Lynn Shelton makes it up as she goes along

June 13, 2012

It wasn’t supposed to be a sister.

In fact, as originally conceived by writer-director Lynn Shelton, “Your Sister’s Sister” could have been titled “Your Sister’s Mother.”

Her new film, opening in limited release Friday (6/15/12), tells the story of a lonely guy who sleeps with his best female friend’s sister without realizing the pair are related. But as Shelton was first presented it, the character was the friend’s mother.

“He met his friend’s mother and slept with her,” Shelton says with a laugh during a telephone interview. “But we thought that would be too Oedipal – to have a mother-daughter love triangle. So we changed it to sisters right away.”

“Your Sister’s Sister,” a hit at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, is Shelton’s follow-up to her 2009 indie hit “Humpday.” It reteams her with Mark Duplass, a “Humpday” star who plays the guy at the center of the triangle.

“Mark came to me with this idea that he and his brother (Jay) had for a film about a guy who’s lost his brother,” Shelton says. “But they thought it was too close to home for them to do themselves. But he liked the idea and he called me. I liked the plot – although there was no sister involved in that first iteration; it was the mother. And Mark and I had been looking for something to collaborate on.”

Duplass plays a guy still grieving the death of his brother a year after the fact. Emily Blunt is his best friend Iris (who happened to date his late brother), who offers the use of a family cabin on an island off Seattle for him to get himself back together. Thinking he’ll be alone there, he arrives to find someone else at the cabin: a woman named Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), with whom he sleeps and who turns out to be Iris’ half-sister.

Shelton works in an improvisational manner. She writes an outline of scenes, then lets the actors improvise their lines as they create the scene. Still, she worked in a slightly more regimented way this time.

“With ‘Humpday,’ I had a 10-page outline; this was a 70-page script,” she says. “A lot of the scenes were written out because I didn’t want Emily and Rosemarie to feel like they’d been thrown out there without a safety net. But I wanted them to bring their own cadence of speech and make it as real as possible.”

Shelton had nine months of conversation with the actors about the characters and their back-stories before production began: “I’d get on the phone with them and talk about the back-story bible because they were developing the characters in tandem with me,” she says. “If you know that kind of history about a character, it’s a lot easier to make their reaction second nature.”

Just one problem: Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz originally was cast in the role of Hannah and had been part of that development process. But she had to drop out of the film three days before production began.

“Rosemarie was actually at the top of my list for replacements,” Shelton says. “I need actors who are going to be on-board with my approach. And she had accosted me in an airport to tell me how much she liked ‘Humpday.’ She was willing to do this – but she was still in production on a TV series. So an already tight schedule of 14 days was trimmed to 12.

“But I work fast. On most movies, out of a 12-hour day, the actors might work one or two hours while the director and crew set up the shots. But the vast majority of this film was shot in one location, in a house, so didn’t need a large crew. We pre-rig most of the lights. So, out of a 12-hour day, the actors work about 11.”

Shelton’s goal is to make films about “recognizable human beings. I’m looking for credibility. I’m not interested in making work that looks like a Hollywood stand-in for human beings. If I can create humans that are flawed and three-dimensional, it will resonate more with the audience. You root for them despite their weaknesses. That’s what I’m going for.

“Everybody I’ve invited to do this so far has been pretty gung-ho, maybe because I’ve zeroed in on folks who have good natural instincts for this. That’s what drew me to these actors. They’re unbelievably credible in their roles, they’re naturally appealing – and they’re all fearless. Because, believe me, this is a risky business.”

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