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Originally published May 13, 2012 at 5:31 AM | Page modified May 14, 2012 at 6:05 PM

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Lynn Shelton: 'I never imagined I could be a filmmaker'

An interview with Seattle-based filmmaker Lynn Shelton, on the eve of the 2012 edition of Seattle International Film Festival. Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" will kick off the festival on May 17.

Seattle Times movie critic

Film festival preview

'Your Sister's Sister'

Seattle International Film Festival opens at 7 p.m. Thursday at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets are $50 general admission (includes hors d'oeuvres, desserts and two drinks at a post-screening reception), $100 premium admission (includes all of the above plus open bar and preferred entry into the screening), or $225 for the "Red Carpet Experience" (includes the above plus valet parking, a gift bag and a pre-screening reception). For more information: 206-324-9996 or www.siff.net. The festival continues at various locations through June 10.
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"I don't think I've ever been so excited about anything in my whole career as a filmmaker," said Seattle-based writer/director Lynn Shelton on the phone last week — sounding very excited indeed. She's talking about her film, "Your Sister's Sister," being the opening gala for the 38th annual Seattle International Film Festival this Thursday. It's the first made-in-Seattle film to open the festival, and though Shelton's presented films at Cannes, Sundance and Toronto, this hometown honor is something very special.

Shelton, who grew up here and graduated from the University of Washington, remembers attending SIFF "my entire life." And she sees the selection of her film as a sign of the Seattle film community coming of age. "Obviously it's a huge honor for me and my film, but it also feels like just an enormous acknowledgment of the whole local [film] community. ... It's really come into its own."

"My Sister's Sister," one of 14 Northwest films at the festival this year (see related story), was shot in Seattle and the San Juan Islands last year. It's the 46-year-old Shelton's fourth feature (following "We Go Way Back," "My Effortless Brilliance" and "Humpday," which was SIFF's Centerpiece Gala in 2009) and made its world premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival last September, where it was quickly snapped up for distribution by IFC Films.

Starring Emily Blunt ("The Young Victoria," "The Devil Wears Prada"), Rosemarie DeWitt ("Rachel Getting Married") and Mark Duplass ("Humpday," "Jeff, Who Lives At Home"), "Your Sister's Sister" is essentially a three-character story about a pair of sisters, a male friend, a vacation home and an accidental entanglement. It was created using the method Shelton began devising with "My Effortless Brilliance": an actor-centered way of crafting a screenplay primarily through improvisation.

The original kernel for the idea came from Duplass, himself a writer/director who was eager to work with Shelton again after "Humpday" and called her with a scenario. With the cast, Shelton spent time developing histories for the characters — "I feel like that backstory is really essential; so there's sort of a little scaffolding" — and put together an outline of the story and scenes. The cast came together for a workshop prior to production, and then improvised as the cameras rolled. With a tight production schedule (just under two weeks), Shelton kept lighting/set changes and crew size to a minimum; shooting "maybe three or four or five takes" per scene, and finding the best moments of each in the editing room.

"There's a layer of authenticity that you get with this style of filmmaking that's just really difficult to replicate in any other way," said Shelton of the process. She recognizes that the actors' involvement is key and goes beyond what they might contribute to a more typical film: Blunt, Dewitt, Duplass and Mike Birbiglia (who plays a smaller role) are listed as "creative consultants" in the "Your Sister's Sister" end credits.

The Toronto premiere — Shelton's debut there — was in front of a packed, enthusiastic house. "I think that the vulnerability that these [actors] showed us was reflected back in the audience," Shelton said at the time. "I felt like the audience was just opened up; their hearts were opened up to these people, because [the actors] are being so genuine." Shelton will attend Thursday's SIFF gala at McCaw Hall, and the film will begin its national theatrical release shortly afterward, opening in Seattle June 15.

If you looked carefully around Capitol Hill and the Central District earlier this month, you might have caught Shelton at work on her next film. "Touchy Feely," with an ensemble cast led by DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page and Allison Janney, is "a film that I was developing about a year ago." Shelton had planned to shoot a different film this spring, called "Laggies," written by novelist Andrea Siegel, but scheduling issues pushed that project to August.

Shelton badly wanted to be shooting a film in April, so she pulled "Touchy Feely" out of "the back cupboard" and began putting out feelers to cast and crew. "All the stars seemed to be aligning," she said of the last-minute scheduling. "It was all meant to happen."

The main characters in "Touchy Feely" are a sister and brother: DeWitt plays a massage therapist who's recently become repulsed by working with bodies; Pais is a dentist on his own journey of self-discovery. Shelton said the film is unlike her previous works: It has "multiple story lines, multiple characters, lots of locations," and it's not primarily a comedy. It's more scripted than her recent films (though she said she's still encouraging the actors to go "off the script" with improvised dialogue), and it will have a different look: primarily a camera on tripod, not handheld. "It'll be interesting to see how people respond," Shelton said.

"Laggies," Shelton's first film for which she didn't write the screenplay, will be her next project. Since getting an agent after "Humpday," Shelton said she's read many, many scripts, but none seemed like "something I could turn into a Lynn Shelton movie, a movie that would seem like it was of me." But "Laggies," about a 28-year-old woman in a "state of arrested development" who becomes friends with a 16-year-old girl, had Shelton "totally smitten." She's cast Rebecca Hall and Paul Rudd (as the teenager's father), and, though the filming location isn't yet finalized, hopes to shoot the film in Seattle.

Shelton's an integral part of the local film scene, frequently involved in films that aren't her own (she plays a small role in Colin Trevorrow's "Safety Not Guaranteed," a made-in-the-Northwest film also playing at SIFF, and was both an actor and consulting producer in Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths' "The Off Hours," at SIFF last year.) But as her work becomes more high-profile, she's attracting national and international attention as well: a New York Times profile last Sunday; gigs directing big-buzz TV episodes ("Mad Men" in 2010; "The New Girl" last fall); and perhaps most surprising, a French remake of "Humpday." Shelton flew to Paris last fall and spent a couple of days on the set of the film, which was written and directed by Yvan Attal.

"It was just completely surreal!" she said of the experience of standing on a French soundstage in a re-creation of the "Humpday" hotel room. (The film is about two straight male friends who decide, on a dare, to create a gay porno film.) "Last I heard, they're still trying to finish the edit," she said of the film, which doesn't yet have a title (what's the French equivalent of "Humpday"?) but will likely be released in France in the fall. And the "Humpday" influence goes even further: Shelton recently heard from an English playwright who wants to turn the story into a play, to be called "Action." "This is so bizarre!" she laughed.

But these days, she's home in Seattle, shooting "Touchy Feely" on familiar streets, deciding which dress to wear to the "Your Sister's Sister" gala, and remembering attending SIFF as a teenager at the Egyptian.

"I never ever imagined I could be a filmmaker, much less be in the festival, much less open the festival," she said. "I'm just so devoted as a fan, a booster and an advocate. I'm so in love with the local film scene."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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