"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Summer is here (or almost), and with it comes new attempts to twist and tweak the romantic-comedy genre to make its delights accessible to younger moviegoers. OK — actually, that happens in every season. But there’s no doubt that the outbreak of short skirts and tight T-shirts, and the general atmosphere of youthful pheromones drifting through the air, ramps it up.
Here’s the good news: This year’s warm weather brings with it an especially intriguing crop of indie rom-coms. There’s Daryl Wein’s “Lola Versus” (which hit theaters last week), with a terrific lead performance from Greta Gerwig and a hilarious supporting turn from co-writer Zoe Lister-Jones, which strengthens Wein’s claim to be a 21st-century riposte to Woody Allen. There’s Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s exquisitely silly and sweet “Extraterrestrial,” in which an uncertain love quadrangle plays out against the backdrop of an apparent alien invasion. (Stay tuned for more on that one.)
But the summer’s biggest small-scale crowd-pleaser may well be “Your Sister’s Sister,” another celebration of awkward sex and early-midlife crisis from the remarkable Seattle-based filmmaker Lynn Shelton. She created a film-festival sensation in 2009 with “Humpday,” a startling, affecting and very funny low-budget indie that was perhaps more talked about than seen. That offbeat bromance featured Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard as one-time college buddies, both straight, whose uneasy reunion culminates in their drunken decision to make a gay porn film together. You should have seen the letters I got! Or maybe you did. In any case, “Humpday” was widely assumed by people who didn’t see it to be about sexual identity or coming out or whatever, when it was no such thing — and it also got a hard time from some people who did see it for not going far enough!
“Your Sister’s Sister” flirts with some of the same terrain, in that it features a lesbian sleeping with a guy, a turn of events pretty much guaranteed to generate a full range of icky and/or hostile reactions. So let’s be clear: This movie is a comedy, not an essayistic treatment of human sexuality, and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s been recently dumped by a longtime girlfriend, has no agenda in sleeping with Jack (Duplass), beyond what a college friend of mine used to call Chairman MAO: Motive, Alcohol and Opportunity. They’re alone in a cabin on a remote island of the coast of Washington state, whence the thoroughly depressed Jack has been sent by his friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who is both Hannah’s sister and the ex-girlfriend of Jack’s late brother.
Ah, you begin to sense the complications! It’s much better if you discover this movie for yourself, but I can drop the obvious hints that Jack and Iris may have feelings for each other they haven’t quite admitted, and there also may be more to Hannah’s story than anyone realizes. Although Shelton takes writing credit on her films, there’s no screenplay in the usual sense. She creates a scenario and sets her swirl of characters in motion, and the final result is a collective improvisation — and an extraordinary blend of comedy and drama — that’s not quite like anything else in American film.
Shelton has definitely stepped up her game in terms of name factor and marketability with “Your Sister’s Sister,” recruiting Blunt (the winsome English star of “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Five-Year Engagement”) and DeWitt (best known for her TV roles in “Mad Men” and “United States of Tara”) to join her longtime friend and collaborator Duplass, a fast-rising indie actor and filmmaker in his own right. (Duplass is the star of the cult TV comedy “The League” and apparently is in Kathryn Bigelow’s untitled new feature, now nearing completion. His next film as a director, made with brother Jay Duplass, is “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” which will reach theaters in early July.)
I caught up with Lynn Shelton, Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt earlier this year in the backroom of a crowded bar in Park City, Utah, a day after “Your Sister’s Sister” had premiered to a packed and uproarious house at Sundance. They were appropriately giddy, and more or less piled on top of each other on a fake leather sofa. When I asked them why extreme emotion can be funny to watch — even when it isn’t funny to the people experiencing it — Blunt began interviewing Duplass before I even had my recorder turned on.
Emily Blunt: Does Katie [Duplass' wife] ever laugh at you when you’re upset or angry?
Mark Duplass: She laughs at me when I fall down. That’s something we’re working on. But I think there’s something inherently comedic about me being consternated.
