Not only is director Lynn Shelton proud of her new movie “Your Sister’s Sister,” which opened June 15, — for reasons we'll get to in a minute — she’s equally “proud of the greenness of our set. For 10 of the 12 days we were shooting, we were on an island in the Puget Sound, and all of us were living within a stone’s throw of the picture house, so there were no carbon emissions whatsoever to get us to and from set, and we walked over to the lodge where we had our meals. We just had to get the equipment there, and after that there was no transport at all. No company vehicles. All of the meals were home cooked and served on china. Everyone had water containers and reusable hot cups. No paper, no plastic. It was the greenest production I’ve ever been on,” says Shelton, noting that the Sustainable Style Foundation blessed the film with its seal. “We recycled what little there was to recycle, and reduced the printing as much as we could, printing on two sides. But a lot of people chose to use their iPads [instead].”
“Everyone had their own water bottles, and there was no to-go food. We cooked and had big family dinners together, which provides camaraderie too,” adds Mark Duplass, who as the father of two little girls — Ora, 4, and Molly, 7 weeks — doesn’t mind “paying a little bit extra for organic things just for peace of mind. We buy from the local butcher. We’re a Prius-driving family. And we’re hugely into the kale that my brother grows in his backyard.”
The darkly funny movie stars Duplass as Jack, a man who, grieving over his deceased brother, retreats to the isolated family cabin of his former girlfriend, Iris (Emily Blunt), only to find her lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) there. The ensuing drunken intimacy has sticky repercussions for them and their relationships with Iris, who shows up the next day. Duplass, who worked (and clicked) with Shelton on “Humpday” and felt that the story wasn’t one he and his brother and filmmaking partner Jay would ever pursue due to the “dead brother content,” brought her the idea that morphed considerably from thought to screen.
Originally, the story involved the bereaved man and his best friend’s mom, not sisters, but Shelton (pictured left) thought the sibling relationship was more interesting to explore. Her own, with a brother and two step-siblings, are drama-free, but she’s observed enough others to approach them from a psychological level. She also liked the idea of a bare-bones, small-scale "three-hander" — where “you really get to dive into interpersonal relationships.”
Although Duplass is an experienced improviser, Blunt and DeWitt had less familiarity with it, so Shelton wrote about 70 scripted pages “so they wouldn’t feel like I was just throwing them out there without a safety net. They had the lines to go to if they wanted to, but we figure it was 80 percent improvised. We knew where the scene had to go and how it had to play out, but the dialogue was left up to the actors. Sometimes they adhered closely to the script and sometimes they went off completely. It was really an exhilarating way to work,” she says, adding that the actors, who topped her wish list, “balanced and energized each other in really interesting ways.”
Finding the right balance between drama and comedy in a film like this can be tricky, Duplass concedes, but the fact that Jack has been through a tragedy “kept the movie from turning into a 90-minute episode of ‘Three’s Company.’ We wanted to find the comedy inside the drama, find that nice blend. All the characters have their own emotional roots.” He sees Jack as “very emotionally immature in a lot of ways but he has a really big heart and he wants love and a good job but doesn’t have the skill sets to get that. The death of his brother has stunted him.” Although there have never been any love triangles in his own sibling experience — he and older brother Jay, both now married, have always been “good little Catholic boys and serial monogamists — “it’s fun to be able to explore another side, because it’s something I’d never do.”
For Shelton, the movie underscores the fact that relationships “are messy. Human beings are flawed by nature and when we try to connect to each other sometimes it’s hardest to connect to the people we want to connect to most. We have so much baggage and we’re so ruled by fear, but we do our best and hopefully it’ll all work out in the end. But it’s a hard road sometimes to get there.”
“These characters are really messed up and do a lot of questionable things. But I just love intensely flawed people with big hearts, and I feel that way about Jack, Hannah and Iris. They have their problems but you kind of forgive them for it, hopefully, because they’re trying to make it work,” Duplass adds. Known for playing slacker-type characters, he says he’s actually not like that at all, but more of a “workaholic maniac,” something his creative output and newly in-demand status bears out. This month alone, he appears in two more films, playing a time travel proponent in “Safety Not Guaranteed,” which he describes as “the most complex character I’ve played. You don’t know if he’s crazy or brilliant or maybe a little bit of both,” and in “People Like Us,” the neighbor Elizabeth Banks “leans on for occasional emotional support, babysitting and some sexual favors.”
The latest Duplass Brothers collaborations include the newly released on DVD comedy “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” and “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” a comedy they shot in 2008 that hits theaters July 6. Busy with other projects that had studio deadlines, the writer-producer-director pair tabled it until their schedules were clear. The last in an unofficial trilogy with “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead,” the movie is about two brothers trying to compete in their own 25-event Olympics. “It has the bones of a huge studio event comedy, yet it was made on a microbudget, with a shaggy, loose documentary style approach to a big concept,” says Duplass, who’s currently writing to replenish the duo’s depleted “script drawer.” Their next project may be “The Skeleton Twins,” about estranged twins who “randomly try to commit suicide on the same day. It’s a very dark, beautiful story.”
As an actor-for-hire, he’ll be in Kathryn Bigelow’s Navy SEALS/Osama Bin Laden capture movie, which he can’t discuss at all due to a non-disclosure agreement, but ventures a guess that “it’s probably going to be the must-see movie of the year” when it’s released in December. He’s also continuing to star in the FX sports series “The League,” and will start shooting season 4 in August. He enjoys playing “set-up man” for the jokes, and working with an ensemble cast that includes his wife, Katie Aselton, on a light three-months-a-year, three-days-a-week schedule that allows him plenty of time to write.
For Duplass, acting, writing, directing and producing “blend and complement each other in great ways.” Working with Jay is his main focus, but he loves the process of going on location to work on a movie and not have to edit it afterward. “No responsibility, like being an uncle instead of a dad,” he says. For someone who set about making his own films in his 20s under the belief that no one would hire him, the fact that opportunities are coming his way is surprising, cool and flattering. “I’m literally a kid in a candy store right now. I’m going to have to figure out the balance of my own projects vs. other things I’m lucky enough to be invited into. Real high-class problems.”
Shelton, too, happily wears many hats. The Seattle-based filmmaker started out as an actor, earning a B.A. in drama before shifting to photography for graduate school, which set her on the path to eventually becoming a director and editor. She returned to her acting roots in “Humpday” because she had trouble casting the part, and also appears in “Safety Not Guaranteed,” and while she’s not interested in pursuing acting in earnest, she does “enjoy keeping in touch with that process and reminding myself how difficult that job is. It gives me incredible empathy for my actors when I’m directing.”
As a director, she recently wrapped “Touchy Feely,” an ensemble story about a dysfunctional family that stars DeWitt as a massage therapist who develops an aversion to human skin (and a subsequent identity crisis), Josh Pais as her dentist-turned-healer brother, Ellen Page as his daughter, DeWitt’s husband Ron Livingston as a “mystery man,” and Allison Janney as a Reiki practitioner and friend to DeWitt. Shelton, who has directed episodes of “Mad Men” and “New Girl,” would love to take a crack at HBO’s “Girls.” “Just doing my own movies is not enough. Directing gigs on TV get me back on set and lets me flex those muscles,” she says.
Working outside the Hollywood system on indie films in the Northwest, Shelton hasn’t encountered any boys' club barriers. “I’m not waiting around for people to give me permission to do my work. I have a regular crew family up there. Then there’s the TV work I’ve been able to drum up,” she says. It’s all a wonderful blessing.”