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Exclusive: Lynn Shelton Talks Your Sister’s Sister, Touchy Feely

Filmmaker Lynn Shelton made quite a splash in 2009 with the Sundance-minted “Humpday,” about two straight guys who enter into an “art project” pact to make a gay porn film together, and find themselves locked in a circle of awkward uncertainty. Her new film, “Your Sister’s Sister,” centers on an emotionally unstable guy, Jack (Mark Duplass). Worried about her friend, Jack’s deceased brother’s ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt) offers up her family cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest so that he can try to locate catharsis in solitude. Unbeknownst to Iris, her lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who just ended a long-term relationship, is also there. When Iris shows up to surprise Jack, a sisterly reunion and other complications ensue. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance recently to speak to Shelton about her dedication to improvisation, her film’s unusual title, her “ridiculous” diet, and jean shorts. The conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: Mark, Emily and Rosemarie (in addition to Mike Birbiglia) all take “creative consultant” credits on the movie — what does that entail, and why do you feel that’s important to have?

Lynn Shelton: Well, not only do they write the dialogue for the most part — or about 70 or 80 percent, really… I did have some dialogue written this time, which I didn’t with “Humpday,” which was a 10-page outline because I had two veteran improvisers (Duplass and Joshua Leonard) who were comfortable with that idea. In this case, I wanted to have a security blanket or a launching point for Rose and Emily, so I had scenes written out but encouraged them to go off script so they could put their own cadences into the speech and make it feel as naturalistic as possible. Also, in addition to that, they were involved in an eight- or nine-month period of planning with the project, which includes figuring out who the characters are and building this extremely detailed and elaborate backstory. …And so I want the input of the characters, and it’s an engagement that’s usually not required of actors. They’re often called upon to create their own character’s backstory, but I’m so engaged with them and it’s so part and parcel with the development of the plot — because often times I’m saying I want this to happen in the plot, so we need to figure out how to support it, so it’s all very organic. Even though I’m the final arbiter and… I get the writing credit, they’re huge contributors in that whole process.

ShockYa: Is there a lot of iceberg under the water, then — material written out that we don’t see on screen?

LS: Yes, but… well, with Iris’ backstory I sort of half-wrote it out, and then I completely wrote it out once Rose came in as the pinch-hitter, because we lost the original actress.

ShockYa: And who was the original actress?

LS: Rachel Weisz. So in order to let [Rosemarie] know who [Iris] was, I went back and spent a whole night finishing writing it all out. At that moment, I wanted to be able to hand her the 70-page “script-ment,” along with this character bible.

ShockYa: I think it’s a credit to Rosemarie and Emily that they both shine in the film. But you and Mark had a history from “Humpday.” Emily I believe, had the experience of improvising some only from her first film, (“My Summer of Love”). Did Rosemarie have any similar experience?

LS: Rosemarie, no, not really, just minimally. Like Emily, the vast majority of her experience had been with scripted material. But they were both so game, and I find that having that backstory is so helpful, because if you’re in a scene and somebody lobs a line at you that you’re not expecting if you don’t know who you are you’re going to be floundering. But if you understand who you are and who this other person in the scene is to you, it’s like second nature.

ShockYa: A lot of times when you [talk about] improvisation, a lot of people think comedic and over-the-top, which is certainly not the case here. It’s a different skill set for actors. Is there something in a performer’s personality that make them a good fit for this sort of exercise, this type of filmmaking?

LS: I never want any of my actors to think we’re making a comedy, I never want to think we’re making a comedy. I just want to be speaking to the truth of the scene. I have no idea if there will be any laughs, honestly. It was the same with “Humpday,” actually — I was sort of surprised that people labeled it a comedy, because I never meant for that to be the case. The comedy comes part and parcel with the drama — like its flipside, they’re intertwined. I don’t want to be thinking we’re making a comedy because I don’t want them to feel the pressure of having to be funny or that they have to do a little soft-shoe or reach for a joke. That’s the danger, I think, of that zone. There are obviously masters of that (technique), but I’m interested in something different, where the humor comes out of recognizing actual human beings who are making a mess of things.

ShockYa: Is it too pat, then, to say that this (movie) is a companion piece to “Humpday”?

