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Q&A: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt on improvising sisterhood in Lynn Shelton's new film

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Shot over 12 days in a cabin on a remote island off Washington state, Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" is a naturalistic, largely improvised film that, despite its seeming artlessness, builds its drama organically and effectively.

It's the fourth feature from the Seattle-based Shelton, the director of "Humpday," whose light, comedic touch and collaborative, low-budget process have made her a cult favourite and a sought-after filmmaker for actors eager for freedom and realism. "Your Sister's Sister" stars Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt (the most established actors yet to work with Shelton) as sisters whose relationship is challenged by a visiting friend (Mark Duplass).

Ahead of its June 15 release, the film has been a hit on the festival circuit, including this week's Tribeca Film Festival. The women of "Your Sister's Sister" — Shelton, DeWitt and Blunt — gathered for a recent interview where they reflected on the atypical process of the movie, and exhibited their own cheerful sisterhood.

AP: Why do you work this way, with so much improvised dialogue?

Shelton: The actors feel more invested. I want them to feel like the character is a glove, that they're just stepping into and it's not this reach. You're not trying to put yourself into this predetermined box. I really want them to bring themselves to it. I try to make it really organic and very collaborative. I'm basically a hippie.

AP: Rosemarie, you jumped into this at the last minute, shuttling back and forth to Los Angeles while shooting the TV series "The United States of Tara."

DeWitt: It was like, "Hello, Mark Duplass. My name is Rosemarie DeWitt and I'm going to be getting naked with you. ..." (Everyone laughs.) It was fun. There's a tendency for actors to overthink things, so there wasn't a lot of time for that. It reminds you — going forward when you take a job — that you don't need a lot. If you have a great director and great actors and you trust each other, you can be like, "You're a cowboy. I'm an Indian. Go."

AP: Emily, you had more time to develop your character, in discussions with Shelton long ahead of shooting.

Blunt: Even though I had that advantage when it comes to the crutch of the backstory, it just reminds you time and time again, nobody (cares) about process. Because you show up and you just do it. You show up and it just becomes something else and something you didn't imagine and something you couldn't premeditate. In this case, there was a wonderful levity when you showed up on the day for it to be boundless. That was exciting and scary, but you start to really enjoy the fear.

DeWitt: Sometimes the best idea comes from the grip. Someone says, "You know what would be funny?" or "You know what happened to me once?" You're like, "What? No, tell me, because I might use it right now in this scene." Hopefully, when the audience sees it, they're like, "I wonder why this feels like my experience?"

Blunt: There's a real fatigue with the gloss of so many movies and I think audiences are craving something they can connect with. That's why these reality TV shows are ruling the world right now, even though they're a lot more scripted than our movie. ... Every movie is programmed towards the opening weekend numbers and there's a strategy. And it often does not work. You can strategize a movie with if a girl wearing a hot outfit.

Shelton: (Points and nods at nearby poster for "Your Sister's Sister," in which DeWitt is dressed in a flannel shirt and Blunt in a sweater.)

DeWitt: We both have hot outfits! I got a Chanel campaign from this movie.

Blunt: It feels so ... real.

DeWitt: I really do think there's something in the more you strip down in the filmmaking process — in the hair and makeup process — the less stuff there is between you and the audience.

AP: Lynn, how do you create an atmosphere for your cast to feel comfortable improvising?

Shelton: Alcohol. A little bit of heroin. I want to create an experience. It's really even more important to me than making a movie that's going to be fantastic, which is really important to me. But even more than that is to create an experience that everyone on set would want to repeat. If I could make the best movie in the world but it meant everybody having a miserable time, I wouldn't do that. I just wouldn't. I don't have it in me. Life's too damn short and moviemaking is hard. ... And then making sure everyone's well fed. Really, that's a big deal. Independent filmmakers who are working with no budget, spend all of your money on food.

AP: If you're pulling from your own experiences in these improvisations, do these characters feel closer to the bone?

Blunt: Mark put it quite well. He said, "Iris is a far less evolved version of Emily." In a way, I know what he means. In improv, you're bringing such a personal flair to everything because you're writing it, it's you. You're bringing so much of your own nuance to it. I think the way Iris is and how she's kind of stuck and directionless is very reminiscent of how I was probably six years ago — or maybe more.

DeWitt: It's funny, when I'm doing it, I feel like it's so far away from me.

Blunt: You are much warmer than (your character) Hanna.

DeWitt: Thank God. You get these things, the given circumstances of the film. But I did get a text from a friend who was at the screening last night and he was like, "Watching the film made me realize how much I miss seeing you. I want to hang out." I took it as such a compliment because I was like: Oh, there's some me in the film.


Jake Coyle can be reached on Twitter:

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