Lynn Shelton’s Humpday was the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival (and many other festivals since) due to its daring subject matter and unique sensibilities, taking the normal buddy comedy and turning it on its ear as two college buddies decide one day to see how far they can take their friendship by filming themselves having sex.
Now usually, this might sound like the kind of movie that would get released by Regent, but in fact, it’s more of a character-based comedy that takes John Hamburg’s recent comedy I Love You, Man to its most logical and awkward conclusion. Much of the fun lies in Shelton’s casting of “Mumblecore” mainstay Mark Duplass (middle) as the happily married Ben, and Josh Leonard (far right)–some might remember him from his debut in The Blair Witch Project–as wild journeyman Andrew, who tries to convince his friend that making an amateur porn for Seattle’s annual “Hump Fest” would be a perfect way to solidify their bond. The question is how to tell Ben’s wife, played by newcomer Alycia Delmore (far left), since obviously, she’ll be the one person who probably will be the least happy about their decision.
In some ways, Shelton’s third film shares some of the sensibilities of the “Mumblecore” movement, because her unconventional filmmaking methods involve working closely with the actors to develop their characters, then allowing them to improvise the entire movie on camera with no script, a process that helped earn Shelton an Independent Spirit Award earlier this year for her second film My Effortless Brilliance, just a month after Humpday won a Special Jury Prize for “The Spirit of Independence” at Sundance.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Shelton and the three primary members of her cast, reminding us of last year when we spoke to Duplass and his brother Jay for their own Sundance movie Baghead (which you can read here.
ComingSoon.net: Just to get started, Lynn, I understand that this movie came about because you met Mark and you wanted to make a movie with him?
Lynn Shelton: Yeah, this is my third feature, and I live in Seattle and I made them all in Seattle, and it doesn’t have a huge acting pool. The idea of starting with a person that I wanted to work with and then kind of custom designing a character for them and with them and letting the film spiral out from that starting point first emerged with my second feature, out of the dissatisfaction I found in making my first feature in a traditional way where I wrote a script and thought of these people in my head and then tried to fill those roles. It was hard to do that, and on a traditional film set, the naturalism in the acting was very hard I found as well. So I came up with this idea of a much more organic and collaborative way of working with my second feature, and then I kind of fine-tuned it for “Humpday.” But the starting point was Mark. We had met in the summer of 2007 on the set of a film that was filmed in Seattle, an independent film called “True Adolescence” and Mark was up from L.A. to star and I got myself on set as a volunteer still photographer, basically so I could meet Mark. (laughs) We had a lot of mutual friends and we really hit it off and talked a lot about filmmaking mostly, because he’s half of the Duplass Brothers, and there’s a lot of overlap in our filmmaking philosophy. DIY, working happily with improv, that kind of thing, and I fell in love with his acting as well. We decided we wanted to collaborate in some way, and one of the ways was perhaps that I would direct him, he would act, and I was thinking of a project to pitch to him, and then inspiration hit.
CS: Mark, so she came to you and said, “I want to make a movie where you sleep with your best friend”…
Mark Duplass: That was pretty much in it. It was pretty close to that, you know? And within about five minutes…
Shelton: I remember it took me awhile. It took me five days. I thought of the idea and I really wanted him to say “yes,” and I was so worried he wouldn’t that I had to build up my courage.
Duplass: I think in that initial conversation, we got around to the point of almost the plot that the dudes would be friends and they would try to have sex with each other as something for “Hump Fest.”
Shelton: My original idea was this bohemian character that ended up being very similar to Andrew. He’d be a “try everything once, open to all experience” kind of guy, who it would occur to him that “I’ve never been with a guy and that’s just a crime ’cause I have to try everything once.” He would convince his more conventional domesticated buddy, who sort of lives vicariously through his friend–it would be more of a dominant/subordinate relationship–that they had to do this and maybe that relationship would shift. I had this whole power dynamic in my head, and then in that first conversation, Mark immediately was like–because I wanted him to play the Andrew character–”I’m feeling the domesticated character too much,” because of where he was like in his life. That immediately shifted the power dynamic because he’s so charismatic and powerful and handsome…
Shelton: So I was like, “I’m going to need help from you to cast the other role, because it’s gotta be somebody who can meet you” and then right there, the power dynamic, almost right there was a huge evolution, because the way the film ends up being, they’re dead even. One of them gets a little on top and the other one parries and it just goes like that the entire time.
