Your Sister’s Sister – Interview with director Lynn Shelton

She may look like a leading lady, but Lynn Shelton prefers life behind the camera. meets the writer/director of very smart, very funny Your Sister’s Sister in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel

Having broken through with her third feature, 2009’s Humpday, Shelton delivers her finest film yet with this week’s ‘Your Sister’s Sister’, a three-hander that manages that perfect Woody Allen cauldron of comedy and tragedy. Not so much In Her Shoes as In Her Pants, indie pin-up Mark Duplass is the grieving, groping, moping Jack, crazy about best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), but dumb enough to have a one-night stand with her sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt). Iris’ lesbian sister, Hannah.
Much merriment, soul searching and sibling rivalry ensues, the three cast members improvising pretty much all the dialogue as they try and find their way to the all-important happy ending that we all want and cinema so very often delivers. Only this is a low-budget film from a smart, independent filmmaker, so, who knows where love will grow?

A hit at Dublin’s whiskey-fueled big film shindig in February, we met up with Shelton at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel to talk movies, and marriage…

Q: Mark brought the idea to you, and Emily has said that about 85% of what’s up on screen is improvised – completely exhilarating or terrifying, starting out your 12 days of shooting not knowing exactly what you’re gong to get?
LYNN SHELTON: Well, my previous film to this, Humpday, was a 10-page outline. I had no dialogue written at all, and so this was actually a little easier. I had a bigger safety net, because I wrote about 70 pages of dialogue. Basically because the women weren’t as used to improvising at Mark was, and so I wanted them to feel emotionally safe. I didn’t want to throw them out there without a net. It was meant to be a little launching-off point, or if they liked a line, they could hold on to it – it was never meant to be something that was locked in.
I’m an editor by trade, before I was a filmmaker, and I think that helps a great deal, because there’s a part of my brain that’s plotting. I know what I need, you know, and I know when I’ve got it, as the scene is unfolding. And I had two cameras, and I just let them meander. And it’s fine, because I’m going to carve it all out later; my editor and I will get the meat cleavers out.
It’s a lot like editing documentary, actually, and it can very stressful, I will admit. When I worked on Mad Men, it was the first time I’d worked with a script for quite some time, but it was such a well-written script, you have to be word-perfect. Creator Matt Weiner is extremely passionate about that, which is totally called for, and it was so delightful… That was when I realized, oh my God, what I do is so stressful. This is so easy! I got the lines, the right words already, right here on set. And it made me excited enough to make my next script completely scripted. Well, we’ll see; I would like to do a scripted movie at some point.
Still, I find there’s a distinct quality that’s really hard to achieve any other way. There’s a freshness to it, and it keeps the actors so engaged. They’re not waiting for their close-up, because the cameras are always on, and they really have no idea of what’s going to come out of the other person’s mouth, specifically. So, it keeps them really, really in it.

Yeah, there are many different versions of the film available to you, but really, the shooting ratio isn’t all that high – so, you end up editing 25 or 30 hours, which is nothing, compared to most features. But, again, because I’m clocking when I’m on set, I know when I’ve got it. It’s not just going take after take after take, looking for endless variations. I should say, the plot is insidiously figured out beforehand. So, that’s already there – it’s just how things unfold.
There’s no real rehearsing, because with improvisation, you know that the first time they do it is usually the best time – but we would talk and talk and talk, and make sure that everyone knows where the scaffolding is, which sort of emotional milestones they have to meet to get through the scene, what arc they have to travel. We make sure that everyone is onboard, and then, okay, let’s just go for it.
So, it’s a very specific process – it’s exhilarating, it’s terrifying [laughs], and for the actors too, they really have to trust that I’m not going to make them look bad. Because half the time the stuff they come out with, they’re falling on their face, and it can look like paint drying. And they have to be okay with that, and just risk doing it. Luckily, they all totally did. They were all so gung-ho.

Do you think about the commercial aspect, about accessible your film is going to be to a wide audience? Your Sister’s Sister is a real crowd-pleaser…
I feel lucky in that, as an artist, basically I’m pleasing myself. I’m doing something that feels genuine and feels smart, and I’m not interested in making a film that is incredibly straight, for example. I can’t imagine making a movie that’s a drama with no laughter, because it’s not in my nature, somehow. I think they’re two sides of the same coin, and that they’re very connected, and I can’t imagine making a pure comedy either – a film that doesn’t have the pain of the other side of coin.

It’s what drives Woody Allen, that tiny line between comedy and drama. As he says, comedy is tragedy plus time…
I love drama, and I love comedy, and I feel that I can do both, that I can get the drama in there and the comedy will just naturally happen.
But, to answer your earlier question, I don’t feel the need to make a film more commercial or accessible to the masses, but I do think about how clear a film might be. I want to communicate to the audience, but I’m not trying to please them.

