Toronto 2011: This time, 'Humpday' director feels sisterly
Lynn Shelton came to prominence in 2009 when she made a low-budget improvised movie, "Humpday," featuring the hook of two buddies who dare each other to star in a male porn flick.
No one is getting in touch with their inner Ron Jeremy in Shelton's similarly improvised follow-up, the Toronto Film Festival breakout "Your Sister's Sister." The Seattle writer-director puts women at the center this time -- and actual siblings instead of just bro-dudes -- as it examines a pair of sisters for whom genuine love doesn't always mean complete honesty.
"This is about healing, grief and forgiveness," Shelton told 24 Frames in an interview Friday afternoon at the festival. "It's a movie about the basic fallibility of human beings, and our need to accept that."
Which makes "Sister" sound a little dry, like a slice of whole-wheat bread, instead of the comedic shot of rum punch that it is.
Most of the action in "Sister" takes place over a weekend in an island vacation home to which young Iris (Emily Blunt) has sent friend Jack (Mark Duplass) to spend some time in quiet isolation. Jack's brother, who was also Iris' ex-boyfriend, died the year before, and Iris hopes some time away will help Jack heal. Once there, Jack runs into Iris' sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has come unexpectedly to help recover from her own trauma, a breakup with her longtime girlfriend.
To describe the film further would be to deprive viewers of some enjoyable secrets and revelations, but suffice to say that what follows is both a drama and a romp involving love, sex, pregnancy and sibling loyalty. (Filmgoers will get a chance to see it for themselves when IFC, which acquired the movie at the festival, releases it next summer.)
Sibling rivalry is on the minds of independent filmmakers at this festival. Duplass' own directorial effort, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," sees Jason Segel and Ed Helms as estranged brothers who must come together under surreal circumstances; Duplass wrote and directed the movie with ... his brother.
Shelton, 45, said she was inspired by the oft-cited "Bridesmaids" (et tu, indie filmmakers?), not so much for the Kristen Wiig film's raunch as for its realism. "You've seen big studio comedies where you think, 'That's how men really talk,'" Shelton said. "But you don't really see any where you think 'That's how women really talk.' It was hugely inspiring."
Actors in most Shelton films come into her movies with only the loosest outline in place and instead work out scenes and dialogue on set in the hope of capturing a spontaneous moment. "I'm compelled by improvisation," Shelton said. "So many times I'm watching a movie and I think, 'It's so well-written but you can see the writing on the page.' And I want the purest, realest form of interaction."
Although it comes from a filmmaker who gained acclaim for so-called mumblecore films earlier in the 2000's (Shelton's movie immediately before "Humpday," "My Effortless Brilliance," used a similar improvisational technique to create a real-life vibe), the look of this film is more polished and the dialogue delivered more fluidly than other expressions of the genre.
Shelton acknowledged that casting her films can be a challenge. "A lot of actors don't want to do an improvised movie," she said, "and it's such a specific set of skills that even those that really want to do one may not be good at it," which, among other reasons, is why you don't see George Clooney and Brad Pitt in very many mumblecore movies.
Of course, directing a film that draws from real life interactions can make for some compromised moments with friends. Shelton said she's always at least subconsciously gathering material but does find that she sometimes has to reassure friends who are nervous their stories could end up in her movie.
Shelton, who branched out by directing an episode of "Mad Men" last season, next directs "Laggies," a story of a late-20s female slacker who strikes up a friendship with a girl who's still in high school. This time she won't be improvising the film -- in fact, she'll be working off a script someone else wrote.
"It will be a little jarring at first to have a script ready to go before we start shooting," Shelton said. "But it might also be, 'Wait, so this is how you do it? You don't have to figure out the entire story while you're runnning around on set?' That could be nice.'"
Photos: Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt in "Your Sister's Sister." (Credit: Toronto Film Festival); Mark Duplass and Lynn Shelton at the Toronto premiere of their movie. (Alexandra Wyman/Getty Images)