Claustrophobic and Intense: Lynne Shelton on Your Sister’s Sister

How to direct a comedy without trying to be funny and why she hates the word 'mumblecore.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


I followed Your Sister’s Sister on the festival circuit, in that I missed it at Toronto and at Sundance. I finally caught a screening in Los Angeles and now it’s playing in select cities around the country. Mark Duplass plays a grieving man who spends some time at his best friend (Rosemarie DeWitt)’s cabin, when her sister (Emily Blunt) shows up. The trio end up dealing with their family and romantic feelings in an intense weekend. Writer/director Lynne Shelton called from New York for an interview to discuss her latest film. Spoilers for Humpday if you haven’t seen that yet.


CraveOnline: You’ve made five movies now. Is that crazy to you?

Lynne Shelton: Well, I’ve shot five. Your Sister’s Sister is my fourth and I’ve just wrapped on a fifth. I’m still in the edit room on that one, but it is crazy to me though. I can’t believe I just shot my fifth film. It really blows my mind. It’s pretty awesome.


After Humpday was there any pressure in some circles to do something even more outrageous?

I don't know. I think the most pressure I’ve ever gotten is from myself and there was a lot of love for that film in certain circles. It wasn’t like a big breakout multiplex hit obviously, so I was a little concerned about following up that film that I just received a lot of love for. Actually I went off and did this web series for MTV which was kind of perfect because it wasn’t a movie and it sort of took the pressure off a little bit. I was working with non-actors so it had a different level of expectation around it. So that was nice. That was what I did in 2009 and then by the time I got around to shooting Your Sister’s Sister in 2010, I had done “Mad Men” and I felt ready and not worried. I didn’t feel like I was following up Humpday directly. I didn’t feel that need to go farther. The fact of the matter is Humpday isn’t really that edgy. In a way, on paper it seems so titillating but when you get into the theater you find out it’s just really a movie about relationships. It’s about friendship and dudes being ridiculous and marriage and interpersonal dynamics more than anything else. So it’s a little bit of a MacGuffin I think.


So there weren’t producers or distributors going, “More f***ing! More gays!”

[Laughs] Right. Not directly, not to me anyway.


On Your Sister’s Sister was there less pressure for jokes because you’re going for drama?

Well, to tell you the truth, in both cases I didn’t want to think I was making a comedy and I certainly didn’t want the actors to think they were making a comedy because I think that when you improvise in particular, it’s a danger if you think, “Oh, this has to be funny.” That’s when you start reaching for jokes and doing a little soft shoe and feeling like oh, I have to be entertaining when I’m on screen. The way that we get to the comedy in our movie, in these last two films, is by playing the truth of the scenario. So you know who you are as a character and you’re playing to the truth of a scene and it’s pretty dead serious on set. Everybody is really focused on what’s really going on and keeping it truthful and I didn’t know, honestly didn’t know, how many laughs there would be in either film. I know that might be hard to believe with Humpday but it’s really true. We really were playing it so straight and the scenes that get the most laughter were often the most serious on the set. The audience has the privilege of a little distance so they can see the forest for the trees and see these four human beings struggling in their little drama, but for the characters and for us on set, we’re just in it. It’s so claustrophobic and it’s so intense and very important and real. So it’s not until the audience gets their perspective of wincing and cringing at the same time that you’re laughing, that’s where the humor comes from. It’s funny because it’s true. These are real flawed human beings hopefully is what it feels like. You’re rooting for them and crossing your fingers for them to get through this little mess that they’ve gotten themselves into. So it’s not like a straight up comedy where we’re really reaching for the laughs I guess.


Does the improvisation ever get too rambly and go off the rails?

Oh yeah, all the time. It doesn’t go off the rails so much because everybody’s really on the same page about what territory needs to be covered and what the emotional trajectory has to be of every scene. We have two cameras and I know I’m going to end up in the edit room, and I come from editing. That was my background so I’m kind of clocking as we’re on set and we’re doing the scene in take after take. I’m just making sure that somewhere in there amongst all those takes, I have the ingredients to put it all together and make a coherent, sharp, focused scene. They can take as much time as they want, they can meander, they can drift away as long as they come back at some point. That’s fine, and I let them do that because sometimes they need that I feel like. Once the cameras are rolling, I kind of feel like there’s this sacred space that the actors have and I don’t like to burst into the bubble and say, “Say this, say that.” I’m really not hands on once the cameras are rolling, then I give them notes in between. But we usually don’t have to do that many takes. It’s usually four or five takes and then we’re good. It’s pretty efficient actually.


I just imagine actors may want to try this, and that, and when one is a director too, like Mark Duplass, they could get really far away from the scene.

