Lynn Shelton [director of Your Sister's Sister]
“Do we want to be who it turns out that we are, [or] do we want to try to transform and move through to a different place?”

After a long early career as an actress and an experimental filmmaker, during which time she struggled to find her artistic voice, director Lynn Shelton broke into the world of top-tier, attention-getting independent film with 2009’s Humpday, about a pair of estranged best friends (Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard) who reconnect by daring themselves to make a porn film together. In addition to its memorable hook, the film was largely improvised, a tactic that’s become a trademark of Shelton’s filmmaking style. Her newest movie, Your Sister’s Sister, dives into another form of off-beat relationship, a kind of sex-drama of errors between a man, his best friend, and her sister. It again stars Duplass, Shelton’s favorite actor (and the indie film world’s number one leading man), as Jack, a man wading through depression after the loss of his brother. At the urging of his best friend, Iris (played by Emily Blunt), Jack heads off to her remote family cabin to recuperate, but winds up having to share the place with Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris’s equally depressed sister. The three of them dive deep into an emotional melee that charges the movie’s low-key, deceptively complex tone.

Shelton is not a difficult interview subject. She gives off the comforting impression of being new not only to the press circuit, but to the life of a professional film director, which results in an affable, open conversational style. The day I met with her in a small dining room off the lobby of a fancy hotel in downtown Portland, OR, she was bright, effusive, and obviously excited to be showing her new film.


I wanted to start with Mark Duplass because I actually talked to him and Jay yesterday on the phone, and we got cut short so we didn’t get a chance to talk about Your Sister’s Sister. Tell me how you met them.

I met Mark originally in 2007 on the set of another movie in Seattle, where I live, called True Adolescence. We had a lot of mutual friends in the same filmmaking circle, where people meet on the regional film festival circuit. So we knew of each other, and I had volunteered my time on the set as a still photographer for a few days, basically in order to meet Mark and hopefully bond with him… (laughs)

This is after the brothers made The Puffy Chair but before Humpday

It was after Puffy Chair and before Humpday, exactly. I had just shot my second feature, it was called My Effortless Brilliance. I had about four crew members, it was a very “Puffy Chair”-style production. So Mark and I had a lot to talk about, about our philosophies of working with actors, and collaboration, and how to put these little movies together and all that kind of stuff. And then watching him act just was a revelation to me. Every take was completely fresh and he was so engaged in making sure his standard for level of naturalism was very high. And he also really brought something out of the other actors in the scene. He was very good at listening and connecting with the other actors. He was basically everything you wanted to work with as a director, in an actor. So it was as he left Seattle I said, “I really want to direct you in a movie,” and he said, “Well, pitch me a film, Shelton.” So about a month later I called him with this crazy idea that turned into Humpday.

So there were never any other actors in mind for the role Mark plays in Your Sister’s Sister?

Well, with Your Sister’s Sister, he called me and said, “Look, I have a movie… me and Jay have a bunch of ideas that might eventually become Duplass brothers movies, and this has been in the vault for awhile, and I really think it’s a good one, but I think Jay and I discussed it and realized we probably won’t be making this movie any time soon because at the center is a guy who’s lost his brother, and it’s just going to hit a little too close to home.” So, the original concept – it was really the kernel – didn’t have sisters in it. His original pitch was: a girl and a guy are best friends, he’s in a bad way because he’s lost his brother recently, she sends him up to the family getaway to get some alone time, he thinks he’s gonna be alone up there, but meets her hot young mother, and then they would have some kind of bed-switching, or a love-triangle; a mother-daughter love triangle. I switched them to two sisters. I think that [the mother idea] would have been a great movie too, but I think I was drawn to the idea of a parallel sibling relationship.

I don’t really see myself aiming for an endpoint. For me it really is like, “What do I want to explore next? What do I want to do next? What do I want to try out?”

It’s interesting that you came up with the concept for Humpday and Duplass, who makes relationship movies of his own, came up with the concept for Your Sister’s Sister. What strikes me as the big commonality is people forcing themselves out of a rut in their lives and into a new form of relationship. What attracts you to the idea of putting people in these more modern relationships?

You know the problem for Humpday was really trying to figure out a way to put characters into a position that was out of their comfort zone, and I think ultimately that’s where I always end up, because it’s an obvious and easy place for comedy and drama to merge. It’s even better if they can put themselves in those positions. So it’s not some kind of contrived external force. It’s somewhat organic, and they’re the ones making the mistakes and stumbling. The real conversation I have starts with the self, and how we evolve over time; how we change in relationship to other people, so we show that different parts of ourselves can come out in different relationships, and then we have this perception of who we think we are. There are times in everybody’s lives when we have to come up against the truth of who we actually are, and that can be a really hard thing to do. Or we have to make a decision: Do we want to be who it turns out that we are, [or] do we want to try to transform and move through to a different place?

I mean ultimately, with most narrative formats, it’s nice when the characters actually go through some kind of change, and a lot of times it comes up in relationships with other people. Again I’m compelled to come back, again and again, to when two people really want to connect on a deep level and then for whatever reason it’s just not an easy thing.

