With its provocative storyline and immaculately indie street cred, Lynn Shelton's entertaining 2009 hit Humpday earned her a load of admirers. With it-girl Emily Blunt headlining her latest effort, Your Sister’s Sister (TFF 2012), Shelton is likely to break open to an even wider audience; this development could not be more welcome in an era where many are clamoring for female directors to make an authentic impact on the cinematic landscape.
Your Sister’s Sister also stars Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass, the latter being an actor with whom Shelton also collaborated on Humpday. The winsome Duplass is one-half of the filmmaking duo the Duplass brothers—along with his brother Jay—and he also acts. (Now more and more regularly—Mark is the lead in the current indie hit Safety Not Guaranteed, and he has a regular role on FX's The League.) Shelton and Duplass are part of a current trend in extreme realism filmmaking: they work closely with actors who largely improvise lines from a basic plot or premise, and they try to film in chronological order whenever possible. As a result, the characters feel wholly natural; as Shelton says, the actors fit into the roles like “a second skin.”
We sat down recently with the gracious—and gorgeous!—Shelton at a downtown hotel, where she explained her process, her fascination with sibling relationships, and the resilience she dug up when she had to replace one of her leads three days before the shoot.
Tribeca: Tell us a little about Your Sister’s Sister.
Lynn Shelton: There are two best friends—a guy (Jack) and a girl (Iris)—and Jack is not in a very good place because he’s lost his brother recently. Iris thinks he should get away to get his head together, and so she sends him up to her family’s getaway. He thinks he’s going to be alone there, but instead he encounters her older sister Hannah, who’s also trying to get some alone time and isn’t in a very good spot herself. So they have a sort of awkward—but ultimately intimate—evening together. Iris shows up the next day, and things get interesting and messy after that.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story, both as a writer and as a director?
Lynn Shelton: Well, I am interested in content that seems like it will provide interesting territory to explore—that’s kind of how I think about it: interesting terrain. Mark Duplass called me with… the same pitch that I just gave you, except that when Jack goes up to the getaway, it was his best friend’s mother that he encounters. This original idea was a sort of seedling for a movie [from the] Duplass brothers’ filmmaking pantry, and they realized that since it featured a guy who lost his brother recently, it was probably going to be a little too close to home for them to tackle themselves. But he still thought it was a great idea and he wanted to be in it, so he proposed it to me.
I wanted to work with Mark again—we really are a good fit as collaborators. And I really liked the idea of changing the mom to the older sister because I liked the idea of having two parallel sibling relationships. [Even though you only see him in photographs,] the dead brother Thomas is such a presence: in the relationship between Jack and Iris—they would have never met or become friends were it not for him—and because he just weighs so heavily on Jack’s soul and informs how he interacts with the others. Jack can also see the sister-ship in a way that the women can’t, because they don’t understand how tragic it is to lose a sibling. So it’s ultimately about two sets of siblings and how their lives intertwine.
I have really uncomplicated relationships with my siblings, but I have observed unbelievably complicated, rich, dense, fascinating relationships between siblings around me. In general, as a filmmaker, I’m drawn to relationships where people desperately want to connect, but it’s not easy for them, for one reason or another. Siblings have such a shared history, and there are all kinds of resentments that you don’t want to hold on to, but that end up coming up—past betrayals, jealousies, competitiveness... I thought that would be really fun to explore.
Tribeca: How do you work with your actors? How much is improvised? Were they involved in the script development along the way?
Lynn Shelton: Yes, which is why I give them creative consultant credits. I invited the actors in early on—Mark was obviously in on the ground floor because he had the idea for the movie—but the other two as well. Over the course of about eight months, I would have conversations with them every few weeks. So it wasn’t like Mike Leigh, who spends 6 months in a room with the actors workshopping, but the idea is that they are helping to figure out who the characters are, so they can kind of slip into those characters like a hand into a glove; it’s like a second skin, they really know who they are. It helps in the improvisation, because if you really understand who you are to each other and what your backstories are, it’s a lot easier to just open your mouth and have what comes out makes sense. It also invests them in the project—there are so many great reasons to work this way.
Tribeca: So that happens while you are writing?
Lynn Shelton: Yes, it’s in tandem. [The communication] kind of goes in both directions—it bleeds into each other. I am the final arbiter about what’s going to end up happening—which is why I get the writing credit—but they are incredibly helpful and engaged in that whole process.
After these conversations, I went down to LA and we spent a weekend together, which is another great thing about this whole process: you’re creating intimacy, which really can be helpful on the set. That sense of trust is essential, especially when you’re improvising—it’s incredibly risky and scary. [When you feel that] vulnerable, it’s really helpful if you feel emotionally safe with your collaborators, so getting to know each other is a big part of that development phase as well.
