Lynn Shelton's 2009 movie Humpday was about two straight men making a gay-porn movie to win an amateur film competition. It might not have reached a mass audience, but Humpday was noticed by other directors and producers, including Matthew Weiner, who offered Shelton a job directing an episode of Mad Men.
Soon after, Shelton began work on her latest movie, Your Sister's Sister, which stars Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as half sisters Iris and Hannah, and Mark Duplass as Iris' best friend, Jack. Hannah and Jack each go to remote island cabins in the Pacific Northwest after a terrible breakup and a brother's death, respectively — but then collide, unexpectedly, during the vacation.
The story line for the film was inspired by Duplass, who starred in Humpday. His original idea focused on a man who goes to a remote cabin after losing his brother. But when he arrives at the cabin, it turns out there's somebody else there: his female best friend's hot young mother.
"So originally, it was ... this weird, twisted, interesting, bed-switching love triangle with a mother and a daughter," Shelton tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I really liked the idea, but instinctively I wanted to switch the mom to an older sister because [the original idea] was a little too Oedipal or something."
Shelton's other movies include We Go Way Back, What the Funny and My Effortless Brilliance. In 2009, she received a Genius Award for lifetime achievement from The Stranger, an alt-weekly newspaper in Seattle.
On asking actors to improvise dialogue
"I had 70 pages written out, but I asked them not to memorize the lines — just to glance over those scenes and really get a sense of the shape and the emotional trajectory that needs to take place — but then to find their way through each beat of the scene. What I'm looking for is extreme naturalism, to the degree that it almost feels like real flesh-and-blood people having real conversations on screen. And I've found that incorporating improvisation really helps."
On her work
"I incorporate input from the actors. They participated for eight or nine months in the development process, and I would ask for their input about who these characters were, what was their back story, etc. By the time we got to set, we had an enormous amount of back story, so that they really know who they are when they open their mouths to say something; it's going to be like second nature what comes out. And then on set, I'm actually asking them to write dialogue."
On coming up with the idea for Humpday
"Sometimes the best stories can come from putting characters in situations out of their comfort zone and seeing what happens. And I came up with this crazy notion of two straight guys daring each other to do something that was completely beyond [their comfort zone] and totally uncomfortable for both of them. There really is a festival in Seattle, and it's called HUMP!, and it was founded a few years ago by Dan Savage, and it really is this idea of having fun with your sexuality and being an exhibitionist just for a night — instead of this mainstream porn industry, actually celebrating sexuality on screen in a more personal and artistic and maybe comedic way. And I had a friend who went to the festival and saw gay porn for the first time. And he was really fascinated by it. And I saw his response as a straight guy to this gay porn as really interesting, and that was where the wheels started turning for me. I thought, 'Well, this relationship between straight men and gayness in general is really rich territory.' "
On her sexual orientation
"I'm married, so I'm in a straight relationship and have been for decades, so it's not like I'm an active bisexual. But I've fallen for all stripes of human beings in this world. I've fallen for straight men, I've fallen for gay men, I've fallen for straight women and gay women. I really have. I had crushes on really every single kind of person in the world. So there was this period of time in my life when I had this sort of romantic idea that everybody was like that, that we're all human beings and that a person is a person and if there weren't these sort of societal ideas about gender and sexual orientation, that anybody could fall in love with anybody. Making Humpday was really the experience that showed me that that is not true — that some people really, truly are straight. There's a spectrum, and some people are really at one or the other."
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