Lynn Shelton's 2009 movie Humpday was about two straight men making a gay-porn movie to win an amateur film competition. It might not have reached a mass audience, but Humpday was noticed by other directors and producers, including Matthew Weiner, who offered Shelton a job directing an episode of Mad Men.
Soon after, Shelton began work on her latest movie, Your Sister's Sister, which stars Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as half sisters Iris and Hannah, and Mark Duplass as Iris' best friend, Jack. Hannah and Jack each go to remote island cabins in the Pacific Northwest after a terrible breakup and a brother's death, respectively — but then collide, unexpectedly, during the vacation.
The story line for the film was inspired by Duplass, who starred in Humpday. His original idea focused on a man who goes to a remote cabin after losing his brother. But when he arrives at the cabin, it turns out there's somebody else there: his female best friend's hot young mother.
"So originally, it was ... this weird, twisted, interesting, bed-switching love triangle with a mother and a daughter," Shelton tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I really liked the idea, but instinctively I wanted to switch the mom to an older sister because [the original idea] was a little too Oedipal or something."
Shelton's other movies include We Go Way Back, What the Funny and My Effortless Brilliance. In 2009, she received a Genius Award for lifetime achievement from The Stranger, an alt-weekly newspaper in Seattle.
On asking actors to improvise dialogue
"I had 70 pages written out, but I asked them not to memorize the lines — just to glance over those scenes and really get a sense of the shape and the emotional trajectory that needs to take place — but then to find their way through each beat of the scene. What I'm looking for is extreme naturalism, to the degree that it almost feels like real flesh-and-blood people having real conversations on screen. And I've found that incorporating improvisation really helps."
On her work
"I incorporate input from the actors. They participated for eight or nine months in the development process, and I would ask for their input about who these characters were, what was their back story, etc. By the time we got to set, we had an enormous amount of back story, so that they really know who they are when they open their mouths to say something; it's going to be like second nature what comes out. And then on set, I'm actually asking them to write dialogue."
On coming up with the idea for Humpday
"Sometimes the best stories can come from putting characters in situations out of their comfort zone and seeing what happens. And I came up with this crazy notion of two straight guys daring each other to do something that was completely beyond [their comfort zone] and totally uncomfortable for both of them. There really is a festival in Seattle, and it's called HUMP!, and it was founded a few years ago by Dan Savage, and it really is this idea of having fun with your sexuality and being an exhibitionist just for a night — instead of this mainstream porn industry, actually celebrating sexuality on screen in a more personal and artistic and maybe comedic way. And I had a friend who went to the festival and saw gay porn for the first time. And he was really fascinated by it. And I saw his response as a straight guy to this gay porn as really interesting, and that was where the wheels started turning for me. I thought, 'Well, this relationship between straight men and gayness in general is really rich territory.' "
On her sexual orientation
"I'm married, so I'm in a straight relationship and have been for decades, so it's not like I'm an active bisexual. But I've fallen for all stripes of human beings in this world. I've fallen for straight men, I've fallen for gay men, I've fallen for straight women and gay women. I really have. I had crushes on really every single kind of person in the world. So there was this period of time in my life when I had this sort of romantic idea that everybody was like that, that we're all human beings and that a person is a person and if there weren't these sort of societal ideas about gender and sexual orientation, that anybody could fall in love with anybody. Making Humpday was really the experience that showed me that that is not true — that some people really, truly are straight. There's a spectrum, and some people are really at one or the other."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guess, screenwriter and director Lynn Shelton, first became known for her Indie film, "Humpday," about two straight men who decide to make a gay porn film and submit it to an annual Indie porn festival.
"Humpday" led to her directing an episode of "Mad Men." Her new film, "Your Sister's Sister," like "Humpday," relies on a lot of improvisation from the actors. Mark Duplass, who plays Jack in the new film, also starred in "Humpday." Duplass and his brother, Jay Duplass, also direct films that rely on improvisation.
"Your Sister's Sister" begins a year after the death of Jack's brother. He's not taking it well, so his good friend, Iris, played by Emily Blunt, tells him to go to her father's cabin in the woods and spend some time getting himself together, but he doesn't find the solitude she promised. Her beautiful half-sister, Hannah, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, is there and then Blunt comes to visit and the relationships get very complicated.
In this scene, Iris and Hannah are telling Jack how their father had been involved in multiple romantic relationships over the years.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUR SISTER'S SISTER")
EMILY BLUNT: (as Iris) OK. He was with her mom for 10 years. Had an affair with my mom, who was his secretary.
ROSEMARIE DEWITT: (as Hannah) Got your mom, Lenore(ph), pregnant.
BLUNT: (as Iris) Yes.
DEWITT: (as Hannah) Married her.
BLUNT: (as Iris) Moved to London.
DEWITT: (as Hannah) Moved to London.
