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'Fresh Air' Remembers Screenwriter And Director Lynn Shelton

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The screenwriter and director Lynn Shelton died unexpectedly Friday at the age of 54 of a rare, previously undiagnosed blood disorder. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of our interview with her. In her New York Times obituary, her independent films were described as, quote, "serio-comic dramas focused on relationships and family, often with complicated women at their centers," unquote. Her film "Humpday," a comedy about two straight men who decide to make a gay porn film and submit it to an annual indie porn festival, won a special grand jury prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

In addition to films, Shelton directed episodes of TV series, including "Mad Men," "Fresh Off The Boat" and "Little Fires Everywhere." Her 2019 film "Sword Of Trust" starred Marc Maron, who she also directed in his series "Maron," in the TV series "GLOW" and his last two comedy specials. Shelton and Maron had become romantic partners in the past year and were sheltering in place, collaborating on a screenplay when she died.

I spoke with her in 2012, after the release of her film "Your Sister's Sister." Like "Humpday," "Your Sister's Sister" relied on a lot of improvisation from the actors. Mark Duplass, who starred in "Humpday," also starred in "Your Sister's Sister" in the role of Jack. The film begins a year after the death of Jack's brother. Jack isn't taking it well, so his good friend Iris, played by Emily Blunt, tells him to go to her father's cabin in the woods and spend some time getting himself together.

But he doesn't find the solitude she promised. Instead, he finds Hannah, Iris' beautiful half-sister, played by Rosemarie DeWitt. And then Iris comes to visit, and the relationships get very complicated. In this scene, Iris and Hannah are telling Jack how their father had been involved in multiple romantic relationships over the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUR SISTER'S SISTER")

EMILY BLUNT: (As Iris) OK. He was with her mom for 10 years - had an affair with my mom, who was his secretary.

ROSEMARIE DEWITT: (As Hannah) Got your mom, Lenore (ph), pregnant.

BLUNT: (As Iris) Yes.

DEWITT: (As Hannah) Married her.

BLUNT: (As Iris) Moved to London.

DEWITT: (As Hannah) Moved to London.

BLUNT: (As Iris) Got bored of Lenore. And then he moved on - and then he kind of philandered around for, like, seven years.

DEWITT: (As Hannah) He went through his crazy Warren Beatty phase.

BLUNT: (As Iris, unintelligible).

DEWITT: (As Hannah) The funny thing, though, about those years when he was so bad with the ladies, he was so good with us because that was...

BLUNT: (As Iris) He wasn't.

DEWITT: (As Hannah) No. But that was, like, six summers that it was just the three of us here.

BLUNT: (As Iris) I know, but you were OK with that. I had no respect for that. He just went - he dodged from one to the other, and it was gross.

MARK DUPLASS: (As Jack) That's so crazy. So he would just, like, date all these women, like, for short periods of time with not a lot of investment...

BLUNT: (As Iris) Yeah, it was horrible.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) and they were very similar and then he would just move on?

BLUNT: (As Iris) Yeah.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) God, that's just weird. Who does that? Oh. And the patterns emerge.

BLUNT: (As Iris) What are you doing?

DUPLASS: (As Jack) I'm sorry. Skinny jeans George. Skinny jeans Harry. Skinny jeans Vinnie. Vinnie lasted for at least two weeks. He was one of the longer ones.

BLUNT: (As Iris) I don't like dating. You know that. I don't like dating. I don't like the romance and the...

DUPLASS: (As Jack) No, I think technically, this is...

BLUNT: (As Iris) I don't like it. I get bored. I don't like it.

GROSS: Lynn Shelton told me that her approach to filmmaking was to get an enormous amount of input from the actors before shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LYNN SHELTON: The original actors all participated for eight or nine months in the development process, and I would ask for their input about who these characters were, what was their backstory. By the time we get to set, we have an enormous amount of backstory so that they really know who they are. When they open their mouths to say something, it's going to be, like, second nature, what comes out.

