Seattle film director Lynn Shelton’s career has ascended along the same trajectory as Seattle’s indie film scene. Each film she makes climbs one rung higher in critical acclaim and distribution.
Shelton’s just-released film, “Your Sister’s Sister,” opens Friday at Tacoma’s Grand Cinema, and just finished its run at Olympia Film Society’s Capitol Theater. The film – shot entirely on an undisclosed San Juan island and in Burien over two weeks – has been getting widespread praise, from Sundance Film Festival to The New York Times.
“Your Sister’s Sister” follows an aimless man (Mark Duplass) as he tries to work out a sibling relationship after the death of his brother. His friend, played by Emily Blunt (“Young Victoria”), sends him to her fathers’ cabin in the San Juan Islands where he unexpectedly encounters the father’s other daughter played by Rosemarie DeWitt (“Rachel’s Getting Married”). A sibling rivalry of an unusual nature occurs when Blunt arrives at the cabin.
Shelton’s first break-out film was her 2009 feature “Humpday,” about two straight male buddies who decide to make a gay porn film. “Humpday” made it into Sundance, and that experience helped prepare her for the attention “Sister” is bringing her.
“Sundance is pretty intense and I would have been lost (without the “Humpday” experience). I also felt like I paid my dues. It was really hard (getting in) and I appreciated it. I didn’t take it for granted,” Shelton said.
Shelton now teaches Sundance short courses and serves on a jury. “It feels like home now, though it took a while to get there,” she said.
Raised in Seattle, Shelton, 46, has now spent time in New York and Los Angeles going to school, acting in theater, learning photography, editing film and directing – including episodes of AMC’s acclaimed cable television series “Mad Men.”
But “Your Sister’s Sister” has a strong Pacific Northwest feel to it and makes use of natural dialogue. Shelton said the natural feel isn’t a coincidence.
“I achieved that by writing 70 pages of dialogue. (But) some of the scenes had no dialogue – just an outline. … We were all on the quest for naturalism. (We asked ourselves) ‘What are the emotional dynamics of the scene and how are they are shifting?’ We never rehearsed.”
Shelton told the actors, “If you like a line, feel free to use it, but don’t feel like you need to use the exact wording.” She said 75 percent of the film is improvised.
Improvisation has the potential to send a film’s narrative off course, but Shelton said that was never a danger on “Sister.” Before the shoot, she worked with the actors on their characters.
“We would get on the phone every two weeks and talk about their back stories. Relationships, what happened in their childhoods. That kind of work is incredibly important in improv,” she said.
Shelton ended up with a lot of material to work with after the shoot was over.
“I got two cameras on them and I just let them go. It usually ends up being a long take – up to 25 minutes,” she said. “In the editing room, my editor and I really find the best take and shape it there.”
Shelton’s three most recent films have been about unconventional relationships. It’s not a coincidence, she said. She is fascinated by personal identity, how it changes over time, and how it affects relationships.
“A conflict happens that forces you to face who you really are,” she said. “It may not be the person you think you are. … I look back at my life and I feel like I’ve been 20 different people.”
Shelton just shot a new film, “Touchy Feely,” in Seattle in April and May that will be released in 2013. It stars DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page and Ron Livingston. The film has an ensemble cast in multiple storylines and makes more use of sound design and music.
It’s a departure from Shelton’s previous films, including “Sister,” which have used minimal locations and actors.
Right now, she’s busy editing. “Every day I’m in my tiny little monk cell, shaping my new movie.”