After a string of movies made on the cheap, "Your Sister's Sister" writer/director Lynn Shelton is poised to enter the mainstream.
Seattle-born Lynn Shelton could be the figurehead for filmmaking in an era of austerity. She made the touching three-way romantic farce "Your Sister's Sister" in 12 days with a shoestring budget. By focusing on the only production values that are free, story and performance, she attracted a bona fide star, Emily Blunt, to work for peanuts. Rounding out the cast are the versatile Rosemarie DeWitt (of TV's "Mad Men" and "United States of Tara") and actor/writer/director/omnipresent workhorse Mark Duplass (currently starring in "Safety Not Guaranteed" and "People Like Us").
The production was a ferociously cost-conscious guerrilla effort where a star might also be producing, or cooking dinner or hanging lights or moving the van. When you're competing in a summer of mega-blockbusters, cheap is the new 3-D.
Visiting Minneapolis last week, Shelton described her creative calling as "an addiction." She began acting in junior high, with a drive to be onstage every minute of the day. She transferred her interest to photography in college "and maybe it was the chemicals in the darkroom, but I became addicted to that." She also directed and edited "pure experimental art film" at the University of Washington's School of Visual Arts.
When she graduated, her marketable skill was editing, mostly corporate commercials, but the drive to tell her own stories and work with actors was irresistible. "I love storytelling, creating a world that people can get lost in," she said. Typically, they are improvised studies of agreeably flawed characters, told with humor, tenderness and thought-provoking ambiguity.
Shelton's approach has been successful so far. "We Go Way Back" won the Slamdance Film Festival 2006 Grand Jury Prize and "My Effortless Brilliance" received a 2008 Independent Spirit Award. Her breakout film, "Humpday," a risqué comedy starring Duplass as a married hipster determined to prove his lack of bias by starring in a gay porn film, earned Shelton a 2009 Independent Spirit Award, as well as the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize.
A self-starter, Shelton isn't the type to chase investors for years to give her money to film a script. "Don't wait around for permission. Pick up a camera, get some talented friends together and start to build a tribe of collaborators. I've worked with the same people since my very first feature. We've evolved together, we have a common vocabulary and we're very loyal, so when they want to make a project, we all jump on and help them."
Structure, then improv
"Your Sister's Sister" began as a concept from Duplass and his brother Jay, concerning a fellow emotionally involved with a girl from his peer group and "her hot, young mother." Dismissing that story line as an icky "guy thing," Shelton retooled the story around half-sisters. "If you can think of human stories that involve two or three characters and only a few locations it really is possible to do it with a small crew," she said.
"I do work very hard to make sure we know where we're going plot-wise. I'm too much of a control freak to just show up on set and say, 'What're we making, guys?'" But once the outlines are drawn, Shelton encourages her actors to improvise their dialogue. She estimates that only 25 percent is from lines she wrote. "I'm looking for that sense of naturalism" that comes from spontaneity and surprise. In a boozy seduction scene that unfolds over a kitchen table and a bottle of tequila, Duplass and DeWitt appear utterly at ease and impulsive because they were literally making it up as they went along.
Having only recently graduated from films with five-figure budgets to television work (directing Fox's Zooey Deschanel comedy "New Girl" and AMC's "Mad Men"), Shelton is on the verge of entering the mainstream studio career track. It's a move that will allow her to tell more ambitious stories, but will require her to cede more control.
"Making films independently is my comfort zone because I have complete control. I don't know if they're going to want me at Sundance anymore. I may have worn out my welcome there. I'm developing this project called 'Laggies' with Paul Rudd and Rebecca Hall. I'm hoping it's the next film I shoot. It'll be my first multimillion-dollar production, a script written by somebody else, and that will be really interesting for me," she said with a burst of laughter. "It'll be the first time I have to sign a contract I didn't write myself."