo's last failed relationship.

Shelton and O'Connor's film explores the tension between the spirit that holds us together and the spirit that yearns to be free. Angela Shelton let us ask her a few questions about the circumstances that brought the film about and the life that inspired it... her own.

"Tumbleweeds" is based on your memoirs. How much of the film is true to your own story and how much did you create for the narrative?

"Tumbleweeds" is based loosely on my memoirs. It's more inspired by the relationship between my mother and me. Many of the events in the film had to be toned down and/or fictionalized to fit within the narrative of the story, not to mention a movie less than two hours. For example, my mother was actually married five times; we went across the country about eleven times, etc. We weren't writing a mini-series. There were many other men in her life that we had to sort of mold into a few for the sake of the movie. The character of Jack actually chased us out of the house with a gun, threatening to kill us, but Gavin and I weren't writing a thriller.

A lot of what really happened people didn't believe in the first few drafts, so we transformed a few characters. But we really did go to California, I really did play Romeo, my mother did do coffee enemas! She did quit her job in much the same fashion, although she says she threw more papers in [her boss'] face. We did pick up and leave quite a few different places in the middle of the night, and Mom always said it was a beautiful sunrise.

Was it difficult to step back and fictionalize the events that take place in the story?

It wasn't really difficult to step back. I'd started writing about my mother and me years before, and our life has always been an inside joke between us, so no, it was just fun.

What did you learn growing up that the average kid might not have?

I learned how to leave a man. I learned how to follow truckers on the highway. I learned how to do an enema. I learned how to kiss. I learned how to have the strength to move on. I learned how to budget my finances. Sort of. I learned that everything happens for a reason. I learned how to look at life as a lesson to learn. Most importantly, I learned that if you aren't happy, make yourself happy. And if that involves leaving, then leave.

How did you approach relationships when you started having them? Did you try to do the opposite of everything your mother did? As you've grown into an adult, did you do anything the same?

Well, I got married when I was 21, so I guess I followed in my mother's footsteps. And I am now divorced, so I guess I really did follow an example. When I first started having relationships, I was always the forward one. If I liked some boy, I just went right up and told him so. It worked, sometimes. But I am like my mother in the sense that I am a serial monogamist. I almost always had a boyfriend, one at a time. My mother always said she never cheated, she just divorced and remarried. I do have a different view on marriage now. I hope to do it again and stay in it. More importantly, marry the right man for me.

In the movie, as exasperating as Mary Jo is, Ava defies her but never gives up on her or develops long-term resentment. Presuming that your relationship was/is similar in real life, what did your mom do "right," so to speak? Based on your experiences, what suggestions would you have for single moms juggling daughters (or sons) and dating?

What kept my mother and me together -- and not resenting each other -- was having the foundation of a friendship in the beginning. My mother didn't have a good relationship with her mother and swore that with me she would always respect my opinions, talk to me as an adult, and above all be my friend. I hope to be the same with my children. And I would tell anyone that the best thing to do, no matter what, is to communicate with your children, and your parents. The film is filled with humorous moments and the relationship between the Mary Jo and Ava is often comic.

What role does humor play in a family relationship? Or in a romantic relationship?

Humor is my entire life. Without laughter I would be dead. It is how I have survived; it's how my mother survived. Although I think I laugh at things a little more than she does. You have to laugh. It's just life.

You married the film's director, Gavin O'Connor, when you first began working on the script, divorced somewhere around the third draft, and were still able to keep up a viable creative partnership. How were you able to keep your working -- and non-working -- relationship positive? How can couples going through difficulty to increase their chances of an amicable separation?

Gavin and I were friends before we got married. It's actually one of the main reasons we got married. And when we realized we couldn't live with each other, but still had this wonderful project to work on, we kept working. We stayed friends throughout, although we do have our differences, but doesn't everyone? But I'm friends with almost all of my exes. When you share so much with someone and are that close, I don't see why you have to give up the friendship once the sex is gone. Sometimes they make the best friends, those know you so well.

In the film, Jack Ranson isn't a "bad guy" but he isn't the "right guy" either. A lot of our readers ask, "What should you do when you know you're not with the 'right' person?" How did you handle this is in the film? How does one deal with that situation in real life?

The whole thing with Jack was that we didn't want him to come off as the typical "bad" guy at all. He's just not the right one for Mary Jo. We've all had that, me included. I don't know, if you're with the wrong one, I'm the first one to say "see ya." A lot of times it evolves not hurting someone's feelings, thinking they're not soo bad, you have friends with them, etc. But if you're not happy, and if it doesn't work, you have to get out. I am not a believer in times when people stayed just because they were there, or because of the church, or because of family.

However, I am a believer in THE LIST! My mother used to make lists for houses or jobs she wanted. She'd write everything she wanted down, put it away and hope for the best. And she usually got it. I adapted it to men (or women). You make a list. You write every single thing you ever wanted in your mate. Everything. Mine was five pages. I mean, their looks, their family, their sign, etc. And don't forget what they feel about you. It would suck to meet the perfect one and find they don't feel the same way about you. I wrote things like, "He thinks I'm beautiful, will always be faithful, loves me, wants to have children with me, etc." It's fun. It's a wish list. You write it all down, fold it up and set it aside. And then whoever you meet, you go down your list. See if they meet it, or meet 90% of it. See what you'll settle for. You might not have to.

What's funny is comparing people from your past to your list now, that's a laugh. Twenty to 30 percent [of the qualities match.] Who wants that? And yes, about five months after I wrote my list, I met the perfect man for me and he fit everything on my list, except one thing. He wasn't taller than me. But who cares when he has 99 percent? The list helps you through hard times too. When you're fighting or going through a blah spell, you can refer to your list and realize you found a great one. I'm a BIG advocate for the list. Write it!

Does the film express the things that you wanted it to when you set out to write it?

I love "Tumbleweeds." It actually came out better than I thought it would. I've seen it about 25 times now, and I laugh and cry just as hard.

What does your mom think of the movie?

My mother loves the movie. She gets a kick out of it. She's become a kind of celebrity in her town. Any words for young people who are trying to grow up in an unpredictable situation? Laugh. It's just life, and there's always something to learn.

What's next for you?

The funny thing is, I got exactly what I always wanted from this movie. I am able to do what I love and make money at it. I've always written, since I was young, and I always thought I would do it as a hobby, bury those pages in the back of my closet... And now I am getting paid. I love it. I'm adapting a wonderful book for the screen. "Charms for the Easy Life," by Kaye Gibbons. I love it. I love the way she writes, and it is fun and challenging to get to adapt someone else's work. I still have the novel that "Tumbleweeds" was born from, editing it, etc. I have another novel started that I work on when I have time. I have another screenplay called "Every Tom Dick and Harry" that I just finished, so we'll see.

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