Filmmaker Lynn Shelton talks Your Sister’s Sister with Cranky Hanke

The first thing I noticed when I got the phone call from Lynn Shelton — the writer-director of Your Sister’s Sister (opening Fri., July 13 at The Carolina) — for our interview was that she hadn’t blocked her number from showing up on caller ID. I liked that. Oh, I don’t mean I plan on just calling her up any time to just bat things around, or to call and ask if she’s got Prince Albert in a can. (Actually, she’s probably not old enough to know that gag or even what “Prince Albert in a can” means, now that I think of it.) No, but it did immediately present her to me as completely unaffected. And our conversation proved that entirely true. In fact, what you’re about to read is one of the easiest and most pleasant interviews I’ve ever done. (At one point, she answered a question before I asked it. It doesn’t get better than that.)

KH: Do you consider this mumblecore, or an outgrowth of mumblecore? Do you even associate youself with mumblecore?

LS:  I don’t. Mumblecore is a monicker that some outside media person came up with, so I’ve always ignored that term. I don’t consider myself mumblecore or not mumblecore — or a project to be mumblecore. I just make my work and do what I like to do, and in this particular film — in all of my films — I’m trying to create a strong sense of naturalism. And I want to create real living people on the screen — or that feel like real people as opposed to Hollywood stand-ins for real people. There’s a kind of very organic feeling to the film so that you almost feel like you’re in the story with them. In this film, I will say that I definitely wanted there to be more stillness, so I wanted to have a combination of some tripod shots with wide, sweeping vistas of the bucolic beauty outside the walls of the cabin.

KH:  Which, by the way, you did beautifully.

LS: Thank you. And to create also that sense of isolation — that they really are separated from their normal lives and from civilization. And then I also wanted to do twi-shots. I wanted to have things unfold into the screen with two characters, especially with the sisters when they’re trying to get back to — you know, to trying to get along again. And also when they’re giving each other intimate information,when they’re whispering confessions in the dark. I wanted those to take place with both of them onscreen at the same time. I also wanted to retain a kind of organic quality to most of the conversations. I used a hand-held camera for those. During the dinner scene and in the tequila scene, I wanted it to feel like you’re sort of at the table with them — and there’s a nice organic quality when you hand hold the camera. I wanted a combination of all those things.

KH: I keep reading the concept that the film is improvised. How much is improvised? How much is done without a script?

LS: I had 70 pages of a dialogue written out and sometimes they used those lines, but mostly they didn’t. They either reworded the lines as they were written or they went completely off the map and found their own way through scenes. So there was a lot of improvisation — again, in the cause of naturalism. I find that improvisation and letting the actors find their way that way creates more genuine reaction and a nice sense of freshness, or engagement. They really have to be in the moment.

KH: I know that Mike Leigh uses the technique, but he does it before the filming and then scripts the results for the actors before they actually shoot.

LS: We’re not rehearsing or workshopping or doing any of that. I’m saving it up for the set, which is very stressful to be writing dialogue on the set! But I’m an editor and I think I can do because I’m an editor. I have two cameras going in those scenes. We talk and talk and talk to make sure we’re on the same page and then we let the cameras roll and they just meander their way through the scene — sometimes 20 or 30 minute takes — and then I cut it down with my editor in the editing room. That’s where the final draft of the script is really written. That’s where the control comes back to my hands and I carve out the film there.

KH: Well, you cerrtainly carved something out this time. This was quite fresh in so many ways — and frankly Mark Duplass was a revelation to me in this film. I’ve never particularly cared for him in anything I’d seen him in before and this was quite diffeerent. I believed him. I liked him. I thought he was refreshing change from your usual hero, because he’s not your typical romantic lead.

LS: It’s true and I’ve been amazed at how many women have told me that they’ve fallen in love with him. And I just love that because he is a little bit — he’s attractive, but he’s also a little schlubby. He’s sort of everyman and he’s got that great charm — that great elastic face and wonderful expressions. It makes me very happy that people find him so appealing in this film. I just love that.

KH: It makes me very anxious to see that next film he’s in.

LS: Safety Not Guaranteed? That one?

