Mumblecore writer/director Lynn Shelton casts her gaze on sibling relationships in her latest film, Your Sister's Sister. Like her previous projects (Humpday), Shelton creates creating disarmingly charming yet deeply flawed characters -- played by Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt. Shelton recenently took a break from film promotion to discuss her filmmaking methods, artistic heroes, and making Your Sister's Sister.
Rachel Heine: Your Sister’s Sister is your fourth feature. When did you know you wanted to direct?
Lynn Shelton: It was a long, circuitous route for me. I started as an actor in the theatre. I got a BA in drama at the University of Washington and then moved to New York to do theatre. And then we kind of had a falling out, theatre and I. I ended up going into photography and got an MFA in photography, came out of grad school as an experimental filmmaker. I never went to film school so I never experienced the collaborative art of filmmaking. I was doing it as a painter or a photographer. But I edited, and editing was kind of my marketable skill. So I edited for many years, made lots of little short, strange, artistic movies.
And then when I moved back to Seattle – I’d been in Seattle and I moved to New York in the nineties –I started getting the opportunity to edit narrative film. That was when I started thinking I think I can put it all together – the photography, the acting – you know, I think it’s all going to come together and I want to direct features.
But walking on the set of my feature film was the first time I’d ever worked on a film set, so I was introducing myself to the crew and saying oh, what’s your name? Oh, what do you? You’re the gaffer? What is a gaffer? Like it was all new to me. That was seven years ago and I felt like, oh my God, this is what I was always meant to do. But I couldn’t have done it any earlier because I sort of needed all those other pieces to happen first.
RH: You’ve also directed an episode of AMC’s Mad Men – what was it like to work on a television show after directing independent film?
LS: It was my favorite television show and I was very intimidated the first day. But I very quickly learned that it was exactly the same job – that directing is directing is directing. And even if you have a crew of seventy-five or you have a crew of twelve, it actually is exactly the same job. You’re just making a ton of decisions about everything – like, is the ashtray going to be here or here in the foreground and then trying to find the arc of the scene with the actors. It’s all the same whether you have more toys or more crew, it’s exactly the same job. So it was a real confidence booster. It was great.
RH: Do you think your editing background informs your directorial vision?
LS: Absolutely, absolutely. Especially with improv because I’m basically, there’s a part of my brain that’s just always clocking in the takes that we’re doing. Okay, I’m going to be able to use that, I’m going to be able to use that. And then I know what I need and then I know what I have and I know we can move on. Mad Men actually directly gave me confidence that I could do Your Sister’s Sister because we already had a really tight schedule of fourteen days, and we lost two of those days when we had a casting change.
I was terrified we weren’t going to have enough time. But because the Mad Men crew had told me that I was one of the fastest directors that had worked on the show, I was like okay, you can do this, you can do this. This is your MO, you can work really, really fast. And part of it, I’m sure, is because I have that editor brain and I just trust it when it tells me okay, you’re good, move on. So I don’t have to do like twenty takes, I can just do four or five.
RH: You were working quickly and also in close quarters – can you tell us a little bit about getting the house that you used in the film?
LS: Well, a friend of mine who ended up being associate producer on the project, Kate Bailey, her family and good friends of her family’s all are co-owners of that piece of property. When I first came to her, [I] said I’d seen pictures of this beautiful piece of property that your family owns and it would be perfect for this film. And she said I will ask my parents, but I will tell you right now there’s absolutely no way that this is ever going to happen. I said okay, that’s fine.
We kept trying to meet with them and they kept saying, we don’t want to meet her because we’re just going to say no and it’s going to make us feel so terrible. Cut to four months later that we’re making the final pitch and somehow we wormed our ways into their hearts and they gave us permission. It was just a blessing. Because I can’t imagine where else we would’ve done it. We were all living in these little houses and then walking a stone’s throw away to the actual picture house where we shot it. It was just ideal. It’s just perfect.
RH: Did you choose Emily Blunt right away? How did you get her on board, and what made you decide to haveherkeep her natural British accent, rather than using an American accent to match Rosemarie DeWitt?
LS: Well, it’s improvisation. I didn’t want anybody to have to be worrying about faking an accent and improv-ing at the same time. I wanted it to be as natural and organic as possible for everybody. So yeah, the half-sister paradigm worked great -- it didn’t matter if one was American and one was English. The original actress we had in Rose’s role was actually English, as well. But I actually kind of like it better that one’s American, one’s English, because they were never supposed to be full sisters anyway.
