There's a moment in the new indie Your Sister's Sister, which opens in select cities on Friday, when one sister (Rosemarie Dewitt) drops an embarrassing detail about the personal grooming habits of another (Emily Blunt) during a drunken dinner with a male friend (Mark Duplass). It's a perfect moment: surprising, funny, genuine. It furthers the emotional action, and reveals something about both the speaker and the spoken of.
And it only happened, the filmmakers insist, because it was unscripted.
“It came out of nowhere,” Blunt said, in a joint interview with Duplass and their director, Lynn Shelton. “Lynn whispered to Rosemarie, ‘Say something to really embarrass her.'”
“Rosemarie wouldn't tell me what she was going to say, either,” Shelton said.
“I flushed bright red,” Blunt said. “I was so embarrassed, I was laughing and crying. I was incandescent.”
“We literally couldn't colour-correct that shot,” Duplass said.
“I'm amazed we even got it,” Blunt said, “because the camera guy was shaking with laughter. Everyone was. I haven't ever, and I don't know many people who have, been part of a process that allows you to cry with laughter on camera.”
Your Sister's Sister is one of the new breed of films that began life as a scriptment – that is, a treatment which details the tone and direction of the scenes and the emotional points that must be hit, along with some scripted lines – rather than a fully fleshed-out screenplay.
What the form lacks in polish, it makes up for in several ways, say the three, all veterans of this kind of filmmaking. One of Blunt's first pictures, My Summer of Love, was fully improvised. Shelton made two previous movies this way, My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday.
And Duplass has written, directed and/or acted in a number of films that incorporated varying amounts of improv, often alongside his brother Jay, including The Puffy Chair, Baghead, Humpday and Cyrus. (Duplass has so many movies coming out this month – four in a row! – that I'm going to write a separate column about him soon.)
First of all, the scriptment method is fleet. Instead of one writer alone, banging his head against the wall for months or years to perfect a screenplay, scriptments require only a killer concept, promising characters, a map of the story – and the faith that the details will be worked out in the process.
For this one, Duplass had a long-gestating idea: A man is grieving his dead brother. The late brother's girlfriend offers the man her family's remote island cabin as a place to get it together. He goes, meets the girlfriend's mother, and things develop from there. Duplass told this idea to Shelton, his friend and sometime collaborator. She changed “girlfriend's mother” to “sister.” (“I guess ‘mother' was kind of the indie film circa 1998,” Duplass says now, laughing at himself.) Then boom, within six weeks they had the schedule, the budget, and the cast, and Shelton was scouting accommodations on an island in Maine.
Second, the scriptment method appeals to actors, so you can get a star like Blunt to sign onto your little indie. An actor can go deep into character, and know her voice will be heard. “So often you're so structured, and it's quite straight-jacketing,” Blunt says. “This way is quite exposing, because you're having to act and create story. But the fact that everyone was willing to jump in, no hands, head first, was essential to us creating that chemistry, and creating something unique. You rely heavily upon what everyone else is doing, so your brain is like [she makes a whirring noise] the whole day. I find it really awakening. It's an exercise in Who Knows? And I think that's the joy of it.”
Of course, you need the right actors. “You have to have a big conversation up front, a parent-teacher conference thing,” Duplass cautions. “You have to say, ‘I know it looks like we're all burning doobers and running around improvising, but it's hard work, we're going to fall on our faces a lot, we'll feel lost, and you have to be not put out by it.' They don't have to show me smarts. They just have to be a good actor who's a kind, generous human spirit, who's interested in exploring human behavior.”
Third, this method is truly collaborative. For eight months, the three talked on the phone, throwing out ideas and plot developments. During the 12-day shoot, they lived together, ate together and developed real, complex relationships that enhanced the ones on screen. (Duplass, for example, married one of his co-stars on earlier films, Katie Aselton.) It's an aesthetic that feels true to a generation that grew up on group dates and chat rooms.
“My sets are all about creating a safe place where we can explore,” Shelton says. “I have an editing background, so if there is a misfire, the actors are assured it's not going to make it on film. So they can take as much risk as they can.” She also runs two cameras on every scene, “so they can do crap-crap-crap until we find the jewels.”
Those jewels are the fourth, and main, reason this method is so appealing: It can lead to this generation's ever-elusive goal – authenticity. “It's all about the quest for naturalism,” Shelton says. “My first film, We Go Way Back, was traditionally scripted, and I always felt it was a struggle to get the lines to sound as if they were naturally coming out of the characters' mouths. We did one scene that was improvised, and it felt like there was electricity suddenly zinging through the room. I remember thinking, ‘Could you make an entire movie that felt like this?'” She stripped her second film down to almost documentary spareness. Then, for Humpday, she brought back some scripted elements.
Humpday was enough of a hit to make Shelton an industry darling (the fact that she's a tall, gorgeous blond didn't hurt either), so, as these things tend to go, she's lately been recruited to direct episodes of highly scripted series, including Mad Men and New Girl. Her next film, Touchy Feely, has stars, a bigger budget, and is also more scripted.
“But I still think there's a kind of genuineness that's only achievable with improv,” Shelton says. “The characters feel like flesh-and-blood human beings instead of Hollywood stand-ins for people. Audiences recognize it. It feels like the real thing.”
In a world where the real is in short supply, every moment of it counts. Even one as simple as a blush.