CS: What made you think of Josh? Had you two worked together before?
Duplass: We were friends and hadn’t known each other that long. He had met my brother doing this workshop at Film Independent and they had started hanging out. I had met Josh briefly at a film festival a couple years before, but we’d spent a couple nights together socially, and shared a lot of friends in common. I knew enough that are two essential ingredients that I wanted out of someone playing opposite me. The first being that we just have great natural chemistry and it looks like we’re buddies, and that we have an affection for each other, and you really would believe that they’re long-time friends. I knew we had that. We had instant chemistry when we met. What I also wanted in there was someone who could match me, because I’m a very dominant Type A aggressive person, and when I knew we were going to be improvising, I knew I needed someone who was my match, essentially. I knew that about Josh. He’s just very intelligent, very Type A. We both have big tempers and we would have explosiveness together, so it was like a totally natural fit.
Josh Leonard: I think as he put it before, given the right context, we can either be best of friends or worst of enemies.
CS: What was the initial appeal to you, Josh, and what was the pitch Mark gave you about the movie?
Leonard: The pitch was vague. (Everyone laughs.)
Duplass: The pitch was incredibly obtuse.
Leonard: I actually didn’t know Lynn’s work, but I shortly thereafter became a fan, but I loved “Puffy Chair” and “Baghead” and was a huge fan both of Mark and his brother as filmmakers but also as people and kind of ideological peers. He only wrote me and asked me if I wanted to play his best friend in a movie. He didn’t mention anything about the dude-on-dude sex.
Shelton: Until after he said, “Yes.” (laughs)
Leonard: And then I said “yes” and then he said, “Okay, great, it’s a movie about two straight guys who try to make gay porn.” I said, “That is fantastic and we’re going to have a blast, but please never ever let me commit to a project without asking what it’s about first.”
CS: And you don’t really work with a script, so did you have anything in writing to show people?
Shelton: Nope. It was a very loose premise when I came to those guys, and the reason is that I want the actors to participate so heavily in their own character development, I can’t write a scene until I know who the characters are. Because I don’t know how they’re going to believably act, and I did not want to make a broad farce. I wanted to make a really believable movie and everybody needed to know that coming in that this was going to be a believable human version.
Leonard: It was just such a tightly curated group because Lynn had worked with so much of the crew before and Mark and I knew each other, and to me, it was a premise that under any other context that would have been really frightening in terms of how farcical and unnaturalistic and hyperbolic it could be. For me, it was trusting the people before the premise and respecting their work. At that point, I had seen Lynn’s two other films and knowing that they were probably smarter than me anyway and that they didn’t want to make a bad movie.
CS: Alycia, I’d like to bring you into the conversation because these two guys knew each other before, Lynn and Mark knew each other. How did you get involved and were approached about it?
Alycia Delmore: Lynn and I had worked together on this podcast series for the web, and I was a small part in her first feature film, so we’d known each other for a little while. In the podcast, there was an amount of improvisation in that.
Shelton: There were two reasons I thought of Alycia. I knew that the wife was a really, really tricky role, because I didn’t want her to be a harpy, and I didn’t want her to be a pushover, a victim or a doormat. I needed her to be sympathetic, and it’s in Alycia’s vibe, her face, her sweetness, she just has this immediate personal sweetness…
Leonard: Until you get to know her… (everyone laughs)
Shelton: Yeah, exactly. That was one of the first thing that I kept coming back around to when I was thinking of different people that I might want to ask to play the part was that incredible sweetness, but her talent is really huge, too. I remember being really impressed… I first met her when she came in to audition for my very first feature and I remember thinking, “I’m going to work with this woman, but I’m going to waste her in this part.” She played a very small part in that movie, but then we got to work together first hand on this web series, which is about the length of the feature and you have a bigger part. But it was a very different part, it was broad comedy and a very thankless role–the dumb slut–and she brought such 3-dimensionality and sympathy to this thankless role and the little bit of improv she did, it was very instinctive, but I just had a feeling that she’d hold her own against and with these guys. All the praise that I’ve gotten from all these festivals, some she’s been at and some not, people again and again bring her up and I’m really proud of that.
CS: Do you feel that you end up being almost the bad guy in this movie?
