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Indie Focus: Lynn Shelton relates ‘Your Sister’s Sister’

If Lynn Shelton’s 2009 Sundance breakout “Humpday” had many ready to brand the director the female Judd Apatow (meaning an actual woman who writes and directs comedy), then her new “Your Sister’s Sister” might have people refining that assessment a bit. Attuned to the social trappings of class and her times, a subtle chronicler of modern relationships, Shelton is perhaps more of an indie equivalent to Mike Nichols or Nancy Meyers.

Shelton used the stunt premise of “Humpday” — two straight guys decide to make a gay porn film together — to examine friendship, marriage and the struggle of reconciling self-image with your actual place in the world. In “Your Sister’s Sister,” which will have its world premiere Sept. 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival, she traces the boundaries of a sex farce but unexpectedly goes for the deeper emotional resonances of siblings and secrets rather than easy belly laughs.

“I don’t shy away from the challenge of having a sort of ridiculous premise on paper and figuring out how to get a grounded version of that — a really real, actually believable, emotionally truthful version of that scenario,” Shelton said recently via phone from her home in Seattle. “That balance just feels natural to me, to have these ridiculously horrible or dramatic or emotional things happening and at the same time there’s humor in it and humor that comes out of it.”

In “Your Sister’s Sister,” again set against the damp foliage of the Pacific Northwest, “Humpday” star Mark Duplass plays Jack, still reeling from his brother’s death a year earlier. His close friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who happens to also be the ex of Jack’s brother, ships him off to her family’s remote vacation home so he can be alone to get himself back together.

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Jack unexpectedly finds Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) there for similar purposes, and the two quickly get to know each other over an evening of tequila. When Iris arrives unannounced the next morning, it sets off a chain reaction of revelations and shifting dynamics.

The new film, which finds the 46-year-old Shelton again working with cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke and editor Nat Sanders, represents a continued expansion of the techniques she has been exploring for several years, starting with “My Effortless Brilliance” (2008), after her 2006 debut feature, “We Go Way Back.”

“Humpday” finally brought Hollywood to her door, and Shelton has cautiously explored her options. She directed a Web series called "$5 Cover: Seattle” and became attached to an adaptation of the Joshua Ferris novel “Then We Came to the End.” Last year, she directed an episode of the television show “Mad Men.” She has more recently become attached to direct a script called “Laggies” by Andrea Seigel.

Amid all that, Duplass called with a long-simmering idea for another low-budget project, which formed the initial kernels of “Your Sister’s Sister.” (Duplass has his own film premiering at Toronto’s film festival, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” which he co-directed with his brother Jay.)

“It’s a dramatic Shakespearean bed-switching comedy,” said Duplass, “with a certain emotional gravity behind some of the incredible lighthearted buffoonery, so it feels rooted in something. And I also love the idea that people can do some dumb, crazy things and maybe be a little bit forgiven for it. We felt that was a nice anchor.”

Both “Humpday” and “My Effortless Brilliance” were created in a specific manner, with Shelton building characters around people she knew, working out story points and then letting the actors improvise their dialogue. While there was only a 10-page outline for “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister” eventually came out as a 70-page script-ment, which featured some dialogue as well as a bible charting the characters and their relationship histories.

“I had way more of a script than I’d ever had before working in this way,” Shelton said of her new film’s mix of conventional filmmaking and her more unorthodox techniques. “We really use both, like a mix-and-match.”

The production took place in Washington state’s San Juan Islands in the first few weeks of last November, with the cast and crew all staying together in a few houses while shooting in another nearby. Though Duplass was already intimately attuned to the Shelton Method, neither Blunt nor DeWitt had worked in this way before. (DeWitt faced added challenges: She came late to the project, filling a role originally conceived for Rachel Weisz and shooting her scenes while also working on the TV show “United States of Tara.”) Both actresses agreed that the process could cause, as DeWitt put it, “brain overload.”

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“You’re in the scene as actors and also as writers and you really don’t know what’s going to happen,” said DeWitt. “There was a script, but Lynn kind of said, ‘Here’s a script, but don’t say any of these words.’ And occasionally, Emily and I would read a scene and be like, ‘This is actually a good scene, and I think we’re just going to do it this way.’ And in that way, we started more in our comfort zone and could kind of get loose with it and go way off.”

Given Shelton’s penchant for improvisation and the way in which it is easier to portray her as more Earth-mother enabler than stern director of singular vision, there is perhaps also a potential to overlook her intuitive skill and graceful confidence, her ability to steer the ship even when her hand is seemingly not on the rudder.

“There were days you definitely felt Lynn was just this quiet conductor of the whole thing, and it felt like a very evolved way of working,” said Blunt. “The more high-octane, really emotional stuff, she just really stayed out of the way and let the cameras roll. And I appreciated that she very much knew when to back off and when to come in to give you a helping hand.”

“But there would be days I’d go up to her and ask, ‘Is this making any sense to you? I’m totally lost, and I don’t know who I am or who these people are,’” added DeWitt. “And she’s like, “It’s all working.’”

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