Lynn Shelton talks about directing “Your Sister’s Sister”

With only three feature films to her credit, Lynn Shelton has built a reputation as a writer with a keen ear and a director with a similar eye. Her last film, “Humpday,” earned her multiple awards, including the prestigious John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Her latest film, “Your Sister’s Sister,” continues her rise as one of the most talented and respected independent filmmakers of her generation. While promoting the film’s release, Ms. Shelton took time out to speak with Media Mikes about her love for the Pacific Northwest and her even greater love: being behind the camera.

Mike Smith: What was your inspiration in writing this film?
Lynn Shelton: The initial kernel of the film came from Mark Duplass. It was a little different. It was a guy and a girl who were best friends and the guy loses his brother. She sends him up to the cabin to be alone and he meets her mother. Her hot, youngish mother. It was going to be a kind of mother/daughter bed switching comedy. It was something he had envisioned making with his brother, Jay. But because it dealt with a dead brother Mark felt that it might be a little too close to home for them to handle as filmmakers. But he liked the idea still so he brought it to me with Jay’s blessing. And I made a few changes. I set it in the Pacific Northwest, where I set all of my movies. I just finished my 5th filmthere. I live in Seattle and I love to work in Washington state. And I also changed the mom to a sister. I always liked the idea of exploring a sister relationship…I’ve had an incredibly fascinating and rich love/hate relationship with my sisters my whole life and I thought it would be rich territory for a film.

MS: As a writer do you encourage your casts to improvise?
LS: I do. Well, in this case, for sure. My last film, “Humpday,” was 100% improvised in terms of the actual dialogue. I knew what was going to happen in each scene but we would talk before hand. Then we’d turn the camera on and they would find their way through the scene. In this film I actually had most of the dialogue written out. But I asked them to just hold the words loosely in their heads…don’t memorize the lines. It was really a quest for naturalism. I wanted the audience to believe that these people were having real conversations.

MS: You kind of touched on the fact that Mark Duplass is also a talented writer/director. Is it harder or easier to work with someone with that experience? Not to the point that he would second guess you but would he step back and offer advice?
LY: Not really. It’s a very open environment on set and everybody is contributing a lot. All of the actors. And I find that his experiences as a writer and director are really very invaluable. His input is really, really valuable. He never tried to overstep his bounds. He’s always an actor. I like to engage my actors…I like them to bring everything they’ve got to the table. I find it an incredible value.

MS: And as someone who also acts it might be easier to see where they’re coming from in certain situations?
LS: Yes. And that’s why I still like to keep my toe in that discipline. If somebody asks me to do a role and I’m able to…if it’s small and not too time consuming…I like to say “yes” because it keeps me close to that process. It also reminds me how difficult it is and what ittakes to do it. So you’re right. I am extremely empathetic with my actors. I try to create an emotionally safe work environment. That gives them the best chance of giving their best performance.

MS: Since we’re on the subject, have you decided to remain more behind the camera or is there still an acting role out there you’d like to do?
LS: I’ll never say never but right now I’m just so in love with directing that it’s hard for me to imagine taking on any kind of major acting role. But there may be something that comes down the line when I have an opening in my schedule that feels like the right thing to do. So I don’t want to put a total nix on that. But I’ve really just fallen in love with directing so it’s kind of hard to imagine taking acting seriously at this point in my life.

MS: You mentioned that you just finished your next film. Can you talk about it or what else you have coming up on your schedule?
LS: Sure. We wrapped shooting about five weeks ago. It’s called “Touchy-Feely.” My other films have been three character pieces and I wanted to get away from that. This one has an ensemble cast. It’s not a typical “Lynn Shelton” film. It’s a real departure. It was a great deal of fun to shoot.

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