Written by: Tom Hardej, Special to CC2K
The director talks about how she came to explore the straight world through gay sex.
Lynn Shelton is having her moment. There’s no doubt about it. Her new film, Humpday, which won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance this past winter, has just been released to almost universal praise. The movie is about Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), two straight friends who decide to have sex on film for Seattle’s Hump! film festival, and what this means for their friendship, their lives, and themselves. I talked to Shelton, a mom, and part-time art teacher from Seattle, about making the film, taking it to Sundance, and what’s next now that Hollywood has come knocking on her door.
TH: How did this movie come about?
LS: It’s my third feature, and my first one that I’ve written and created in a really traditional way. I wrote a script, and thought of all these characters in my head, and then looked for people to play the roles. It was a really transformative experience for me as an artist, because I never want to work alone again. I had been making little experimental films by myself up until that point, and the collaboration I just fell in love with. I loved working with actors, but I was frustrated by how difficult it was–the traditional filmmaking paradigm, on an actor–and then how difficult it was to get really naturalistic performances. I have a high standard for naturalism. So I decided to try an experiment to come up with a movie that would be actor-centered, and therefore, performance-centered. So I got rid of the excess bodies on set and the excess equipment, and instead of coming up with ideas for characters fully formed in my head and then looking for people to fill them, I wanted to do this upside-down thing where I started with a person I wanted to work with and then kind of custom built a character for them. So I started with Mark Duplass. I built Humpday so I could work with him.
I was playing around with different ideas, different characters, different scenarios, and I actually originally pitched him the idea of playing the other role. He immediately said he had to play the domesticated dude because that’s where he was in his life. “I’m feeling Ben and I want to explore that.” I said that I need help finding someone who’s as charismatic and as dominating and as type-A as he is, and he thought of Joshua. The whole thing spirals out from there. I like to invite the actors into the process, so they can be heavily involved in the development of their own characters, therefore take more ownership of the project creatively, and it’s going to fit them so, and it will be so easy for them to embody that character and for it to feel real, which is a huge obsession of mine.
TH: How much did the actors improvise?
LS: I invite them in early on in the process so they could be involved in the development of their own characters. I love the naturalism of improvisation, but I also love structure, and I wanted this film particularly to be a tight film and to have a strong narrative drive. So I do work very hard to have the whole thing outlined. Basically I have every component of the script when we come to set, except for the dialogue. So all the dialogue is improvised, but we have a very clear idea of the point of every scene, every actor’s motivation and action during that scene and how the scaffolding has to be built in order for the scene to work and feed into the next. And I’m an editor. That’s how I came into filmmaking. I watched them during these 20-, 30-, sometimes 40-minute takes to make sure I have all the ingredients, but I let them have as much time as they want, overwrite, whatever they had to do because it was very actor-oriented. Later I know I can sharpen, hone, take out all of that and turn into the 5- or 7-minute scene it’s going to be. So as much credit as I give the actors and writing these lines that are just incredible, I have to give props to my editor and to that whole process where we really write the final draft of the script in the edit room.
TH: Where did the actual idea come from?
LS: The actual inspiration for the story was planted when another filmmaker friend of mine came to visit me in Seattle and went to this festival called Hump! He was fascinated by the experience of viewing gay porn for the first time. He talked very un-self-consciously for the next few days about the gay porn he had seen and what that was like for him. It got me thinking about the relationship between straight guys and, not gay sex or gay porn, but gayness in general. I started to realize that there was a really interesting opportunity there.
It’s not acceptable to be homophobic anymore, which is great, but I think there’s some residual anxiety that straight guys hold to homosexuality. Even if they have gay friends that they dearly love, in their personal relationship to homosexuality, it’s still a little awkward. And if they have a deep love for a straight friend, who’s a guy, expressing that love is not a simple thing because it’s fraught with the anxiety of: is there a homoerotic undercurrent to this? How do I express myself without being gay? I thought it would be kind of beautifully absurd that if there were two straight guys who were so straight that they were challenging each other to be gay for a day.
TH: Have you been to Hump! yourself?
LS: I have not. It sells out like that. I have so many friend who have gone and described it to me, so I feel like been. I think I have a pretty good sense of the kinds of work that is shown there. This year I may actually have to go though. (Laughs)
TH: Thinking about relationships between straight men brings to mind Judd Apatow and what he does. How do you see yourself fitting in relationship to him and his work?