BLUNT: (as Iris) Got bored of Lenore and then he moved on and then he kind of philandered around for, like, seven years.
DEWITT: (as Hannah) He went through his crazy Warren Beatty phase. The funny thing, though, about those years when he was so bad with the ladies - he was so good with us because that was...
BLUNT: (as Iris) He wasn't.
DEWITT: (as Hannah) No. But that was, like, six summers that it was just the three of us here.
BLUNT: (as Iris) I know, but you were OK with it. I had no respect for that. He just went - he dodged from one to the other and it was gross.
MARK DUPLASS: (as Jack) That's so crazy. So he would just, like, date all of these women, like, for short periods of time with not a lot of emotional investment and...
BLUNT: (as Iris) Yeah, it was horrible.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) ...they were very similar and then he would just move on?
BLUNT: (as Iris) Yeah.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) God, that's just weird. Who does that? Oh, and the patterns emerge.
BLUNT: (as Iris) What are you doing?
DUPLASS: (as Jack) I'm sorry. Skinny jeans George. Skinny jeans Harry. Skinny jeans Vinnie. Vinnie lasted for at least two weeks. He was one of the longer ones.
BLUNT: (as Iris) I don't like dating. You know that. I don't like dating. I don't like dating.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) No. Technic - I think, technically...
BLUNT: (as Iris) I don't like it.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) ...this is...
BLUNT: (as Iris) I get bored. I don't like it.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Your Sister's Sister." Lynn Shelton, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the scene that we just heard explains the relationship between the two sisters. They have the same father. One of the sisters grew up in America, the other in England. Did you write that England-America thing because you wanted to cast Emily Blunt, who's British?
LYNN SHELTON: Originally, the two sisters were both British. They were always going to be half-sisters, but Rosemarie DeWitt came in and saved our production by replacing an actress that we lost three days before the shoot started, believe it or not. And so it was a really - because they were always meant to be half-sisters with two different moms and one dad - this sharing a dad - it was actually a really easy adjustment to make her American and Emily remain British.
So - yeah. It's funny. And, in a way, I think it's almost better because you're wondering from the very beginning, why do they have different accents if they're sisters?
GROSS: I was wondering. Yeah.
SHELTON: And your ears are sort of pricked up waiting for the explanation and then, by the time it comes, you're kind of really listening and you're like, oh, I see. I see. I see. So they only spent summers together and they have this sort of age difference and you're ready to hear all that exposition and kind of get it.
GROSS: How did Rosemarie DeWitt end up being the actress to save the day?
SHELTON: We had, again, a very limited amount of time to find a replacement, so I started running down the list in my mind and, as soon as I thought of Rose, she leapt to the top of my, you know, wish list. And I mentioned her name to Mark Duplass and he said, if she's available, she'll do it. It was a pretty confident statement, but about a year before, they had been in an airport on their way to New Orleans, each to work on a different movie, and she had accosted him at the airport and said, I never do this, but I saw "Humpday" - which is a movie that Mark and I had done together previously - and I really, really loved it and you were great in it. And, you know, she was a fan and she was, more importantly, versed in the kind of work, you know, that I do and...
GROSS: I'm going to stop you right there.
SHELTON: ...so that was really helpful.
GROSS: How would you describe the kind of work that you do?
SHELTON: I incorporate input from the actors - an enormous amount of input from the actors. They participated - the original actors all participated for eight or nine months in the development process and I would ask for their input about who these characters were, what was their back story.
By the time we get to set, we have an enormous amount of back story so that they really know who they are. When they open their mouths to say something, it's going to be like second nature what comes out. And then, on set, I'm asking them to actually write dialog because, you know, I had 70 pages of dialog written out in this case and I asked them not to memorize the lines, just to glance over those scenes and really get a sense of the shape, the content, the emotional trajectory that needs to, you know, take place.
But then to find their way, you know, through each beat of the scene. Again, I'm - what I'm looking for is naturalism, an extreme level of naturalism to the degree that, you know, it almost feels like a documentary, you know, that it just feels like real flesh and blood people having real conversations onscreen.
And I have found that incorporating improvisation to a certain degree really, really helps in that quest.
GROSS: Now, here's the thing. It seems to me, it really helps in getting a kind of naturalistic feel at the same time - and I don't know what I'm talking about here - but it seems to me like, if you're an actor and you have the lines written for you, those words help you embody the character because that character isn't you and that character speaks different from you. And the writer has imagined how that character would speak and, by speaking those words in the way that the writer has imagined it, you become that character.
But, if you're finding your own words for that character, it means that that character is going to be more like you because you're more likely to play it like yourself with the words that you would speak.
SHELTON: It's true. I'm really looking for the overlap. You know, where does the character, which is distinct from the actor as a person, but where does the character overlap?