Getting Emily on board, she says it was an easy yes after hearing my initial pitch to her. Her agent was actually a fan of Humpday and so he liked the idea of her working with me, which was awesome. But she just worked on a whole bunch of other movies – bigger movies – and so I think it was good timing to call up and say look, you know, spend a couple weeks with us. It’ll feel like film camp, it’s not even going to feel really like working on a big movie. And I guarantee you we’ll have a fabulous time, you’ll have home-cooked meals, and it’s going to be a really wonderful experience, even if who knows what’ll happen with the film. Hopefully, it’ll be a great film, too.
I think she really did it for the experience because it was so different. And she’d had a really fond memory of working on her very first feature, My Summer of Love, which was also improvised and never thought she’d have the chance to work that way again. So that was another reason.
RH: And now Rosemarie is in in your next movie, right?
LS: Yeah, I just shot a film called Touchy Feely. We wrapped about three weeks ago and I wrote the role for her.
RH: Do you generally write with specific actors in mind?
LS: Often, yes. Most of the films that I’ve made recently have all started with a particular person that I wanted to work with. And with Humpday, it was Mark [Duplass] and my friend Sean with My Effortless Brilliance and with Touchy Feely, it was Rosemarie [Dewitt] and Josh Pais. I wrote these two roles for them. And then Your Sister’s Sister, I mean, Mark was the one who came to me. It was slightly different because he came to me with a kernel of the idea so it ended up being another Mark movie and ended up thinking of the other two, how to cast around him.
Emily was the top of list, yeah. And then when we lost the original actress for Hannah, I was terrified that this movie was dead in the water three days before the production without one of our leads. But as soon as I thought of Rose, I was like okay, if I could get Rosemarie to agree to do this, this movie’s going to be okay. And I really did. And luckily, she was able to do it even though she was already on a TV show and had to sort of squeeze it in around that. But the producers worked with us and thank God.
RH: How did you go about replacing Hannah’s character at the last minute?
LS: It wasn’t like replacing anybody in any kind of movie. It was a very specific kind of paradigm. When I brought up her name to Mark, he said, I think that she’ll say yes if she’s available -- because she had accosted him in an airport like a year before when they were both on their way to New Orleans to make movies. She said I don’t usually do this, but I saw Humpday and I just thought it was fantastic and you were great in it. She was a big fan of that film, which was great because it meant that she understood the kind of film this was going to be, you know? And he had told her about the process of it, as well, and she was really attracted to it. Because not everybody wants to improvise. I mean, it’s a tough and very different kind of way of working than scripted, I think.
RH: You said Emily was at the top of your list for this one. Why is that?
LS: The reason was really… I mean, I’m an actor geek. I’m totally in love, I have this list, this little running list in my head of actors that I really, really want to work with. And what draws me to actors usually is credibility. I had been obsessed with [Blunt] ever since seeing her in Sunshine Cleaning and not recognizing her from Devil Wears Prada. I mean, I literally walked out of that theatre [and] I was like, who was that young American actress I’ve never seen before? She’s so intriguing. And then IMDb-ing her and finding out who she was and just being like oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. That’s just mind blowing. Because every one of her very disparate kinds of roles that she’s played, I totally believe. So emotionally grounded and so credible in every role. She’s such a charmer. I mean, the thing I like about her in my film is that she’s able to bring so much of her own cadence and her own personality to the fore. Because she is, she’s one of the funniest, most charming people I’ve ever met. So it was great to be able to let that shine through.
RH: You’ve worked with Mark Duplass before, on Humpday, but now he’s a producer as well as an actor. What is he like as a collaborator?
LS: Well, he gets producer credit basically because he brought the original kernel of the story. And the thing about Mark is that he’s totally and fully engaged in any project that he’s in on. He’s going to be a full on collaborator in any way that he’s needed. That’s what he’s like both as a producer and a collaborator and as an actor. He’s just incredibly in it for the win and it’s a very ego free environment.
So ideas can come from anywhere. They can come from any of the actors, they can come, for that matter, from any of the crew. If anybody has a great idea when we’re sort of up against some sort of obstacle, it’s all fair game, you know, and it’s a really nice way to work where everybody feels valued and respected enough to be able to bring contributions.
RH: Do you have crew that you try to consistently use every time you do a project?
LS: I do. I just stopped my fifth feature, Touchy Feely. Your Sister’s Sister is my fourth and I’ve also made a couple of web series along the way and music videos and so on. I’ve used the same director of photography for every single one of those projects. In one music video I didn’t use him for because he was out of town, but every other one. I’ve also used the same sound designer who has recently, over the last couple projects, become my composer, Vinny Smith. So Ben Kasulke and Vinny Smith have been in it from the very beginning.
