Interview: Your Sister’s Sister Writer-Director Lynn Shelton

If you don’t know who Mark Duplass is now, you will by the end of June. Though he’s most recognizable from FX’s hilariously raunchy sit-com The League, more importantly, for the past seven years Mark and his brother Jay have been captivating the independent film world with their films The Puffy Chair, Baghead, Cyrus, and most recently Jeff Who Lives at Home. Their next film, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, opens in early July.

(Read my interview with Jay Duplass about Jeff Who Lives at Home.)

This month film goers will see Mark acting opposite Aubrey Plaza in the terrific “is it or is it not sci-fi?” indie Safety Not Guaranteed, with Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks in the more mainstream drama People Like Us, and with Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt in Your Sister’s Sister, Duplass’ second collaboration with his Humpday (2009) writer-director and fellow “Mumblecore” trailblazer Lynn Shelton.

(Watch tomorrow for my interview with Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow.)

And if you’re not already aware of Shelton’s films, chances are you’ll also be hearing her name a lot more this month and in the next year. Your Sister’s Sister is Shelton’s third film after We Go Way Back (2006), My Effortless Brilliance (2008), and Humpday (she’s also directed episodes of Mad Men and New Girl), and it’s an absolutely wonderful film, full of humor and human flaws.

When asked to define her films without using the dreaded M-word, “mumblecore,” Shelton went with “dramatic comedy,” adding, “That has a lot more dignity than ‘dramedy.’” However you classify it, Your Sister’s Sister is the honest, funny, emotionally authentic, and charming story of Jack (Duplass) who’s lost his older brother a year earlier, and in the grieving non-process lost his own way.

Jack’s best friend Iris (Emily Blunt, The Wolfman, The Adjustment Bureau, The Young Victoria) suggests Jack get away to her family’s remote cabin on San Juan Island near Seattle and take some time to get his head together. However, Iris and Jack are unaware that Iris’ older half-sister Hannah (Rosemary DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married, The Company Men, Mad Men) is already staying there. Once all three are at the cabin, interpersonal complications naturally arise.

I sat down with Lynn Shelton a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about Your Sister’s Sister, its fantastic cast, how she achieves the cinematic naturalism she seeks, and her plan to preserve that low-key aesthetic now that Hollywood is coming calling.

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Your Sister’s Sister is opening in select theaters across the country this weekend.

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How did this story idea get started?

Lynn Shelton: Mark Duplass and I had a really fun time working on Humpday together, felt like we were good collaborators, and had talked about wanting to work together again. So he called me with an idea that he didn’t think that his brother (Jay) and he wouldn’t be making into a movie any time soon. It involved a guy who had recently lost his brother, so it was just a little bit too close to home for them.

So Mark had his brother’s blessing to bring it to me instead, because he still felt it was a great kernel for a story. There’s one vital difference of what ended up appearing on screen in Your Sister’s Sister—in Mark’s original idea there was no sister. The older sister was actually a mother, so there was this unusual spicy love triangle of sorts between a guy, his best friend, and her mother.

So it would have been…?

Shelton: You and Your Mom and Me. (laughs)

Then you’re into Farrelly Brothers territory.

Shelton: Exactly! I thought it would be nice if it were really about siblings. He’s already lost his brother so that’s weighing heavily on his soul–it’s clear the brother’s presence is still kind of there for him. So wouldn’t it be nice if there was this parallel sibling relationship? It would be his lost brother that really informs how he deals with these two gals. So, it ended up being a story about something else, but the launching point came from Mark.

Once you had the idea and your three actors, what was the writing process?

Shelton: We’re all in different cities, so the way I conducted the process is I would get on the phone in pairs—with the two sisters or the two best friends–and we would talk for one or two hours every few weeks. It wasn’t like Mike Leigh’s process where he’s in a room with them for six months and work-shopping it every day. Mostly it’s all percolating in the background for all of us while I’m working on the script. I’d have sort of a back-story bible going, a character bible to remind us as we talked.

And when we’re talking we’re throwing a lot of stuff out that gets pruned away. I’m the one who figures out what it ultimately is going to be like. Not everything is going to work, they’re not all going to add up. So I’m developing the characters’ story arcs side by side and figuring out what would be interesting to unfold in the film’s story and how can we support those things with the back story. Then things that don’t really help our cause dramatically get thrown away.

