'I Will Never Wear Hot Pants': Blunt, DeWitt and Shelton Defy Hollywood's Limits on Women
"I did get a note this year on a studio movie," Rosemarie DeWitt says, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. "The director asked me if I could do it again -- but less real."
The two women sitting next to her erupt in a mix of shock, laughter and disbelief.
"Oh my god!" director Lynn Shelton shouts. "Are you serious?"
"No way!" Emily Blunt guffaws.
"Well I was peeing in the bathroom," DeWitt explains. "And he just really didn't want to feel like I was peeing. But I was like, that's the point. And especially for women, sitting here with these two bad-asses, there's a thing where we want to put people in a box where we're comfortable. And that's what's fun about working on a movie like this where the hair and makeup isn't always glamorous. We want to see the real person."
It's clear that something is happening in Hollywood -- or perhaps, more accurately, all around it. DeWitt is here in New York with Shelton and co-star Blunt, talking with The Hollywood Reporter a day after the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of their dramedy Your Sister's Sister. It’s the latest work in the snowballing canon of Mark Duplass, the man who joins Blunt and DeWitt in the film’s unconventional love triangle, and has helped create the entire genre in which the picture snuggly fits.
Duplass and Shelton have been at the forefront of a new subgenre of independent, low-budget projects that work off a tight outline and semi-improvised dialogue to create authentic, character-driven films. A movement that was once referred to as "mumblecore," it started with early, defining features that included The Puffy Chair, which Duplass both acted in and co-directed with his brother Jay, and Shelton's Humpday, which Duplass produced and starred in. Now, all grown up, their films are attracting top-shelf talent.
Here, Duplass plays Jack, a directionless guy thrown into an emotional tailspin after the death of his brother. He's sent by Iris (Blunt), his best friend and brother's one-time girlfriend, to her family's vacation cabin to clear his head and pull himself together. Instead of finding himself alone, however, he's greeted unexpectedly by Hannah (DeWitt), Iris’s equally distraught sister, who is throwing back tequila shots while wearing an oversized nightshirt, drinking away the regret over the end of a seven-year lesbian relationship. The two quickly drain the bottle and share their sorrows.
The evening ends as so many drunken, emotional nights do, which has major consequences when Iris shows up the next day after deciding to join Jack for the weekend.
Duplass actually originally conceived of the movie before passing it off to Shelton – a dead brother film was too close to home for him to co-direct with Jay – and initially involved Iris’s “superhot mom,” not sister, Shelton explains.
Jokes Blunt: “He just wanted to make out with two girls,” while DeWitt laughs and adds, “He just wanted some MILF action.”
All MILFs aside, the comedy comes from the tight relationships between the three and the awkwardness of trying to keep the dirty deed a secret, while the drama kicks in once the cat is let out of the bag. The dialogue is often rich and sharp, but never telegraphed or serving as a punch line.
"I want it to feel like a documentary almost, so it's like you're sort of setting up the circumstances of this false documentary, and these are real people and it's how they would really form the words," Shelton says.
Both Blunt and DeWitt describe the experience of working without the tether of a fully written script as both daunting and exciting. Blunt's first starring motion picture experience came on 2004's fully-improvised My Summer of Love, and she says she "was terrified to work like that again, but desperate for it."
"I love that thing when you're reading a script and I have to ask myself the question, how on earth am I gonna do it?" Blunt explains. "And I always want to have to ask that question. … I feel like every time I've had some pre-meditative plan for a scene, it has gone the whole other way."
For DeWitt, the leap was an even bigger one to take, at least as far as preparation was concerned. She came onto the project just three days before it cameras rolled, agreeing to replace another actress before having even read the script.
“I don't know how much of the work we really need to do before we start a project, or if we just need to do all the work to trust that we can do the project, and I think there's a big difference,” she says. “Because I think you can put human beings in the room and the temperature will change."
The relationship dynamics in Your Sister’s Sister are quite complicated and twisted on all three sides, with estrangements, secrets and past bonds all finding their way to the surface throughout their dramatic stay in the cabin. DeWitt and Blunt have especially potent chemistry, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that they were filming intimate chats in bed just a day after meeting.
More fundamentally, it was the opportunity to make those connections, shape characters in their own images and add their own nuances to the story that attracted them to the project. Seven years after Duplass was stretching $15,000 to making The Puffy Chair, films like this year's Jeff, Who Lives at Home (which featured Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon) and Your Sister’s Sister now bring in top names and national attention.
“Especially sometimes I feel as a woman, you read a script and are like, this is a male fantasy of what a woman is?” DeWitt sighs. “And that's a real problem, to say 'how do I breathe life into this? I like this story, I want to work with these people, but this is not anyone I relate to.' So there's a different thing to come in here and say 'I get to bring all of myself, and this container is sturdy enough to hold it.' And I think sometimes the studio movies for whatever reasons are not sturdy enough to hold all of your humanity.”
In some ways, Shelton and Duplass’s aesthetic comes as a response to that usual Hollywood fare.
“[The audience] wants to recognize themselves, and that's where the humor in this film comes from, being able to recognize, 'Oh god, I totally believe in and relate to these people,' and that's just not something you get [in most movies],” the director says. “It seems like I've seen a string of movies recently where I'm just like, ' I don't believe a single thing that's coming out of your mouth or that you would do this or you're real in any way,' and I have this distance from the people out there.”
Blunt agrees – and has an even franker take on a lot of the scripts she is offered.
"As an actress I feel a fatigue of reading those scripts where the guy is racing around saving the world and being hilarious and you're stuck in the kitchen wearing hot pants for some reason, being like, 'Honey, you are so weird!' And I just don't want to play those parts. … I will never wear hot pants.”
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin