Lynn Shelton doesn't expect you to like her characters right away. In her fourth feature, Your Sister's Sister, the Seattle writer-director introduces her protagonist, Jack (played by Mark Duplass, star of her 2009 movie, Humpday), by giving him an angry diatribe to deliver — one that sours a party held in honor of his late brother.
"In general, I like to show these characters warts and all, and I sort of like the idea of warts first," she tells The Pitch by phone from Portland, Oregon. "You see him make this entire party really uncomfortable, and you're probably feeling pretty uncomfortable yourself, as an audience member, about what he's doing. I'm hoping that even by the end of that scene, you realize he's in an incredible amount of pain and that he really did love his brother, so it came out in this really twisted, black way."
Shelton's intimate comedy-drama follows Jack as he tries to get away from his grief by vacationing at his pal Iris' family cabin, outside Seattle. Instead of being alone, he discovers Iris' lesbian half-sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt, The United States of Tara), staying there. He winds up going to bed with her —even though he's nursing a crippling attraction to Iris herself (Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen).
Shelton's worst-foot-forward approach appears to be working. Your Sister's Sister, which opens in Kansas City Friday, was the top debut at the specialty box office the week of June 19, with a per-screen average of $9,000 in 13 theaters. It has also been a critical hit, with an 83 percent approval rating on rottentomatoes.com.
The Pitch: How do you make a film about people sitting and talking without it getting stilted?
Shelton: It's a goal of mine to have a film where the characters feel like real people. Improvisation definitely helps in that arena, and there's a lot of improvisation in my films. It brings a certain freshness that's hard to capture any other way.
I think it's a real balancing act. I really tried to make people feel sympathetic even though they [the characters] are flawed. Maybe people are reminded of mistakes that they've made or mistakes that their friends have made.
Speaking of realism, the sex scene between Jack and Hannah is hilariously awkward.
[Laughs.] I timed it recently. I had an opportunity when we were doing the DVD commentary. I think it's a 12-second performance, which is pretty amazing. It [sex] can be quite painfully awkward and bad.
It's just a classic example of hiring the right people and letting them do their job. We knew the intention was not for it to be glamorous, sensationalized or romanticized. That's one of the scenes where I don't think there was any dialogue written. It was just an outline. "They have awkward sex." We just found it on the set.
With Mark Duplass, you had someone on your set who's now having a breakout year, acting here as well as in Darling Companion and Safety Not Guaranteed (also out this weekend in KC). He's a writer-director himself; with his brother, Jay, he has made The Puffy Chair, Baghead, Cyrus and — this year — Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Does having someone like that on set change anything for you?
Mark has two very distinct careers. He talks about, when he's on set as an actor, he loves to be able to fly in, do his days and get out of there. He's kind of like an uncle with the baby. He doesn't have to raise the kid. I never really feel threatened or usurped by him, powerwise. I find it an incredible boon that he's a writer and a director because I'm always asking for his contributions, along with everybody on set. All the actors are bringing their ideas to the set. I hope that it's an ego-free place where, after a while, you don't even know where the ideas are originating from. I find it incredibly helpful that he has all those different skill sets because I get to be the recipient of them.
Humpday and Your Sister's Sister often pit people in conventional relationships against bohemians. How have you been able to convincingly depict nonconformists when you've been married for the last 20 years [to comic actor and former MTV VJ Kevin Seal]?
People asked me who I was more like on Humpday [a movie about two straight men trying to make a gay porn film], [married] Ben or Andrew. I really do feel like I'm both people. Even though I'm married, I don't feel like I'm domesticated. [Laughs.] I get to be wild and crazy as an artist. I get to go around to film festivals and party. I get to have a full artistic life, a creative life. I feel incredibly blessed because I get the best of both worlds. I get to have this incredibly satisfying, stable family, and I also get to be an artist. Maybe the dichotomy comes out on-screen. I don't think about it, but you're right — it does emerge again and again.