LS: I really admire Apatow. I’m not generally very interested in the genre that he works in, but I am interested in his films because he’s brought a real intelligence and humanity to that genre. I think there are a lot of similarities in working styles because I know he gives his actors some freedom on set. But I think there is one very important difference in that he is setting out to make broad comedies and too look for jokes and even for slapstick. And, at least with Humpday, it was never my intention to make a pure comedy. I knew there would be comedic moments, but even in the comedic moments we were always playing it straight. We were never playing for laughs, but understanding there might be opportunity there. A great example is this big fight scene where the three of them [Duplass, Leonard, and the actress who plays Ben’s wife, Alycia Delmore] in the kitchen, and they’re having this big meltdown. There is a lot of laughter in screenings during that scene. But that was a very serious night for us. It was pure drama. The stakes were high and we were never that in this moment thinking there would be a big laugh. We were playing it straight. That’s just one example, but it was like that through the whole film. I think the laughter comes from a truly “it’s funny because it’s true” kind of place. People are laughing because they recognize things and they laugh because it feels so real to them. Somebody asked me why do you sometimes have this really serious music, and I was like, I thought those were serious moments in the film. For me they were really heavy.
TH: I wonder how much title goes into people’s expectation that it’s going to be a funny movie.
LS: It’s a funny title, but if you give it some thought even it has some significance. For instance in the UK, there’s no double entendre. It doesn’t mean Wednesday. It just means day in which you have sex. It’s so un-nuanced. When I go over there, people ask me why I named it that. It’s so crass! But it has the other meaning. It’s not just Wednesday, but also this midpoint idea and they’re going through this mini-midlife crisis thing, so it’s this idea of being at this fulcrum in your life and being able to take stock. It’s funny, but I’m hoping it has, at least for Americans anyway (laughs), some double meaning.
TH: I read somewhere that you had referred to the film as a “Bromantic Comedy,” and I think that’s the same way that they were selling I Love You, Man. They’re two movies that start in a sort of similar place, but go in totally different directions.
LS: It’s fascinating. I didn’t even know about the existence of that film when we made ours, but it was curious. We weren’t thinking about “bromances” or that genre, and then all of a sudden there was this zeitgeist that we were apart of.
TH: Did you feel a certain obligation to the gay community in making the film, and what has the reaction been like?
LS: I was extremely aware and really extremely concerned that this film not be homophobic in any way shape or form. That was very important to me and I wanted to make sure that even though it’s not a gay film, that it’s gay friendly, and that people understood that even if the characters in the film might feel a certain awkwardness or homophobia, not as in gay-hating, but in their own personal relationship to gayness, and that anxiety over “ am I secretly gay?” I hoped that it would be portrayed as ridiculous and that we‘d be laughing at them and the extremities of straightness, and that all the gay and bisexual people who are peripherally in the movie are portrayed in a completely normalized and positive way. I was hyper-aware. It was a big concern of mine.
I just read that Mark was quoted as saying something like: Lynn was coming from a place of love, and we were coming from place of fear. That kind of sizes it up. I did make this movie out of a place of love. I’m definitely very aware that I’m putting the straight guys in this position where they’re making fools of themselves, but I never wanted to belittle them. As flawed as they are, I wanted it to be very sympathetic as well.
It’s very gratifying. Today it seemed to me that my fan base seems to be gay men. Screening after screening after screening, the people who come up to me after who are speechless with praise: at least 50% of them are gay guys. Today I decided that it appeals more to gay men. There’s something about it. Every rave and articulate review has been written by a gay man, so I just decided. They’re my people.
It’s so nice because I was so concerned that people were going to take it the wrong way. And then to have that be the case, I’m overwhelmed with joy. I will say there are a few oversensitive souls. After a screening, there was a woman who said—I’m sorry, it’s just really funny to me—she said, “I don’t understand why you didn’t have the men try sensual touching.” (Laughs.) She started listing the things they could have done to get close. They could have given each other back rubs….And I was like, I think any good marriage counselor would agree with you.
TH: You have to save something for the sequel!
TH: As you were going along did you always have the ending [where to be spoiler free, the two men either do or do not have sex] in mind?
LS: No. I really wanted something to happen between them. I didn’t have a clear idea of what and I didn’t know exactly how it would unfold. What I later realized what I was really hungering for these two characters, what I was really wishing for, was some kind of connection, some kind of transformative moment. They really wanted to actually be gay for a day. They wanted to do this thing that they didn’t think they could do. In a way, they’re trying to prove that they’re not homophobic.