Speaking of narrative mediums needing to have an arc, film has these particular stylistic traits that are different than any other medium, and you and a number of the filmmakers you’ve been associated with have sort of settled on what’s been labeled your aesthetic. Do you think about making a totally different kind of film, stylistically, now that you have the means to?

Well, actually I just made a film that really is a bit of a departure. I mean, what I really try for is naturalism: believing in the characters, feeling like there’s humanity there and that it resonates with the audience member. Hopefully it feels real to them and it resonates because it’s true. So no matter what, even when I worked on Mad Men and New Girl and I was working with a script, working within a different visual or creative universe, I’m still going for that, still trying to get naturalism, whether it has to be worked from script or you can go off the script. Whatever works, you know. But this last movie I just made, I shot it and I’ve been editing it…

The one after Your Sister’s Sister?

Yes. It’s called Touchy Feely.

Stylistically how do you see yourself changing? I know you come from experimental film to a certain extent.

Yeah, I do. And that’s another reason I wanted to go back to that. My very first feature film, which was back in ’06, was very personal and was much more inspired by details from my own autobiography, and it was very much a woman who is lost. She’s lost her sense of self – the whole movie goes back and forth between this whole dream sequence. It’s very subjective, the whole movie, so that was kind of my initial impulse, coming from experimental filmmaking into feature filmmaking, was to do a much more cinematic, psychological filmmaking, and then – because I was on this quest for naturalism, and wanting to explore improvisation and how to incorporate that, and make it almost feel like a documentary where you’re dropping in on people’s lives – I then evolved that whole style over the course of three films, and Touchy-Feely is an attempt to go back to my initial impulses. Where there will be some very sound-design, music-heavy parts… So I think it’ll still feel like a Lynn Shelton film, you know.

I don’t really see myself aiming for an endpoint. For me it really is like, “What do I want to explore next? What do I want to do next? What do I want to try out?”

Does the life of a film director feel like a good fit for you, having to go back and forth between shooting films and doing stuff like this, a press tour?

Yeah, I mean, even at this stage, I really just want to be on set… and a little bit in the editing room. But really I just want to be on set, that’s my absolute favorite place to be. I can’t get on set enough, which is one of the reasons that I do a lot of TV work, because it gets me on set, I get to try out working with different directors, different crews. It just flexes those directing muscles. But even [the press] phase of it, which can be frustrating because I’m not being creative… I learn a lot, about my work. Because I work on such an instinctive level, when I see people writing, and talk to people in interviews, and they bring things up that I never even… It’s like “Oh, yeah, I didn’t think about it that way.”

At what point did you decide – or did you decide? – that Your Sister’s Sister needed to be set on an island?

Very important to me. We had a really hard time coming up with an island location. My producer kept saying, “There are all these places on the ocean, why not the ocean?” And I said, “I’m sorry it has to be an island; it has to be.” And I don’t even think I knew why until later, but the reason is that I wanted a… I don’t think you can get more isolated. It’s physically and symbolically… You’re isolated from the rest of the world…

The location mirrors the characters.

Exactly. Mark [‘s character], and also Hannah. The two of them are in a place of limbo, they’re grieving. You know, and then when you’re also separated physically from civilization and your real life, it creates this place for all kinds of things to happen that might not be able to happen in other places. So it became very, very important for both the psychological and physical isolation.

Did it affect the production?

Oh my god, yeah. I mean, I kidnapped the cast and crew and we went off to some remote place. There’s nothing better. On a normal set everybody’s waiting for the day to be done, they want to go back to their girlfriends and they want to go back to their dogs, and there’s that pull. Myself included – I have a husband and I have a kid, I always feel like I’ve got to put in my time at home. There’s no possibility of that, because you’re just away. It’s just fantastic because it creates a whole different side, you know, where we were all living and eating home-cooked meals and hanging out together just a stone’s throw away from the picture house. We’d get up in the morning, have a little breakfast and trot over and do some shooting and have lunch together…

How big was your crew?

Like, 13 people, which is actually big for me because my last two films have been even smaller. Yeah, so it was a tiny crew, 16 of us all told. The girls, the actresses, had the fanciest cabin reserved for them, so they could extract themselves and have alone time. Mark, who’s buddies with all of my crew, bunked – fraterny’d – with the guy crew. You know we had the fraternity house, where the producers and the crew all stayed. Then the girl house… Yeah, we had this incredible, beautiful experience together and like built campfires, and when you’re working in that intimate setting you don’t want to get away from each other. You want to hang out, you want to have dance parties…

What did you play at your dance parties?

Oh, it’s quite the eclectic mix. Everything from pre-surgery Michael Jackson to… whatever the latest… I’ll dance to anything. It’s a very important part of my… when they’re setting up lights, too, it’s a very important part of our on-set culture. But yeah, this is like my second family this crew. I’ve worked with my DP and composer, who’s also our production sound mixer, from the very beginning, and everyone else is coming from various projects with me.

Another big thing that recurs between the two films is the motivator for the plot taking place over a drunken evening, and then you have this big complex emotional scene that’s going on during a hangover. Is that significant for you, or do you just like to give characters hangovers?