And then on set, I'm asking them to actually write dialogue because, you know, I had 70 pages of dialogue written out in this case. And I asked them not to memorize the lines, just to glance over those scenes and really get a sense of the shape, the content, the emotional trajectory that needs to, you know, take place, but then to find their way, you know, through each beat of the scene.

Again, I'm - what I'm looking for is naturalism, an extreme level of naturalism, to the degree that, you know, it almost feels like a documentary, you know, that it just feels like real flesh-and-blood people having real conversations on screen. And I have found that incorporating improvisation to a certain degree really, really helps in that quest.

GROSS: Now, here's the thing. It seems to me, it really helps in getting a kind of naturalistic feel. At the same time - and I don't know what I'm talking about here - but it seems to me, like, if you're (laughter) - if you're an actor and you have the lines written for you, those words help you embody the character because that character isn't you and that character speaks different from you. And the writer has imagined how that character would speak, and by speaking those words in the way that the writer has imagined it, you become that character.

But if you're finding your own words for that character, it means that the character is going to be more like you because you're more likely to play it like yourself with the words that you would speak.

SHELTON: It's true. I'm really looking for the overlap, you know. Where does the character, which is distinct from the actor as a person - but where does the character overlap? Mark and Emily and Rose are very distinct from the characters that they're playing, you know. I would not say that they share all of the traits or all of the personality that these characters have. But it's really about finding the connection between yourself and the character. And this is what actors do all the time. It's just that, in this case, I'm asking for, you know, you to provide the actual speech.

For instance, there's a scene early on in the film where we're getting to know Iris and Jack, played by Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass, and what their relationship is, which is a relationship of best friendship. And it's the second scene in the film. So it's really early on, and we're sort of establishing this rapport that they have.

There are certain turns of phrase and certain - the way that they tease each other and the way that they sort of push each other in a gentle, loving way, they are able to draw on the friendship that had been established between Mark and Emily over the course of the shoot because it was the last thing we shot in the production schedule. And they were able to pull that rapport into this relationship.

GROSS: So why don't we hear that scene? And this is an excerpt of Lynn Shelton's new film "Your Sister's Sister."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUR SISTER'S SISTER")

BLUNT: (As Iris) I've been watching you for a year now. And whatever you're doing and whatever you think is helping you, I have a responsibility as your friend to tell you that it's not.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) I knew this was coming, by the way.

BLUNT: (As Iris) OK.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) Just tell me what to do.

BLUNT: (As Iris) OK.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) That's basically where I'm at.

BLUNT: (As Iris) OK.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) Just tell me what...

BLUNT: (As Iris) All right.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) You know better than I do. You know I'm...

BLUNT: (As Iris) I have a plan.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) You have a plan?

BLUNT: (As Iris) I just want you to hear me out. It's just a plan right now.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) I love your plans.

BLUNT: (As Iris) You might not love this one, but just hear me out.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) But I don't have any plans.

BLUNT: (As Iris) That's good news. You know that nice red bicycle that you have?

(SOUNDBITE OF BELCH)

DUPLASS: (As Jack) Yes.

BLUNT: (As Iris) Yikes.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) Sorry.

BLUNT: (As Iris, laughter) What you're going to do - you're going to dust off Old Red. You're going to wheel him out of the shed, and you're going to get on a ferry. I'm sending you to my dad's place. You know my dad's place on the island? It's beautiful in the winter. It's idyllic and crisp and peaceful and...

DUPLASS: (As Jack) Like, by beautiful, you mean rainy and cold.

BLUNT: (As Iris) I'm sorry. I got so distracted because all I heard was pissing and moaning.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) Right. Sorry. I started pissing.

BLUNT: (As Iris) And belching.

DUPLASS: (As Jack) I'm not pissing. I'm not pissing and moaning. I'm done. I'm done.

