The US writer-director discusses teaming up with mumblecore mainstay Mark Duplass on her latest feature, Your Sister's Sister.
Since bursting onto the indie scene with her 2009 Sundance hit Humpday, Lynn Shelton has been quietly honing her writer-director skills in her native Seattle. The result is Your Sister's Sister, a heavily improvised romantic drama which stars Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt alongside long-time Shelton collaborator and mumblecore mainstay Mark Duplass. LWLies caught up with Shelton recently to chat about her journey as a filmmaker.
LWLies: Do you watch your films after you’ve made them?
Shelton: Oh yeah, I keep hearing about directors like Woody Allen who never watch their films and I can’t even fathom that! That’s the pay off. You spend all of this time and to actually get to sit in an audience and go on that journey with the film is just incredible.
Does that interaction help to inform your growth as a filmmaker?
You know I’m not sure. I was on the jury at Sundance this year and off all the films there, there was this clear split of crowd-pleasers and crowd-challengers. I feel really lucky that I’m generally not too concerned with the audience when I’m making a film. I’m making a film that pleases me first. I don’t think I’d be capable of making a film that didn’t have some humour in it, but at the same time I’m not attracted to making a pure comedy, where it’s broad and jokey and doesn’t come out of fully fleshed out characters living lives that are recognisable to the audience. It’s a very specific combination that I go for, but I’m just not interested in making films that are antagonistic or provocative.
Your humour comes out of a really natural place.
Yeah, the kind of humour I’m interested in is natural, authentic humour. It’s that whole ‘it’s funny because it’s true’ thing; that’s what I’m aiming for. The characters, their relationships, their flaws and the mistakes they make have to feel recognisable. I want the characters to endear themselves because of their flaws and their mistakes, rather than in spite of. That’s why I think that human beings are so heartbreakingly lovable, because we are all so far from perfect, you know. I think it’s important to acknowledge that.
You do emphasise the inherent goodness in your characters though.
Well I guess I want them, if they make silly mistakes or blunders, to show that their hearts are in the right place. I want the audience to not necessarily know how they feel about a character when they meet them, but I definitely want them to empathise with them eventually. You end up forgiving Jack for his faults because you recognise that he needs some healing and you want better for him. It’s tough trying to find that tonal balance, and I was worried at times that it was just going to become soap opera. But everyone was on high alert to make sure it always felt grounded and mature, there’s a certain trust you have to have in the people you surround yourself with to make the film.
On paper we can imagine it might read like a sitcom – it’s not massively original and what happens to these people is kind of predictable. But it totally works, and there are so many films that try to do something similar and come of as corny or contrived. It actually reminds us, in a naturalistic sense, of Blue Valentine, which Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams spent months together preparing. How much do you need everyone to commit beforehand in order to find that tone?
What’s fascinating is that I really like to invite the actors into the process while the plot is still half-baked. I don’t ever want to decide for them who the characters are, and I really want them to feel invested in the film, which I feel they do when they’re being treated as true collaborators. Also, the character will fit them like a glove if they’re part and parcel of the development of their character. And when I’m asking them to improvise the dialogue it’s important to have tonnes and tonnes of backstory so you know exactly what’s happened with you and the other person in the scene. It creates a context that really makes the improv there because the chemistry is just there. So I worked for a number of months with the actors on the phone, and then I’d go off and work more on the treatment and I’d send it too them while I was working on it, so it was very transparent. And then we all got together in the summer for a couple of days and fleshed things out. It’s funny because whenever you’re working with improv you end up going down a lot of blind alleys because not everything can be used, you have to pick and chose the ideas that work best in the context of the film, which aren’t always the best or the most exciting. But we lost our original actor who was supposed to play Hannah, and Rose came in very late, literally three days before we started shooting. Had you heard about that?
Okay. I’ll go back to start: Mark Duplass brought me a kernel of an idea for a film that he and his brother had had. It was about a guy who had lost his brother recently, and they’d decided that it was probably not going to be something that they were going to direct anytime soon because it was just so close to home for them. Since we’d had such a great time with Humpday I guess he called up and pitched it to me. At that point one of the key elements of the film was absent, which was that instead of being sisters it was going to be a guy and his girl best friend, and her mother as the third side of love triangle. I think Mark had in mind that it would be a very traditional love triangle, but that was really all that he brought me. So I very quickly changed it to a sister, so that you now have these parallel sibling relationships where everyone is trying to work something out.
Anyway, I worked with these actors for two or three months before we started shooting, and then one of them dropped out three days before. By that point we couldn’t change anything, we were locked in with only two weeks to shoot, and I thought it was dead in the water because we’d worked so collaboratively together. But then I realised that I had such a thorough character profile that all I really needed was a great actor to come in and just do it. As soon as I thought of Rose I knew we’d be fine if she said yes. And Mark had a feeling she would say yes because she’d accosted him a few years ago at New Orleans airport saying how much she loved Humpday. So she was totally gung-ho, but she was still completing some work on a TV show for the first 12 days of the shoot so we had to fly her back-and-forth from New York to LA. As you can imagine it was pretty exhausting for her. It was nuts.
You never considered open casting, which admittedly would’ve been a nightmare within the time frame?
No, but the thing is I’ve never done that. After my very first feature, which was a much more traditional movie making experience, I’ve really had in mind people I want to work with. As a director I just completely fall in love with certain actors and start fantasise about having them in my films. Then I start to think about roles and characters and scenarios to pitch to them. And I go with my gut. So in terms of replacing this actor I just knew, even though Rose had never improvised before, she’s so emotionally available and so intelligent that I knew it would just work. It was instinctive.
How much of the dialogue is improvised?
All of it. There’s about 10 pages of plot structure, and then it’s all improv dialogue on top.
In Mark’s original idea was the location there?
Interestingly he has access to some family property up in Maine, so his original setting for it was the beginning of a rooftop in Brooklyn and they end up in the middle of a snowy, cabin in the woods kind of place. But I pretty quickly reset it to an island, because living in Seattle that’s what I know, being so close to the Puget Sound. There’s this really specific kind of beauty and remoteness there. It’s an important location because it allows the characters to not be themselves, to do things unexpected or out of character. They’re essentially cut off from the bounds of civilisation it puts them in this different space. You’re separated from societal norms.
They’re essentially contained together within this cabin, even though they’re actually in the middle of this vast wilderness.
Yeah, I really wanted to do something different from Humpday, too, which was basically all close-up. And it came from a practical measure because if you’re improvising every scene you need every shot to match and so I stuck to one field of view, a medium close-up. But with this I wanted a range of shots, I wanted to have more choice in the edit room so that I could create more of a sense of place, and have you be aware of that environment. What was actually a huge inspiration was when I called Emily to pitch the idea and describe what the process would be like, she said that her very favourite film that she did was My Summer of Love, which unbeknownst to me, even though I’d seen it, was largely improvised. So I went back to it and looked at it again it was such a huge inspiration to me, I really used that as a sort of template visually. I wanted to push myself in that direction.
What draws you to human stories?
My own personal fascination with people and relationships. I’m completely in love with human beings. Not just men or women but all of humanity. I’m deeply moved by how flawed we all are, and how flawed our interactions are, how desperately we want to connect with other human begins and how very rare it is that those connections are uncomplicated. They’re so often awkward or fraught or layered with stuff beyond pure love or pure trust. There’s secrets and lies and hidden emotions and because all we really want is to be loved I find it incredibly poignant and heartbreaking. So I’m interested as much in the two people that have never met before and are just thrown together by circumstance as the long-standing relationships with family members that are always going to be in your life. I’ve always been a people watcher and a close observer of human beings.