If you want your characters to make mistakes there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll make their own mistakes if they’re a little bit… blotto [Laughs.].

There’s something special about someone who’s hungover dealing with other hungover people, not exactly remembering what happened the night before –

Try[ing] to piece together their alibi…

‘Was I kind of funny or should I be ashamed of what was happening?’

Exactly.

There are times in everybody’s lives when we have to come up against the truth of who we actually are, and that can be a really hard thing to do.

You’re now one of the most prominent American female film directors, and it’s obviously rare; film has always been dominated by males. Do you see yourself as affiliated with female filmmakers?

You know, there is that bond that happens. Because you’re just sort of automatically so happy to see other girls making it. It never really occurred to me that in Seattle – you know I’ve made all my movies there and I swear to God half of us, half of the filmmakers in town are female. It’s just not an issue. It’s a very progressive environment, so for whatever reason there just happen to be a lot of women up there. And I’ve certainly never felt any obstruction. I just want to make a movie and I call my friends and I say, “Let’s go do it” and they’re like, “OK, great, let’s do it,” and it’s different than just trying to get in the industry, knock on the doors of Hollywood. I actually remember going to a film festival and sitting next to my friend Barry Jenkins, who is one of the very few African American filmmakers of that kind of size [of] film. We were sitting watching a shorts package and it was like a dozen shorts and all of the filmmakers were there, and they all got up and lined up in front of the stage. Maybe 15. And all of them were like between 20 and 25, and they were all white, and they were all guys. And it finally occurred to us why people make such a big deal out of not being… out of being a girl or being black.

Critics don’t want to label a filmmaker unduly, but it’s…

You stand out.

And it reflects…

Yeah, and people say, “What does it feel like to be a female filmmaker?” and I say, “I’ve never been a male filmmaker so I can’t compare it.” And I haven’t had any obstruction, so… but now I understand and it makes me really appreciate the way I’ve been making movies, because I’m not waiting for anybody to give me permission to do it.

How do you feel about the word ‘mumblecore,’ speaking of being labeled?

Well, mumblecore is… Mostly I hate the word. I just don’t like the way it sounds, it sounds belittling…

It does. It’s a little pejorative.

It is. It’s a little pejorative, thank you. And it was a name that was come up with in a movement. Like everybody asks me what it means to be part of this “movement.” And it’s like “No.” It wasn’t like Dogme 95, we didn’t get together and write this manifesto and make movies with these rules. It’s just that there were some similarities people noticed. And then right after, it was just given this unfortunate moniker. But the actual grouping I think was very useful for all of us at the beginning – I would say most of us, anyway. Because we were making these little tiny movies that wouldn’t have gotten a lot of attention, if any, on our own, and so it was really actually helpful to be grouped. And most of those people are friends. Joe Swanberg’s a good friend of mine, Aaron Katz… I’ve never actually met Andrew Bujalski somehow, I don’t know how, but… We’ve avoided each other somehow [laughs.] And Mark. So I know a lot of these people and we’re all friends and we’re all rooting for each other. But we’ve all evolved. It’s a little bit like saying, “Well everybody who’s worked shooting on 35 and has an 8 million dollar budget and uses a script are all the same.” Like they’re making the same kind of film. So it’s a little bit silly in a way. But we do all have high standards for naturalism, however we get there, and we’re not waiting for permission to make our movies. So I would say there’s two similarities there.

Since you have a heavily improv’d directing style, to what extent do you interrupt it? Do you stop a scene?

I really don’t if I can avoid it. I think having been an actor and remembering that you get into this sort of zone with the scene or whatever it is that’s going on, I really feel there’s this sacred faith. And even when the actors, a lot of times the actors say to me, “Don’t worry about it, just feed us a line, interrupt us…” I can’t, I find it so hard to do it. Because I do it and I see the bubble being popped, and I kind of have to re-find it again. I hate that. I want them to find their way. That’s what I love about two cameras, they can just meander and sometimes it’ll just be 20-25 minutes and I’ll just let them go, and it’s fine if they’re doing that I can just cut out later, because they have to go through that to get something good. And then I’ll just go back to my notes. And then occasionally we’ll do a pickup, we’ll just do this one section, even though we have no time… I mean, 12 days is just ridiculous. But sometimes I just have this one piece: “Say this one thing the way I want you to say it.” But I try not to interrupt in the middle of the scene. I really, really would rather not… I know a lot of people who use improv do, they just throw out stuff, in the moment…

Like Terrence Malick or somebody like that.

Right. And if I can avoid that I try to.

So did you have the common problem of having too much footage?

No, and being an editor, I tend to not want to just go and go and go and just do a gazillion takes. Because if you have 200 hours of footage it’s gonna take you weeks just to watch the footage, much less cut the movie together. So I’d rather have just a few really great choices and just go in there and do it. It’s like Picasso said, “The painting is done when you put the brush down.” You know, you can just go forever and look for as many nuances or as many varieties as you want. But, yeah, I’d rather just have something good and go in there and make it into a movie.