You’ve worn quite a few hats in this industry before settling on writer and director. Always the plan, or did it all just happen?
I had a very long, circuitous route to this point. I started out in the theatre, as an actor, in my twenties, then moved from Seattle to New York to follow that. But theatre and I had a falling out – it wasn’t a very healthy activity for me after a while. And it wasn’t fulfilling all my creative needs, and so I went to graduate school in photography, and that’s where I discovered film and video and I started making little handcrafted and completely uncommercial art films. Little experimental films, documentaries, and things. But I was editing as well.
I was editing other people’s movies, moved back to Seattle, and because it was such a small community there, I ended up editing shorts, features, everything. And that’s when I realized, oh, I could do this. I didn’t direct my first feature until I was on the cusp of my forties, but I don’t think I could have done it before. I didn’t have the confidence, and I also didn’t…
Everything that I did – the acting, the photography, the editing – it all added up. So, when I got on the set of my first feature, I thought, oh my God, this is always what I was supposed to do. But I couldn’t have done it any earlier. It was a very interesting experience, a revelation. And because I could see down the other side of the hill, I just always had a real sense of urgency. So, in the last seven years, I’ve done four features, I’m about to shoot another, and a couple of web series. I’ve really kept busy at it, and had a real sense of urgency.

Kathryn Bigelow has said that she still finds it funny when people treat her differently because she’s a woman. Have you experienced that?
No, I never thought about it at all, and I think a lot of that has to do with the community I work in. In Seattle, there are a lot of other female filmmakers, and producers, and it’s a very estrogen-soaked community, which is wonderful. And I’ve worked with many, many men too, who all seem to be in touch with their feminine side. None of them seem to be bothered by having a woman as their boss, so, it’s never been an issue.
It’s a totally non-issue for me. It’s something that comes up again and again though, especially at festivals – ‘What’s it like, being a woman in this industry?’ – and I just don’t have any problem with it. I don’t have anything to compare it with either. Then I’d hear these horror stories, of women working in the deep south, wherever, and they would have to turn into this raging bitches to get any kind of credence or respect. So, then I started to understand why this was a running theme.
And then I went along to a film festival and seeing a package of shorts, and all the filmmakers were there, and they all lined up, and they were all white, and all under 25, and all boys. And that’s when I thought, oh, I guess that’s why I stick out. I was sitting with my friend, Barry Jenkins, who’s a young African-American, and a wonderful director, and we said, ‘Ah, now I get it!’. I hope it stops being an odd occurrence, to see us there…

The acting side – is that a busman’s holiday, just a break away from the plotting, planning and shooting of your own films?
The key reason for me to take roles, when I’m asked by friends to, is really just to retain a deep empathy with my actors when I’m directing. Because it really is the hardest job on the set, to be emotionally available, and able to convey everything they have to, with all the time pressures, and all the technical difficulties, whilst having all these people standing around watching them – all that stuff. I really try and create the best performance-centric set that I possibly can. And so, yeah, it really just keeps me closer to their process, and empathetic with them. And I’m very careful about the projects I act in, because I don’t want to ruin anybody’s movie [laughs]. Because I don’t do it all the time, and it really does take a lot of practice and preparation. It’s something I do take seriously, and I have to feel a real kinship to the role, I have to believe that I can do it. It’s enjoyable, but it’s not something I want to go out on auditions for.

Movies like Humpday and this one will put you on Hollywood’s radar – have you been approached about working in the mainstream, where you’ll no doubt have to work with Kathryn Heigl at some point…
It would have to be a really, really specific romantic comedy, because for me, if I can tell where a movie’s going to end up by the tenth page, I’m really not interested. I immediately lose interest. I think about movies like Broadcast News and The Philadelphia Story… there are certain key romantic comedies that are really special, and really don’t end up somewhere you weren’t expecting, and they say something real about the world. So, I’m not all that interested in the Hollywood route. I have so many friends who would love to direct a big romantic comedy, but I really have no interest in that. I’ll keep working small if I need to, because I need to stay true to my voice. If it’s a bigger comedy, I have to believe that I can bring something to it, that it’s a good fit.

Is it a struggle, getting to make your movies. You’re already working on your next, Touchy Feely, with Ellen Page, Ron Livingston and Ms DeWitt.
I have found a way of making films where I don’t have to wait around and have lots and lots of people have to give me permission to make my movies. There are several of us out there, actually, me and a bunch of friends making small movies that don’t need a lot of people involved.
Here we have a movie with three people and a handful of locations – that’s doable, you know. Smaller crew, costs a lot less, and people have to be willing to defer their payment until we sell the film – we’re all basically stakeholders in it – but because we’re not spending millions and millions of dollars, it’s never going to be a disaster. It’s a couple of weeks of people’s time, and we will all have a wonderful time too. If there’s a film at the end of it, all the better.

Your Sister’s Sister hits Irish screens June 29th

Article written by P Byrne
(Interview took place in Dublin during the Jameson Dublin Film Festival)