On April 30, the San Francisco Film Festival held its major Centerpiece screening of Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister,” starring Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass. The Centerpiece screening is, unsurprisingly, held right in the middle of the festival and showcases a promising new independent film. Past Centerpiece screenings include “Happythankyoumoreplease,” “500 Days of Summer” and “Terri.”
“Your Sister’s Sister” screened in one of the biggest festival venues: the largest cinema of the Sundance Kabuki. It played to a full house that was treated to a substantial Q&A with DeWitt after the screening. Many attendees also ventured to the Centerpiece party down the street afterwards.
Shelton took the same approach with “Your Sister’s Sister” as she did with her lauded 2009 feature “Humpday”: working with a small crew and a script that was more general outline than scene-by-scene details. The film’s dialogue was largely improvised. The result was a film full of great spontaneity, rich acting and some genuine moments.
In the film, best friends Iris (Blunt) and Jack (Duplass) are in love but haven’t told one another. Jack is in a rut, so Iris sends him off to her father’s house on an island near Seattle to get away and think. But when he gets there, he finds Hannah (DeWitt), Iris’s sister. Of course, they end up getting drunk and having hilariously awkward and bad sex, which sets up a lot of drama for when Iris turns up the next day.
In the Q&A after the film, DeWitt explained that Duplass was the only member of the cast who had any improvisational experience. But DeWitt and Blunt quickly learned the “yes and” rule of improv: Whatever the other person says, you just agree to go with it and move forward. The film, which takes place over the course of three days, was shot in just 12 in the Pacific Northwest. During filming, DeWitt was in the midst of production on Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” requiring her to fly back and forth between Seattle and Los Angeles. It was so busy that she avoided what she considers the potential pitfall of the actor: over-thinking. Since the film was shot largely in order, it was easier to maintain continuity.
When asked about how making an improv-based drama works, DeWitt explained that the team would record lengthy footage to be pared down later in the cutting room. For example, a five-minute scene at the beginning in which Hannah and Jack get drunk and talk initially began as a meandering 45-minute scene. Throughout the shoot, two cameras were always used simultaneously in order to get coverage on at least two actors in a scene. Challenges arose when all three characters were in a scene together because one wouldn’t get coverage and maintaining continuity across reshoots is difficult.
DeWitt talked about shooting one particular scene when her character tells an embarrassing story about her sister. Before they started shooting, Shelton privately told DeWitt to completely embarrass Blunt. DeWitt had all of two minutes to come up with something to say, and the first story that popped into her head—something that had happened to a friend of hers—became the story in the film; there just wasn’t time to invent something else, think about it or perfect it. The result was that Blunt was so embarrassed that she turned about five shades of red—the kind of red that you can’t fake. When the camera stopped rolling, Blunt turned to Shelton, concerned about whether her reaction had been recorded because she felt that it was irreproducible.
DeWitt has plans to make another film with Shelton and was also at the festival to promote her film, “Nobody Walks,” in which Blunt’s real-life husband, John Krasinski, plays her love interest. “Your Sister’s Sister” has been making the rounds on the festival circuit since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. It has already been picked up by a distributor and is set for a release early this summer.