By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Files: Lynn Shelton

Built for Speed: An Interview with Lynn Shelton, Director of Your Sister’s Sister

Seattle-born filmmaker Lynn Shelton earned acclaim for her first two features—We Go Way Back (2006) won the Slamdance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, and My Effortless Brilliance (2008) received an Independent Spirit Award—but her breakout film was Humpday (2009), which netted her another Independent Spirit Award, as well as the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize. Writer, editor, producer, director, and occasionally actress—she was beguiling as a bisexual free spirit in Humpday, and has a cameo in Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed—she employs a highly collaborative approach to filmmaking, encouraging her actors to build recognizable and relatable characters through extensive improvisation. In her latest work, the IFC Films release Your Sister’s Sister, she re-teams with Humpday star Mark Duplass, who plays Jack, a man still grieving the loss of his brother a year ago. Best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), his brother’s former girlfriend, takes pity and sends him alone on a retreat to her family’s cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest. What she doesn’t know is that her lesbian half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) has already moved in, trying to get over a romantic breakup. After a night of slamming back tequila shots, things quickly get complicated for the new roomies. Shelton stopped in Chicago recently to talk about her working method, and the ways in which she’s branching out as a director.

Andrea Gronvall:  How did you come up with the title of the film?

Lynn Shelton:  It was really hard! I had lists and lists of names, so I just asked friends for help. But I like it, because ita bit of a puzzle; you have to think about it for a second. It indicates three people: there’s a person saying “your sister’s sister,” and then there are the two sisters, and either sister could be the subject.

AG:  There aren’t that many filmmakers who excel at improvisation; movie production is so expensive that doing things on the fly is not for the faint of heart. Of course there have been great directors, like John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, whose films are heavily improvised, but in a lot of movies improvised stretches often wind up looking like mistakes, like the actors are winging it because the script wasn’t ready. What attracts you to improv?

LS:  First of all, I think everybody works with improv in their own fashion, and what I don’t like to do is just to show up on set and say, “Hey, what are we going to do today?” I have a very clear goal in mind for each scene, so by the time we get to set we really know what the scene is about, and, even more importantly, we know who these people are, what their back stories are—everything that’s happened before that scene takes place. With Your Sister’s Sister I had a script, I had dialogue written out, but I asked the actors not to memorize it. Sometimes they would just slightly alter a line, or sometimes they would change a whole line. Maybe 25 per cent of the movie is from lines that I wrote, so the vast majority of it is not. But there’s a very specific trajectory that needs to be followed, and so even though the dialogue itself may be improvised, the movie is not, if that makes sense. We’re not coming up with the [entire] movie on set; we’re just coming up with the specific.

And the other thing, for me, is that I’m an editor by trade. So I try to create a really emotionally safe environment and a relationship of trust with my actors, so that they know I’m not going to let them look bad on screen. And they can go ahead and take risks and put themselves out there to find their way, with the assurance I’m going to cut stuff out, and just put the gems on screen.

And the last thing I have to say, is that—and I don’t know if you were referring to this or not—I’ve seen what you’re talking about in comedies, and I don’t want my actors to know they’re in a comedy. In fact, I didn’t know how funny Your Sister’s Sister would be. The same thing is true of Humpday, believe it or not. I knew there would be some funniness, but I didn’t know for sure how much, because we’re playing it dead straight on set. I don’t want people reaching for jokes, or feeling like they have to be entertaining. I want them to be playing to the truth of the scene and of the moment.

AG:  Given your method, do you prefer to shoot in chronological order as much as possible?

LS:  I do, and Humpday was shot totally in order, Later we re-shot a couple of things, including the very first scene, and that was actually for a camera issue. And the plan was to shoot Your Sister’s Sister in order, but we lost our original Hannah a few days before the shoot. Rachel Weisz had to bow out due to scheduling issues, and so when we got Rosemarie DeWitt, it was a total blessing and she saved our butts, but she was in production on a TV show, The United States of Tara. Her dear producers very kindly amended her schedule enough that we could do it. But we still lost two days, plus we only had her for a certain time, so we had to shoot things out of order.

And you know it was good for me, because I learned two things: (1) that you can replace actors, even when you’ve worked so hard with a particular set of people that it feels like developing the movie both with and for them; and (2) that shooting out of order doesn’t necessarily screw it all up, and sometimes works better because you discover something about what you’re aiming for.