LS: I don’t really think it is (a companion piece). (pause, laughs)

ShockYa: Well this film could have been more explicitly sociologically rooted — to the extent that “Humpday” was invested in what I would characterize as the fixed nature of male sexuality, whereas females (possess a)… little bit more of a sliding scale. When we learn that Rosemarie’s character is lesbian, the movie could have taken a different tack. Were you ever interested in exploring those elements of gender politics and sexuality?

LS: No, I wasn’t. With “Humpday” I was interested in exploring that, but it’s funny because I think the movie ended up being more about different things. It was almost a Macguffin, because when you got in the theater it was more about friendship and marriage and our relationship to ourselves and how we shift over time and how our perception of ourselves doesn’t always match up with the reality of how we’ve ended up. It’s really about all this other different stuff. There’s still a larger cultural resonance in the context of these other issues that are in there, but I feel like it’s still more about the interpersonal dynamics. And then with “Your Sister’s Sister,” I never set out to make a movie about that… it’s just a little character study.

ShockYa: The title is intriguing, I think, because it gives people pause. How did that come about?

LS: Very late. (laughs) Yeah, this was was a very difficult film to name. It was interesting because two friends brought up the idea of this particular title early on and I rejected it and then way down the line when I was asking everybody for brainstorming because I was stuck, another friend brought it up. And then when I ended up deciding it, my friend who brought it up the original time was like, “I brought that up months ago and you totally dissed it!” What I like about it is that it implies three people, because there’s the person saying it and then you know there’s two sisters and it could be either one who’s being refered to as the sister’s sister. And there’s a little bit of a puzzle. It’s open, it’s not saying this is a romantic comedy or this is a movie about blah blah blah. It’s more open than that, which I want it to be, because I don’t think it’s an easy movie to label.

ShockYa: What were some of the discarded titles?

LS: Oh gosh, I don’t remember. They were so bad, I guess.

ShockYa: I’m fascinated by how middle-of-the-road most mainstream studio titles are, but there are others that have these interesting stories behind them. “People Like Us,” which also features Mark, has a singularly focused, almost desperate inclusivity to it, for instance. And I guess “Our Idiot Brother” was originally “My Idiot Brother,” and then they changed it, so you’re placing upon it the judgment of all the siblings.

LS: That’s true, and funny. And the interesting thing about this movie is that more often than not people get the name wrong, and call it “My Sister’s Sister,” which is interesting. It happens a lot in print, where maybe they’ll refer to the title twice, and once the right way and once the wrong way. That’s happened, like, five times — it’s really strange.

ShockYa: You’ve directed episodic television, like “Mad Men” and “New Girl,” between your movies. How has that informed or changed your work on this film?

LS: I had just done “Mad Men” before we shot this, and it changed it in a couple different ways. The main one was that we had a schedule that I was really worried about — it was 14 days, and when Rose had to replace Rachel it actually ended up being reduced to 12, because she had to go back and forth to L.A. since she was still in production on “The United States of Tara” and the producers were nice enough to shift her schedule around enough that we could still use her. I thought there was no way I could shoot it in 12 days, but I had been given the external validation on “Mad Men” that I could work as a fast director. I’d been making movies at my own pace and didn’t really have the context of anybody else to compare to until I was on that show and making my days, which was unusual, I guess. That’s what TV is about — it’s incredibly ambitious, and you have to move really quickly. So I just told myself, it was like a mantra, “You can do this, you can do this, you’ve been told you can do this.” So that really kept me sane, in the short time period that we had. I slept two hours a night, but I still made it. And then the other thing was that it was such a luxury and joy and blessing to actually have a script. I’d been making movies improvised and didn’t really have any idea how stressful it was to write dialogue on set. And so it gave me a new perspective. I’d never had the luxury of working with really great (pre-written) dialogue, and actors who really know who their characters are through and through. So it actually inspired me enough to write a more controlled and more elaborate script that I just shot, called “Touchy Feely.” There’s still some improvisation in this movie, but a lot of it is just as written, and the actors were able to take it and turn it into gold. I’m not precious about using lines that I write; whatever works. There’s not any kind of purity of process that I’m looking for, it’s really about whatever works for each specific project. So it was really eye-opening in that way.

Shockya: Have you noticed any gender differences when it comes to the sort of improvisation work you like to do?