What’s really cool is that this woman who worked on the film showed it to her dad, before it was at Sundance or anything. It was the first time anyone over 40. He’s a church-going guy, a little bit conservative, but open minded, but definitely totally on the fence about gay rights. He saw this film, and not only did he love it, but he said it totally changed his mind about gay rights. It finally helped hit home for him that it’s not a choice. You can’t just up and say that you’re gay or straight. You are what you are. And other folks have said that since, that they feel like it’s a good platform to talk about the topic of choice. And the way to talk about it without giving away the end is to say that it’s a struggle for these guys. It’s not an easy thing.
To get back to that original question, all of us left our preconceptions at the door. We were really open. Every step of the way, our whole challenge and goal was to make a completely believable film, and that you would buy, step-by-step that these guys really would possibly enact the scenes that unfold. We wanted that to stay true until the end. So that structured outline that I described ended when we entered that hotel room. We left the end a mystery and open-ended. We shot the whole thing in sequence, and by the time we got there, I said, you guys really know who these guys are and you really embody them, and I need you to, as honestly and as authentically as you can, live out this scene as these characters. I’m really satisfied with it, despite any initial ideas I had when we started making the film, because I think the honesty is the most important thing.
TH: What was it like when you took the film to Sundance?
LS: It was a really big deal. It’s one of those holy grails. It’s a really big deal for American independent filmmakers, and I wanted it really badly. So it was enormously fulfilling, just to get the call. And then to be there, and to get into the dramatic competition. I didn’t know any filmmakers who had been making films on this scale who had ever gotten into the dramatic competition. There 16 films, and all I could think about were the thousands who had applied. This was a truly independent film. It was me and my friends, and no money, and no name actors. It was crazy. It felt like a fairy tale. And then when we got there. The whole year has been just insane. I mean I went to the Cannes freaking Film Festival! But I’m not taking anything for granted either. I know this could be the only time I ever have a success like this. I’ll keep making movies, no matter what. But it’s been a perfect circumstance because I feel like I fully appreciate everything that’s happened to me this year. It’s really nice.
TH: Now that you’ve had this success, do you want to keep doing what you’re doing, or is there pressure to go bigger?
LS: I have an agent. I have a manager. It took me two full months to figure out what my representation strategy would be. There were a lot of kind offers. I was chased by a lot of people, which was a really great position to be in. After my first feature, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival, people told me I should get an agent. So I went down to LA for a couple of weeks and no one would even see me. I had two big screenings in LA, and nobody came. It was a completely different experience. At the time, I talked to the people I knew who had been intersecting successfully with Hollywood in some way, I decided I have a pretty good deal. I have a great part-time teaching job that I love. I’m able to pull together films on my own and make them happen. I just want to keep making movies. I don’t really need to intersect with Hollywood. So I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. All of a sudden when Hollywood comes knocking, and I have these fans in these producers who put work out into the world that I really respect. It’s all a wonderful surprise. Do I want to expand my horizons? Maybe I can make a living as an artist! Sure, why not? But I had these anxiety attacks when I started thinking about losing the control. Not only do I have to be very passionate about the project that I’m working on, but I also have to have a really good time doing it. It’s always a huge leap of faith and there’s always the chance that you can fall flat on your face. And it’s extremely hard work. If it’s not fun, you should find something else to do. Life’s too short. I perfectly came up with this way to always have a good time when I make movies in Seattle. And I finally figured out that my strategy will always be to go back and make movies that way. I’m also looking at these bigger projects. Basically I’m going to try and do both. I have to know that I can go back to making movies the way I’ve always made them and love them. That’s my plan. We’ll see how it goes.
TH: Who are the filmmakers who inspire you?
LS: I was raised on Woody Allen. My favorite Woody Allen film is Stardust Memories. It’s a movie that has these sometimes very stylized, very surreal sequences, and then the conversational sequences feel so real, so authentic. There are three love interests and they’re all completely believable characters. They don’t seem like Hollywood stand-ins for women. He was a really early inspiring force for me. Claire Denis is a French filmmaker who I find to be a great role model, as a filmmaker and as a female filmmaker. Lynne Ramsay is another filmmaker I really admire. Noah Baumbach. Tamara Jenkins. The Savages is exactly the kind of film I want to make, taking these really difficult situations and finding the humor from a very real place. Y Tu Mama Tambien is one of my favorite films of all time. Alfonso Cuaron is just great. Altman. McCabe and Mrs. Miller: great, great movie. I could go on and on!