State of the Arts Blog

Film director Lynn Shelton and the search for the cringe-laugh


Jack (Mark Duplass) Iris (Emily Blunt) and Hannah (Rosemary DeWitt) contemplate a difficult situation in "Your Sister's Sister" (All images courtest IFC/Sundance Selects)

Director Lynn Shelton doesn't agree when it's put to her that she puts her characters in difficult situations and then turns up the screws.

"It's really usually them tightening their own screws," she laughed. "It's usually the characters digging themselves deeper and deeper into whatever hole they have started."


Shelton (right) was in the Twin Cities last week to talk about her new movie "Your Sister's Sister" which opens Friday.

It's an intimate little story about how some best intentions are hijacked by human weakness, family tensions and a bottle of tequila.

The film stars Mark Duplass (Humpday, Safety Not Guaranteed) Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, The Adjustment Bureau,) and Rosemary DeWitt (Rachel getting Married, United States of Tara.)

It follows the misadventures of Jack (Duplass,) a man grieving a year after the death of his brother. His best friend Iris, played by Blunt, sends Jack to spend so alone time in her family's cabin in the woods. Jack knows he needs a life change. He is torn because he is attracted to Iris, but feels awkward about acting on those feelings because she once went out with his brother.

Things go awry when he discovers Iris's sister Hannah (DeWitt) already in residence in the cabin. She's trying to gather herself after leaving her girlfriend of seven years. Then Jack and Hannah share that bottle of booze and end up in the sack together. The next morning when Iris, who has her own complicated feelings for Jack, turns up to surprise him that hole Shelton mentioned has become a mineshaft.

"This film in particular I feel ultimately is about how flawed we all are as human beings," said Shelton, "And that despite our best efforts and our best intentions we tend to make a bungle of things along the way. And these folks certainly do."

"Your Sister's Sister" is a raw story where the characters humanity shines through. A lot of the dialog was improvised, although Shelton stressed it was "very, very, structured."

"In this case because I had two actresses, in addition to Mark, who were less versed in that way of working, I had about 70 pages of dialog written out," she said. However Shelton said the words on the page were just a jumping off point, and she encouraged the actors not to stick to it too much.

"The motto that I have is 'Whatever works.'"

Shelton faced the challenge of having three very talented actors who come from very different parts of the acting spectrum. Duplass who starred in Shelton's "Humpday" three years ago, is best known for small indie films. He is a stalwart of the Mumblecore movement. Blunt has done everything from costume dramas to action flicks, and DeWitt who has a long filmography has been getting a lot of facetime in Diablo Cody's multiple personality comedy/drama "The United States of Tara."

"There were times when I was on set when I did feel like I was making three different movies because there performers were so different, they have such different processes and they come across very differently on screen," Shelton said. While she admits to being mildly concerned about this, she found their talents balanced neatly.

"As a director I feel like, my chief fascination, the reason I love directing, is because it's like opening a drawer and looking for the right key to unlock or help unlock open that particular performers best ability to shine and find the shape of the scene."

Shelton found she could build on her actors to create what she says is her ultimate goal: real characters.

"You know as opposed to these kind of white washed or like sanded down, you know the rough edges sanded down characters that you see in a lot of Hollywood movies that aren't really like real people at all, they are sort of stand ins, Hollywood stand-ins for real people. And then if you can root for them, then maybe you can root for people in real life."


Rosemary Dewitt and Emily Blunt in "Your Sister's Sister"

"Your Sister's Sister" is very funny at times, but Shelton says she never sets out to make a comedy. She tells her actors to play it straight, and work for the truth of the moment

"I therefore have no idea how humorous a film is going to be," she said

But often there is humor in that truth as the characters stumble along.

"We are rooting for them, but you sort of 'cringe-laugh.' I call it the cringe-laugh, you are like cringing and wincing, and saying 'Oh honey' and at the same time laughing at them" said Shelton.

This was what happened with "Humpday" which drew Shelton fans and a certain amount of notoriety. It is the story of two former high school friends who bump into each other years later just as age the siren song of middleclass respectability is becoming worryingly attractive.

Their reunion results in a regression of sorts which in turn produces a dare, to make an amateur gay porn film together for the annual "Humpday" competition. As both are straight they announce they are making it as an art film. Neither man is comfortable with the situation, but neither want to back down.

The film made audiences squirm and laugh. Stephen Shelton in New York Times wrote "the movie's unblinking observation of a friendship put to the test is amused, queasy making, kindhearted and unfailingly truthful."

Finding that truth is vital for Shelton. She says some people have likened her films to plays because they have just a handful of characters. But she doesn't buy that. In fact she said "I have a big problem with movies that feel like plays, because I want them to be plays."

During her own career as a theater actor she was often encouraged to go in front of a camera because the often had problems projecting. She laughs as she says she was told "You are not an actor that finds it organically easy to communicate with the back row."

However she says it was because she had a desire to keep that projection close to her.

"I really was looking for the authenticity of the performance and there honesty which was all right here." Which is why she says film is so different from theater.

When asked at whom "Your Sister's Sister" is aimed Shelton laughs and says "It's really for anyone." The she pauses and giggles,"Anyone who has a sister. It's sort of the perfect movie to see with your sister."

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