When Lynn Shelton's 2009 Sundance Special Jury prizewinner Humpday screened at the 2009 Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals the largely improvised micro-budgeted comedy was like a breath of fresh air. Yet that two blokes (Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard) were in bed together proved a turn-off to audiences, even if the characters didn't end up having sex or doing anything controversial. Though they did talk a lot.
We have backstories up the wazoo for all of them.
“It was the same in America,” admits Shelton. “The film just couldn't break beyond a certain boundary. It's funny because in the last year I've had a fair number of people, really surprising people, say to me, 'I have to make a confession: I never saw your film and the real reason was I was too scared.' These are of course, straight men. Then there's the impression some people have that the film's pornographic in some way – and it's very funny because I'm probably one of the most prudish people you're ever likely to meet!”
Seattle-based Shelton at least made a name for herself with the film and went on to win the 2010 Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award, given to filmmakers working with a budget of under $500,000. She also got to make a porn.
“I made a film for the porn festival Hump! because the director Dan Savage lives in Seattle too and challenged me on his blog saying, 'Without Hump! there would be no Humpday. You have to make a movie for the festival that has to be under five minutes.' I was like, 'I can't.' I was so nervous. Anyway I made this porn but it was really just people talking. It was called Beyond Gay and it was a lesbian and her gay best friend trying to have straight sex.”
It's difficult to describe Shelton's talent because it's so much in the dialogue, in the characters and in the way she presents decidedly modern relationships. Naturally when her second feature, Your Sister's Sister, screened at last year's Toronto Film Festival, I rushed to see it. It became a surprise hit with audiences. Madman picked the film up for Australia-NZ and unlike when they bought Humpday, Your Sister's Sister will have a theatrical release. It screens first as the opener at Perth's Revelation Film Festival on July 5 and at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August.
Interestingly the film started out as an idea brought to Shelton by Duplass, also an accomplished filmmaker with his brother Jay. The Duplass brothers started the low-budget filmmaking aesthetic mumblecore and made their mark with The Puffy Chair, Baghead, Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home, another 2011 Toronto gem which screened last month at the Sydney Film Festival and incredibly, will go straight to DVD on Sept 19 (through Paramount). Duplass also starred in the SFF closing film, Safety Not Guaranteed.
“Mark and I met on the set of True Adolescents which was shooting in Seattle in 2008,” Shelton recalls. “I volunteered to be a set photographer basically so I could hang out with him. We knew of each other because I'd been on the film festival circuit with my first feature [2006's We Go Way Back] and we were in the same filmmaking community. My friend Joe Swanberg had just directed Mark in Hannah Takes the Stairs and I'd seen Mark act in The Puffy Chair. I not only thought he was a great actor but I was also compelled by how he was putting together movies. It was just perfect timing when we actually met.”
Having witnessed Duplass's willingness to collaborate with other actors on True Adolescents Shelton offered him the role in Humpday. “We had a really nice rapport and a great way of working together. Then Mark pitched me the idea for Your Sister's Sister. He was thinking like, 'Maybe I can get myself cast in something by getting Shelton to do another movie!”
Shelton's fascination with transgressive sexuality certainly continues in this story of two brothers and two sisters, yet it's important to leave the details as a surprise, she says. The story focuses on Jack (Duplass) as he struggles to come to grips with his brother's death and is invited by his brother's ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt) to stay at her father's isolated cabin outside Seattle. When he arrives there he encounters Iris's sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their night together triggers an entanglement of relationships after Iris suddenly turns up at the cabin the next day.
While the film has been called a comedy of secrets and a comedy of errors, Shelton says her focus is on the siblings. “I feel like it's really about Jack and his brother almost as much as it is about the sisters. Although his brother is dead and you don't get conversations or flashbacks, it's really what he's dealing with. The idea was they were not getting on well when he died and that's why he can't get over it.
“The sisters have a lot of baggage too. We have backstories up the wazoo for all of them. For me that's essential. I love to bring the actors in early on when it's just a scaffolding of a story, because I want them to be part and parcel of the development of their characters. Development of the characters means figuring out who they are, where are they from, where they've lived, what their parents are like and the experiences they've had in relation to each other. What kinds of things did the sisters go through that made them bond and made them separate and create tension between them? How much is there and how long ago was it? It's all really specific stuff. Jack and Iris have a long, convoluted history as well. Having the actors show up on set completely knowing who their characters are actually allows them to bond and to get to know each other as people. You get chemistry that way too and it allows the actors to improvise more easily.”
Shelton only had a 10-page page outline for Humpday whereas for Your Sister's Sister there was a 70-page script.
“For Your Sister's Sister a lot of the scenes are written and some are sketchier, but I was never going to be precious about the dialogue that's written. The script was meant to be there as a safety net, so if people liked a line they could pick and choose. In the end the vast majority of the film's dialogue was improvised.”
Your Sister's Sister screens as the opening night film of Perth's Revelation Film Festival on July 5, then at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August, before a cinema release through Madman Films on September 6.