Interview: Lynn Shelton, director of Your Sister’s Sister

Letting her cast improvise so much can make life hard for director Lynn Shelton. But she gets the last laugh, she tells Claire Black

Letting her cast improvise so much can make life hard for director Lynn Shelton. But she gets the last laugh, she tells Claire Black

LYNN Shelton laughs a lot. And loudly. And most often when we’re talking about her new film, Your Sister’s Sister. The laughter makes sense – the film is a genuinely moving, at times excruciatingly awkward but properly funny three-hander, the story of two half-sisters, Iris (Emily Blunt) and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), whose relationship is complicated by the arrival of Iris’s depressed friend Jack (Mark Duplass) at their family cabin.

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But, still, Shelton’s obvious delight in her work is striking. There are plenty of directors who profess an inability even to watch their films with an audience, never mind find them entertaining, especially by the time they’ve seen them work their way around the film festival circuit – and the buzz around Your Sister’s Sister started at Sundance and Toronto film festivals, and continued through to Glasgow and Seattle, where it was the opening gala screening. But not Shelton.

For her, there’s no creeping in at the back, or escaping as soon as the lights are dimmed. The director, who started out as an actor and built a career as a film editor before writing and directing her first feature, We Go Way Back, says that watching her work with an audience and hearing and seeing the way they respond is “payoff”.

“I don’t feel like it’s patting myself on the back. I really don’t. All I see is all the other work that everyone else brings to it, so I’m falling in love with my composer or a particular actor, like Rose in that minute, Emily in this moment, or Mark, when I’m like ‘god, he nails that every time’. I can’t get enough of it.

“When I hear that Woody Allen literally never watches his films, that just flabbergasts me. It seems so sad, especially if you’ve made something lovely and other people are liking it. I can’t understand how that doesn’t feed you somehow.”

Part of Shelton’s pleasure in her work derives from the fact that it is a genuine collaboration. The idea for Your Sister’s Sister came from Duplass, with whom Shelton last worked on her breakout 2009 success Humpday. Duplass also writes, produces and directs, sometimes solo, but most often with his brother, Jay (their first studio feature was this year’s Jeff Who Lives At Home, starring Jason Segal), and the pair have, Shelton says, a “drawer full of ideas”.

This one, about relationships and sibling loss and love and trying to cycle around an island when you’re not really fit enough, was one they thought was right for Shelton. So from that point, for about ten months, she and her three actors worked out their characters’ backstories, with Shelton producing an outline of what she wanted to achieve on the shoot.

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With Humpday, by the time everyone got on set, Shelton had a ten-page outline to work from with all of the dialogue to be improvised, but with Your Sister’s Sister it was about 70 pages of what she calls “half script, half treatment”.

“I wanted to write out the dialogue so that the actresses would feel safe, because they’re just not as veteran as he [Duplass] is at improvising. So ultimately 20 or 30 per cent of the lines I wrote, but for the most part it was improvised.”

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There had been no rehearsal, just phone conversations once or twice a month in the run-up to the shoot. They filmed on an island off the coast of Washington State for as many as ten hours a day using two cameras so that no-one saved their performance for when they were on camera.

“They’re not thinking about their close-up, they’re thinking about the other actor, and you have to be because you don’t know what’s going to come out of their mouths,” she says. “That’s what’s so wonderful about improv and why, although it’s so stressful, it’s such a satisfying way to work.”

The chemistry between each of the characters is palpable, the performances completely believable. Iris, Hannah and Jack are messy and idiosyncratic, with complicated lives, flaws and foibles. The actors may have “backstory up the wazoo” as Shelton puts it, but there’s the barest of exposition in the film because for Shelton that is “pointless”. What we’re seeing is the collision between who these people think they are and who they really are, at least on this one long weekend. It’s fascinating, funny human drama.

“There were moments on set when I wondered if it would seem like they’re in the same movie because they’re all so instinctive,” Shelton says. “It ended up being this really beautiful balance.”

She explains that every time she watches the film, “little moments” catch her attention – moments of dialogue, glances, details.

“The last time it was the ease of Emily in a scene when Iris and Jack are in a hallway and they’re establishing their friendship. That was the very last thing we shot, so they really had chemistry, but the way that they play off each other and the funny things they say, it just blows my mind. It really is just like two friends having a conversation.”

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The scenes between Blunt and DeWitt are completely believable too, full of love and intimacy and the ease of siblings but also with all of the difficulties and resentments that are a part of being sisters.

“I love comedy that comes out of pain.” Shelton says, laughing. “But even more importantly, comedy that comes out of a human moment. We laugh because we recognise exactly what is happening. It’s from the inside out – it’s not about setting up a joke or a pratfall – it’s dramatic comedy.”

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The idea of the actors’ director is common enough, but Shelton describes herself as an “actor geek”, and it’s clear as she speaks that she loves what actors do and how they work. It’s clear too that she has a particular fondness for DeWitt, who only joined the cast very late as a replacement for someone who dropped out.

“We had about three days to recast,” Shelton says. “It was insane. At first I thought it couldn’t be done and then people started naming actors – what if we could get Samantha Morton? As soon as Rose came into my head I just knew that she was the one. I knew that if we could get her everything would be all right.”

That feeling was based purely on gut instinct because she’d never worked with DeWitt, or even met her, but it worked. And it was just as well because a Shelton film set has to be a totally collaborative and creative environment.

“It was basically like a summer camp – we were all living in these little houses and we’d all trot over to the set and trot back to watch Conan The Barbarian together late at night. We’d cook and eat together. I had a little house set aside for Rose and Emily in case they didn’t want to fraternise,” she looks slightly pained even saying this, adding with a shrug: “I didn’t know how much they’d want to – but they were just fantastic, they hung out with everyone.”

Shelton’s typical modus operandi – writing on set as improvisations take shape and then editing down a mass of footage into the final cut – isn’t the easiest way to work, something she realised when she was asked to direct an episode of Mad Men.

“Having this amazing script with this really well written dialogue,” she shakes her head, “I was like ‘oh my god this is so easy’. I didn’t realise how stressful the way I work is.

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“The only reason I can make it work is because I was an editor before I was a director. On set there’s some little part of my brain keeping track so I know, okay, there’s enough in there so I can piece it together. It’s half written in the editing room. It’s like a documentary – carved out, finding all those little moments and making it sharp.”

Your Sister’s Sister was Shelton’s “dream” project in which veteran actors out there doing big movies were intrigued enough to take part. So what happens now? Her next movie, Touchy Feely, which she’s written and directed, stars DeWitt again as a massage therapist who can’t do her job because she develops a sudden repulsion for the human body. It’s a bigger cast and was a longer shoot (20 days) with many more locations, but it’s still a Lynn Shelton film with a continuity partly in the subject matter – the awkward, funny truths of being human – but also in how the work is made.

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“Emily Blunt didn’t do Your Sister’s Sister because she was going to make a gazillion dollars, or even her normal fee, she did it for the experience,” Shelton says. “I’d like to continue to do that. I’d also like to continue to make movies with actors who are just right for the role, who inspire me, whether they’re famous or not.” She laughs. «

• Your Sister’s Sister is in cinemas from Friday.

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