Don't call me mumblecore: we talk to award-winning indie director Lynn Shelton...
‘Scripted reality' brings to mind such TV fare as Made in Chelsea: it won't win any BAFTAs but even the sanest among us have been known to find it strangely compelling. Director Lynn Shelton knows a thing or two about verisimilitude. She's made a name for herself in indie US cinema - alongside such low-budget, unsensational drama (aka mumblecore) fans as collaborator Mark Duplass - picking up awards on the way. Her 2009 film Humpday belied its Apatow-style comedy credentials (buddies, porn).
We talked to the director about her new film Your Sister's Sister, shot in 12 days in a remote cabin with Emily Blunt, and find out what she knows about comedy, hunger for authenticity and directing for Mad Men...
Lynn Shelton (left) on set with Emily Blunt
Your Sister's Sister is perhaps inevitably being billed as a romantic comedy. How do you see the film?
I don't see it as a romantic comedy. I had a very hard time titling it and the reason I like Your Sister's Sister is that it doesn't seem to point in that direction. It could involve romance but it doesn't imply that that's the direction of the film. It crosses genres, and ultimately it's about different kinds of relationships. For me the focus is more on siblings.
What interests you about the relationships in it?
The fourth character is actually the dead brother that you never meet in person, but who informs how the other relationships unfold and so it's about these four different people and how their lives entangle in unusual ways. It's also about how flawed human beings are. I want the audience to be rooting for these characters despite their mistakes. They're well-meaning; they're just screw-ups. You can sympathize with them because aren't we all?
Both Your Sister's Sister and Humpday are comic in some ways although you might not call them ‘comedies'. What do you like about comedy, what does it do for you?
I've been thinking about this a lot. I'm pretty impressionable and sort of sensitive, and I would just become so depressed if I were to make a film that was all drama and no comedy. I'm just not cut out for it. I love - love - to laugh. I can think of extremely dark times where the only way that I could get through it - and I think this is true in general - was to figure out a way to laugh. I love laughter that comes out of pain, which comes out of drama: it's like the flip-side of drama. In general I really like the combination, what I call a ‘dramatic-comedy', where the two go hand in hand.
On set I don't want the actors to think that they're making a comedy, because I feel like they're going to feel put on the spot to be entertaining. I want us to be playing to the truth of the moment. Many times in the theatre, the things that the audience laughed hardest at are the things that when we were on set, we were taking deadly seriously. It's fun, but we're always playing everything straight.
Why do you like working with improvisation and when and how did you begin using it?
My very first film is called We Go Way Back, and was made in a traditional way: I wrote a script, worked out the characters, then found actors to fill them. I discovered it was hard to make it feel ‘not written'. There was one scene that was improvised, and when I watched that unfold I felt my whole body had been electrified. I thought, ‘what if you made an entire film like that?' My second feature was an experiment to see if I could. I wanted to create something that was almost like a documentary. I evolved it on my third film [Humpday]. I'd ejected all the lighting, all the crew, and so brought some of that back in again.
Your Sister's Sister was an even further evolution, trying to add more into the vocabulary of the film, get a real sense of place. This time I actually wrote some pages of dialogue, and said ‘feel free to use it if you want, but make sure it never feels like you're using a line. You can go off the map, but the main thing is that we know what has to happen in every scene.' The final draft of the script is written in the edit room ultimately.
You've been associated with the mumblecore movement, the move towards low-budget naturalism in independent cinema in the last decade or so. What do you think of this label and do you see yourself as part of it?
Yes, although none of us like that name. It felt silly, like saying everybody who uses $10 million and has a solid script is part of the same sort of movement. One thing I've noticed is that none of us were waiting around for permission to make our work. We were picking up cameras with friends and going out and doing it. That is an incredibly empowering position to be in, instead of running around with a script from investor to investor.
Another common thing is a high standard of naturalism. Everybody was looking for a sense of realness. People went at it in different ways - some used scripts, some didn't - and with a variety of camera techniques. But there is a certain sense of hunger, both from audiences and from certain artists, for real life played out on screen.
Are there any precedents in cinema, or people that you admire that aren't part of your generation?
The very first person that was a big influence on me was Woody Allen. I think that he was able to create entire features on real conversation and face-to-face interaction. I remember being struck in high school by Stardust Memories. There's these three female protagonists, and none of them felt like the Hollywood cut-out of a female that you're so used to seeing on film. They all felt like real women to me, and that was extremely inspiring.
I adore Mike Leigh, and he has a different message. I'm improvising on screen and he does all of that before, finding scripts through improvisation and then making the films in a more traditional way. There is an overlap in the way that we love to collaborate with actors, and to bring them into the process early on.
Also John Cassavetes and Robert Altman. More recently I've been completely inspired by Michael Winterbottom and Lynne Ramsey.
You directed a Mad Men episode recently, why do you think you were seen to be right for that?
I was really interested in getting TV work. There's so much good TV and Mad Men is one of my favourite shows. I was able to get Humpday into the hands of Scott Hornbacher, one of the executive producers, and he said he would try and get Matthew Weiner, the creator, to watch it but that he was incredibly busy. So I sort of gave up on it, then a few weeks later I got a call that Mr Weiner was interested in meeting. I'll never forget the hour and a half conversation we had in his office, I was so happy.
How did you approach it?
They certainly weren't expecting me to bring my hand-held style or improvisation to the set. I had to stick to the script and they have their own visual style, obviously. I think what appealed to him was my ability to bring out naturalism in the performances of actors - that's my passion, working with actors. It may feel like a stylised show in some ways because of the way it looks, but that's due to the era really. Within the confines of when it's set, they are real, living, breathing people that come off the screen, which is why it works so well.
The shoot for Your Sister's Sister was 12 days long. What were the highs and the lows of the shoot?
There weren't really many lows! The only worry was that we weren't going to have enough time. We only had this tiny little window. Having just come off Mad Men was really helpful because that crew had let me know that I am an efficient director, so I had that external validation and was able to tell myself, ‘You are fast. You are fast'! I think I only slept about two hours a night and was very stressed out, but aside from that it was incredibly delightful. We had a couple of nights with no rain and had beautiful camp-fires, home cooked meals, lovely donated wine, it was pretty idyllic, I have to say.
Your actors are credited as creative consultants on this film. How did you work with them?
It's not the kind of improvisation where you can just throw people up on a stage, give them circumstances and just tell the, ‘go'. I've never auditioned anyone for this kind of role. We worked together for a month developing characters and coming up with back-stories. I feel like any good actor is capable to some degree of working in this way, if they have the foundations of who their characters are.
What was it about the three actors that you liked? How and why were they right?
For me, casting is all about gut-instinct, and when I saw Emily Blunt in Sunshine Cleaning, I didn't recognise her from The Devil Wears Prada, which I had seen a few months before. She's completely believable in every role that I've seen her in,
Then Rose [DeWitt]... I'd worked over the course of the previous months with this other actor, and then she couldn't do it. I thought that the project was dead in the water. How could you replace somebody who you've worked so intimately with? My producer said ‘there might be an actor who might be a good fit'. Rose popped into my head. I'd seen her in Rachel Getting Married, and was shocked that that wasn't improvised because it felt so natural. I thought, ‘how big a step could it really be from making films that feel improvised to just going ahead and improvising?'
Mark [Duplass] was already a great improviser before I'd met him, with The Puffy Chair and films he'd done, which I'd seen. When we met we just hit it off. As filmmakers, as well we talked about our philosophies on actors and so on and he was so easy, and a really good fit.
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