KH: Yes.

LS: He’s very very different. It’s a very different kind of character, but you’ll enjoy it. He’s also very charming in that one, too.

KH: That’s it. His charm really comes through here — and I didn’t get that from Humpday or from that Lawrence Kasdan picture that nobosdy went to see.

LS: Darling Companion. Yeah, I haven’t seen it yet.

KH: I was surprised. I didn’t think it was nearly as bad as I’d been led to suspect.

LS: Well, it’s always good to have low expectations going in!

KH: That is true.

LS: So maybe I’ll run out and see it and enjoy it as well, because everybody told me it sucked.

KH: Enjoy might be a stretch, but finding that it does actually suck was the surprise.

LS: A pleasant surprise.  Well, I’m being told I only have time for one more question. I have to go to the airport soon, so I deeply apologize for being a little late calling.

KH: Well, if I only have one more question, I’ll go with — how many people have you run into who don’t like the ending? I’ve run into a few critics who didn’t like the way you ended Your Sister’s Sister.

LS: Not very many really. I talked to one woman yesterday who said, “I hated it at first and now I’m warming up to it.” But mostly people have been supportive. A couple people have said they felt it was too abrupt. Most audience members tell me they love it. But some people are frustrated because they want things tied up a little more neatly. Someone said it was a cop-out. I don’t understand how it was a cop-out.

KH: I don’t get that at all! I couldn’t see any other way you could have ended it that would have worked.

LS: I agree. I agree and that’s actually what I’ve found. For me, the ending — if we’d ended it later one, if we’d shown any more I feel like it would have diluted the point of the end of the film, which for me is where these characters have come to, this place of open-heartedness, this spectacular leap of faith they’re all about to make. And whether or not it happens or is required to happen is sort of a moot point. It’s that they’ve reached this place together.

KH: That’s my feeling and the criticism struck me as odd in a way. A lot of time when I get to people who don’t like endings that are a little bit open-ended, if I ask them the key question, “How would you end it?” they can’t answer.

LS: (Laughing) There ya’ go! That’s what I’ll say to them, too!

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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9 thoughts on “Filmmaker Lynn Shelton talks Your Sister’s Sister with Cranky Hanke

  1. Me

    Humpday is a great film. Thats the only one of hers ive really seen.

  2. Ken Hanke

    A great film? Hardly. It could have very good, but it goes wrong by the end. This one, on the other hand, might not quite be great — I think you’re overusing the word “great” — but it’s very good indeed.

  3. Me

    Its great a very unique film about male sexuality.

    The trailer for the new one looks way to calculated and as you would say “indie”. She just happens to be up in the middle of the night when he stops by and they have a drink, i don’t buy in. I like Mark Duplass but his acting seems forced especially in that scene.

  4. Ken Hanke

    It’s a very phony film about male sexuality. Anyway, there aren’t levels of unique.

    How do you know she “just happens to be up” in the middle of the night? How do you even know it’s even the “middle of the night?”

  5. Me

    Because the trailer shows him walking in on her in the middle of the night.

    How is it a phony film about male sexuality? What did you want them to do go through with making a porn film?

  6. Ken Hanke

    Because the trailer shows him walking in on her in the middle of the night.

    Sort of. It’s hardly what happens in the film itself — at least, not in the manner you/the trailer represent.

    How is it a phony film about male sexuality? What did you want them to do go through with making a porn film?

    It would have had more point if they had. What the film ends up with is unrealistic to me from any number of angles. No lines are crossed — and it’s obvious for some time that they won’t be. They don’t even get close to crossing any lines. Compare it to films like Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Dreamers and it strikes me as pretty weak tea. For that matter, it’s pretty tepid up against Your Sister’s Sister.

  7. Me

    To me it would have been a cop out to go through with the making of the porn movie and unrealistic. They don’t get close to crossing any lines? They get naked and in bed and try to kiss each other only then do they figure out its not going to work.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Yes, well, we’re not going to agree on this, are we? I find it tepid and hard to swallow, you don’t. OK?

  9. Emily

    I would have ended it showing them 7 months later all living together and having both sisters pregnant.

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