I’ve never been on a set of Mark and Jay when they’re directing but my sense is that they have a very different approach and they actually do love to shoot as many different variations as they possibly can get of the scene. I’m not like that. I think it’s mostly because I am an editor, so I know what it’s like to be faced with 30 takes of something and I don’t want that. I want a few really good takes. I want to know what the direction’s going to be before we actually start rolling. Some scenes more than others we have to really find on set, but a lot of them really we knew going in exactly what the tone was going to be and how to approach it, so in the edit room, I can’t tell you how important the edit room is. Me and my editor Nat Sanders are really the final writers of that script, as it always is. With every movie but in particular with this kind of movie, it’s almost like editing a documentary. You’re really finding it there.


How did you direct Mark to be different than he was in Humpday?

Well, I was in development on these characters with the actors for the better part of a year. It wasn’t intensive, like I wasn’t in the room with them for that amount of time every day or anything, but every few weeks we would talk on the phone, all four of us and we would talk about potential backstory. Who could these characters be and what could have happened to them in the past to support what happens in the movie? So yeah, we talked a lot about what it’s like to be in that state of grief and to be really lost and just kind of at sea. Luckily, all my siblings are alive but dear friends of mine have lost their siblings and I’ve seen a similar kind of thing and he has as well. We’re always drawing on everything. I think of myself as a really good observer of human beings, but actors have to be as well of course to do a good job, good actors do. So it was really beneficial to be able to all pool together all of our thoughts and observations and experiences and come up with who these guys were.


Have we ever seen a funeral scene that really goes there in a movie?

In real life I’ve seen people get too drunk and maybe not do exactly what he did, but their pain really shows through. That’s part of what I wanted to have in that scene, to show that he’s flawed, as we all are, but also he’s really pouring his heart out. He’s that kind of guy who will do that. Then by the end you realize it seemed like he was just purely insulting his brother and it made everybody really uncomfortable, but it’s clear he knew his brother better than anybody else and he loved him more probably than anyone else in that room because he was able to love him in spite of all of his weaknesses. I definitely have seen that before but on screen I can’t think of a funeral scene like that.


Indie movies have used handheld cameras for speed and flexibility. How does it feel to see Hollywood incorporate that as a purely stylistic choice?

Oh, I never did it out of necessity. I always did it for aesthetic reasons. So I think it’s great. The marriage of form and function I think is really vital. For this film for instance, I wanted to have a lot of static shots because I wanted a combination. I wanted the wider shots where you’re a little bit farther back and you’re seeing the characters together, shots that give you a sense of place and that sort of bucolic nature of their environment. So those kinds of shots can just be very still, so you can see things all over the frame. Then when you get close up, when you get into the single close-ups of people and medium shots, I wanted to have that sense of immediacy and that organic sensibility that you get with a handheld camera. So I think that handheld has always been around and as long as it’s used for a purpose and it’s supporting the dramatic action, I think it’s great whatever the budget level of the film.


Actually, it’s on TV a lot too. Not “Mad Men” but it’s changed the way they do television.

Absolutely, yeah, yeah. I remember when they first started doing it on “Homicide” and “NYPD Blue” although I also thought it was a little too self-conscious on “NYPD Blue” when they start zooming in and looking for the [shot.] I loved it on “Homicide” though. I have to say, I remember that was a huge influence for me actually way back when in the early ‘90s.


How big a crew did you have for three actors in the cabin?

It was tiny. It was lovely because of that, because I wanted to create a really intimate and emotionally safe environment so all told, I think there was about 16 of us, including the actors. So yeah, just a dozen or so crew and not all of those people were on set. One or two of them were cooking the meals and then the producers were often just organizing, phone calling and getting things ready for the next day. So on the actual set, the key crew was probably less than 10 and it was really great, and very carefully chosen. I really choose my crew because it’s going to be so intimate. It’s all about creating an emotionally safe environment for the actors so that they can feel like they can take risks. It’s very risky to act period, but also especially to improvise because they’re just throwing themselves out there and they might fall on their faces and they often do, and they’re trusting me to not let the bad stuff show up on screen, and also they just feel like the crew has their back and really genuinely is rooting for them. Creating a space for them to do that kind of work is really helpful.


Were there more women than men on the set?

No, no. It was probably half and half. We had several houses. It was really idyllic. We have a picture house where we walk. Then within spitting distance were, we call it the fraternity and the sorority, so we had a house where the male crew bunked and Mark bunked with the male crew, and then the women stayed in another one. It was pretty equally divided and there was a special fancy house where the actresses were allowed to stay. Nobody else was allowed to set foot in there but I wanted them to have their own little getaway if they wanted to. But they hung out with us as much as anybody else. They were so down to earth and lovely, it was lovely. We all got together and had these wonderful home cooked meals every night. Seattle is actually a very female friendly face to make movies. I’ve got my dear friend Megan Griffiths who makes movies there. Lacey Leavitt and Mel Eslyn are a couple of directors who are also producers. There’s a lot of female directors and producers so all the men who are crew members are really used to it and totally good about working with women. They don’t have a problem with it at all so I feel very grateful for that.