LS: In “Your Sister’s Sister” the actresses had a really different approach to the improv. With Mark, he’s kind of the ringleader for the most part, because he’s so used to working that way and he likes to hold these surprises and dish things out… and so when it was just [Rosemarie and Emily] they were approaching it in a much gentler way. So they might go off the lines a little bit, or change the order a bit, but they’d find a shape to the scene and explore the nuances of that shape. That allowed for entire scenes to take place in long two-shots — like the first time they’re telling confessions to each other in the dark in bed, it’s two two-shots, one from the side and one from the top. Normally, if you’re improvising like we were in the dinner scene or any of the other scenes, where we were just riffing and going, I could never have done it that way because you’re getting so much variety that you have to find it in the edit room. That gave me a new perspective on how sometimes it’s nice to veer a little bit more closely to the controlled, scripted version of a scene.

ShockYa: Some would characterize these questions as dumb or silly, but I prefer to think of them as exhibiting levity. The soy/gluten-free pancakes in “Your Sister’s Sister” — inspired by you, I take it?

LS: (laughs) Yes, by me. I have a ridiculous diet. Although, as Mark pointed out earlier, if we put my actual diet on screen nobody would believe it. So I was poking fun at myself. And those particular pancakes came out of a disaster years ago, which was the first time I’d ever tried using flax to replace eggs. I have actually since learned to do it appropriately, and it’s delicious and it works great, but if you do it wrong — well, it was amazing, it was such a disaster. They never cooked through and they were like glue. I just remembered how hysterical how that was, and so I loved the idea of Rose’s character being earnest and trying to make them a meal.

ShockYa: So are you in real life emotionally allergic to butter (a line from the film)?

LS: (laughs) I’m not, I’m just actually allergic to butter. I’m like a vegan-pescatarian. So I can’t eat eggs or diary, I choose not to eat meat, and then I actually eat fish.

ShockYa: The movie features conversation about skinny jeans and jean shorts. If inanimate objects could be my enemy, the latter might be mine. What are your true thoughts and feelings on jean shorts?

LS: (laughs) I say everyone to their own. It’s all very subjective. I don’t like to censor anybody in their wardrobe selections. The horror show, as Emily puts it, of Mark wearing jean shorts is — look, he’s the one putting himself out there in those things, and we all get to reap the benefit of laughing at him. So, more power to him.

ShockYa: What more can you tell us about “Touchy Feely”?

LS: It’s a real departure. The three films I made prior to “Touchy Feely” all involved three characters and one location, basically taking place over the course of one long weekend — which I love and can’t wait to get back to. But I wanted to break out and see if I could expand my horizons a little bit. So it’s an ensemble cast, the core of which are two characters which I wrote for specific actors — Rosemarie DeWitt and her brother, who’s played by Josh Pais. He’s a dentist and she’s a massage therapist who loses her ability to deal with the human body. She develops this sudden revulsion around skin and bodies and touching, and so she develops an identity crisis and sort of goes through a long, dark journey of the soul, and he goes through his own interesting journey of self-discovery in a different direction. They have a tug-of-war over his daughter, her niece, played by Ellen Page, who’s in a very co-dependent relationship with her father and feels like she has to take care of him. She’s trying to figure out how to get out of that. And then Scoot McNairy is a real up-and-comer who plays Rose’s boyfriend, and that family unit also has Allison Janney, who plays Rose’s mentor/friend, and Ron Livingston, Rose’s (real-life) husband, is also in it in a sort of mysterious supporting role. It feels really different than the last couple movies I’ve been making. I wanted to go back to my first impulses as a filmmaker. My first feature had a lot of subjective filmmaking and some mystery and cinematic poetry in it, in a way. It’s fun to have parallel storylines to go back and forth between. It’s a new beast.

ShockYa: You mentioned that it’s different in its construction and these respects. Has that been born out or proven to be quite a different experience in the editing room yet?

LS: Yeah. These movies, there’s longer scenes where more takes place, and so “Touchy Feely” is more of a classic movie in that there’s just a lot more scenes. And so trying to figure out the order and cutting — the overall structure is much more like a jigsaw puzzle. It feels very different, and I think there will be a lot more music and sound design.

NOTE: “Your Sister’s Sister,” from IFC Films, is in theaters and also available across various VOD platforms.

Written by: Brent Simon

Lynn Shelton

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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