Director Lynn Shelton

With her highly anticipated fourth feature Your Sister’s Sister opening Friday at Film Society of Lincoln Center, director Lynn Shelton spoke with us about nature and naturalism, siblings, Mumblecore and what it means to be an observer of humanity.

Your characters often spend time in nature. What is the significance of this and its relation to humanity in your films?

I tend to make my work in an instinctive way. Sometimes I have a vague idea about themes I want to be exploring, but a lot of times things don’t reveal themselves to me until after it's done. It's interesting how nature is a recurring theme: getting drawn back to natural places away from the bounds of civilization. Various kinds of breakthroughs or behaviors that you wouldn't otherwise be allowed to indulge in come out in nature. It's not something I consciously think about. It’s something that happens more organically.

I will say that with Your Sister’s Sister the kernel of the story came from Mark Duplass. We were looking for something to collaborate on and this was in the vault of potential Duplass brothers' movies. The picture he painted to me was that the initial conversation between the two best friends, Iris and Jack, would happen on a rooftop in Brooklyn and in winter. The cabin was in the woods and it was really snowy. I changed the fact that the guy goes up to the cabin and encounters the mother of his best friend—that was the original idea—to encountering an older sister. I also reset it in the Pacific Northwest. As soon as I reset it in the Pacific Northwest I knew that it had to be on an island—that was very important to me. We had a really hard time finding an island location, but it seemed like there were going to be places available on the ocean. My producer kept saying “how about the ocean?” And it just didn’t feel right. I realized that the reason was that the island gave physical isolation, which was highly meaningful to me. It felt physically separated and then mentally separated from the bounds of society and civilization. That was very conscious; I knew it had to be on an island. 

What island was it?

It's a secret, but one of the San Juan Islands.

It’s a really beautiful island.

They’re all pretty damn beautiful, I have to say. They each have their distinct flavor, but you'd have to go to all of them to figure it out. It was part of the deal with the people who let us use their property: don’t tell anyone.

Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass

As a director you’ve been labelled as making what some people call “Mumblecore” films, along with Jay and Mark Duplass and others. How do you see your role in this and why do you think it has come about?

There’s a guy in Seattle, David Shields, who wrote a book called Reality Hunger. It’s basically about this desire for recognizing the real—real flesh and blood human beings in art. I have some trepidation about the whole Mumblecore moniker. First of all, it’s just a terrible name. But also the way that everyone is lumped together because were actually really different filmmakers. The things we do have in common are a quest for a sense of naturalism—real, genuine truthfulness—and no desire to wait around for somebody to give you permission to make your work. Those are two pretty worthy things. We all go about doing those things in different ways.

I had a background in theater as an actor, and then a photographer, and then as an experimental filmmaker and editor. It seemed like at every turn there was an obstruction to the work of the actor, which should have been the main focus. We should be carving out this beautiful space for actors. If it looks great, great. If it's beautiful and well lit, that’s fantastic. But if the acting sucks, you’re really screwed. You have no movie. It seemed inorganic and difficult on the actors.

In We Go Way Back there’s one sequence where they play a game of Pictionary and it’s a completely improvised scene, and I remember being electrified by what was happening on screen. I started to think: my god, what if you could make a whole movie that was just like that! It was real and fresh and dynamic. Then I met Joe Swanberg at the Maryland Film Festival and he was there with his second feature, LOL, and I was there with We Go Way Back, my first. We had this long conversation the night before we even saw each other's films. We saw each other's films the next day and were so relieved because we really bonded, but what if we had hated each other's films? It was exactly the right time for me to see his work because I saw that you can make a movie this way. I already had this little list: I’m going to start with people I want to work with, create characters with them and for them, and I'm going to just eject everybody from the set except for the people who are necessary. I just want to get out of the way of the actors and experiment. I didn’t even know if it would work.

I made all these choices for aesthetic reasons and then afterwards realized: oh my god, if I do all these things it will actually be affordable! For me, it wasn't the other way around—how can I make a movie on the cheap?—it was: how can I create a really chill, intimate environment for the actors? I wanted it to feel so real it was like you were watching a documentary. That was my goal for My Effortless Brilliance, my second feature. I only had four crew members, three actors and we were off in the woods—something crazy. It was cheap to produce.

In the mean time, I was in contact with Joe [Swanberg] and within a year he cast me in his web series. I wanted to see how he worked and then take what worked for me. He had just made Hannah Takes the Stairs, so Mark [Duplass] and I knew of each other, but I had already shot My Effortless Brilliance. I had been giving [Mark] rough cuts to get comments from him, by the time we actually met. My Effortless Brilliance premiered at SXSW the same year, a couple months before we shot Hump Day.

Audiences definitely respond to this type of filmmaking and I think there's a longing for it today.

When I started to make both Hump Day and Your Sister’s Sister, I didn’t know how funny they would be because I don’t want to think I’m making a comedy and I don’t want my actors to think they’re making a comedy because, especially in improv, you start reaching for jokes and try to soft shoe and be entertaining. I just wanted us to be speaking to the truth in the moment of the scene. And then when there are laughs, which half of them are usually a surprise to me, I’m thinking: really? We’re playing it so straight and editing it so straight, but the audience laughs out of this sense of recognition. It’s funny because it’s true. They’ll say, “oh my god that's the look that my girlfriend gets on her face whenever I bullshit her.” I don’t have a desire to make films that have cardboard cut-out or Hollywood stand-in replicas of humans. I need the real deal.

Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt as the title sisters

Was it easier to write a script with two sisters than your previous scripts about so-called “bromances?”

It's kind of the same process because my sibling relationships are uncomplicated and boringly loving. I really needed to come at it from a sociologist's or psychologist's point of view, which is exactly what I did with Hump Day. I had no direct experience being in a straight male friendship. My entire life I’ve observed these amazingly complicated and intricate male friendships. Deep bonds between guys complicated by the fact that they’re straight and they can’t actually admit their bond. And the same is true with sister relationships. I’ve observed some unbelievably fascinating ones. On the surface they seem to be incredibly bonded and incredibly simpatico, but you find out there’s resentment held on from past betrayals and competitiveness. They don’t want that to get in the way, but it does. It always seems to.

I had to draw on those second-hand observations, but it's helpful in collaborating with the actors. During the development process they bring their stories or what they've observed or their direct experiences and we all just do a lot of over-sharing to develop intimacy and to come to trust each other. There’s vulnerability, which is very useful to have on set because then the actors are willing to lay it all out there. Then they trust that I’m not going to let them look bad on screen. They’re also creating characters that are going to fit them like a glove, just like a second skin. It really helps when you're improvising because, if you know exactly who this person is to you, then when they lob a line at you that you aren’t expecting, your response is second nature. If you don’t have that grounding, though, you’re just at sea.

Your audience seems to be primarily younger. What would you say to your older audience or why do you think an older audience should watch your films?

Themes and relationships are universal. It still feels truthful and it's a chamber piece, a microcosmic look at three people dealing with shit. Flaws make us all human and you're rooting for characters because of those flaws. It's ageless if you're interested in relationships and the way people can or can't relate to each other.

What films are you watching and who influences you?

Woody Allen films from the 1970s and 80s. Mostly Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhattan. Hannah and Her Sisters is often one or two shots in a scene. Allen lets everything play out as people enter and exit the frame. Then Almodóvar, Bergman, Altman and looking at their parallel story lines and ensemble casts. My last three films were three characters over three-day weekends, so I want to work on writing with more characters.

Your Sister’s Sister opens Friday, June 15 for an extended run in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Shelton will be in person for a Q&A at Friday's 6:00pm screening and to introduce the 7:00pm and 8:10pm screenings.