Meanwhile, I’m working on the treatment, or the script, and I’m sharing all the current updated versions. In the case of Humpday, by the time we got to set there was just a 10-page outline—there was no dialogue at all, because both Josh [Leonard] and Mark were veteran improvisers. But Rose and Emily were not veteran improvisers, and I wanted them to not feel like I was just throwing them out there without a safety net. So I wrote dialogue for most of the scenes—it was like a 70-page script, with some scenes—so I called it a “script-ment”—but I told them, “I’m going to push you to not say these lines. I mean, if you like them, please feel free to use them, but instead of memorizing every single line and getting it grooved into your brain, just glance at the scene the night before, get a sense of what the tone of it is and where it needs to go.” It’s all in the quest for extreme naturalism—[my goal was to] just make it feel as real as possible.
Tribeca: Were you able to shoot chronologically? I know the Duplass brothers like to work that way.
Lynn Shelton: We would have, but three days before the shoot, we lost our original older sister. Rose was a last-minute savior to the project. It was a miracle that she could do it, especially because she was in production on The United States of Tara , and her producers very, very kindly figured things out for her. When we got Rose, we asked her to rename the character, to put her stamp on it. But we lost 2 days of shooting, which was terrifying, because it was already only 14 days—which I didn’t think was going to be enough—and then it went down to 12, so we had to shoot things out of order. We could shoot chunks [in a row], like when Rose first showed up, we shot the whole first series of scenes between Hannah and Jack. But for practical reasons, we had to shoot all the sister scenes in bed on the same night—that kind of thing.
Sometimes it’s not such a terrible thing. For example, we shot the first two scenes in the movie at the very end of the shoot, and that was fantastic because by the time we shot the scene where you get to know what the relationship is between Iris and Jack, Emily and Mark were best friends. They had a genuine chemistry and rapport that they could just exude on screen.
Tribeca: Can you just talk about your advice for people looking to get their first movie off the ground?
Lynn Shelton: These chamber piece movies that are sort of a microcosmic look at interpersonal dynamics between human beings—I feel really lucky that these are my interest, because it means I can just pick up a couple of cameras and a group of my friends and go off and do it. I don’t have to hunt for millions of dollars and compromise my script for the producers who are worried about making millions of dollars back again, or finding a name actor. I can just make my movies.
So if that kind of territory interests you—especially if you are starting out—because of the accessibility of digital technology, you can really get high, high quality image from cameras that are not that out of range, financially speaking, so there is really no excuse not to just get out there. I mean, you can’t tell every kind of story this way—you’re going to compromise a big sci-fi epic, probably [laughs], unless you figure out a way to do it all by computer—but really, I would just say go out and do it.
TRibeca: What did you learn on this film that you hadn’t learned before?
Lynn Shelton: Humpday was shot totally in order, with the actors that I had built the movie for, so it was good to figure out with Your Sister's Sister: “Oh, you can shoot out of order and it will still work, and you can replace an actor—amazingly—and it will still work.” Because we’d already put in that time—I had a whole character and backstory bible that I could hand to Rose. Then she and Emily were able to stay up late at night—we were all living and bunking together—and she could sort of grow her own self for the role. Rose talks about how, in a way, it was kind of useful to not have time to overthink it, and just to dive in headfirst. I am still just astounded at what I see on screen, considering how she had no prep time.
But I also learned that… Humpday was pretty much all shot in single closeups, and the reason was that I wanted to be able to mix and match all of the takes, and I didn’t want to have them repeat something with a wider shot, so I just chose a field of view and I stuck with it for both cameras for every take. I actually think it works pretty okay for that movie, because it was so “on the edge of your seat, what’s going to happen next, who’s going to say what?”
But with this film, it was really nice to realize that I could figure out how to get some two-shots and some wide shots, and some more variety, and make it more visually dynamic. So that was another lesson.
Tribeca: Switching gears, what’s your favorite New York movie?
Lynn Shelton: It has to be a Woody Allen movie. You know, I’m so obsessed with Hannah and her Sisters and Manhattan lately, but it probably has to be Annie Hall.
Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
Lynn Shelton: It would have to be Woody Allen. [Laughs.] He’s all I talk about lately!
Lynn Shelton is best known for the 2009 hit Humpday, winner of a special jury prize at Sundance and the John Cassavetes Award. Her first narrative feature, We Go Way Back, won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance in 2006. Her second, My Effortless Brilliance, earned her the Independent Spirit “Someone to Watch” Award.
Your Sister's Sister opens Friday, June 15. Find tickets. Note: Lynn Shelton will be at the June 15 screenings at IFC Center: she will do Q&As following the 7:20 and 8:20 shows, and she will intro the 9:20 show.
Watch the trailer: