Twice Removed: Your Sister’s Sister Director Lynn Shelton
With her 2009 breakthrough feature, Humpday, Seattle-based filmmaker Lynn Shelton pushed the burgeoning “bromance” genre to the limits, telling the story of two straight friends proclaiming their hipness — and challenging their relationship — by making gay porno. Working collaboratively with her actors, discussing with them plot details and allowing them to improvise scenes, she devised a directorial style melding strong narrative hooks with detailed character work and a feeling of sustained intimacy.
While Humpday was sometimes slotted by critics next to Judd Apatow’s work by virtue of its ribald storyline, it is that film’s other aspects that Shelton has chosen to develop in her successful follow-up, Your Sister’s Sister. Female relationships, not male, are the main focus here, even as a male journey initiates the action. The film opens as Jack (Humpday’s Mark Duplass) makes a drunken mess of himself at his dead brother’s memorial. His best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) urges him to dry out and ponder life’s meanings at her family’s secluded island home. But on arriving he finds there Iris’s sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), whiskey bottle in hand and conducting her own emotional sojourn. She’s just split up from her long-term girlfriend and is at a similar life crossroads. An easy attraction soon cuts across gender preferences, and Jack and Hannah soon find themselves in bed together for some hilariously unspectacular sex — an impetuous act Jack insists on hiding when Iris, who has long harbored a crush on him, arrives on the island too.
The three actors work beautifully with one another. Duplass strikes notes both goofy and sincere in his portrayal of a man whose charm has enabled him to sidestep many of adulthood’s emotional entanglements. Blunt soulfully limns a character whose anger threatens to jeopardize her two deepest relationships. And DeWitt’s Hannah is intelligent, sexy and acerbic — all qualities masking initially a complicated agenda upon which the film’s storyline ultimately revolves. Regulars Ben Kasulke, her d.p., and Nat Sanders, her editor, are by now fully attuned to Shelton’s loose-limbed yet emotionally precise style, and the result pushes her filmmaking to a new level.
To interview Shelton we asked fellow writer/director Ry Russo-Young, a Gotham Award winner (Filmmaker’s Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You Award for You Won’t Miss Me), whose Sundance 2012 Dramatic Competition feature Nobody Walks also stars DeWitt. They talk about improvisation, performance, Shelton’s recent stints directing Mad Men and New Girl, and balancing life and filmmaking.
Your Sister’s Sister opens this June from IFC.
RUSSO-YOUNG: This movie felt to me as if a whole new layer of Lynn Shelton is being revealed, one that draws upon all the work you’ve done in the past. So my first question is, what inspired this film? In some ways it seems like it could be a very personal film, but I have no idea whether it actually is or not.
SHELTON: The actual idea for the film came from Mark [Duplass]. He called and said, “We had such a great time working on Humpday together, do you want to do it again? I have an idea that has been in this vault of movies Jay and I think we might make some day. It feels like we’re not going to make this one because it’s about a brother who has a dead brother, which seems a little too close to home. But I feel like it’s a good starting point for a film.” So, what he pitched me was that you meet this guy at the very beginning of the movie, and he’s in a really bad place emotionally. He lost his brother recently, and his best friend, this girl, sends him up to her family’s place to get his head together. He’s supposed to be alone, and when he gets there, there’s this cool-looking woman, who turns out to be his best friend’s mother. A day or two later the best friend shows up and it would be some kind of a weird love triangle thing. The very first thing I did was switch the mom to a sister, which was more interesting territory for me. The film then became about two sets of siblings. One of them isn’t talked about much because he’s passed away, but he really haunts Mark’s character, and their relationship informs the dynamic of how he deals with the other two women in the film. The heart of the film is these two parallel relationships between siblings.
To get around to how personal this is, I have two stepsiblings: a stepbrother and a stepsister. And I have a real brother who’s five years younger than me. I’m the oldest, and my relationships with my siblings are all incredibly boringly positive. [Laughs] There are no weird layers of baggage between us. I mean, maybe they have them and I don’t realize it, but as far as I know, there’s nothing there. Maybe because of that I’ve always been fascinated by the sibling relationships around me, especially growing up. One of my best friends in high school had this unbelievably volatile relationship with her older sister. The screaming matches, insult hurling and ways they dealt with each other were so intense. And now, they’re the best of friends. It blows me away that they have all that in their past. Another friend in college seemed super-tight with her sister, who was, again, two years apart from her. I was so jealous of their bond but I found out later there were feelings of competition, resentment, betrayals and extreme jealousy between them. I had no idea, because when I was with them, it just felt like nothing but pure love. So that’s always fascinated me. In general, that’s my thing — I’m just endlessly fascinated by people trying to connect with other people, the anatomy of the ways that people relate to each other, especially people who really want to connect, and how difficult and complicated that can be.
RUSSO-YOUNG: I think it really does come through in the movie in terms of feeling the sister’s history. You catch things alluded to that you know are about the intricacies between them. I think that’s one of the things that is so incredible about Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt — the depth with which they seem to approach the characters.
SHELTON: Well, the key to that is the unbelievable amount of back story we all developed together. Unlike Humpday, which was a 10-page outline with no dialogue at all, I had a lot of dialogue written out for this film. I had veteran improvisers on Humpday, and they were perfectly happy just to know the map of the scene and what information needed to be divulged along the way. We just turned the cameras on and they just went. But in this case, because Emily and Rose weren’t veteran improvisers, I didn’t want to make them feel like I was throwing them out there without any kind of safety net. So I had a lot of dialogue written out. It was like a 70 page “script-ment” — some of the scenes were completely written out, and they could then use the lines they liked at their whim. But they were never meant to feel locked in. They were heavily encouraged to just use it as a kind of a starting point and then to just go off, and as they got more comfortable, they did that a lot. And because they’re actors, not writers, in order to have stuff come out of their mouths that felt right, backstories were absolutely key. By knowing their characters’ histories, and their relationships with the person they were in the scene with, it became like second nature. The stuff that came out of their mouths would be more often than not honest and true, because they really understood [their characters]. I never wanted those backstories [explicitly explained], but for you to sense that they were there in the dynamic between the characters.
RUSSO-YOUNG: But that’s how real life is, right? It’s like you only use something that happened two years ago as ammunition when you are in the moment.
SHELTON:Yeah. It could be the basis of a dirty look or a cold shoulder. And the people involved are going to know what it is without having to speak it. So yeah, you’re right, mostly it’s just more real to not have people be constantly bringing up intricate details of something that happened. [Laughs]
RUSSO-YOUNG: So how collaborative is the process of coming up with these back stories or character traits, like Rosemarie’s character being a vegan? Did you all sit together in a room?
SHELTON: I would say that Hannah’s diet is me poking fun at myself and my own elaborately bizarre diet. I’m sort of a fish-eating vegan with a lot of dietary restrictions. I can’t have gluten, I can’t eat soy. I can’t eat dairy and eggs. I choose not to eat meat, but I do eat tons of fish. So I don’t have her diet exactly, but it’s very similar. She makes these pancakes at one point in the movie and those are based on a complete disaster that I once had. I don’t know if we used too much flax, or what it was, but they were horrible. And so, in that instance I [thought about] people in a family having different diets, philosophies of eating. They’re trying to be tolerant of each other, but they’re kind of disdainful too. That was something that I brought, and then it was like tossing a ball back and forth. [The actors] bring in their own little details and after a while you can’t tell where the ideas even come from. And then, half the stuff you come up with isn’t going to stick. It’ll conflict or contradict other things that have to happen, and so you have to just let some stuff go.
RUSSO-YOUNG: How long was this process?
SHELTON: For about eight months I was [talking] every few weeks with the actors individually or in concert. Emily, Mark and I would get on the phone and talk about the history of their friendship; when exactly did she go out with his brother Tom? How long was it? And how did she and Jack’s character get to know each other? We had lots of conversations, and then I would go back and incorporate. The more you get to know the characters, it starts to bleed over into the plot. It’s a very organic process. And the thing that’s nice about [this way of working] is that all the time that we’re collaborating, we’re developing relationships that will then be helpful to the working relationships on set. It’s all in lieu of rehearsal because with improvisation, you never want to rehearse. You want to capture the first rehearsal on film because sometimes that’s the best version. Not always — sometimes you find the scene after doing it a few times. But there was a moment when Emily blushes on the screen for real. I had said to Rose, “Say something to embarrass her,” and she came up with something that made Emily blush. She never would have been able to do that again. You can’t rehearse that kind of thing. The other thing is that when you involve the actors in this way, they really become invested in the project. It makes it really feel like “our movie” instead of “they’re coming to be in my movie.”
RUSSO-YOUNG: I loved working with Rosemarie DeWitt. How did you come to work with her and Emily?
SHELTON: Emily popped into my head really early on. I had been obsessed with her after I’d seen Sunshine Cleaning. When I IMDb’d her and saw that she was the same woman in The Devil Wears Prada, I freaked out because I had not recognized her. That kind of range blew me away. She was my top choice for that role and it turned out that her agent was a big fan of Humpday. He pitched it to her, which was really wonderful because we were a small movie. When I got on the phone and described to her the process, she said, “My favorite film that I ever made was this little gem of a movie that was improvised, and I never thought that I would work that way again.” She had just done some bigger movies and I think she just really did it for the experience of it. I couldn’t believe my luck — it was a very easy yes. And then, Rose actually came in three days before we started shooting because we had another actor who had to drop out. The big difficulty with Rose was that she was still in production on United States of Tara. We had to fly her down twice, and she never slept. She never had a day off because she was either working on Tara or flying or working on our film. She was the savior of the project. When I was trying to think of who to cast, she soared to the top of my list. And it turned out Mark had been accosted by her in the New Orleans airport a year or two before. She had said, “I never do this but I just saw Humpday, and I loved it so much and I thought you were great.” Because he had that conversation with her then about how we made the film, she knew what she was getting into [with Your Sister’s Sister]. She understood the vibe of it.
RUSSO-YOUNG: How many days did you shoot? And tell me about the visual prep and the blocking.
SHELTON: It was 12 days. It was pretty terrifying. It was supposed to be 14 and we were going to shoot the whole thing pretty much in order. And then, we lost a couple of days and we had to shoot everything out of order because of Rose’s schedule. Because I’d made two other movies in this style, shot in order and heavily collaborative with the actors, I thought those [practices] were absolutely essential to this process. So with Your Sister’s Sister I discovered two things. One, you can shoot out of order and it won’t necessarily ruin the whole film. In fact, I will say that in one instance [shooting out of order] was actually extremely helpful. The very last thing we shot was the beginning of the movie, when we’re establishing this very specific, easy kind of friendship between Jack and Iris. Those two actors really bonded throughout [production], so [that scene became] totally real. And then, the other thing I found out was that you can actually recast somebody and it won’t ruin the film either.
RUSSO-YOUNG: What about in terms of improvisation and coverage? That’s something that I struggled with on You Won’t Miss Me — how to cover things when you’re not completely sure, necessarily, who’s going to say what at what time, or shooting wide versus close-up.
SHELTON: Humpday was kind of all in medium close-ups because I wanted to be able to mix and match any of the takes. There were two cameras, and I wanted them to match each other to just have that freedom. But, once we were in the edit room, Nat Sanders, my editor, and I realized it would have been nice to have more variety — two shots and wider shots. A big influence for me [on Your Sister’s Sister] was My Summer of Love, because that was the film that Emily had done that was improvised. It was amazing to look at it again, but the thing that was inspiring to me was knowing that it was improvised and seeing how completely visually stunning it is. It has these beautiful, exquisite, sweeping wide shots, and two-shots where the camera is sort of at an angle and you really see the two people in the context of [their environment]. There was another thing the director, Pawel Pawlikowski, did that I just directly stole: all the wider shots are basically on sticks, but most of the time, the close-ups are handheld. I hadn’t really been sure that you could do that [laughs] but then I saw with this film that you can.
RUSSO-YOUNG: The beautiful shots you have of the lake made the implications of the story larger.
SHELTON: That’s what I was going for. When we were looking for the locations, originally I think Mark’s idea was that somewhere off in the woods there’s this little cabin or house in the country. When I turned the mom into a sister, I knew that this place had to be on an island. It was something really, really instinctual for me. I never really understood why until more recently when I realized, it’s because they have to be physically isolated from the rest of society. That kind of puts you in a specific mindset where behaviors can unfold that wouldn’t in real life, or in the more mundane setting of your normal existence. Once you sort of separate yourself, anything is possible in a way. Certain structures are just taken away. I also loved the idea of all of this drama and heartache and crazy shenanigans happening in the context of this big wide world of nature. It’s like these little humans [laughs] in their little cabin experiencing their specific pains and trials and tribulations, and meanwhile, there’s this gorgeous, big, peaceful bay out front and some gull cracking the clams. There’s just something so poignant to me about that.
RUSSO-YOUNG: It’s almost like our problems are so large to us, and yet in the scope of the world, they’re miniscule.
SHELTON: Exactly. We’re so tiny. But one last thing [about the shooting]: We did use two cameras pretty much all the time. I know not everybody does it with improvisation, but I really love it. There’s two things I love about it. One is that [actors] can’t save up for their side. [Laughs] You know, because people do that. I’ve seen it where they’re there reading their lines with the other person, but they’re not really engaged. [With two cameras] they can’t get away with that because they’re always on camera. And then, the other thing is that they never feel like they have to repeat exactly what they did in the take before, which is very freeing, I think.
RUSSO-YOUNG: How much direction do you give when your actors are improvising? How much are you tweaking the writing or the meaning of the scene in the moment?
SHELTON: Except for tiny little moments here and there, for the most part I haven’t yet engaged in the kind of directing where you’re keeping secrets from actors. Everybody is on the same page. Everything is transparent. They all are in on everything. And then, we continue that process that I talked about where, instead of rehearsing, we’re just talking. While the crew is readjusting the lights, the actors and I are holed up somewhere in a nook or cranny in the house and we’re all just like, “OK, so what’s going on? What needs to unfold?” Hopefully we’re just reiterating what we already know because we’ve already been talking about this for a long time. And any questions that people have, we address. And then, once everyone feels ready, we just turn the cameras on and I just let them go. In general, I really don’t like to interrupt the flow of the scene. Having acted myself, I know what that feels like. There’s a zone you get into, a kind of a groove. Part of your brain knows there’s other people in the room and what’s happening between you and the other actors is not real, but when you really lose yourself to a certain degree in the scene, in the moment, and you’re not self conscious, that’s the best kind of acting. I really find that to be a kind of a sacred thing. But actors will say to me, “It’s OK, I don’t care, feed me a line or tell me what you want me to say,” and I will. There will be a take when I’ll do that. I’ll say, “Could we keep rolling? Could we just go back, like, a couple of lines and just say it in this particular way?” I’ll give them a particular wording or say, “There was a problem. You both overlapped. Could you say those two lines separately?” But in general, I really love to just be able to let them go. I just want them to feel completely emotionally safe so they can take the risks that they need to to get to the good stuff. And a huge ingredient in this process is the edit room, the real place, as with every movie, that the final script gets written. The editor part of my brain is always sort of clocking in the background: “OK, OK, OK, yeah, I’ve got everything. It’s in there. I’ve got it all. We can move on.”
RUSSO-YOUNG: Each take is a full scene?
SHELTON: With Humpday I think we would go generally two, three, four takes. And they’d be long. Sometimes they’d be 40-minute takes, and Nat and I would carve them down to five or 10-minute scenes. The takes [here] were generally a bit shorter. I think they were usually more like 20 or 30 minutes for seven to 10-minute scenes. And then, we would do them a few times because we wanted to get different fields of view. We would start with close-ups and then once we found the scene, we would widen.
RUSSO-YOUNG: You’re directing television now. How is that different for you from a movie like this?
