Shelton, whose previous directing credits include Humpday and My Effortless Brilliance, has teamed up once more with starring role Mark Duplass, who plays Jack – caught up in a twisted three way relationship with sisters Iris (Emily Blunt) and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Having both written and directed Your Sister’s Sister, this is very much a passion project of Shelton’s, who discusses working alongside Duplass, how the idea for the film was first conceived, and the benefits to working on a film that is mostly improvised…
So how did the idea for Your Sister’s Sister first come about?
Mark Duplass called me with the kernel of the film, he said he had this idea of a film he was going to make with his brother but then decided not to make it, so he brought it to me to see if I would like to take it as a second collaboration with him. The original idea actually had no sisters in it, and was supposed to be about two best friends, a guy and a girl, and the guy is in a bad place because he lost his brother recently, and when going to his friends family getaway thinking he’ll be alone, there he would encounter her mother. A younger, sexy, English mother and would it be a mother-daughter story rather than of sisters, and that was it, and I thought it would be really interesting territory, but the first thing I did was to change the mother to a sister, and then I re-set it in my neck of the woods, near Seattle, and it all just unrolled from there.
So why did you change it from a mother, to a sister?
Well, what really interested me was because Jack loses his brother, I feel like the brother ends up becoming a fourth character in the film, even though we never meet him he’s this force that ends up playing a part as to how the other relationships unfold. I liked the idea of two parallel sibling relationships. My own is actually very boring because it’s drama free, but around me I had seen people who had this friction in their past and could set each other off like nobody else can, they can just push each others buttons, so I just thought that would be really interesting territory for a film that turns the microscope on inter-personal dynamics.
So you’ve got a sister yourself?
I have a step-sister yeah, and she came into my life when I was in high school, and we both each had a brother and always yearned to have a sister. I don’t know what it was, our personalities as well, we had absolutely no friction whatsoever, it was very pure love between us. So not a lot to draw on there for an interesting narrative.
The film is incredibly naturalistic, did you use any of your own experiences with your siblings to help mould these characters?
I really used my observational skills, you know I came into the film sort of as a sociologist, from observations I had made from those kind of relationships that were more spicy and interesting, I had to draw on those. And then I actually asked the actors to bring a lot, much more than they’re usually called upon to do, as we worked over the course of several months leading up to the film whilst I was figuring out what was going to happen ultimately in the plot, I was asking them to participate in the process of developing their characters and their back stories, and that helped in a number of ways. It really makes it our project instead of just my project, and they become really invested, we developed a relationship, a sense of intimacy and trust that’s gonna come out on set. And they created characters that they could feel like they could slip into like a hand into a glove, a really easy fit, and that’s all going to help in that sense of naturalism that I’m aiming for.
I gather that much of the film is improvised, how much exactly?
In Humpday, my last film it was 100% improvised because I had no dialogue, it was just an outline, ten pages of outline. This was about 70 pages of dialogue. A few scenes were outlined but a lot of them were written out because I wanted to have a security blanket really, you know, a launching point for the actresses who were not used to working in this way. Ultimately, the thing I said to them was if you like a line, feel free to use it, please don’t feel that you have to stick to the exact wording, or the order they come, and if you want to go completely off the grid, please feel free to do so, because it’s that sense of surprise of not knowing exactly what is going to come out of your screen partners mouth, and that keeps it really engaging and fresh and feels real, and that makes for some nice overlapping in that very naturalistic way that conversations really do unfold. And because they have such a sense of back story which the audience only see glimpses of, it’s not really meant for them, it is meant for the actors to know exactly who they are in these characters, so it’s like second nature when somebody throws a line at you that you’re not expecting, and you can just open your mouth and it will be a very real sounding response. So I think we guessed that around 25% of it will be from the original lines that I wrote, but the vast majority is improvised.
When you give the actors the license to be that original and spontaneous does the story ever go a different way to what you had initially expected it to?
Not really. You know, there might be little moments that are within the scene that are unexpected that add a little boost or something that can be referred to down the line, but really, and it doesn’t seem like this will be true, but I am a control freak and I need to know structurally what is going to be happening and what kind of dynamic shifts are going to take place in every scene, so all of that is very well mapped out beforehand. And then the other point where I exert my control is in the edit room, because we have two cameras on set and we talk and talk and make sure we’re all on the same page before we shoot every scene and then we just let the cameras roll. They can just meander their way, maybe a seven minute scene on screen which started as a 20-25 minute take. They know they can take bold risks and if they fall on their feet I’m just not going to let any of that stuff show up on screen because I’m really writing the final draft of the film in the edit room, much the way a documentary works, where you carve out moments and focus on and find the best of every take, and you really could have made probably 100 different movies from the footage that we shot and so it’s in editing where we are really finding the film.
Of course Mark is almost a renowned improviser – so how helpful was it having him around, particularly for the other two who, as far as I know, hadn’t really attempted that style of acting before?
Emily’s first film, My Summer of Love was actually entirely improvised, so we must give her credit there, and I knew that so it was very helpful because it’s scary to hire people who hadn’t had a ton of experience with it, but for the vast majority, you know, she hadn’t done it for ten years and she has mostly been working with script work, so it was enormously helpful to have Mark on set, and to have the actresses working with him, right off the bat, his confidence is very contagious and also he is very generous and encouraging and is a very positive force on set so he was extremely helpful. But, you know, there were a lot of scenes without Mark and I love seeing how the actresses held their own completely when he wasn’t around and they would just dive in and they were just so great. Just in general actors each have their own process, and with improvisation it’s the same, they each find their way through the material in different ways. For instance, in those bed scenes at night the conversations still rolled out in a very natural way, and were maybe kept a little more closely to the script, but they felt confident enough to go off and be loose enough to really make the lines and the scenes their own, it was delightful. But yes, absolutely he was helpful, but he always says he learnt a ton from them, and as much as they learnt from him he learnt from them as well, so everybody brought their own strengths, it was really great.
Finally, you seem to write and direct all of your own work – but have you ever considered directing somebody else’s work, or perhaps letting somebody else direct your script?
I would never do the latter because I am not really a screen writer, I read recently that Ingmar Bergman said that he wasn’t a writer, but a director who writes, and I will only write films that I know I will be able to see through to the end and that is completely me. I had a moment where I thought I could maybe make a living rewriting other people’s scripts for them, or adapting material and I quickly realised that I am not that type of writer, so I’ll never do that. However, I am going to be directing a film called Laggies, which was written by another writer called Andrea Seigel, with Rebecca Hall attached to it, so within the next year I’ll be shooting that and I’m very excited, and we get on very well. I am also excited to see what this process will be like to collaborate with another writer.
Your Sister’s Sister is out on the 29th of June.