Lynn Shelton (picured below) worked as an actor, editor, photographer and artist before becoming a filmmaker. Using handheld cameras to capture improvised performances, she became a key figure in the mumblecore movement. As her new film Your Sister’s Sister (above) is released in cinemas, she tells Tom Seymour how to direct a film without a crew or script...
You’ve said you struggled creatively as a young woman. How did you re-discover that confidence?
I haven’t had filmmakers’ block for a long time. There was a long period of drought before I became a feature filmmaker, but once I started doing it, it very quickly felt to me it was exactly what I was meant to do. I don’t think I could have done it earlier.
I started as an actor and then a photographer and experimental filmmaker – when I would do my own cinematography and sound design – and then I worked as an editor. All of the skills I picked up along the way became really important resources to me. I draw on all of them all of the time.
I also needed that time to gain maturity and confidence and come into my own as a human being. You need to be a leader, and you need to be assertive, because you have an entire team of people at your disposal, who are there to create your vision. That seemed a little heavy to me as a younger woman, or the strapping tomboy I was.
Your 2009 film Humpday really defined the mumblecore movement. How did you discover that highly experimental and spontaneous style of filmmaking?
I made my first film We Go Way Back in the traditional way; so I developed the characters in my head, I wrote the script and then I went out into the world to try and find the actors for those roles. Some of the actors were very close to their characters, but some of them I got totally wrong – they were the exact opposite to their character.
On set, I found we were spending about 90 per cent of the time working on lighting and angles, and I found I was struggling to focus on acting and performances on set. We improvised one scene, and I felt electrified by what I was seeing. I thought to myself, “Could I make an entire film like this, that feels so fresh and real?”
So my next film, Humpday, was a complete experiment. I ejected the entire crew apart from the sound guy and my director of photography, and I shot myself with handheld cameras and no lighting. I wanted it to feel like a documentary, I never wanted the actors to repeat anything, and I shot the entire film in medium close-ups so I could capture every movement that might unfold.
What have you done differently with My Sister’s Sister?
With my Sister’s Sister, I wanted to expand my horizons; I wanted to create a sense of place and add a little visual sophistication. So I started close and handheld for the conversation scenes - as I had with Humpday - before widening out and using two wider shots, and started using this thing called a tripod.
I scripted Your Sister’s Sister, but we used it as a security blanket. I reckon around a quarter of the film is scripted. I said to Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt: “Use a line if you want to, but don’t be precious about the exact wording or the order of the lines. You know what territory needs to be covered in this scene, so if you want to go completely off the path and find your own way through it, that’s fine.” I’m all about real people having real conversations, so when they surprise each other, it’s wonderful.
What advice do you have for young filmmakers?
With this technology available, don’t wait for permission. You have to go out and find your tribe, make relationships with collaborators, and make something. If it doesn’t work, sweep it under the rug and no one will be any the wiser because you haven’t spent millions of pounds on the film.
Your Sister’s Sister is in cinema today.
For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit our Film hub.