E.B.: Consternated. What does that word mean?
Lynn Shelton: Befuddled.
M.D.: Yeah. Confused, a little frustrated.
E.B.: I bet you’re good at Scrabble.
M.D: I’m OK at Scrabble, but not like the people who study the dictionary. Have you seen “Word Wars”? It’s a documentary that was here in 2004.
Right, the Scrabble documentary. It’s very odd that you remember that so precisely, Mark.
M.D.: Yeah, I’m good that way.
Well, on the subject of you being weird — this is a different character from the guy you played in “Humpday,” but you definitely do the emotional confusion thing well. It’s a strong instrument for you. And yet you seem like such a grounded fellow in real life!
M.D.: Well, it’s funny you should mention that. Emily and I had a discussion, actually, about this question: Are these characters based on ourselves. Are they just fabrications? What are they? And the diagnosis we came up with for her, which may very well be true for me, is that the rhythms, the cadences, the speech, some of the general things are kind of similar to us.
E.B.: Personality traits, and the way in which we would react to circumstances.
M.D.: Yeah, but our characters are intensely less self-aware, less emotionally evolved than I guess we are now. Um, which I think …
L.S.: Allegedly … (Laughter.)
M.D.: Listen, guys — I’ve achieved enlightenment, OK?
L.S.: I’ve had this conversation with non-actors [in previous films] and they really are being themselves in the way that Mark is saying. I have to say, having experienced that with these incredible professional actors, I think they’re giving themselves short shrift. Because there’s all this back story that we created in collaboration. There are so many details that never come to light in the movie, to give them context about past things that happened, specific times in their lives, relationships in the past and so on. So the personal stuff gets mixed in, but they’re able to really react as the characters. Yes, I think a lot of Mark and Emily and Rose come through those characters, but it’s definitely not them. There really is this transfiguration that happens. It’s delightful.
I was going to ask you about working with professional actors, people who’ve done a lot of movies and TV like Emily and Rose. It’s not the first time you’ve done that, maybe, but this movie takes it to a different level.
You know, I did this crazy Web series that was based on the lives of actual musicians in Seattle and it was fantastic. They were all non-actors and there was something like 50 of them and 13 story lines and it was nuts. It wasn’t like I had one blanket technique for working with non-actors. Just like with professional actors, they each need a certain special key to help unlock whatever they can bring out. Which is why I love working with performers, because I’m so fascinated to see how can I help them do that, you know. So it’s a case-by-case basis, but these guys just have so much more to draw on and they’re also brilliant and they’re so much more at ease in front of the camera. It’s heaven, heaven, to work with them!
Rosemarie DeWitt: Thanks, Lynn! (Much noise and laughter.)
L.S.: Let’s do it again right now!
This is such a ginormous love fest! That’s so nice to see. Let’s take you guys in turn. Emily, had you done anything like this kind of work before?
E.B.: My first film was very like this. I did this little independent called “My Summer of Love” and it was …
Which was wonderful, by the way. I think that’s one of the best British films of the last decade.
E.B.: Oh, thank you. I love that film but it was very similar. I think we had an even more bare backbone for what the film would be on “Summer of Love,” so that was even more frightening than this was. It was my first movie and I didn’t know what I was doing and it was all improv. I did learn on that how extraordinary the moments are that you can capture, and I remember moments on that film where it was like the air shifted in the room because, with your costar or director, you manage to create a moment that is so raw. You would never get that in a scripted movie and I think I was desperate to have that again. So when Lynn approached me about this it seemed really appealing and necessary.
L.S.: I remember describing to her how I made “Humpday,” you know, how it was created, and her saying to me, “My favorite move that I ever did was this little gem of a film where we worked that way exactly and I never thought I would work that way again.” I had seen “My Summer of Love” and loved it, but I had no idea it was improvised. I went back and looked at it again through new eyes and actually found it very inspiring for this film.
