Interview: Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister)

Interview: Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister). By Simon Miraudo.

Mumblecore maven Lynn Shelton saw how the other half lived when she directed an episode of Mad Man. It was an experience that left her wondering if rigid scripts were indeed preferable to improvisation. “You mean the words are all here? [Laughs] I don’t have to write all the dialogue on set? This is so wonderful!” As incredible as Mad Men is, the results of Shelton’s feature films indicate her loosey-goosy process works just fine. Her most recent picture, Your Sister’s Sister, follows in the footsteps of 2009’s impressive Humpday; once again we have three characters caught in a love triangle like you’ve never seen. Mark Duplass stars as the grieving Jack, who is offered the opportunity to work through his troubles at a remote cabin by his late brother’s ex, Iris (Emily Blunt). He doesn’t expect to run into Iris’ lesbian sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), at the house, but the two of them share the space, spill their sorrows, and drunkenly fall into bed with one another. Iris, harbouring romantic feelings for Jack, arrives the next morning, and hilarious, low-key, semi-improvised, occasionally heart-breaking shenanigans ensue.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s review of Your Sister’s Sister here.

We spoke to Shelton about encouraging her actors to fall on their faces, working in the tightly-scripted world of TV, and how the movie was originally conceived as Your Daughter’s Mother.

SM: I understand Mark Duplass brought the idea of Your Sister’s Sister to you, but at the time it involved him sleeping with his friend’s mother instead of the sister. What inspired you to make that change?

LS: I think that would have been a really interesting film, certainly, but I think because with Mark’s character the idea was that he’d lost his brother. We have a lot of back story about the brothers and how they weren’t really getting along so well when one passed away, and really the whole sibling relationship was so dominant for him that I really liked the idea of there being a parallel-lives version of a sibling relationship. I thought that if it was two sisters instead of a mother /daughter, it would enable the film to take on themes that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. Because he has this privileged perspective, having lost a brother, on what sibling relationships could be or should be that they don’t have. I thought it would be a nice dynamic. That’s the main thing for me. The idea of the parallel sibling relationships.

SM: I’m interested in your process when you write these films, or outline them at the very least. Do you talk aloud to yourself to get a feel for who the characters are and what they say, and figure out the best and most natural plot progression? How much do you leave for the actual shoot?

LS: It sort of changes project to project, but this one was… let’s see, how can I explain it…hmm. I had a rough outline before I started talking to the actors. It becomes such an organic process; I like to involve the actors early on. So early on, in fact, I end up writing the part for them. They’re not playing themselves, but they’re so involved in the development of their own characters that I feel like there’s overlap between themselves and their characters. It really helps. That’s where the inspiration comes from for who these people are and where the story comes from and plays out. Sometimes I’ll come up with an idea for what something I want to happen in the plot and then I’ll go to the actors and say, “How can we make this viable? How can we make these credible stories for these characters? How can we manoeuvre these two things together side by side?” So, it’s a really interesting way to work; developing the back story the same time you’re developing the storyline. And it really helps create a sense of credibility to the whole thing. That’s what I’m going for: the idea or the feeling that these people are real that you’re seeing on screen, and not just cardboard cut-outs. That really helps.

SM: Speaking of the actors, you obviously worked with Mark on Humpday, and he’s a fantastic improviser. Tell me about getting Rosemarie and Emily involved.

LS: Emily was at the top of my list for that particular role. I had been kind of obsessed with her; I get hooked on particular actors [laughs]. I had seen her in Sunshine Cleaning and I did not recognise that she was the same actress I’d seen in The Devil Wears Prada two months before. When I realised that, I was taken, even more so than before. Because no matter what kind of role, or who’s she’s playing, she’s always so incredibly believable and such a… I don’t know. She just has an incredible on-screen presence and so on and so on. She’s fantastic. So, she popped into my head for this role and I really didn’t know if she’d have any interest in doing a tiny improvised film. Luckily, her agent is actually a big fan of Humpday, so he got her on the phone, and I described to her what the Humpday process had been like and if she’d be interested in something like this, and she said, “I actually did this once before. A little gem of a film that’s one of my favourite films that I ever made and I never thought I’d ever have the opportunity to do it again. My Summer of Love, my very first film.” So, that was nice because I knew she’d done something similar at least once before. Because you never really know what will happen when you get on the set. Will they be able to do it if they’ve never done it before? It really is a gut instinct thing. For Rose, she always seems to me like she’s improvising. Her naturalism is so extreme and her intelligence in all performances. I just had a feeling. I’m sure you know, she came in three days before the shoot to replace the original actress [Rachel Weisz] that we’d lost quite tragically. I mean, not that she died..

SM: Oh God.

LS: [Laughs] Unavoidably.

SM: I did not know that, actually.

LS: Oh, yeah, it was insane. Rose came in and was our saving angel. She completely saved it, because we couldn’t move. We had the location, we had the crew; everything was underway and we couldn’t shift it. I was in total panic mode when we lost the original actress, and as soon as I thought of Rose, she not only shot to the top of my replacement wish list, I also thought to myself, “If I can get her, I will be OK. The movie will be fine.” I don’t know why. I didn’t know her, and I’d never worked with her. I just had this feeling that she would be great, and she was.

