Sit down with actors Emily Blunt or Rosemarie DeWitt for a one-on-one chat, and you can imagine them ruminating on their process, their dream projects, etc. Put the stars of the indie comedy Your Sister’s Sister in a room together, however, and it’s easy to see why these two actors were cast as blood relations: The rapport between Blunt, 29, and DeWitt, 37, couldn’t be more, well, sisterly. Add the movie’s director, Lynn Shelton (Humpday), into the mix, and any attempt at a straight interview turns into a free-for-all family affair. Sister’s female trio talked with TONY before the movie screened at the Tribeca Film Festival this past spring.
The original idea behind Your Sister’s Sister came from [costar] Mark Duplass, right?
Lynn Shelton: Mark wanted to do something else together after Humpday. His pitch was, a guy is dealing with his brother’s death. His best friend sends him up to her cabin. He meets a naked woman—Mark naturally pictured the character as a naked woman—who turns out to be the hot mother of his female buddy. A love triangle ensues.
Rosemarie DeWitt: My character was supposed to be Emily’s mother? Jesus, that’s like a Greek tragedy!
Shelton: Well, it wouldn’t be his mother!
Emily Blunt: Right, but still! [Retching noises]
So you ixnayed the mother idea?
Shelton: I’m more interested in sibling dynamics anyway, so yes: Rosemarie’s character went from being Emily’s mother to her lesbian sister. Originally, this was something Mark and his brother [producer-director Jay Duplass] were thinking of making—they have a vault filled with potential movie ideas—but because of the dead-brother aspect, it just seemed a little too close to home for them.
Mark pitched you the idea, so it must have been a no-brainer to cast him; did you immediately have Ms. Blunt in mind for the friend role?
Shelton: Who wouldn’t want to work with Emily?
Blunt: I got a call from Lynn out of the blue. Which, frankly, excited me to no end: I was a big fan of Humpday, and I remembered thinking, I’d like to do a movie like that…it seems like there’s a lot of give and take there.
Shelton: You sort of did do a movie like that, though.
Blunt: My Summer of Love, yeah…when you described the process of making Humpday, it sounds remarkably similar to how [director] Pawel Pawlikowski had set things up on that film. The weight of responsibility is on you, because you have to be very, very present. It’s a daunting task, but the payoff is huge—and when Lynn called me, I was at a point where I wanted to be scared of something again, where I felt like I’d be taking a risk. She basically said, “I’m just going to kidnap you for a few weeks, we’ll have a blast.” We’d all get on the phone and have long conversations about who these people were, about our own experiences with our siblings. Then you’d hear Lynn on the other end of one of the lines, clacking away at her laptop, writing stuff down as fast as she could.
[To DeWitt] You were a late addition to the cast?
DeWitt: I was called on Saturday and started filming on a Tuesday. Like Emily, I was a big Humpday fan; I accosted Mark at an airport in New Orleans once, and told him, “Oh, it’s such a great movie, your performance was amazing, blah, blah, blah.” It was a little fangirlish, to say the least. But then an actor dropped out, and names were being bandied about for a replacement. Mark remembered me harassing him. He told Lynn, “I bet if you asked Rose, she’d do it.” I shot all day on United States of Tara in L.A., then flew up to Seattle and shot all night.…
Blunt: …and all through the next day…
DeWitt: …then flew back late the next night. I did that several times, actually. Back and forth from California to Washington. I felt like a drug mule. [Laughs]
Shelton: You learn things on every movie you work on. For example, I learned that you could build a script around specific actors and then have one of those actors drop out at the last minute—and still make the movie.
Blunt: That lesson only works if you’ve got Rosemarie DeWitt.
Shelton: Yes, you specifically have to cast Rosemarie DeWitt. Filmmakers, take note! It helped that the time Rosemarie got involved, I’d already hashed out the basic “scriptment."
What, exactly, is a “scriptment”?
Blunt: Part script…
DeWitt: …part treatment.