I never would have thought of that! But it gives me an excuse to watch that movie again.
L.S.: I mean, “Humpday” was all hand-held and it was all close-up. And “My Summer of Love” is so expansive. It’s just exquisite and beautiful. So cinematic and these big wide shots, a lot of static shots.
E.B.: But it was a quieter movie. There was less talking, and maybe that’s why it was easier to improvise because it was a lot of ambiguity and unspoken moments.
L.S.: [To Rosemarie DeWitt] But this was kind of the first time out for you, doing this kind of work, right?
R.D.: I don’t know. I feel like I’ve done some things that were largely improvised, but the end result was not meant to be crisp and certainly not comedic. So there’s a different responsibility there. Like, sure, I’ve gone into the whole: “Now she’s overdosed! And you just run in and cry and say whatever you’re going to say!” You know what I mean? I’ve actually done a lot of that. But what I was shocked by last night, watching it with an audience, was the timing that can exist in an improvised movie. I mean, with improvisation you think comedy, and I don’t consider myself at all a comedic actress.
Really? You can be very funny.
R.D.: But, I mean, my only way to work at this point — hopefully I’ll develop more skills — is just to play the truth, the truth, the truth, which I’m sure comedians say they do as well. But I couldn’t believe how truly funny the truth is! After watching the movie last night, I thought, “Oh, I need to not put things in categories.” Because I really appreciated all these actors going down into the basement for their emotions and then having the audience laugh through the whole film. Even if there’s tears spilling down somebody’s face, they’re hysterically laughing! I think sometimes I have a disconnect when I read a funny movie or do a funny movie that you don’t want to go too deep cause they don’t want you to be too angry or too emotional. This is a movie that proves you can use all of yourself and it can be sad and funny.
E.B.: I think that’s very true. With comedies that play simply for laughs the audience feels like they’re being kind of manipulated, and I don’t think they’ll laugh as much as they do with this sort of film where they recognize themselves in these situations, in the predicaments the characters are in, and that’s what so funny. That personal connection. I loved watching it last night because I think we definitely were playing it for real, and that’s what people find funny.
R.D.: Also, something happens when our feelings get really hurt or when we love somebody deeply. We start to take ourselves really seriously and it starts to become really absurd.
M.D.: It’s like watching a kid freaking out over a lollipop. You can’t help but laugh over it. There they are, deep in it. Their reaction is so intense, they’re feeling it but we’re like: “We know this, you will be fine.”
Lynn, you had to follow up “Humpday,” which got a lot of attention even if it didn’t gross zillions of dollars or whatever. It certainly put you on the map in a way. How did you approach the question of what to do next without repeating yourself?
L.S.: Frankly, having a couple of things in between, like that Web series I did, was perfect. It wasn’t a feature, it was a gig for MTV.com. But that was the first thing I really got paid to do as a director, and it had a bigger budget than I’d ever worked with before. So I got to employ all my friends and we just had a great time. So it was like a palate cleanser, and then I was a guest director on “Mad Men,” which was just unbelievable, a dream gig. I had never done TV before and for that to be my first TV was insane. I learned so much about myself because I now had a context. I was like, “Oh, I guess I’m a real director. I actually know how to do this and I’m really good at it.” I mean I’m really fast in that world; I actually was sort of cut out for it.
I’m sure you don’t waste time on the set, and you’re used to working for nothing.
L.S.: I don’t waste a lot of time. I don’t dither, and I have the editor brain. I’m, like, “OK, let’s move on.” So those things happened and time passed and so I wasn’t as worried. Because right after “Humpday” I have to say that I was like: “How the hell am I going to follow that up?” It was really loved by a lot of people and it was a little frightening, so yeah, it’s kind of a relief to come back. One of the greatest things last night was seeing the audience reaction. It was just as much love as we got with “Humpday.”
Emily and Rosemarie, did you guys come to this having seen “Humpday”? Is that what made you want to work with Lynn?
E.B. and R.D.: Yeah, yeah!
E.B.: We hated Mark. But we loved Lynn.
M.D.: I come with the package.
L.S.: He does!
E.B.: No, seriously. It was a big draw, I think, for both of us. And Mark was so reassuring on set because he’s been through it before with Lynn. There were moments when Rose and I were like, “What are we doing?” We felt like a couple of headless chickens and he would just come in and go, “No, we got it. This is why it works,” or “This is why it doesn’t.” He was very constructive and succinct about what was great and what wasn’t. It was just very helpful because you have so much trust in the process and it was a process that was a little more unfamiliar to us.
M.D.: You guys were so good from minute one, I mean, it was crazy. I remember, you know, when you and I had our first scene together. You walked out of there and you were like, “Holy shit! This is a gas!” It was instantaneous, you know? So I quickly figured out that if I just was positive and complimented you guys, you would let me come over to your cabin.
I think I heard that Rose came on this movie at the last possible second and you had to change the shoot quite a bit. How did that happen?
L.S.: Well, “Humpday” was shot totally in sequence, and then we reshot a lot of things, you know, for technical reasons. With this film we were going to shoot it pretty much in sequence and then we had a little quick change that happened at the end. Two days before the shoot we lost an actor, who Rose came in and replaced at the last minute. She was still in production on “United States of Tara” and begging the producers to please make this work. To their credit, they were lovely, but still we had to fly her back and forth from L.A. so she never got a day of rest. I don’t think she ever slept.
I found out two things: A) You can actually replace an actor and make a project like this still work, and B) you can actually go out of sequence and sometimes it actually helps. The first two scenes in the film were actually the last things we shot, which was fantastic because we’re trying to establish this great relationship between Emily and Mark.
E.B.: I’m really glad that we did those last, because at that point we had our own in-jokes and silly moments. I think you burp in the scene and it really made me laugh and he was so natural with me by that point. You could belch in my face and it would be fine. You maybe would’ve been a little more coy the first day. Maybe you would’ve swallowed the burp.
M.D.: I think so, I think so. Burping is a day 12 thing.
Given how late Rose came on the movie, how did you work out your relationship as sisters? I mean, you had no time to figure it out!
R.D.: I think we had to jam to figure out the whole movie. You know what I mean, in a great way. Sometimes the curse for the actor is to be able to think.
E.B.: Yeah, and to try and strategize chemistry. I think it’s there or it’s not, and Rose and I just happened to get along great.
L.S.: Did you guys have a chemistry read? [A common practice in casting Hollywood movies.]
E.B.: [Groans.] It’s awful! I’ve done it.
R.D.: I do it all the time.
E.B.: It’s awful, and you always feel that you’ve got terrible chemistry with people.
R.D.: With some of the world’s biggest stars! And then you go home with your tail between your legs. You read with the sexiest man on earth and you’re like, “I had no chemistry with him today. I cannot believe that!”
Why do I have the feeling that you won’t tell me who this was?
M.D.: Call me crazy, but I really believe that all three of us would have chemistry with similar type of people who are open and interested in humanity and listen well. Honestly. When I met you guys I knew it, like, in 30 seconds. A brightness in the eyes, a willingness to do this. The very fact that you’re the type of people who would come on to this type of project and work for the wages we worked for and do what we did.
M.D.: Oh, shit. Oh, shit. It’s over. Interview’s over.
E.B.: We all got a mill for this.
R.D.: I got transportation. The ferry to the island was included. I think it goes back to your “Humpday” question, at least for me. I think so many actors have this deep desire to do what we could term “messy” acting. You see a movie like that and you’re like, “God, I wish I could be a part of something like that, even if I have to pay them to do it!” Because, you know, you do enough of the other kind of thing, where you give some line reading 39 times and you never quite feel like you’ve got it. It’s a gift to be able to go exercise these muscles.
“Your Sister’s Sister” opens this week at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York, and the ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark in Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)