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Lynn Shelton on Your Sister's Sister and the Advantages of Late-Blooming

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Writer-director Lynn Shelton and I met recently in a tony Seattle hotel suite to discuss her fourth feature film, Your Sister's Sister, which was kicking off the Seattle International Film Festival that night and had already garnered rave reviews at other prominent festivals. As I was setting up, a television crew was dismantling. All day, Shelton had fielded interviews but her enthusiasm still percolated.

With rare insight and wit, Your Sister's Sister tells the story of two sisters (Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt) and their grieving friend (Mark Duplass), whose brother died a year ago. It gives nothing away to say a romantic entanglement results, because the Seattle-based filmmaker still manages to surprise her audience, as she did masterfully with her three previous feature efforts, Humpday (2009), My Effortless Brilliance (2008) and We Go Way Back (2006).

Your Sister's Sister is the culmination of Shelton's prior feature experience and, also, her work as an experimental filmmaker, actress, improviser, editor and photographer. It opens June 15 in the U.S. and June 29 in the U.K.

Litsa Dremousis: Does all this seem surreal to you? When I interviewed you three years ago for Humpday, we met at a coffeehouse near your home.

Lynn Shelton: [Laughs.] Well, we've already done Toronto, Sundance and Tribeca with Your Sister's Sister. So, this is actually tame, especially compared to when I'm with the actors, where people are screaming. But it's still totally surreal. The fact this film is opening SIFF, I still can't get over it.

LD: You and Mark Duplass have discussed how the two of you are the experienced improvisers and Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt are the professional movie stars, in the best sense of the term. It seems everyone got to play to their strengths.

LS: The actors all talk about what they learned from each other. When we first started, we thought, Is this really going to work? There was one day it seemed like, Are they each in a different movie? [Laughs.] And then what ends up happening is you realize it's great they're not all the same and I love they each have their own dynamic. There's a great juxtaposition between them and balance.

LD: In Your Sister's Sister you've got long silences and long conversations. Both occur frequently in real life, but are rarely depicted in film because they're hard to make compelling onscreen. You do it well. Do you think that's due to your improvisational process? Or having been an actor and now being a writer and director?

LS: Thank you. It's funny, when you were saying that, I immediately thought of editing, because editing is where you're really deciding the rhythm and carving out the story and the journey the audience is going to be on. Because the launching point for me into narrative filmmaking was as an editor, even on set, I'm always thinking like that.

LD: In the most recent New York Times feature on you, you discussed being a late bloomer of sorts. Do you think that brings some advantages? Because you made experimental films and you acted and then you came to all of this as a fully grown adult, you know what you want and how to go about getting it.

LS: Uh huh. I can't tell you how thrilling it is for me to see Lena Dunham [Girls, Tiny Furniture] and women of that age, their early twenties, come to the forefront. I never could have done it at that age. There's a program in Seattle, Reel Grrls [reelgrrls.org] and it's about mentoring young women in their adolescence and empowering them with filmmaking skills. I love that organization and often wonder if I'd access to a program like that, if I would have started making features earlier. So, I don't think there's anything wrong with starting younger. I love that. For me, there's a beauty in finding what you're always meant to do later on because you really, really appreciate it. So, I do feel there's a huge advantage for me. I feel ready to lead a crew and cast and inviting people to fulfill my artistic vision. I don't think I could have done it at 25. And I have more to say now, too.

LD: Your Sister's Sister launches with Mark's eulogy for his brother. So often, when someone dies, there's a tendency to turn the deceased into someone who walked on water. And Mark's character won't collude with that. It's usually the person who loves you most who makes Mark's point about toasting to the whole person, the whole man.

LS: Exactly. I remember us talking it was clear he loved his brother more than anyone else could have. He knew his brother and had a clear-eyed vision of the whole person and didn't allow for this sanctification that you're talking about. That's exactly what I want the audience to do with all these characters, not love them despite their flawed humanity, but because of it. They all make mistakes, they all have weaknesses and I want us to feel sympathetic and empathetic and love them.