Delmore: We talked about it, and it was really important that Anna gives Ben permission to go to the hotel that night to do it or otherwise…
Shelton: And he wouldn’t be expecting it, so you wanted to catch him off-guard, but she just not just be this stick in the mud and every time you see her, you’re going, “Oh, God, not her again.” It was really important that you want more of her, not less.
Leonard: And that her role in the movie is not just to serve Mark’s character. The fact that she reveals her dimensionality in her own wants and her own fears really makes the world feel so much more whole.
Shelton: And the whole recipe wouldn’t work if there wasn’t that foundation of their relationship that you’re sort of rooting for and you really want to see this couple together. If you didn’t care, the stakes wouldn’t be there. The whole rest of the movie is like who cares if Andrew spills the beans during the drunk scene and so on. In a way, yeah, it’s really important.
CS: I’m curious about the differences between how Lynn made this movie compared to how you and Jay made “Baghead.” Was this something where you’d do a lot of workshopping and then you’d go off and write something or how did that work?
Shelton: We did a lot of writing together. I went down to L.A. for a weekend and we hashed out a lot of the backstory, but we talked a lot. I brought the treatment and we worked on it more. I mean I tinkered. There were certain things that they really wanted to go one way and I ended up pulling it back to the way I wanted afterwards. Ultimately, I kind of had the final say, but it was very, very collaborative and a very ego-less creative experience, and that continued onto the set, too. We were in that room for a couple of days, and always the best idea would rise, no matter whose idea it was. We always had this end result of the film being our guide, as opposed to everybody trying to dominate.
Leonard: More often than not, the best idea was mine. (laughter)
Duplass: I’ll agree with that. With “Baghead,” the collaboration really begins Day 1 of filming for me with the actors. My brother and I tend to write the script together and structure everything out between us and how we want things to happen, whereas in “Humpday,” there’s no actual written dialogue. It’s all improvised. In “Baghead,” we’re improvising off of an actual script that exists.
Shelton: And we did have a structured outline. I wanted it to be a tight film and I wanted it to have a strong narrative drive, so I needed to know what was going to happen… up until that hotel room, which we left open-ended, but the whole rest of the movie we really had the emotional map. I had in my head… well, I mean everybody did because I was very transparent about it, but we knew exactly what Point A, B, and C needed to be in a scene, but there was no actual dialogue written. We would turn the cameras on and they would go for 20 or 30 minutes. I had a background as an editor and I think that really is essential, because I’m able to watch and make sure that the ingredients are in there. Then I would let them do a lot of overwriting and revving themselves up, because I also have a background as an actor, and I know that it helps to do that, to get yourself to the place you need be. I knew I could carve it all out later if I wanted to.
Delmore: We shot in chronological order, too, which made a huge difference, because if something changed in the dynamic in a scene or it just wasn’t working for some reason or another, we didn’t have to then go back to a scene we had already shot and reshoot.
Leonard: It’s seriously the best you can ever give an actor.
CS: Josh, you’ve done a lot as an actor so have you done a lot of this kind of thing where they just let the cameras roll, you improvise long scenes and then they could decide what to use later? Well, I guess “Blair Witch” was kind of like that.
Leonard: Yeah, That was an improv. I’d done some of this stuff. I guess most importantly, I hope to do a lot more of this stuff, because it’s just so much more interesting to me and more attuned to what I think I’m actually good at.
Shelton: I was going to say that you’re so good at it, and not every actor… in fact, I think the percentage is probably pretty small, the kind of actors that can do this, because it’s just not acting. Mark’s talked about it, that it’s not just losing yourself in a role and following it, because you also have to be thinking about the shape of the scene and looking ahead, and thinking, “Well, okay, if I say this, then it’s going to set up…” You’re building a scaffolding to get to where you need to get, and you’re really writing as you’re going. These two are filmmakers, Alycia is not, but you stil have that gift as well. I just know that some actors need the text to be there to cling to.
Duplass: Most actors are that way.
CS: You both have done these movies where you’ve done a lot of improv, so do you see yourselves working with name actors to see if they can work in that system?
Shelton: Well, one of my not-so-secret plans is to show “Humpday” to as many… it’s a great calling card because it’s exactly the kind of movie I want to continue to make, so I want to show it to the actors who I admire but ones who I also think might maybe have an interest of working this way, and seeing if any of them spark to it and want to. Because it takes a lot of effort, a lot of engagement on their part, so I only really want to work with actors… I don’t want to go up to an actor and beg them to work with me in this way–”Please let me make a film around you”–if they’re not into it. But if they’re really into it, then I’d really love to build a film around a movie star someday. It does tend to be a very self-selecting process. (To Mark) Maybe you haven’t found that but it seems the people who are really motivated and interested are probably more likely to be able to do it.
