This past weekend, Lynn Shelton's low-budget sleeper, "Your Sister's Sister," starring Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass scored at the specialty box office, coming in first among new independent movies. With so few female directors working in America today, I asked writer-director-editor Shelton how she pulled off her fourth feature film. The Seattle native shared some of the secrets of her success while tellling Yahoo! Movies what inspired her movie about half-sisters that learn how to share — a man.
Thelma Adams: Given the film's title, Lynn, do you have any sisters?
Lynn Shelton: I have a stepsister who came into my life in high school. We each had brothers and always longed to have a sister. We fell into each other's arms and we have this incredibly boring relationship. I couldn't draw on that but I'd observed really fascinating sibling relationships around me for years. And it's very collaborative in development and on set, so the actors were able to bring their own experiences. We did a lot of oversharing and dug deep. Rose [Rosemarie Dewitt] is an only child but she has a bunch of half-siblings. Emily [Blunt] has at least one sister. They have a lot to draw on, I know. I think it was Emily who said that there is nobody who can break your heart like members of your own family.
TA: Did any sister movies inspire you when you made this one?
LS: No. Frankly, I wanted to come at this from a completely fresh angle. That was one of the reasons I made the sister relationship more nuanced and complex. They're half-siblings. With the older sister Hannah [DeWitt], her father was basically stolen away when Iris' [Blunt] mom became pregnant with her. And then they spent these intense summers together when they would summer with their Dad. We had an incredibly nuanced backstory so that they really knew all the buttons that they could push with each other. With this kind of work it's helpful for the actors to know the backstory so when somebody lobs a line at them the response will be second nature.
TA: When you say "this kind of work" you mean improvisational. How much of the movie was improvised?
Of the dialogue, probably 75 to 80 percent. I wrote out much more of a "scriptment," but a lot of the scenes were written out and I made it clear that the actors need not feel beholden to the lines, not memorize them hard. They should look over the scenes to get the sense of the shape and the trajectory. Structurally, we knew what would happen in every scene, but we wanted the dialogue to have a naturalistic feeling. If they liked the line great, but I didn't' want them to feel pressured about them.
[Related: Reel Women: Adams on Reel Women: 'Prometheus' pregnant with horror]
TA: How do you achieve naturalism on screen?
LS: My first feature, "We Go Way Back," was a traditionally made film, so I was really shocked at how different the traditional way of making a film seems to obstruct the work of the actor at every turn. It was the first script I'd ever attempted to write. I struggled on set and in the edit room to get the naturalism that I wanted. One brief scene in that film was improvised. I was electrified. What would it feel like if an entire film was like that? It was a starting point in this fantasy I had. I made two movies, "My Effortless Brilliance" and "Humpday," that didn't have any dialogue. "Humpday" was a ten page outline. I wanted structure but I couldn't have written that dialogue because I'm not a 30-year-old guy. I'm not privy to how guys alone talk to each other. So that was a perfect fit but since then I've gotten back into writing dialogue.
TA: Why is that?
LS: When I was directing an episode of "Mad Men," writer Matt Weiner was really inspiring to me because his scripts were so beautiful. We didn't have to write on set. It was so not stressful. His perfectly-written dialogue inspired me to write more dialogue. My latest film was more fifty-fifty. I asked them to be loose.
TA: What's it called?
LS: "Touchy Feely." It's my first film that doesn't take three characters over three days. It's an ensemble cast, multiple story lines, and more written format. But I'm still looking for an extreme level of naturalism, like flesh-and-blood human beings, not a Hollywood stand-in. That's one of the key things. It's more difficult than it looks. A huge component happens in the edit room. It's where I find the gems from every take and put it all together. Actors have to trust and it's very risky for them, fearing they might fall on their face. But I'm not going to let that happen.
TA: There are so few women directors right now. Do you think it's harder for women to get those gigs? Or just universally hard? What advantages do you have? What disadvantages?
LS: I have absolutely no idea how to be a male director so I don't know what the differences would be. I've never had a problem getting my films made because I'm not in a model seeking investors, I've always been able to self-produce or my dear friend Steven Shardt would say "whatever you want to do, I'll make that happen." I need to create an idea that is doable. I'm not into big sci-fi epic with moving parts from the '50s. I do pieces that are microcosmic, looks at interpersonal relationships between human beings. We've figured out a model that makes that work. I don't really have a problem getting movies made because I have a different model than most other independent filmmakers. The equipment is less expensive than it once was; no need to pay for a lab to develop film stock. It's possible because of digital technology. It helps when you build a body of work. It helps to start accruing attention and then you can expand on your family of collaborators and attract more awesome individuals like Emily Blunt. I definitely feel like I've paid my dues, and evolved my work.
TA: Is there an economy of scale working outside of Hollywood in Seattle?
LS: I have to say living in Seattle has been amazing. In that community there are strong female producers like Sue Corcoran. Everybody is willing and able to play nice and support each other. There are great crews that don't bat an eye working with female directors in a very progressive place. In that way I feel lucky.
See the trailer for 'Your Sister's Sister':