Shelton: We had 70 pages of script, with a few lines here and there. Then, “They eat dinner” or “They talk about things,” and that’s when it’s, like, you guys can just go for it here. Show me what you got!
This is why you’re both listed as “creative collaborators,” then?
Blunt: Precisely. I never even memorized the dialogue in the scriptment. But I’d read it every morning before I got on the set, just to absorb what was happening. Lynn was okay if you used the lines, and she was equally okay if you threw the whole thing out the window. I drew a lot on my relationship with my sisters, particularly my older one. There were no rehearsal periods, just lots of conversations.
DeWitt: And backstory up the wazoo!
Shelton: Humpday was really only a ten-page outline; thankfully, I had two master improvisers who were happy to work that way. This time, I wanted to have more of a launching pad for the cast, since Emily and Rosemarie weren’t quite as well-versed in improv as Mark is.…
Blunt: That would be putting it mildly. It was rough sometimes.
Mark may have more improv chops, but at least neither of you had to endure an embarrassing 25-second sex scene.
Blunt: Did you time Mark’s sex scene?
My wife did.
Shelton: Oh. Ouch! [All laugh.]
DeWitt: I like how you said Mark had to endure it, as if it was forced on him. Don’t think that wasn’t a conscious choice on Mark’s part. He gave himself a 25-second sex scene! That’s all him.
Blunt: The man loves to be self-deprecating.
The three of you have been involved with various types of “independent filmmaking” over the past decade or so. Do you think it’s easier to make smaller, more modestly budgeted films like this today, or has it become harder, since people are never sure how to market a film like this, there’s more competition for screens, etc.?
Shelton: From a filmmaker’s point of view, the technology has made things a lot easier. You have the capability of shooting something now that looks amazing with a cheap consumer digicam. I mean, no one would fund a film without a script ten years ago!
DeWitt: I do think there’s a stronger hunger now for seeing someone a little more recognizable onscreen now. I’m not saying that there haven’t been movies about everyday people made over the last 30 years, but historically, audiences embraced the fantasy aspects of movies. We wanted to be Audrey Hepburn! We wanted to see those stars that were projections of who we wanted to be, who we wished we were. And now, people want more of a balance: They want to see someone a little bit more like yourselves. Everything doesn’t need to be some big global event. It can be something smaller.
Blunt: I agree. There’s an audience fatigue regarding these movies that don’t have any sort of human element in them whatsoever, or that have scripts that clearly read like they’ve come out of a screenwriting software program. People want something besides just gloss and derivativeness; they want something relatable. And as actors, we want to be able to bring something of ourselves to the table as well. I can’t speak for everybody, obviously, but I can say that a role where I feel there’s room to add in my own experiences and emotions and perspectives…that sort of challenge appeals to me. And those roles are out there. You don’t necessarily do them to get recognized; you do it because you love the work and you hope that the love will rub off on the audience.
DeWitt: They do get recognized occasionally. Look at Colin Firth in The King’s Speech.
Blunt: Yes, right! It’s funny, Colin once told me that he never in a million years thought the movie would become something so huge and win Oscars. He knew it was going to be good, but he never did it to win awards.
Or to get his face on a Burger King cup.
Blunt: That would have been a great promotional item: The Burger King’s Speech cup.
Shelton: Such missed marketing opportunities. [Laughs]
How many times have you been asked at audience Q&As about the film’s open ending?
Shelton: Every single time! We actually shot a Graduate-style ending as well, where the three of them are driving back to town and they each have
this faraway, tentative look on their faces. But the open ending is the one I always wanted to go with. Admittedly, there was some fear about being ambiguous. But the amount of hypothetical answers we get to that question has been worth it.
Blunt: We always throw it back to the audience: Well, what do you guys think happens?
Shelton: I think everyone lives happily ever after, just like in real life.
DeWitt: I think they start a band. [All laugh.]
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear
Your Sister’s Sister opens June 15.