Duplass: Yeah, I think it is mostly that way. My brother and I just wrote and directed a movie for Fox Searchlight where we actually dealt with name actors for the first time. The types of people who respond to the project are usually capable of it, but I think it definitely requires some serious conversation and talking about it beforehand to see if it’s going to work. The ego is the dangerous part. You might do something that’s really terrible for 40 minutes and you have to be able to know that your director can tell you it’s bad so that you can do something better.
CS: Would you ever actually stop a scene if it wasn’t going in the right direction?
Shelton: I very rarely did. Unless they were going in some completely wrong direction, I usually just let them go, and then if I saw that I wanted to, I’d make an adjustment for the next take. But we usually ended up only doing two or three takes, four at the most.
Duplass: We were all pretty prepped and on board on what was going to happen.
CS: After you finished shooting, did you just go off on your own to edit and then they didn’t see it again until it was done.
Shelton: Yeah, pretty much.
Delmore: I didn’t know how the movie ended until I saw the final cut.
CS: I don’t want to ruin how the movie ends but you two have a great scene in the hotel room, which you mentioned hadn’t been planned, so can you talk about what it was like leading up to shooting that scene? It seems like it could be very similar to what it must have felt like for the two characters leading up to that moment. What were your feelings leading up to that scene?
Duplass: We were super-excited about it honestly. We’d set up this idea, “Okay, we’re not going to know what’s going to happen” and it created a cool sense of mystery and magic while we were making the movie. “What’s going to happen in the hotel? What’s going to happen in the hotel?” It kept us so that we were all keeping our eye on the ball. We checked in at 7PM, we checked out at 7AM, and it was exhausting, because it was very arduous.
Shelton: We tackled it sort of brick by brick, so we took a small section of it, and there were a lot of sub-scenes in this broad big scene, and that seemed to work well, but it was one of the later scenes and we were so freaking exhausted by then. The next morning these two really didn’t think we had an ending. That would happen in general I’ve noticed. It’s hard after these long meandering takes, but sometimes we’re very messy and loose and it was hard for people to know. I remember you looking at me more than once when I’d say, “Okay, let’s move on” and you’d be like “Seriously, was it in there?” It doesn’t feel tight on set like it does later. I can’t give enough credit to the editing process and specifically the editor I was working with, Nat Sanders, who is incredibly talented and very easy to work with and had a like mind. We really wrote it in the edit room. It could have easily been a terrible movie (laughs) or a very mediocre movie in the hands of less-skilled editors.
CS: Where was your headspace at when you were going to shoot that last scene? You two hadn’t talked about it at all, so did you already have some ideas of how you wanted to approach it?
Leonard: I think Mark and I, because we were friends going in, and kind of knew each other’s triggers, we always kept a couple things in our back pocket before we walked into a big scene that were going to be really exciting. The little psychic hand grenades to throw at the other one in the moment, so I think we both walked into that scene with a few of those, but I was really excited as well until… Mark and his wife Katie and his (at that point) six month old daughter Aura were all staying in Lynn’s father’s house, and I was really excited about the scene until I was on my way out of the house to go shoot the scene and ran smack-dab into Mark’s wife and shared a really awkward moment, where she kind of wished me luck. (Lynn starts cracking up on hearing this because apparently, she had never heard the story before.)
CS: Mark, before we wrap things up, what’s going on with some of the projects you’re doing with your brother? Have you actually shot both of them?
Duplass: We have one that’s in post that’s kind of in a holding pattern because we self-financed it and we want to do that on our own time, and then our Searchlight movie is on deadline so we’re really working on that movie a lot right now. It’ll probably be done and released in the spring.
CS: Has it been really different working on a movie with a studio?
Duplass: It has been different in general and they do require some things that we weren’t ready to deal with just yet, but in general, as I watch the movie now editing it and I take a step back, I’m like, “Oh, that’s just one of my movies.” Jay’s holding the camera and we’re shooting long takes and they’re improvised and we’re getting our naturalistic performances, and basically, it’s one of our movies with some famous people in it, so it works.