SM: Once you get onto the set – it’s been a long time between My Summer of Love and Your Sister’s Sister for Emily – how do you gain the actors trust for this improv? To encourage them to go where they think is right and not second guess themselves?

LS: Well, first of all, one of the advantages of working with these actors for months on the back-story is that we all end up sharing intimacies. We end up telling stories of our lives and getting to know one another, and I think that helps on set. Once on set, I have a very small and select crew. They’ve all worked with me before, and they know exactly what I’m going for, which is a completely actor-centered set. I try to keep it an incredibly emotionally safe environment. Acting is intimidating enough, but improvising is so risky; it’s a serious thing to do, so I want to make sure they feel completely at ease and also that they know they can fall on their faces and no one will laugh at them [laughs].

SM: There will be no blooper reels on the DVD.

LS: Right.

SM: With all this improv going down, was there any particular moment that wasn’t even in your outline and emerged on the set that was really special or significant?

LS: Well, not in terms of plot. It’s worked out, because I want it to have structure, so it wasn’t anything plot wise or twist wise. But constantly with dialogue. That was really the improvised part, and sometimes it’s just about taking the words I’ve written and changing the order and changing the wording a little bit, but sticking pretty closely to my original concept. And then sometimes it would go completely off the map. And usually when Mark was involved, because he really likes to lead us off on a grand adventure with every take. It happened all the time. The thing that’s really painful is in the edit room; all the stuff you have to let go of. So much brilliance happens, and you have to leave it all behind because it might not all be in service of the film overall, unfortunately. T one that comes to mind immediately is the “bush” story [laughs], because that was a situation where I was trying to look for a specific turn in the dynamic. A dynamic shift between what was going on. I said to Rose that she needed to embarrass Emily; Hannah needed to embarrass her sister. She thought for a second and said, “I think I have something.” Nobody knew. She didn’t tell me, she didn’t tell anyone. That’s just a perfect illustration of how perfect improv can be, because we actually captured Emily blushing bright red, completely mortified, and unable to speak for a while. We had to do a couple more takes to get her to respond with words. It was hysterical. That’s just not something you can capture any other way.

SM: That line being crossed by a sister who thinks it’s an OK thing to discuss at a dinner table.

LS: Right, but that sense of surprise. If we had that all written out, it would have been hard to manufacture that blush. That’s the beauty of it.

SM: You’ve directed an episode of Mad Men, and that show is very tightly scripted, and it has a guy like Matthew Weiner tightly orchestrating every moment. Was that a relief or a tough adjustment?

LS: That particular experience was one of the highlights of [laughs] my life in the last decade. It was really a spectacular experience. I also did an episode of a show called New Girl. I liked both experiences very much, and a lot of that has to do with it feeling like a great exercise to do exactly what I do as a director – you have to make a lot of decisions; you’re captain of the ship, so to speak, and you have to be working very intensively with all of the collaborators that the shot is going to work and the shape of the scene is there and all that – but in service of somebody else’s vision. I’m the captain of the ship but not the admiral of the fleet. There was something extra hard about it, but also extra liberating, you know? It’s nice sometimes to not have to be the one who’s completely responsible for the writing of the script for instance. Deeply satisfying, but I also learned so much. Working with a whole new crew and set of actors. I didn’t choose them and they didn’t choose me. You’re just all sort of thrown in together and you have to make the best of it. It was lovely. They all treated me so well. It was fantastic. I loved it. And the word-perfect part of it had a profound on me. I just shot a new movie called Touchy Feely which is much more scripted than the last few movies I’ve made, because working on Mad Men was like, “You mean the words are all here? [Laughs] I don’t have to write all the dialogue on set? This is so wonderful!” I really saw the advantages. It had been so long since I worked like that, it was a revelation.  It made me actually want to go back and see what that was like myself.

SM: I understand you’ve completed shooting on Touchy Feely. Looking back on it, do you any recognise any recurring themes or elements that were in your first few features?

LS: Themes? Thematically?

SM: Yeah, with My Effortless Brilliance, and Your Sister’s Sister, and Humpday, there are these intimate locations, and in the latter two films there are these semi-romantic threesomes, and these interesting mix-ups.

LS: It was a departure in several ways, but I think it will be a recognisable Lynn Shelton film as well. It’s a departure in that there are more than three characters and more than one location, which is essentially what the last few films had been based on. It was probably fifteen or eighteen locations; an ensemble cast; multiple storylines that kind of intersect with one another. At the core is a dysfunctional family unit; a brother and a sister. The sister [Rosemarie Dewitt] is a massage therapist who loses her ability to do her job because she can’t work with human bodies anymore; she feels this repulsion to bodies. And her brother is played by Josh Pais, and he’s a dentist, and he’s on a journey of self-discovery. Then her niece and his daughter, played by Ellen Page, is stuck in her life as well. So, there’s a larger cast and more storylines, but in each of the stories are intimate themes and two or three characters. I’m really curious to see what people think of it. You couldn’t call it a comedy by any stretch of the imagination. It’s definitely a drama. It has some laughs, but it’s a slightly different genre. It’s definitely on the drama side.

Your Sister’s Sister arrives in Australian cinemas September 6, 2012.

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