Tribeca Dialogue: 'Your Sister's Sister' Director Lynn Shelton on Collaborating, Crying on Set and Redefining Family

Tribeca Dialogue: 'Your Sister's Sister' Director Lynn Shelton on Collaborating, Crying on Set and Redefining Family

Apr 23, 2012

Lynn Shelton Courtesy of IFC Films

Filmmaker Lynn Shelton's latest film Your Sister's Sister is about all the big, messy things in life -- desire, regret, mourning, love -- cooked up and crystallized into a strange love triangle between a grief-stricken man, his best friend (and dead brother's ex), and her lesbian sister. Iris (Emily Blunt) sends her friend Jack (Mark Duplass) off to her family's cabin in the woods to clear his head; he's been angry and drunk and screwed up over the death of his brother, understandably so, but it's time to get his act together, Iris insists, and so off he goes to a scenic island on the Puget Sound.

Neither realizes that her sister Hannah (Rosemary DeWitt) is also hiding out there nursing a broken heart until their awkward meeting, which leads to a night of drinking and then an awkward one-night-stand. When Iris appears to check on Jack and surprises them both, all three are forced to closely examine what exactly their hearts desire and can bear in what ends up being richer and more affecting than 99% of the indie romantic dramas. met with Lynn Shelton during the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about her collaborative methods, crying on set, and why directing TV shows is a perfect gig for an indie director.

Your Sister's Sister opens on June 15, 2012, in limited cities. You do a lot of preparation beforehand. Are a lot of actors up for this intense preparation and then a 12-day shoot? Or does it take a certain sensibility?

Lynn Shelton: I think timing is everything, and it's not [for] every actor, I'm sure. I've been lucky enough to find actors that are. I think that there are a lot of actors who are really excited by the idea. It's just such a different scenario. It's such a different process…

[Emily] describes it as just being perfect timing because she did it for the experience. It wasn't like she was in it for the paycheck. She was doing it for the experience, and it was a couple weeks of something that's just completely different than anything she's been doing lately. It actually harkens back to the first movie she ever did, [which] was also improvised. I'm sure it was a very different experience than ours, but it had more overlap than her usual scripted big Hollywood movie experiences. And that was a film she loved and an experience she enjoyed, and she never thought she'd have that again, so I think that was another draw for her.

I think the thing that might attract actors is that it's very collaborative, and I'm asking them to participate creatively. That's why they all get creative consultant credit, because they're true collaborative partners and not just the way actors always are.

Emily describes having ideas on big sets and giving them and saying, "I really feel like this character would do such-and-such" or "I don't think she would do this" or whatever, and being kind of patted on the head and [told] "Thanks for your input" and then being totally ignored. And that just doesn't happen on my set [laughs] because if the actor's not feeling like it feels real to them, I'm totally gonna listen to that. We're all on high alert for anything that feels inauthentic.

Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt in Your Sister's Sister (Courtesy of IFC Films) One thing of many aspects of this and Humpday is the idea of self-made families. People who find their own, whatever that may look like. Can you just speak to that theme a little bit? I don't have a question, I just like it.

Shelton: Yeah, I like it too. I like the idea that people can think outside of the box in terms of relationships and what it means to create connections and intimacy with others in their lives and the different ways that might look and families and not being beholden to the traditional ways we think of people structuring their lives around each other. 'Cause it doesn't always work for everybody, and life is messy and it's complicated, and so I like to show that onscreen. I don't think these folks are necessarily going to have an easy ride, but who does? [laughs] No matter what path you take, you know, it's all hard. But the intention of trying to connect [with] each other and going in the direction of light and love and life as opposed to just assuming the worst and being held prisoner by your own more negative feelings, I find it very heartening. This question came to me, and then I immediately thought it was a weird question to ask and maybe even, I don’t know if I would say sexist but it certainly had never occur to me to ask anyone else, but because I cried while watching your movie, did you cry while making it? Did you cry while writing it? What do you do? It's so intense.