GROSS: That was Mark Duplass and Emily Blunt in a scene from "Your Sister's Sister," which was written and directed by my guest Lynn Shelton.

Now, your previous film, "Humpday," starts off with a married couple, and they're surprised when the husband's old buddy shows up unannounced at the door after being on the road. And so they were living opposite kind of lives. There's, like, the husband who's settled down and the friend who's been on the road.

They go off to this party, the two men, and - where the subject ends up being this, like, independent porn film festival known as the Hump Film Festival. And they decide to make a gay porn film together and star in it, though neither of them is gay. What an odd idea for a movie (laughter). How did you come up with that premise?

SHELTON: (Laughter). Sometimes the best stories can come out of just the simple premise of putting characters into a situation that's out of their comfort zone. And I came up with this crazy notion of two straight guys daring each other to do something that was completely beyond their ken and totally uncomfortable for both of them.

There really is a festival in Seattle, and it's called HUMP, and it was founded a few years ago by Dan Savage. And the idea is to sort of reclaim - it really is this idea of having fun with your sexuality and, you know, being an exhibitionist for - just for a night, you know. And instead of this sort of mainstream porn industry, like, actually celebrating sexuality on screen in a more personal and interesting, maybe artistic and maybe comedic way.

And I had a friend who went to the festival and saw gay porn for the first time. He'd never seen it before, and he was really fascinated by it. And I thought his response as a straight guy to this gay porn was really interesting, and that was where the wheels started turning for me. I thought, well, this interest - this relationship between straight men and gayness in general is, I think, really rich territory.

GROSS: So, you know, I've been reading about you, and you were quoted as saying - which may or may not be true - that you were quoted as saying that you would describe yourself as a shy bisexual who has crushes on gay men.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I'm going to ask you about this because, you know, "Humpday" and "Your Sister's Sister" involves sexual orientation.

SHELTON: Yeah. No, I mean, I don't remember saying shy bisexual. Maybe I did say that, and I'm just blotting it out. It's not like I'm an active bisexual. But I've fallen for all stripes of human beings in this world, you know. And I've fallen for straight men. I've fallen for gay men. I've fallen for straight women and gay women. I really have, you know, had crushes on just every single kind of person in the world.

And so, you know, there was this period of time in my life when I had this sort of romantic idea that everybody was like that, you know, that we're all human beings and that a person is a person, and if there weren't these sort of societal ideas about gender and sexual orientation, that, you know, anybody could fall in love with anybody.

And it was really - you know, making "Humpday" was the experience that really showed me that is so not true, you know, that some people...

(LAUGHTER)

SHELTON: Some people really, truly are straight, you know. There are - there's a spectrum in that there are people who are really at one or the other, you know.

And I was - one of the things that was most moving to me after "Humpday" came out was a friend said that her dad, who had been really on the fence about gay rights, saw "Humpday" and really was convinced that gay people should have all the same civil rights as straight people because he could really - it really hit home for him that you are who you are, you are born how you're born, and that here are these two straight guys who really, just for a couple of hours, wanted to not be straight and they couldn't, you know, do it.

GROSS: Well, Lynn Shelton, thank you so much for talking with us.

SHELTON: Oh, thanks for having me, Terry. It's such a privilege.

GROSS: My interview with Lynn Shelton was recorded in 2012. I highly recommend you listen to the episode of Marc Maron's podcast "WTF" from last Monday, in which he opened by speaking through tears about how he and Lynn Shelton had become partners and how, with her, he experienced giving love, being loved and accepting love in a way he'd never experienced before. And then he played his 2015 interview with her, which was the first time they met. We send our condolences to Marc and to Lynn Shelton's family, colleagues and friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "BLACKBIRD")

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interviews with musician and actor Janelle Monae or journalist Barton Gellman, whose new book is about reporting on Edward Snowden and secret surveillance programs - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Thea Challoner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "BLACKBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.