SHELTON: Well, I mean, first of all, the two experiences [in television] that I’ve had were both so fulfilling and so satisfying. [Laughs] I learned so much, about making work in general but also about myself as a director. I had felt like I’d kind of been in my own little world with my own collaborators and my own little weird way of working. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing in a sort of vacuum. The experience of working with crews and actors who have worked with all these different directors — it’s like, “Oh, I did it. I guess I am a real director.” These were my first experiences working on sound stages and with union crews. When I went down to work on Mad Men, it was very intimidating. But then, I found out that my skill set as an independent filmmaker was not only enough, but was actually perfect for the pace of television. I mean, it’s very ambitious what they do. They work so hard and so fast. And I’m really well suited for that kind of work. That was really fun to find out — a real confidence booster. And to actually fulfill someone else’s vision I just found exhilarating. It takes the pressure off. It’s kind of nice not to be the admiral of the fleet for once and just be the captain of the ship, you know?
RUSSO-YOUNG: I feel like directors in general need to pow-wow more about all of these things.
SHELTON: I think about that a lot, actually. On NPR, I think, [there was a show] about coaching. Professional athletes have a coach, somebody they use their whole careers. And musicians — Itzhak Perlman, I think it’s his wife he uses for feedback. And there are actors who have that too, who work with coaches. So I hear what you’re saying. Like, I think it would be so great to have a directing coach, to have somebody come and just watch me and give me feedback on what am I doing and how could I make my work more efficient and [note] where I am falling down. What are my strengths and weaknesses?
RUSSO-YOUNG: Totally. I just shot a commercial and I was asking the d.p., Mark Schwartzbard, on our drive home, “What did I do wrong? Just tell me. I really want to know. What was the one thing that I need to work on?” I just need that negative feedback so I can learn from it and make it positive.
RUSSO-YOUNG: He said, “You were great,” but finally I got one little [criticism] out of him. And I’ve been thinking about it, and he’s so right. Now I’m going to be conscious of that thing and I know I’ll do it better next time. And that’s how you continue to hone your craft.
SHELTON: Exactly. And I think that’s a little bit why I enjoyed working on those TV gigs because I felt like I was able to get a little bit of a reflection. But it’s still different. Like, I’d still love to be able to actually have somebody. [Laughs] Maybe it’s just other directors. Maybe that’s the key, to have other directors who want to come visit the set anyway, and tell them, “I want feedback from you.” And then, sit down and hear it. I think that would be really, really lovely.
RUSSO-YOUNG: Like a sponsorship program.
SHELTON: Yeah, totally.
RUSSO-YOUNG: I have one more question, actually kind of related to these life-management moments we’re talking about here. How are you managing your time these days? I ask because after Nobody Walks I’m reading all these scripts I didn’t write. I don’t know how long it takes you to read a script, but me, if I’m going to read a script and I like it, then it takes a long time to really internalize it, to think about it.
SHELTON: Oh yeah, I know. Me too.
RUSSO-YOUNG: So, between developing your own projects, projects like Your Sister’s Sister, and reading scripts your agent sends you, and then shooting a TV show or a commercial, how do you feel you’re managing all of that? Is it a constant struggle? Is it something where you’re like, “Today I’ll do this?” Or is it just the ebb and flow of it all?
SHELTON: Well one thing I’ve been trying to be really conscious of over the last couple of years is that when there is more of an ebb, when I don’t have as much going on, to be in the domestic sphere of my life. Like, I’ve been in development on this movie Laggies since the summer. I love it. It’s really great. But the process of getting it together, talking through lists of names, trying to attach cast requires an amazing amount of time sucking. Physically [doing this], I’m at home — I’m not on set for 12 hours a day, or in L.A. for five weeks, which I was for New Girl. So [when I’m home] I’m concentrating hard on making sure I’m part of the fabric of my family. You know, my kid just turned 13 and he’s not going to be a kid much longer. That work/life balance is important to me, and it takes a lot of effort because I can just get so distracted and holed away mentally. It’s about remembering that the work doesn’t always come first, that I need to make sure to plan time and trips and quality time. Making sure we’re all eating dinner together, taking my kid to the movies. Sometimes it’s just making sure that there’s time for ordinary stuff like that. That’s helped to ground me and keep me sane. Because when it rains, it pours, and so then when things get really busy I feel like I’ve got a foundation. And I’ll know it’s not going to last forever. I’ll know that it’s going to calm down again at some point. You have to just be constantly vigilant to try and keep a balance. I feel like I’m getting better at it.
(Lynn Shelton portrait by Henny Garfunkel)