Mark and Emily and Rose are very distinct from the characters that they're playing. You know, I would not say that they share all of the traits or all of the personality that these characters have, but it's really about finding the connection between yourself and the character and this is what actors do all the time. It's just that, in this case, I'm asking for, you know, you to provide the actual speech.
For instance, there's a scene early on in the film where we're getting to know Iris and Jack, played by Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass, and what their relationship is, which is a relationship of best friendship. And it's the second scene in the film, so it's really early on and we're sort of establishing this report that they have.
There are certain turns of phrase and certain - the way that they tease each other and the way that they sort of push each other in a gentle, loving way. They are able to draw on the friendship that had been established between Mark and Emily over the course of the shoot because it was the last thing we shot in the production schedule. And they were able to pull that report into this relationship.
GROSS: So why don't we hear that scene? And this is an excerpt of Lynn Shelton's new film, "Your Sister's Sister."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUR SISTER'S SISTER")
BLUNT: (as Iris) I've been watching you for a year now and whatever you're doing and whatever you think is helping you, I have a responsibility as your friend to tell you that it's not.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) I knew this was coming, by the way.
BLUNT: (as Iris) OK.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) Just tell me what to do.
BLUNT: (as Iris) OK.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) That's basically where I'm at.
BLUNT: (as Iris) OK.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) Just tell me what...
BLUNT: (as Iris) All right.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) You know better than I do. You know I'm...
BLUNT: (as Iris) I have a plan.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) You have a plan?
BLUNT: (as Iris) I just want you to hear me out. It's just a plan right now.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) I love your plans.
BLUNT: (as Iris) You might not love this one, but just hear me out.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) But I don't have any plans.
BLUNT: (as Iris) That's good news. You know that nice red bicycle that you have?
DUPLASS: (as Jack) Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BURP)
BLUNT: (as Iris) Yikes.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) Sorry.
BLUNT: (as Iris) What you're going to do...
BLUNT: You're going to dust off Old Red. You're going to wheel him out of the shed and you're going to get on a ferry. I'm sending you to my dad's place. You know, my dad's place on the island - it's beautiful in the winter. It's idyllic and crisp and peaceful and...
DUPLASS: (as Jack) Like, by beautiful, you mean rainy and cold.
BLUNT: (as Iris) I'm sorry. I got so distracted because all I heard was pissing and moaning.
DUPLASS: (as Jack) Right. Sorry. I started pissing. I'm not pissing. I'm not pissing and moaning. I'm done. I'm done.
GROSS: That was Mark Duplass and Emily Blunt in a scene from "Your Sister's Sister," which was written and directed by my guest, Lynn Shelton. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director, Lynn Shelton. Her new movie is called "Your Sister's Sister" and it stars Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt.
Now, your previous film, "Humpday," starts off with a married couple and they're surprised when the husband's old buddy shows up unannounced at the door after being on the road and so they were living opposite kind of lives. There's like the husband, who's settled down, and the friend who's been on the road.
They go off to this party - the two men - and where the subject ends up being this, like, independent porn film festival known as the Hump Film Festival and they decide to make a gay porn film together and star in it, though neither of them is gay. What an odd idea for a movie. How did you come up with that premise?
SHELTON: Sometimes, the best stories can come out of just the simple premise of putting characters into a situation that's out of their comfort zone and I came up with this crazy notion of two straight guys daring each other to do something that was completely beyond their ken and totally uncomfortable for both of them.
There really is a festival in Seattle and it's called Hump and it was founded a few years ago by Dan Savage and the idea is to sort of reclaim - it really is this idea of having fun with your sexuality and, you know, being an exhibitionist just for a night, you know, and instead of this sort of mainstream porn industry, like actually celebrating sexuality onscreen in a more personal and interesting - maybe artistic and maybe comedic way.
And I had a friend who went to the festival and saw gay porn for the first time. He'd never seen it before and he was really fascinated by it and I thought his response, as a straight guy, to this gay porn was really interesting. And that was where the wheels started turning for me. I thought, well, what - this interest - this relationship between straight men and gayness, in general, is, I think, really rich territory.
GROSS: So, you know, I've been reading about you and you were quoted as saying - which may or may not be true - but you were quoted as saying that you would describe yourself as a shy bisexual who has crushes on gay men. And I'm going to ask you about this because, you know, "Humpday" and "Your Sister's Sister" involves sexual orientation.
SHELTON: Um-hmm. Yeah. No. I mean, I don't remember saying shy bisexual. Maybe I did say that and I'm just blotting it out. I mean, I'm married, you know, so I'm in a straight relationship and have been for decades, for a really long time. So it's not like I'm an active bisexual, but I've fallen for all stripes of human beings in this world, you know, and I've fallen for straight men. I've fallen for gay men. I've fallen for straight women and gay women. I really have, you know, had crushes on just every single kind of person in the world.
And so, you know, there was this period of time in my life when I had this sort of romantic idea that everybody was like that, you know, that we're all human beings and that a person is a person and if there weren't these sort of societal ideas about gender and sexual orientation that, you know, anybody could fall in love with anybody.
And it was really, you know - making "Humpday" was the experience that really showed me that is so not true. You know, that some people really, truly are straight. You know, there is a spectrum and that there are people who are really at one or the other, you know, and I was - one of the things that was most moving to me after "Humpday" came out was a friend said that her dad, who had been really on the fence about gay rights, saw "Humpday" and really was convinced that gay people should have all the same civil rights as straight people because he could really - it really hit home for him that you are who you are. You are born how you're born and that - here are these two straight guys who really, just for a couple of hours, wanted to not be straight and they couldn't, you know, do it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lynn Shelton. She wrote and directed the new film, "Your Sister's Sister," which stars Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt. She also wrote and directed the comedy, "Humpday" and she shot an episode of "Mad Men." Not just any episode. This is a pretty famous episode.
So much happened in this episode back in 2010 in season four. Among the things that happened is Joanie told Roger that she was pregnant with his child. She went to have an abortion and, at the end of the episode, we don't know if she goes through with it or not. The ad agency had gotten a new client, which was a defense department company and doing ads for them required getting a security clearance, so Don Draper was being investigated for a security clearance and he was sure his cover would be blown, that the defense department or FBI, whoever was investigating would find out who he really was and he'd be in jail.
And, at the very end of the episode, Megan, his new secretary, has kind of not even bothered to tell him about this because she doesn't understand the significance of this investigation, and Megan, who now is Don's wife - and then, with his new secretary, kind of bungles it, apologizes. At the end of the episode, she asks if she can leave now and go home and she's putting on some lipstick before leaving the office and Don looks at her like he's seeing her for the first time and he's seeing for the first time how beautiful she is and how interesting she is. And who knew back in 2010 that that character would end up becoming his wife? Did you know? You directed that episode. Did you know?
SHELTON: No. No. No, I had no idea.
SHELTON: No. It was such an incredible privilege to work on that show. I was an enormous, an enormous fan.
GROSS: How did you get to shoot a "Mad Men" episode?
SHELTON: Well, I, you know, yeah. It was great. I had been trying to get TV work. I was trying to break into episodic directing work, because I am a big admirer of a lot of television. I think there's some incredible quality on television right now, and "Mad Men" was at the top of my list.
I mean, I really felt like it was kind of pie-in-the-sky to try to get onto a show of that caliber, but Scott Hornbacher, one of the producers, somehow saw "Humpday." And so I had a great meeting with him, and he said, you know, I'm going to try and get Matthew to see it, but it's going to be hard, because he's incredibly busy.
And then a few, gosh, a month and a half later or something, I got the call that Matt was interested in meeting with me. And, I mean, just the meeting - I remember I had an hour and a half with him in his office, and I thought even if nothing comes of this, I will remember this forever, you know, just getting to sit and talk to Mr. Weiner in his office for an hour and a half.
GROSS: So you didn't know that Megan and Don were going to get married, and that happened further down the line.
GROSS: But you knew pretty soon whether, you know, maybe in the next episode - maybe not. I can't remember when it was revealed - whether Joan had the abortion or not. Did you know when you were shooting the episode whether she was going to go through with it or not? Or were you left hanging?
And were you supposed to know in order to get whatever nuance was supposed to be about what was going through her mind? Did you need to know what was going through her mind to really shoot it right?
SHELTON: It was a huge, huge secret, and so he let me know, and I think he told Christina at the very last minute, as well. And so she, I believe...
GROSS: Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan.
SHELTON: Who plays Joan. Yeah. I believe we were the only two people on the set who knew. Because he realized that we really needed to know that for the scene on the bus. There's this bus where she's coming back into town, and she's staring out the window, and it's very ambiguous. You know, we don't know if she's sad or if she's sort of, like, thinking about this experience she's just had, or if, you know, what it is. It's open-ended.
GROSS: How do you think knowing that affected the way you shot that scene?
SHELTON: Well, it was such a simple scene. The bus scene, in particular, it was very, very simple and elegant. You know, it was just a very romantic shot, basically. I mean, we had a couple different frames of view of it, but it was just her staring out the window and - lost in thought. And so it was something that was very subtle.
You know, we just got a lot of variation, but it was a very nuanced variation on the expression on her face and, you know, how her eyes looked. And, you know, just - yeah. It was very subtle.
GROSS: Well, Lynn Shelton, thank you so much for talking with us.
SHELTON: Oh, thanks for having me, Terry. It's such a privilege.
GROSS: Lynn Shelton directed the new film "Your Sister's Sister." Coming up, Ed Ward profiles Bobby Charles, one of those rock n' roll figures whose work you're almost certainly familiar with, even though you've probably never heard of him. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.