By the time to you get to the set, how much of the film is plotted out? Do you know where the whole thing is going, including the ending, by the time you shoot?

Shelton: Absolutely–even in a scene where the dialogue isn’t completely written, I still know exactly what the trajectory is going to be.

For example, the opening scene with Al (Mike Birbiglia) and Jack (Duplass) giving the eulogies for Jack’s brother. We knew the scenario and the objectives–where we wanted Jack to be emotionally by the end–but Mike and Mark together came up with the specifics of what they’d say, so that was extremely improvised. They were other scenes, the gals talking in bed for instance, where I basically wrote the whole thing out, and then they only diverged from the script a little tiny bit.

The only reason that I’m working this way is the quest for naturalism. I want these people to feel like real people on the screen, not like cardboard cutout replicas of real people. I still want you to be drawn through the narrative, I want you to have that sense we’re going somewhere and there is direction and there is a point to every scene–that is structurally very important to me. But the actual dialogue I want to be as real as possible.

It shows in places like that first eulogy scene. The characters’ reaction is so natural—it doesn’t feel like a “comedic” reaction.

Shelton: I don’t want the actors to know that they’re in a comedy, and I don’t want myself to think “we’re making a comedy.” That’s when you start reaching for jokes, and you start soft-shoeing and trying to entertain.

Instead I want to always be speaking to the truth of the scene, what’s happening in the moment. We’re playing everything straight, and then it’s a delight later to find out it’s comedic because it comes out of the situation, out of the characters in their real moment. They’re not trying to be funny, but it’s funny because it’s true.

You have three very different types of actors here.

Shelton: Sometimes I felt like I was making three different movies, and I didn’t know if they’d all mix. Then it turns out they create this beautiful balance because theses three actors are all so different—they really do juxtapose in a very beautiful way. I just love actors so much. It’s an old truism that good directing is 90% casting, but for me it’s like 98%. If you find the right people it’s enormously helpful. That’s another reason why I like to have them involved in the development of their own characters, because I want to create a character that they can just slide into like a hand into a glove, and it’s like a second skin, it’s not a reach. It’s not somebody else.

It worked so well with Rosemary DeWitt. You had created the film and the character of the older sister with Rachel Weisz in the role, and she dropped out just before filming. But there’s no way of telling Rosemary joined the production days before shooting—she fits seamlessly with Mark and Emily.

Shelton: Rose is so amazing. The miraculous thing is that she was able to do that so quickly. Even though it was a crash course, I wanted her to find her own Hannah. I asked her to rename the character–I gave her the character bible that we’d come up with, but then I wanted her to be able to bring in her own experiences with sisterhood and who she thought this person was.

And I‘ve never seen Emily more Emily on screen, if that makes any sense. She’s an incredible actor, and she’s so chameleon-like. I saw Sunshine Cleaning, and I didn’t recognize her from The Devil Wears Prada, which is why I became obsessed with her, because she’s obviously brilliant. This movie is so charming because Emily as a human being is one of the funniest, most charming people I’ve ever met in my life and I feel like you see her in this film. Not that she’s playing herself, but she just is able to bring more of herself.

You’re now moving toward some larger studio productions. How do you plan to preserve that naturalism and narrative ambiguity when dealing with larger films with bigger stars for a major studio?

Shelton: It has to be the right project. I really admire Brokeback Mountain and The Descendents–they cost an arm and a leg compared to mine, and they had big stars, and they just tear my heart out. It’s all about the story and really being able to cast the people that will make it work. It is scarier because the bigger the film is, the less direct control I have. But as long as it’s with the right producers and studio, and there’s enough trust in good collaborative relationship, I think it’s doable. I’ve seen it done.

But I also always want to be able to work small like this and work with who I want and tell the story I want and have final say. You don’t have as many toys to play with in a production like this, but there’s an intimacy that just cannot be beat or matched. I’m shooting Touchy Feely right now with Ellen Page, Ron Livingston, Allison Janney, and Rose again. After that, Laggies with Paul Rudd and Rebecca Hall will be my first multi-million dollar movie and the first film I didn’t write, but story wise it’s very much in my wheelhouse, content wise. Hopefully.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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