EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Your Sister’s Sister Director Lynn Shelton

Recently, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Lynn Shelton, the writer and director of the new film, Your Sister’s Sister,  starring Mark Duplass, Emily  Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt.  She was a pleasure to interview, and spoke a bit about this film, what it was like to work on an incredibly short shooting timeline (12 days!), her passion for directing, and a glimpse into her upcoming film, Touchy Feely, which stars a fantastic ensemble cast.

Courtney Tidrick: I’ll just go ahead and jump into my questions here. Typical romantic comedies don’t have the depth, sincerity, and sardonicism that are more forwardly evident in Your Sister’s Sister. What inspired you to take such an un-Hollywood-esque approach in the direction of this movie.

Lynn Shelton: I hope you could say that about all my movies. I love movies, and I’ll go see anything of any genre, quite frankly. In terms of my own taste for what I actually like to make, I’m really interested in creating flesh and blood human beings on screen, and I want the audience to feel like you’re being dropped into their lives, and you are hearing real conversations. The connection hopefully that you’re making is going to be stronger because you’re recognizing real human behavior on screen and real humans who are just as flawed as you and me, and who are making just as many mistakes as everybody in real life. I find romantic comedies in general difficult to deal with because it’s hard to surprise, I find. I’m really interested in movies that feel unexpected, but believable so you can’t really expect what’s going to happen around the next corner.

CT: Not your cookie cutter type of movie?

LS: Exactly, yes – I always feel like in that genre, a lot of movies in the first ten to twenty minutes you know what’s going to happen. There might be a few twists and turns around the way, but even those you tend to be able to feel out. Nothing really feels surprising, so it’s kind of a genre I generally try to steer clear of. I don’t even consider this movie a romantic comedy, I really consider this to be more of a dramatic comedy, or someone recently called it a true comedy, which I thought was nice.

CT: More of a Shakespearean understanding of comedy?

LS: Yes, I think you could say that.

CT: I know that a lot of the movie was improvised. What in the improvisation structure was different in working through the pre-production and the production itself?

LS: Well, just the words were improvised – the thing is that the actual movie is already plotted out, and then we stick to that structure, because I’m too much of a control freak to actually let go of that. I had 70 pages of dialogue written out, and I asked the actors to not actually memorize those lines, not to hold them too closely, but to use a line if they liked a line, but not to worry about the order, or the exact wording, or if they wanted to go off completely and find their own way through the beats of the scene, that was totally fine as well, again in the quest for naturalism, for really extreme naturalism I find that improvisation helps enormously.

CT: I heard somewhere that you had as many as seventeen takes for one scene…

LS: Oh, no – we didn’t have time for that! We only had twelve days to shoot, and so it was like four or five takes, that was all. But I would sat that even though we didn’t have 200 hours of footage, I feel like you could’ve made 100 different movies out of the footage that we had. Every take there were so many different nuanced approaches to how to get through the scene. Usually, it’s the exact same lines again and again, but in this case we had all all these different avenues and different ways, especially certain scenes really changed take to take; other ones were more shaped – it varied. There were a lot of different ways to cut that footage together. It’s like editing a documentary, and the final draft of the script was really written in the edit room. It’s an incredibly important phase for this particular style of movie. This is really the fourth project I’ve made in this vein, and my friend and editor Nat Sanders is really an expert in that kind of work, and we make a great team. It’s great to have a partner like that in the process, he just has a really good eye and ear for it.

CT: Now, looking through your various projects and it seems that you have done a great deal behind of and in front of the camera. Is there something you prefer the most out of these various roles, or what is your personal favorite part of the production process?

LS: Working with actors on set as a director. It’s my absolute favorite thing. It’s why I really like doing television – I just can’t get on set enough with my own projects, even though I have a pretty good rate – I’m able to get on set about every 14 months, sometimes it’s been the closest, which is a good rate for movie making, just not enough for me. My shoots have been so short, it’s just not enough time. When I got to do Mad Men and New Girl, it just is such a shot in the arm, because it’s like here I am, where I love to be, which is on set with the actors, really trying to figure them out and work with them and figure out their process, and how can we find our way through the scene together. It’s just my absolute favorite thing.

CT: So you have worked twice with Mark Duplass, and now it looks twice now on your new drama Touchy Feely with Rosemarie DeWitt. Do you see yourself collaborating with any of these people again in the future, or is there anyone you would ideally like to work with?

LS: I have a little wish list of people that I’m looking forward to working with, but I haven’t had a chance to, but I feel very protective of it, just because I don’t want to jinx it. I’m one of those directors who just lives to work with great actors, and I’m a total geek about actors – I just fall in love with them. My friend calls it a competence crush. You know, where you just can’t believe somebody is so good at what they do, you just fall in love with with them, and I’m in love with a bunch of actors as a director. I also love to work with actors again too. I’ve worked with the same crew again and again, and you create a vocabulary together, and you know what your strengths are. It’s also nice to evolve together as artists, push each other into new territory.

