By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Files: Lynn Shelton

Built for Speed: An Interview with Lynn Shelton, Director of Your Sister’s Sister

Seattle-born filmmaker Lynn Shelton earned acclaim for her first two features—We Go Way Back (2006) won the Slamdance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, and My Effortless Brilliance (2008) received an Independent Spirit Award—but her breakout film was Humpday (2009), which netted her another Independent Spirit Award, as well as the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize. Writer, editor, producer, director, and occasionally actress—she was beguiling as a bisexual free spirit in Humpday, and has a cameo in Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed—she employs a highly collaborative approach to filmmaking, encouraging her actors to build recognizable and relatable characters through extensive improvisation. In her latest work, the IFC Films release Your Sister’s Sister, she re-teams with Humpday star Mark Duplass, who plays Jack, a man still grieving the loss of his brother a year ago. Best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), his brother’s former girlfriend, takes pity and sends him alone on a retreat to her family’s cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest. What she doesn’t know is that her lesbian half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) has already moved in, trying to get over a romantic breakup. After a night of slamming back tequila shots, things quickly get complicated for the new roomies. Shelton stopped in Chicago recently to talk about her working method, and the ways in which she’s branching out as a director.

Andrea Gronvall:  How did you come up with the title of the film?

Lynn Shelton:  It was really hard! I had lists and lists of names, so I just asked friends for help. But I like it, because ita bit of a puzzle; you have to think about it for a second. It indicates three people: there’s a person saying “your sister’s sister,” and then there are the two sisters, and either sister could be the subject.

AG:  There aren’t that many filmmakers who excel at improvisation; movie production is so expensive that doing things on the fly is not for the faint of heart. Of course there have been great directors, like John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, whose films are heavily improvised, but in a lot of movies improvised stretches often wind up looking like mistakes, like the actors are winging it because the script wasn’t ready. What attracts you to improv?

LS:  First of all, I think everybody works with improv in their own fashion, and what I don’t like to do is just to show up on set and say, “Hey, what are we going to do today?” I have a very clear goal in mind for each scene, so by the time we get to set we really know what the scene is about, and, even more importantly, we know who these people are, what their back stories are—everything that’s happened before that scene takes place. With Your Sister’s Sister I had a script, I had dialogue written out, but I asked the actors not to memorize it. Sometimes they would just slightly alter a line, or sometimes they would change a whole line. Maybe 25 per cent of the movie is from lines that I wrote, so the vast majority of it is not. But there’s a very specific trajectory that needs to be followed, and so even though the dialogue itself may be improvised, the movie is not, if that makes sense. We’re not coming up with the [entire] movie on set; we’re just coming up with the specific.

And the other thing, for me, is that I’m an editor by trade. So I try to create a really emotionally safe environment and a relationship of trust with my actors, so that they know I’m not going to let them look bad on screen. And they can go ahead and take risks and put themselves out there to find their way, with the assurance I’m going to cut stuff out, and just put the gems on screen.

And the last thing I have to say, is that—and I don’t know if you were referring to this or not—I’ve seen what you’re talking about in comedies, and I don’t want my actors to know they’re in a comedy. In fact, I didn’t know how funny Your Sister’s Sister would be. The same thing is true of Humpday, believe it or not. I knew there would be some funniness, but I didn’t know for sure how much, because we’re playing it dead straight on set. I don’t want people reaching for jokes, or feeling like they have to be entertaining. I want them to be playing to the truth of the scene and of the moment.

AG:  Given your method, do you prefer to shoot in chronological order as much as possible?

LS:  I do, and Humpday was shot totally in order, Later we re-shot a couple of things, including the very first scene, and that was actually for a camera issue. And the plan was to shoot Your Sister’s Sister in order, but we lost our original Hannah a few days before the shoot. Rachel Weisz had to bow out due to scheduling issues, and so when we got Rosemarie DeWitt, it was a total blessing and she saved our butts, but she was in production on a TV show, The United States of Tara. Her dear producers very kindly amended her schedule enough that we could do it. But we still lost two days, plus we only had her for a certain time, so we had to shoot things out of order.

And you know it was good for me, because I learned two things: (1) that you can replace actors, even when you’ve worked so hard with a particular set of people that it feels like developing the movie both with and for them; and (2) that shooting out of order doesn’t necessarily screw it all up, and sometimes works better because you discover something about what you’re aiming for.

Ideally, I would still love to be able to shoot in order; there’s something so organic about it. I just shot a new movie called Touchy Feely and it was my longest shoot–it was 20 whole days—and with multiple story lines, a lot of characters, and many locations. I felt like it was time to do that because I had made three movies in a row with three characters and one location. But we still didn’t have a lot of time, and so we had to shoot really out of order; we’d be in one location, so we’d have to shoot all of the scenes that took place there. It really made me long for shooting chronologically.

AG:  Tell me about Touchy Feely.

LS:  The core is a dysfunctional family unit, sibling-based. Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais play brother and sister who are at odds, but what bonds them together is his daughter, her niece, played by Ellen Page, who’s in a very co-dependent relationship with her father, and her aunt is kind of trying to set her free. Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, and Scoot McNairy are also in it. Structurally, it’s very different than the last few films I’ve made; it feels more dramatic to me. But I’m always that way. With every film I don’t know how much humor there’s going to be.

AG: Your Sister’s Sister and Humpday both are sort of chamber pieces. Does scale for you dictate the intimate nature of a subject, or does the subject dictate the scale of the movie?

LS: They go hand in hand. I do really love that microcosmic approach to filmmaking; my fascination is the self and how we perceive others, and how our perceptions of our selves and others are challenged when we find that our limits are different than what we had thought. I’m so drawn to how people want to connect, but can’t, for whatever reason. It’s a lot easier to focus on that in a chamber piece, when you have something that’s just really bare bones. The vast majority of your time can be spent on finding the scene, as opposed to lighting, or moving to a new location, or spending an entire day setting up the perfect crane shot, [which] is not where my passion lies when I’m on set.

AG: There’s a big difference between directing film and directing TV, as you know, because you’ve directed an episode of Mad Men. The difference in pace between TV and film production is astonishing.

LS: That’s actually not true for me. I work so fast, and Mad Men was insanely fast! In fact, having just worked on Mad Men gave me the confidence that I could do Your Sister’s Sister after losing two days of shooting. I was already terrified that we weren’t going to get what we needed in 14 days, and then it was down to 12, and I was like, I am not going to be able to get the footage, I’m not going to be able to do it. But I’d just been on Mad Men, a job I’d been lobbying to get. They gave it to me and I thought, oh my God, I hope I can do this. I’d only been up in the hinterlands making little micro-budget films in my own weird way; I had no idea if my skills set was going to transfer. But directing is directing, and the crew told me, “You were one of the fastest directors we’ve ever worked with.” And then I did New Girl last year, and it was again the same thing. I’m sort of built for that kind of speed, as it turns out. I think it’s also my editing background, because I really know what I need, and when I have it, and when to move on. Because I know that somewhere in the takes—maybe not in all one perfect single take, which is what I think some directors try to look for–is the take I need. I don’t sweat the master to death, I just get a couple of those [shots] to use at the beginning and the end. As an editor—I’m editing my new movie, too—I don’t want to slog through 30 takes; I just want four good ones. That’s all I need.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon