BH Interview: Director Lynn Shelton on Avoiding 'Toxic' Actors

Lynn Shelton isn’t a politician, but the director does all she can to vet the actors in her films.

Shelton, best known for “Humpday” and the new indie feature “Your Sister’s Sister,” makes her film sets as comfortable as possible for her casts. It’s all about developing a bond between the actors, a quality Shelton insists “seeps into the film.”

So she takes extra care when casting her projects.


“It’s always a crap shoot,” Shelton tells Big Hollywood. “I definitely am trying to avoid working with jerks … life is too short, and making movies is way too hard, to be with people who are toxic with each other.”

For “Your Sister’s Sister,” opening nationwide tomorrow (June 15), Shelton arranged to have her three stars living in separate quarters but within less than a few hundred yards of each other.

It’s like film camp, she says.

The movie's stars ended up hanging out with each other “into the wee hours” in between shooting. That closeness helps tell the story of Jack (Mark Duplass), a lost soul still mourning the loss of his brother. Jack’s best gal pal Iris (Emily Blunt) offers him her family’s summer cabin, thinking he can get his head together in solitude.

When Jack arrives at the cabin he finds Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris’s complicated sister, and the dynamic between the three characters begins to … evolve. The less said about the ensuing revelations, the better for ticket holders.

Duplass, who starred in Shelton's “Humpday,” suggested she make a movie around a man left adrift by the death of his sibling.

“I felt that it would be interesting territory,” she says, “how the death of Jack’s brother might inform his relationship with his best friend [Iris].”

On “Humpday,” about two straight male chums dared to have sex with each other, Shelton left the film’s climactic scene unwritten. She wanted the "do they or don't they" resolution to emerge organically in collaboration with the main actors.

“Your Sister’s Sister” evolved in a more pragmatic fashion. For eight months, Shelton worked with the actors from a distance, calling them every two or three weeks to run ideas past them and find out how they wanted to see the characters grow.

“It was always percolating in the background for them,” she says. “I find it helpful to have an enormous amount of back story. We really know who these characters are.”

That matters when the actors are given room to improvise their dialogue.

“When somebody lobs a line out you, it’s second nature what will come out,” she says, although as director she says she’s the final arbiter of what makes the final cut.

“I’m gonna cut out 80 percent of what we just talked about,” she says. Improv helps to create naturalism in a film, but it isn’t intended to replace the script or story beats.

Shelton hit her local video store recently to stock up on films by Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen to help inspire both "Your Sister's Sister" and her next project, "Touchy Feely." The mission? Study films with ensemble casts and multiple storylines, particularly gems like "Hannah and Her Sisters."

“Your Sister’s Sister” arrives in the thick of the summer movie season, and while the indie import “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is making a small fortune, most indie films will be crushed by their popcorn-friendly peers.

“There’s so much that you can’t control … the best you can do is generate word of mouth [appeal],” she says, “and get as many people talking about you as you can.”

“'Your Sister's Sister' is definitely counter-programming to ‘Spider-Man’ and the big blockbusters. I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” she says.

Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies


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