CT: Speaking of your new project, Touchy Feely – we’ll get back to Your Sister’s Sister – what can we expect from this film?

LS: It’s a departure for me, I’ve made three films in a row now with three characters in one location, essentially. I just wanted to break out of that really sort of bare bones chamber piece, and see what it’s like to work with multiple story lines and an ensemble cast, so it’s a slightly more expanded cinematic vista. We go back and forth between different stories, one is really more dramatic – Rosemarie DeWitt plays a massage therapist who can’t do her job any more because she develops this repulsion around the human body. She goes into a little bit of an identity crisis, a tailspin, and her brother, is played by Josh Pais, who is this wonderful actor, is a dentist he ends. He ends up going into more of an upward journey of self-discovery, and they’re having a tug of war over his daughter, her niece played by Ellen Page, who is in a very co-dependent relationship, sort of taking care of her father, even though she’s so young. She’s sort of sacrificing her own life for him, and so there’s that little tension there.  A few other characters played by Allison Janney, Scoot McNairy, and Ron Livingston fill out the cast. It feels very different from my last few films, but in a really exciting and exhilarating way.

CT: There is a very “European” feel to this film – regarding the content, the film technique, and the ending, especially. Was this a direction you saw yourself heading in at the beginning stages of production?

LS: One real point of reference for me visually, actually, was when I talked to Emily (Blunt), and told her about what the process would look like if she were to say yes, and was she interested in improvising. She said she actually made a film – her very first film – called My Summer of Love, and  Pawel Pawlikowski was the director.  I had seen the movie, but I had no idea when I had seen it years before that it was improvised. I went back and looked at it again, and I found it to be extremely inspiring because he did what I was hoping to do with this film, which was to create a real sense of place, wide sweeping shots of vistas, the context of where they are. The use of two-shots, sort of wider on a tripod very static, combined with the conversational stuff as handheld, and very organic and human-feeling -vital. I didn’t know if you could combine those two pieces of camerawork, and here he had done it. It was a real inspiration for me, actually, that particular film.

CT: The tone in this movie could have been both more light-hearted, and also more angsty. Was the end result something you anticipated?

LS: I liked the balance of it. A lot of it has to do with the combination of actors and the characters they built.  Mark tends to be in general funnier, and a little bit like the comic relief of the movie. But, the actresses also have their moments where there’s just a really funny turn of phrase, or funny moment. A lot is in reaction to what he’s doing. Then there are these scenes where they’re all coming to terms with various things. Like, for instance, there’s a seven minute montage when they’re trying to get back together, it’s really just sort of a heartfelt moment in the film, and I feel like hopefully we’ve earned that by that point in the film – you’ve invested enough in the characters that you are with them through it. I really like the juxtaposition – the combination of the drama and the comedy going hand in hand.

CT: I have to admit, I really didn’t like the ending at first, but it’s growing on me. Is there a reason behind keeping the conclusion of what happens from the viewer?

LS: I tend to like endings that are a little more open-ended in general, again, in terms of the movies I make. I feel like if everything’s tied up too neatly it starts to feel contrived. It’s like it becomes this completely closed object, rather than the feeling that these people are moving on into the future. So if it’s a choose your own adventure, like “what happens next?” that you have to decide on the post script, it engages the audience and is a nod to their intelligence. I can understand being frustrated (with the ending). I did have alternate versions in case they thought it was too brutal.

CT: I just have one last question for you – what contemporaries do you draw inspiration from or compare yourself to?

LS: There are so many. I will say he’s a contemporary since he’s still around – Woody Allen has always been a really big influence for me, from early on. People who have come up more recently- Alfonso Cuarón who directed Y Tu Mamá También . This film had a huge impact on me a few years back. Also, Claire Denis, a French filmmaker, Michael Winterbottom is a British filmmaker I greatly admire. Additionally, Miranda July, Sofia Coppola – these are filmmakers make films nobody else could have made. That’s what I really love when I go to see a film, because it inspires me to make a film that nobody else could make – it could have only come from me. Again, going back to the idea of the more cookie cutter, formulaic, versus the really unique, unexpected experience at the cinema. Those are the kinds of filmmakers that really inspire me.

That concludes my interview with Lynn Shelton. I’d like to thank her again for taking the time to sit down and discuss her new film, Your Sister’s Sister, which opens in limited release on June 29th, 2012.

Check out my review right here.

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  • Fantastic questions asked. Looking forward to catching this one in theaters.

  • Tyler

    I agree with Jeremy. Good questions.