Shelton: [laughs] Yeah… I mean, I'm kind of a big crier so it's not saying much, but [laughs] I probably cried on set a couple times and definitely [while] watching the results of the editing, because when you're in it it's more mechanical… I still cry at different points. A lot of it is the music. A lot of the montage, there are certain points, like little touchstones for me, and it usually has to do [with music]. There's this whole six-and-a-half, seven-minute montage that has two lines of dialogue or something, but it's mostly music, and we worked so hard to get that, because that whole thing never would have worked if it hadn't been for the music carrying it because we're going back and forth between two different emotional arcs, between him and the sisters getting back together, and there's just a certain moment in the middle and towards the end that just gets me every time. But I mean, I'll cry on set.

I'm making a movie right now and I'll cry, I'll tear up just when I have this flush of realization that I get to do this, period. You know, that I'm sitting in this room and there are all these people here to help me fulfill my vision, and I'm working with these incredible actors and [an] incredible talented crew who are like my second family, and it's kind of overwhelming how awesome it is to get to do that. [laughs] So, you're shooting right now in Seattle, right?

Shelton: I am. And is this the script by Andrea Siegel [Laggies]?

Shelton: That movie got pushed. We were supposed to be shooting it… in the spring, and when it got pushed to August, I said, "I have to make something this spring!" And I had [Touchy Feely] on my shelf, and I pulled it down and I started asking people, "Are you available? Are you available?" And I just pulled it together, and it's not meant to compete. Laggies is going to be definitely my next project, and so… I may have to put this aside and edit it after. I'm not exactly sure what's going to happen because I may just finish shooting this one, Touchy Feely, and then immediately go into prep for Laggies, which I'm totally happy to do, but I just couldn't wait any longer. I'm just somebody who needs to get on set, you know? I'm just dying to be on set, and I couldn't wait any more. It's been a year and a half since I was on set with Your Sister's Sister and it's too long for me! It has to be once a year.

Laggies is being produced by somebody else, and it's a bigger budget and so all these different puzzle pieces have to come together that I don't have any control over, and every movie up to now I've been able to, the last few movies, I've been able to just call up my friends and say, "I'm making a movie in April. You wanna come be a part of it?" And they'll say, "Yeah," and we'll do it. It's just so simple. So I just had to do that. [laughs]

Mark Duplass in Your Sister's Sister (Courtesy of IFC Films) Even with wildly different aesthetics on Mad Men and The New Girl, do you feel that working on an indie budget prepares you for shooting TV shows like that?

Shelton: Yeah! I was amazed. I mean, because they've been [such] micro-budget films, so when I was about to go to do Mad Men I was a little bit worried. I didn't know if my skill set would really -- what it would be like to work on a bigger set. It's just a full union crew and a soundstage, and that was all brand new for me, and not in Seattle and people I didn't know. It turns out that it's a perfect crossover. They're so ambitious and they have to work so quickly, and that's my M.O… We shot Your Sister's Sister in 12 days and Humpday in 10 and my second film in, like, seven and a half, you know, two long weekends… I think being an editor really helps too, because that was my background, so I know what I need and I know when I have it, and I can move on and I don't need to do take after take after take. I've never been able to afford to do that anyway. I love it. Both of those TV experiences were fantastic in every way. I loved it. I would love to do more. I know that you're probably not in New York for very long, but when you're here, what is your favorite movie-centric thing to do?

Shelton: I lived here in the '90s, and I used to go to Cinema Village and just walk in and not even know what was showing. I love that experience, going to a place like the Quad or Cinema Village or the one uptown near Lincoln Center… I used to love going to the Walter Reade. That was my favorite theater to go to. I don't know why; there was something about that space that just, I loved it. And the Ziegfeld. I have so many favorite theaters in New York that I have fond memories of either seeing retrospectives of old films [at] or new films. And Film Forum. Even Angelika. Yeah, I have so many favorite theaters, so just going to see a movie, I guess. Going to the movies, that would be my favorite film-centric thing to do. Which I can't do this time 'cause I'm a little busy today and I leave early in the morning, but I saw one last night. That was fun!

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