And then the last few projects, I’ve added my production designer John Lavin, my gaffer Gerry Mackey. And so there’ve been a few people and they tend to have the same teams. So I really do, I feel like that crew is my second family. I’m very, very loyal to them and they’re very loyal to me and they’ve all started to direct on their own, as well, and I’m fully encouraging of that. You know, we all sort of encourage each other to make movies.
And the filmmaking community in Seattle is small and it is vibrant and incredibly talented and very supportive, very mutually supportive. So that’s really wonderful because for me, art making has become sort of synonymous with… an integral part of it is relationship and collaboration. You know, I’ve been an artist my whole life but I didn’t really become the artist I was meant to be or come into my own as an artist until I started collaborating.
RH: Does that speed your process up -- knowing how to work together?
LS: Yeah, it does. I mean, you build a vocabulary together. And it changes, you know, like I have a little film festival with my Director of Photography every time we have a new project coming up because we want to figure out well, what’s the look going to be this time or what are we going to achieve or go for here, what are going to be sort of our touchstones or reference points. It’s fun, also, to be evolving together as artists and pushing each other to be the best we can all be and believe in each other even more than we believe in ourselves. It’s pretty awesome.
RH: For the festival success you’ve had, you’re still a relative newcomer. Who were your artistic heroes growing up? Who inspires your work?
LS: I’d say, first and foremost, Woody Allen. He was a huge influence for me. And the idea that you could make an entire feature film with conversation as the base, just like really natural human conversations, I think was an enormous influence for me. My mom was a big new wave, nouvelle vague fan and so Jules and Jim was an influence, Godard, as well.
Then more recently, when I was in my late thirties right before I started to actually – that was right before I started making my own features – Claire Denis, I found out, was forty when she made her first feature. It really helped me because all the filmmakers I knew were young. All the independent filmmakers are these twenty-two-year-old guys. So to hear the story of this woman who now has this incredibly dense and varied body of work but didn’t start until she was forty was really huge. She’s a huge personal hero for me.
RH: Where did these characters stem from? They feel very real and personal, especially as you watch them interact.
LS: One of my main goals as a filmmaker is to portray characters who feel like flesh and blood human beings and who don’t feel like… Sometimes I feel like there’s more of a Hollywood stand-in puppet show going on when I see a movie where it feels like people are not quite real. They’re just like whitewashed or they’re blackwashed or you know, they’re just not quite, their rough edges are kind of softened. Maybe they’re just a little more two-dimensional than real life human beings.
People are flawed. They’re flawed. They have weaknesses, they make mistakes, they screw up. I tend to be drawn to characters who are trying their best but are as flawed as you and me. You know, we are, all of us, cracked vessels. Those are the people I want to see on screen because those are the ones that I feel are most resonant. And if we recognize them and we see that they’re screwing up, we can – as audience members – see the forest for the trees. They’re all just in it and they’re so myopic.
We can sort of see oh, you know, honey, you’re not a bad person, you just, you know, a f***up, as we all are. I really hope the audience can accept these characters for their humanity and for the flaws and all, warts and all, and root for them. You know, that you really are rooting for them. So I’m glad to hear that you had that sense.
RH: What did you personally take away from making Your Sister’s Sister?
LS: Art is always kind of therapy for me. It’s what keeps me sane [laughs]. And I always learn. I mean, I am such a scientist of human nature. I’m drawn back again and again to interpersonal dynamics and selves, you know, how we shift over time and how we shift in relationship to other people and how we try to connect and often it isn’t as easy as it seems like it should be to connect to each other, even though we desperately want to. That’s the thing that makes me really excited as an artist.
And when I explore, when I find a project that has territory that’s interesting enough to explore, I’m always fascinated by how many layers get uncovered and how many themes end up evolving beyond the original theme that I thought it was going to be about. You know, it ends up being about something else or about a multitude of other things.
Because of what I’m examining – which is basically human nature – I always end up feeling like I’ve evolved in general as a human being. So I don’t know, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly how but I don’t know, I become, hopefully, just evolving as a human. That’s my goal in life anyway.
RH: Lastly, what do you say to get the audience to come see this movie?
LS: Come for the car explosions and stay for the hot sex, I don’t know. [Laugh] No, it’s a good time. It seems like a chick flick but every guy I’ve ever talked to has [enjoyed it]. There seems to be something for everybody in it. So hopefully, there will be.
IFC's 'Your Sister's Sister' is in wide release and stars Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Mark Duplass.