Writer/director Lynn Shelton's latest film veers away from the script and forges its own path

Off-Road Riding

Directed by Lynn Shelton

Opens June 29 at the Charles Theater

You sort of have to respect a film that leaves you curled up—head in hands—groaning. Your Sister’s Sister presents viewers with many such opportunities as it follows a trio of characters stumbling into and over unpleasant moments, telling the story of Jack (Mark Duplass), who is still a complete mess one year after the death of his brother. When his best friend and love interest, Iris (Emily Blunt), demands he clear his head, alone, at her father’s vacation home, neither anticipate that her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) will already be there, leading to an embarrassingly brief and awkward sexual encounter. The next morning, Iris surprises them both by showing up, which results in a series of cringe-worthy moments. Despite the pain, editor-turned-director Lynn Shelton manages to keep audiences engaged throughout via humor and characters who, though flawed, are accessible and genuine. Shelton spoke with us over the phone about her approach to directing and how her time as an editor affected her style on set.

City Paper : Your Sister’s Sister is very funny, but there’s also this oppressive sense of intimacy to it. Was there a lot of bonding going on during rehearsals?

Lynn Shelton: Yeah, absolutely, but it wasn’t rehearsal; it was an eight-month development period. Mark [Duplass, one half of the filmmaking team the Duplass Brothers,] was in on the ground floor, because he brought me the kernel of the idea that turned into the film. It was originally an idea that the Duplass brothers had in their vault of potential ideas for future movies, but they felt like, because it involved a guy who lost his brother recently, that they might not be making it anytime soon. It might be a little too close to home. So with Jay [Duplass’] blessing, [Mark] called me up and said, “Hey, do you want to collaborate again like we did with [your last film] Humpday? Here’s an idea that might work great.” And then I wanted to invite the other actors in early on before I had the whole plot figured out, because I wanted to work with the actors to develop their characters in tandem with me. That often helps fill out the plot, because once you figure out who the characters are, it starts to bleed over into how they interact and behave. What’s nice about that process is that, every few weeks, I would get on the phone with them, and I would give them the current version of the script, and we would spitball and brainstorm and tell each other stories from our own lives and observations we made. And it’s great because it allows them to create a character that fits them like a second skin.

CP : Was improvisation encouraged on set, or was it already set in stone by that point?

LS: Oh yeah, it was completely encouraged. With Humpday, I only had an outline, and 100 percent of the dialogue was written on set [since] it was improvised. In this case, since Emily and Rosemarie didn’t have as much experience improvising, I wanted to give them a launching point and a little bit of a security blanket. I wrote about 70 pages of dialogue, and some of the scenes were more sketched-out. And then I just said, “Don’t hold the words too tightly. Don’t memorize them. If you like a line, feel free to use it, but don’t feel like you have to keep it in order with the other lines that I’ve written here. Don’t feel like you have to stick to the wording exactly. And if you want to go completely off the map and just off-road it, then feel free by all means, because we’re looking for naturalism.”

CP : Has your experience as an editor influenced you as a director?

LS: Enormously. It’s had such a huge impact on my creative process. It’s the only way that I can work with improv, because the editor part of my brain is clocking as the scenes unfold. I know what I want, I know when I’ve got it, and I know when to move on. And that’s all due to me having been an editor. It’s not like I’m editing it in my head, I just know there’s enough material in there that I can go on. It allows me to move quickly as well, which is great.

CP : It seems like, with editing, you can play with scenes and recut them and reimagine them in different ways.

LS: Absolutely. I mean, there’s like 100 different movies from what we shot, and it’s not like we shot that much footage. We only had 12 days to shoot the thing, and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t just shoot and shoot and shoot. I could only get four, five, or six takes per scene, so I didn’t have that much footage, but you could still easily cut many, many different versions of this movie. Especially with this kind of film, you are completely writing the script of the film in the edit room. It’s sort of like the way a documentary is found. You sort of have to find these seminal moments and string them all together.

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