Sister act

Lynn Shelton talks about Your Sister's Sister

by Jennie Kermode

Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt in Your Sister's Sister

Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt in Your Sister's Sister

Attending the UK première of her new film Your Sister's Sister at the Glasgow Film Festival, director Lynn Shelton took questions from the audience and reflected on how the project came about.

“It wasn't my idea to begin with,” she says. “Mark [Duplass, who plays Jack in the film] is a filmmaker as well, with his brother Jay. They make wonderful little movies. They have a drawer full of ideas and obviously they can't make all of them, so they brought this one to me.”

The idea originally featured a man who, at a loss after the death of his brother, accepts his best friend's invitation to travel to her remote family home for some alone time, only to meet her mother when he arrives there. Lynn was intrigued by the idea but thought changing the mother to an older sister would make things more interesting. She knew that they key to the piece was getting the characters right.

“I got the actors involved at an early stage and got them to develop their characters a lot and work out back-stories for them... When I made Humpday [which also stars Duplass], it was a ten page story outline with no dialogue written at all. We had veteran improvisers on that film. In this one, for the most part, we were very unprecious about the dialogue.” It sounds more natural, she explains, if what will happen in the scene has been carefully worked out but the actual words are allowed to flow naturally.

“We don't rehearse. The first time's the best time with improvisation, sometimes. It's like waiting for lightning to strike and if you rehearse you can miss the lightning. We just talk and talk and talk beforehand and make sure everyone's on the same page. I started out as an editor and I don't think I could shoot this way without that editor's brain, because I know what I want and I know what I've got it and I'm very meticulous.”

Indeed, this is a visible trait in Lynn. She sits in a way that makes it look as if she might leap up at any moment. Her eyes dart quickly to new questioners and she never hesitates before answering. But she's clearly somebody who knows how to relax as well.

“We ate together and stayed together. It was very idyllic,” she says of her relationship with the cast and crew during the shoot. “We watched films together. Conan The Barbarian – the original, not the new one. And The Lost Boys another night because we found out Emily [Blunt, who plays Jack's best friend, Iris] hadn't seen it, so we needed to fix that.”

Did these non-traditional methods of filmmaking create problems when it came to finding finance?

“It's very difficult to do traditional financing,” Lynn admits. “I started a theatre, mostly working as an actor, then I studied photography for graduate school and I made a lot of art films.” She smiles, clearly amused by the expectations such work entails. “For my second feature, I really wanted to try a performance-centred set, then I realised it's a very cheap way to make a movie – so cheap, in fact, that I could do it all with grants. With this one I was able to shoot in in less than two weeks and everyone agreed to work basically for nothing – well, for equity, so if I make money they make money. It's a good system. I'm developing a film now that will be more expensive and take weeks instead of days to shoot, and that's tough. But I work with the same crew, so it's like family. If people feel valued then they get invested in the film too.”

The next project, she says, involves Rebecca Hall and Paul Rudd, but she's not yet sure how it will progress. As for Hollywood, she says she's met some genuinely impressive people there but has also found people who don't understand her method of working at all and think she can just “sprinkle magic fairy dust” onto a conventional film set-up. She says she has yet to figure out how – or if – she'll ever be working with them.

As for My Sister's Sister, did it draw on any of her own experiences of family?

“I have a step-sister,” she says. “And a step-brother and a brother, and they're all really boringly uncomplicated. But I think maybe because of that I've always been a close observer of other people's relationships with their brothers and sisters. I find them fascinating.”

Finally, in response to a question about gender roles in the film, she expresses her delight at the way people find themes in her work that she never consciously put there. On reflection though, she says, this is not a film about the suppression of Jack's masculinity in the presence of the eponymous sisters. It's about him laying claim to his masculinity, growing up and taking responsibility in life. It's a positive response in the aftermath of loss.

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