‘Your Sister's Sister': An Exercise In Collaborative Filmmaking

Though put together by some pretty major Hollywood players, “Your Sister’s Sister” is about as close to grassroots, homemade filmmaking as it can get.

The film tells the story of a charming but directionless man (Mark Duplass) who’s still reeling from the death of his brother a year earlier. In an effort to force him to get his act together, he is sent by his best friend and his brother’s ex (Emily Blunt) - amid their own conflicted attraction - to her family’s remote cabin, where he inadvertently encounters her sister (Rosemarie Dewitt). Sis is in an equal tailspin due to the breakup of her lesbian relationship and a nagging urge to have a child. Mix in some alcohol and it quickly becomes a tangled knot of intermingled emotional messiness.

The movie’s back story is equally intimate, if not as tortured: Along with being an accomplished actor ("The League,” “Safety Not Guaranteed”), Duplass is one half of the up-and-coming screenwriter/director/writer duo behind “The Puffy Chair,” “Baghead,” “Cyrus,” and “Jeff Who Lives at Home.” The other half is his brother Jay. When Duplass had a notion for a film he wasn’t sure he and his sibling could pull off, he turned to writer-director Lynn Shelton, whom he’d acted for in the film “Humpday,” and offered to pass her the story baton. Shelton agreed, but rather than craft a full screenplay she assembled a partial “script-ment” – a general outline complete with passages of dialogue – with her own distinct spins on the story and turned to her leading actors to help fill out the character details as they began production.

As Duplass, Shelton and Dewitt reveal to PopcornBiz, it was a process that resulted not only in a satisfying creative experience, but also a charming, honest and emotionally engaging film.

Mark Duplass: This is kind of a Shakespearean bed-switching comedy with snooping and secrets. All of that is very fun, but I also wanted to have an emotional core to it.

Lynn Shelton: Everything that happens in the movie after the first scene or two came out of the development process. I asked the actors, actually, to develop their characters and their back story and then organically the plot was sort of being developed side by side during that process. Then we ended up on set with about 70 pages of dialogue written, but the vast majority of the film ended up being improvised because I really wanted it to feel naturalistic, like real life, so I asked them to put everything into their own words and find their own ways through these scenes. I knew what was going to happen in every scene, but how they got there was really up to the actors. I like to give them a lot of freedom.

Rosemarie Dewitt: At first blush what I responded to had nothing to do with the character. I didn't even read the script-ment that Lynn sent. It was more, like, 'Lynn from "Humpday" called, and it's Mark Duplass and Emily Blunt.' I'm like, 'I'm there! Where do I sign up?' Then once we got onboard I was very much attracted to that very specific place that woman is in, in her life. She feels like she's supposed to have all her ducks in a row and none of them are in a row, and sort of the somewhat extreme choices she has to make to have the life that she wants.

Shelton: Rose is just one of the smartest actors I've ever worked with. She's just really engaged and likes to understand the arc of everything, how everything applies to everything else. She's also just so visceral, always digging deeper and deeper to find exactly where that scene is supposed to go and where her character is.

Duplass: Particularly in regards to the role of Hannah, we needed somebody who audiences I guess just would intrinsically like because – without spoiling anything – Hannah makes some questionable decisions in the film. So it's this idea of doing a movie with some really messed up people: we love them, and hopefully by the end of the film we can have the audience love them like we do.

Shelton: Mark is such a veteran, a really comfortable improviser. He was like the ringleader when he was in the scenes with the gals, would sort of lead them. They would follow wherever he went, and it was just fantastic to have that kind of confidence. It's very contagious. Also, he brings such pathos and such charm to this character. He's such a sadsack and you're still rooting for him every step of the way.

Dewitt: Completely a renaissance man, and he really is a consummate improviser. I think that Emily and I learned so much. We weren't sure that we were doing it right and we'd look over at him, like, 'Is this really what it is?' And he's like, 'It's perfect. It's perfect.' So I think we learned to trust the process of this kind of movie from him.

Emily started developing this from the front, and we wanted someone who had basically an inherent charm to her because all of the characters in this movie do some questionable things.

Dewitt: With Emily it was just sort of climbing into a warm bath. Sometimes those scenes were scripted, where Mark would always throw new things in – new ideas and monologues and jokes – and once in a while Emily and I would look at the scene and say, 'This kind of just works as it is. Can we just say it?' Because it was really just easy to play her sister. We didn't have to fight for the chemistry. It was sort of there from the introduction.

Shelton: Emily has this incredible gift of creating instant chemistry with other actors. I feel like she's so open and so willing to just go right there and create those intimate scenes, so you really believed her with her sister and her with her best friend. I believed both of those relationships. All of them did that, but I felt that she was kind of the lynch pin because she's in the middle of the triangle. She was the perfect person to have at that juncture: she's really good at that chemistry thing.

Dewitt: I love Lynn’s take on the world, and I feel like she really has her finger on the pulse of something – something that's very immediate. Not necessarily topical, but just in terms of relationships and who we are.

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