For all the praise that is justifiably heaped on Lynn Shelton for her penchant for spontaneity, what’s most impressive about the writer/director is how much work goes into making her films feel that way. By now her process is the stuff of legend among indie filmmakers who marvel at how Shelton was able to bring actresses Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt into one of her immersive productions for her latest “Your Sister’s Sister” – a 12-day shoot that took place on an island off the coast of Washington State where 15-hour days weren’t unusual since shooting would wrap and analysis of the day’s scenes would commence late into the night with a rare break set aside to watch “Conan the Barbarian” together. This would follow the eight-month gestation period of iChats and Skype conversations to get the actors comfortable inhabiting their characters’ skin rather than simply playing a part.
In my review of the film, which I first saw in the heat of the Toronto Film Festival, I had wondered aloud whether I had missed an explanation of why, as siblings, Blunt and DeWitt didn’t share the same accent and wasn’t surprised to learn later that I had. As you’ll see further down, when I asked Shelton, she could’ve waved it off as a quick fix when Rachel Weisz, her original choice to play Hannah, the lesbian vegan half-sis to Emily Blunt’s more composed Iris, had to pull out of the film at the last minute, leaving the American DeWitt with no time to prepare. And yet just as with everything else in one of Shelton’s films such as “My Effortless Brilliance” and “Humpday,” it became an opportunity to serve the story in a meaningful way.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise from a filmmaker who went so far as to act in a sex scene with the purpose of feeling comfortable directing other actors in one. (As a self-described prude, this couldn’t have been easy.) But with stories that often thrive on chaos and confusion and a style that’s always in search of the honest moment, whether it’s longtime cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke’s eternal hunt within the frame for further detail or the improvised banter between her leads that takes on the tenor of a tap dance as they feel each other out, the biggest surprise in Shelton’s work is that there are no accidents, even if the snap in her work would make it seem so.
If there’s anything Shelton enjoys more than building the layers into her characters – transforming a traditional love triangle plot between the two sisters and a friend (Mark Duplass) who has recently lost his brother into a moving and hysterically funny relationship comedy – it’s unraveling them to get to their essence and while Shelton was in Los Angeles recently, she took the time to discuss how she got to that point on “Your Sister’s Sister” and the strange but wonderful feeling that accompanies having “Humpday” being remade in France.
You’ve said this originally came from the Duplasses’s idea pile, so when they pitched you this story, what connection did you make with it?
I like this chamber piece paradigm where you just have a small number of characters in a confined space and a condensed period of time. You can really just turn the microscope on the interpersonal dynamics between these people, dive into their psyches and just look at the nuances of how people relate to each other. That’s just my thing. It’s something that brings me back again and again and again. This is the third movie I’ve made in a row with three characters, one location and basically most of it taking place over the course of a long weekend.
It’s also produceable. It means I can shoot a movie in two weeks or under and you’re spending most hours of the day with the actors actually making the work as opposed to setting up the perfect crane shot. So when Mark called me, it was funny because there were no sisters in it. It started out with a mother. It was going to be a girl and a guy are best friends. She sends her buddy who’s not in a very good place because he’s recently lost his brother to get some alone time at this place. Then he thinks he’s going to be alone, but he finds his best friend’s mother is up there and it turns into this twisted love triangle of sorts.
He called with that kernel and the first thing I did was change the mom to a sister. I really liked the idea of two sibling relationships in parallel because I feel like the fourth character in the movie is the dead brother, who we don’t get to know, but he weighs so heavily on Jack’s soul and informs how he interacts with the sisters. I like the idea that it’s really about these four people whose lives become entangled in a really unusual way and it just felt like a really promising launch point.
Since you’ve gotten the reputation as a keen observer of male relationships, was it interesting for you to switch up the ratio of women to men from “Humpday” and “My Effortless Brilliance”?
I’m hoping to be labeled just a keen observer, period. There are certain films and certain subjects within films that have to come from more [the perspective] of a sociologist or a psychologist and an observer. Certainly, that was the case with “Humpday” and “My Effortless Brilliance” where I’ve never had any direct personal experience with being in a straight male friendship, but I’ve observed fascinating, very close, straight male friendships around me my whole life.
It’s the same with sisters because I have a brother, a stepbrother and a stepsister and my relationship with all of my siblings, but if you just take my stepsister, for an example, we have the most uncomplicated, boring relationship…blessedly so. Not an ounce of drama in it, so I couldn’t draw on that. But what I could draw on were these sister relationships that I’ve seen around me that have completely fascinated me. It’s just human behavior and the way we shift through our lives and in relationship to other people and how we try to connect and can’t always – that has always been what compels me. Even though it was women, it really was kind of the same.
It’s well-known by now that Rosemarie DeWitt had to replace Rachel Weisz at the last minute, but it seems to speak to your commitment to natural performances that even though there was an eight-month process of working on these characters, you made an adjustment so that Rosemarie wouldn’t use a British accent to match Emily Blunt’s. Was it ever a consideration?
Oh no. First of all, the first two actresses were both British, but then I realized a half-sister relationship would be more interesting than a sister relationship because I wanted it to be a really specific nuance. If the idea was that the older sister — [if] her dad had basically been stolen away because his mistress got pregnant with her half-sister — what an interesting starting point for a relationship to a sibling. But after that, they managed to figure out ways to bond, and that’s a great example of the obstacle to why couldn’t they just bond completely, like there’s this thing in their past. There’s layers in there, so I thought that would be really interesting that they shared a dad, but not a mom.
Ultimately, it actually worked and I wanted them to have their original accents because I don’t want anybody to be improvising in some made up accent. That’s the last thing I want to do. Then when we had to replace the actress playing Hannah, it was actually, in a way, less confusing to have it be an American. They’re supposed to be sisters, but they have different accents? That’s a question mark. By the time it’s explained in the movie, everybody’s ears are pricked up, like what is going on here? They’re listening to the explanation and then they’re really primed for it. Whereas if they both had the same accent, it might’ve been more complicated to explain. I feel like it was exactly as it was meant to be.
A final silly question, but have you kept abreast of Yvan Attal’s “Humpday” remake “Do Not Disturb”? It’s rare when the French decide to adapt an American film, but usually the results are good.
Oh God, yes. [laughs] Yvan Attal was extremely open about wanting to be very open with me because his two films have also been optioned to be remade in America. When they did that, he called me and said, “Oh you must be so nervous about what I will do with your film.” And I was like no. I just think it’s amazing. He’s like, “Well, you say that, but really you must be very nervous. You must come to set! I will put you in the movie.” I visited the set, but by the time I got there, it was the hotel room [scene, the film’s climax between the two main characters alone] and there was no place for me. I could’ve been hiding in the closet. But it was completely surreal and I know just a little tiny bit of French, so I’d be listening to them saying the lines in French and [I’d think] oh my God, that’s my script. That’s my movie! It was just crazy. A five million euro [production], big French movie stars, shot on the Alexa [camera], absolutely stunning. I cannot wait for that movie to come out.
“Your Sister’s Sister” opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 15th before expanding into limited release.