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Shelton and Duplass learn how to make movie magic -- quickly

Charles Ealy

Mark Duplass and director Lynn Shelton have developed an easy rapport since they met on the set of Craig Johnson's "True Adolescents" in 2007.

Shelton was a still photographer for the film, which starred Duplass as a man-child who has to grow up quickly on a camping trip with two young boys.

"I caught him on a few off moments," Shelton says of their early meetings, "and we hit it off. We talked about our philosophy of putting together smaller movies and not asking for permission to make them."

The two got along so well, in fact, they paired up to make 2009's "Humpday," which deals with two straight male friends who agree to have sex on camera as part of an art project.

And then Duplass pitched another project to Shelton: an idea about three people in a remote cabin, about a year after the death of one of their brothers.

"It was a story idea that Jay and I had," Duplass says, speaking of his brother and frequent collaborator, "but we were probably never going to make it, especially with the dead brother theme. So I pitched it to Lynn, and six months later we were making the movie."

The result: "Your Sister's Sister," which opens today, with Duplass playing Jack, a Seattle-area slacker who's in limbo and falling for the woman who used to be his brother's lover.

Shelton came up with a loose script, or what she calls a "scriptment," which could be described as a script treatment that has some dialogue but depends on improvisation by the actors.

"I wanted the actors to feel like there was a launching off point," Shelton says, "so I had every scene mapped out and about 70 pages of dialogue written out. But I asked them to be loose, so that they could go completely off the grid if they wanted."

The improvisational feeling becomes quickly apparent in the opening scene, when Jack interrupts a memorial party for his late brother and starts talking about his brother's flaws — much to the chagrin of the guests, who just want to drink and toast the dearly departed.

"We find flawed characters funny and beautiful," Duplass says of his work with Shelton. Shelton adds she wanted the scene "to show that Jack was conflicted, that he and his brother had drifted apart. ... And I love the idea of introducing a character with his warts first, making the audience wonder whether they're going to spend the whole movie with this guy."

But the real impact of the film comes when we see parts of ourselves in Jack, as well as in the two sisters who end up with him in a remote cabin.

"Being human means being flawed," Shelton says. "Here are these people with big hearts, and they're good people even though they do selfish things and make mistakes. ... I hope that the audience will recognize themselves, that fallibility."

Duplass, who describes himself as a "workaholic maniac," says he sees Jack as a slacker who has "an enormous heart and very small personal skills. He wants love and a good career. And the death of the brother isn't the only reason he has stalled."

But Duplass says he loves the Jack character. "He's got a young Walter Matthau puppy dog thing going on. And I like the idea of playing a character who has really lost a person closest to him. I love the idea of watching a character at that point."

He's also quick to note that "Slacker" director Richard Linklater helped inspire the former Austinite to become a filmmaker.

"Austin is where I cut my teeth as an indie film maker. I'll never forget seeing Linklater at the Dobie doing a Q&A for ‘Slacker.' We were dressed exactly the same, in jeans and T-shirts," Duplass says. "He was so inspiring to me, and I thought that I could make films, too, and in many ways I've never lost that ethic. ‘Your Sister's Sister' is the same way, and my spirit is still in 78704 in the early '90s."

Contact Charles Ealy at 445-3931