So you use real locations. Do you still production design them?

Oh absolutely. My production designer did an incredible job. He interior decorated the house. We used some of the furniture that was there, but every piece of art, he’s actually an artist so all of the photographs, all the art is all his or friends of his, but mostly his. The paintings are his. He taught her how to do watercolor properly so the watercolor scene where she’s painting was under his tutelage. It’s really handy to have an artist be your production designer. Then he also ended up doing all the cooking because there were all these meals, so he had to do a lot of cooking as well. So yeah, lots of production design.


Mark and Jay don’t like the term mumblecore. How do you feel about it?

Well, you know what I hate, is the word. I really despise the word and I think it’s a moniker or the idea of grouping together a bunch of filmmakers was actually pretty useful in all of our careers because we were making such tiny movies that it was going to be really difficult to get a lot of attention individually for our films. We all have very different approaches but I will say I can see why people felt like there was a movement. The two things I do think we had in common were number one, none of us were waiting around for permission to make our movies. We were picking up cameras, getting our friends together and just doing it. I love that. I think there’s something to be learned from that for any filmmaker, especially starting out. And then the other thing is that we were all on a quest for creating truth, something on screen that looked recognizable and wasn’t just very stiff or written feeling, cardboard cutout replicas of human beings but actual people that seemed like flesh and blood human beings on screen. Really that was the guiding light for all of us, whether we were working with scripts or not or working with film or video. Whatever it was, that was definitely a guiding light for all of us. So I don’t mind being grouped with those people at all. Most of them are really good friends of mine and I totally love their work, but it’s a little bit absurd to say oh, they’re all the same kinds of movies. It’s sort of the same as saying all movies that are $10 million and came from a script and were shot on 35mm are all the same. Mostly for me, it’s really just that word. I just think it’s such a terrible word and it sounds sort of vaguely pornographic or vaguely sort of belittling. You assume that everybody is just mumbling and nobody’s speaking clearly which is absurd. It’s mostly just an unfortunate word.


Most labels become unfortunate, like I get called a blogger. Once blogs happened, everyone who writes online is a blogger. I don’t write a blog. I do interviews, I write news, that’s not a blog.

Right, right. There you go.


What was it like to direct a “Mad Men?”

Oh, it was sort of life changing. It was so great. I just loved every minute of it. I was lucky enough to get to shadow first. So I shadowed another director and popped in on the set while he was prepping. Phil Abraham was the one I was shadowing and then Jennifer Getzinger was shooting. So I got to talk to Mike Uppendahl and John Slattery who had directed episodes as well, so I really felt like I got to really get a sense of how these other directors worked. Then actually working on it myself, I didn’t really know if my skill set would translate or not because I’d never worked in L.A. I never worked with a union crew, I never worked with a multimillion dollar production. It was really nice because I got a lot of external validation that not only can I do this, but actually it’s a pretty good fit because I’m used to working really fast and you have to be quick on your feet when you’re doing TV, especially a show like that that’s so ambitious and doesn’t have an enormous amount of time.


And what was it like doing a “New Girl?”

Fantastic. Both of my experiences on television have been so far just incredibly fulfilling. I really loved the actors. I really loved Liz [Meriwether] the creator. Jake Kasdan was great to work with as well and it just was a very familiar feeling environment. It was very collaborative. They like to also keep it loose too, so they have a script that they want shot but then they like to do a lot of alternates, and they like to get input from the producers and from the actors and from the writers and the director. So anybody who has an idea about how else can we do the scene or these few lines or this exchange, they will shoot those alternates as well. That’s just really in my wheelhouse. It was just so much fun. For me, TV is really fun because I just have the directing bug. I love being on set. I love directing. If I just wait for my own projects, even though I do my own projects pretty consistently, it’s still just too long for me to wait. So it gives me this little shock, a little shot in the arm and I get to keep doing what I love to do. I’m always learning every time I’m on set. It’s a great gig. I love it. I hope I can keep doing it.


Was there ever a version of Humpday where they did it?

[Laughs] A version? In my mind perhaps. What’s interesting about that film is I knew everything that was going to happen in the movie up until the last scene. We shot it in order. We had the luxury of shooting it in order and we decided to leave that open because we didn’t want to be aiming. We wanted to really be in the moment throughout the entire film and at the end we basically checked into a hotel, we locked ourselves in that room for 12 hours. We checked in at about 7 at night and checked out at 7 in the morning and we just found the scene. Our guide again was authenticity. I said to my actors, “You have completely embodied these two characters and I’m going to trust you that you’re going to play the scene out as Ben and Andrew really would in real life.” I believed it every step of the way and if anybody felt something didn’t feel right or felt false, we would all stop and reassess. I really think that’s how it would’ve played out so I’m perfectly satisfied with it.