Ideally, I would still love to be able to shoot in order; there’s something so organic about it. I just shot a new movie called Touchy Feely and it was my longest shoot–it was 20 whole days—and with multiple story lines, a lot of characters, and many locations. I felt like it was time to do that because I had made three movies in a row with three characters and one location. But we still didn’t have a lot of time, and so we had to shoot really out of order; we’d be in one location, so we’d have to shoot all of the scenes that took place there. It really made me long for shooting chronologically.

AG:  Tell me about Touchy Feely.

LS:  The core is a dysfunctional family unit, sibling-based. Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais play brother and sister who are at odds, but what bonds them together is his daughter, her niece, played by Ellen Page, who’s in a very co-dependent relationship with her father, and her aunt is kind of trying to set her free. Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, and Scoot McNairy are also in it. Structurally, it’s very different than the last few films I’ve made; it feels more dramatic to me. But I’m always that way. With every film I don’t know how much humor there’s going to be.

AG: Your Sister’s Sister and Humpday both are sort of chamber pieces. Does scale for you dictate the intimate nature of a subject, or does the subject dictate the scale of the movie?

LS: They go hand in hand. I do really love that microcosmic approach to filmmaking; my fascination is the self and how we perceive others, and how our perceptions of our selves and others are challenged when we find that our limits are different than what we had thought. I’m so drawn to how people want to connect, but can’t, for whatever reason. It’s a lot easier to focus on that in a chamber piece, when you have something that’s just really bare bones. The vast majority of your time can be spent on finding the scene, as opposed to lighting, or moving to a new location, or spending an entire day setting up the perfect crane shot, [which] is not where my passion lies when I’m on set.

AG: There’s a big difference between directing film and directing TV, as you know, because you’ve directed an episode of Mad Men. The difference in pace between TV and film production is astonishing.

LS: That’s actually not true for me. I work so fast, and Mad Men was insanely fast! In fact, having just worked on Mad Men gave me the confidence that I could do Your Sister’s Sister after losing two days of shooting. I was already terrified that we weren’t going to get what we needed in 14 days, and then it was down to 12, and I was like, I am not going to be able to get the footage, I’m not going to be able to do it. But I’d just been on Mad Men, a job I’d been lobbying to get. They gave it to me and I thought, oh my God, I hope I can do this. I’d only been up in the hinterlands making little micro-budget films in my own weird way; I had no idea if my skills set was going to transfer. But directing is directing, and the crew told me, “You were one of the fastest directors we’ve ever worked with.” And then I did New Girl last year, and it was again the same thing. I’m sort of built for that kind of speed, as it turns out. I think it’s also my editing background, because I really know what I need, and when I have it, and when to move on. Because I know that somewhere in the takes—maybe not in all one perfect single take, which is what I think some directors try to look for–is the take I need. I don’t sweat the master to death, I just get a couple of those [shots] to use at the beginning and the end. As an editor—I’m editing my new movie, too—I don’t want to slog through 30 takes; I just want four good ones. That’s all I need.

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“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes. It’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful. People don’t realize what goes into making a movie like that. It’s mind-blowing. It’s just insane, it’s hurting the business, it’s getting people to not see a movie. In Middle America it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a low Rotten Tomatoes score so I’m not going to go see it because it must suck.’ But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”
~ Brett Ratner Has A Sad

“The loss of a local newspaper critic is a real loss. People who know the local audience and know the local cultural scene are very important resources. You can’t just substitute the stuff that comes in from nowhere through syndication or the wire. I think at the same time, some of the newer outlets have really beefed up and improved their coverage and made room for criticism. The real problem is in the more specialized art forms — fine arts, classical music, dance and jazz, say. There is a real slowing of critical voices, partly because those art forms have smaller audiences. Newspapers and magazines can say that doesn’t get enough traffic, so we don’t have room for that. To me, that’s especially worrisome. This is the opposite of what newspapers are supposed to do, which is not to try to figure out what people are already interested in and recite that back to them, but to hopefully guide them to something that they should be interested in, connecting potential audiences with more interesting work.

“Then again, not everyone needs a critic. People have been going to movies for more than 100 years now, and probably the vast majority of those people have not read movie reviews or cared what critics thought. But there has always been an important subset that wants to know more, that wants to think about what they’ve seen and what they’re going to see, and wants someone to think along with. I think critics are important, not just as dispensers of consumer advice — though that’s certainly part of it, too — but as trusted voices and companions for people to argue with in your head when you’re going to movies or afterwards.”
~ A. O. Scott