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Going In That Direction of Straight Guys and Gay Porn

December 25th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Humpday 2009 poster Humpday DVD

Humpday (2009)
Written by Lynn Shelton
Directed by Lynn Shelton
Produced by Lynn Shelton
MPAA rating: “R for some strong sexual content, pervasive language and a scene of drug use”
Running time: 94 minutes

Should I Care?
Lynn Shelton provoked more than one journalist to crown her “the female Judd Apatow” in the summer of ‘09. Her micro budget coming out as a filmmaker has little in common with The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up. Humpday is more like the female version of The Blair Witch Project. Instead of two dudes and a girl getting terrorized in the woods, Shelton explores the relationship between two college buddies and how wide open the window is on the possibility they would actually take that relationship to the next level. That’s scary. In spite of its abrasive premise, this is a surprisingly tasteful movie, smart, spot-on emotionally, superbly performed and funny. Whether Shelton will be any more successful than The Blair Witch bros at applying her DIY touch to another film remains to be seen, but she catches lightning in a bottle here.

Working from a budget she scraped together from grants and donations, Shelton wasn’t left with much else to put on screen except frank dialogue about sex and the evolving nature of adult relationships. It’s a target that she hits dead on. With a script workshopped in collaboration with her actors (Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard & Alycia Delmore), the results are like a much less jokey or pop culture obsessed Clerks (1994), with Humpday coming close to being as amusing as Kevin Smith’s debut. Shelton smartly avoids fanning a debate between straight versus gay and focuses on her honestly drawn characters. Instead of jumping from one location to the next, scenes are permitted to play out with the natural pace of a dinner conversation, growing more revealing the longer they’re allowed to continue. The result is a small but perfect comedy.

Humpday, 2009

So, What’s This About?
The plans of Ben (Mark Duplass) and his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) to conceive a child go awry when Ben’s buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard) drops in for a visit at two thirty in the morning. While Ben has added a few pounds employed as a transportation planner, Andrew has been in Mexico, working with locals on an art project of some sort. In an effort to get to know her husband’s bohemian friend, Anna cooks them dinner the next evening, but Andrew lures Ben to dine at the home of a polyamorous couple (Lynn Shelton and Trina Willard) that he just met. There, conversation turns to an amateur porn festival called Humpfest. Scoffing at Andrew’s ambition to make his own “erotic art film”, Ben gets challenged to expand his suburban horizons. Stuffed on fettuccini, wine and weed, the guys agree to have sex with each other and film it.

Not buying that her husband needed to chaperone Andrew all night, Anna urges Ben to explain why he left her at home with pork chops. He apologizes, but maintains that even though they’re starting a family, they shouldn’t close themselves off from having new experiences either. Sobered up, Andrew lets his buddy off the hook for their art project by claiming he doesn’t want to wreck any havoc in Ben’s newly domesticated life. Being stereotyped only makes Ben more determined to go through with it. He feels confident his wife will let him participate in the porn movie, but chickens out giving her full details of his planned participation. Having a drink with Anna later that night, Andrew unknowingly fills that information in. Explaining to his wife that this is something he feels he has to get out of his system, Ben books a hotel room for him and Andrew to go through with their business.

Humpday, 2009, Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard

Who Made It?
Lynn Shelton was born and raised in Seattle. An interest in stage acting led her to the University of Washington, where Shelton graduated in 1987 with a B.A. in theater. She spent the next nine years in New York City, discovering that instead of acting, her true passion was photography. Shelton earned an MFA in Photography and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where she started making short films. Opting to raise her son in Seattle, she returned to The Evergreen State with her husband. Without really knowing anyone in the Seattle filmmaking community, Shelton was awarded a grant from 911 Media Arts to complete a short film, about a miscarriage. She learned to craft narrative films by working as an editor-for-hire on a couple of shorts, as well as a feature titled Outpatient (2002).

Shelton’s feature film writing and directing debut We Go Way Back (2006) — financed by The Film Company, a Seattle non-profit film studio — concerned a 23-year-old nagged by her former 13-year-old self.  It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Slamdance Film Festival, but Shelton’s experiences working with a large crew spurred her to create a looser, faster, more actor friendly environment on her sophomore film, My Effortless Brilliance (2008). Employed as a still photographer, Shelton met an actor named Mark Duplass. Inspired to create a movie with him, Shelton pitched an idea about two straight buddies who attempt to have sex for an adult film fest. Self-financed with grants and favors and shot over 10 breezy days in Seattle — with actors using a structured premise to base their improvisations — Humpday became a sensation at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, winning a Special Jury Prize.

Humpday, 2009, Lynn Shelton, Joshua Leonard, Mark Duplass

How’d They Do It?
Humpday had its genesis in Lynn Shelton’s desire to collaborate with actor/filmmaker Mark Duplass on a movie of some sort. The two had known of each other through mutual contacts in the Do It Yourself filmmaking community and finally met in the summer of 2007, when Shelton volunteered her services as a still photographer on a low budget movie titled True Adolescents that was shooting in Seattle with Duplass in the cast. Shelton recalled, “We just had a lot to talk about and knew we wanted to work with each other in some capacity. And then watching him act on that set was just completely inspiring — I just loved the way he worked as an actor. Not only was he tremendously talented but the specific style that he worked in and [how] generous he was with the other actors and how he seemed to bring the best out of everybody and make everybody go deeper than they might have gone otherwise.”

At the 2006 Maryland Film Festival, Shelton became friends with Joe Swanberg, director of the micro budget LOL (2006) and Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007). Visiting Shelton and Duplass in Seattle, Swanberg related his experiences at their city’s amateur erotica festival, HUMP! Shelton recalled, “He said that long ago he’d become completely desensitized to straight porn — growing up in the age of the internet, a young guy just watching it all the time — and had never sought out gay porn before, so here he was sitting in this theater being forced to watch gay porn and he just found it absolutely compelling. He could never describe exactly why.” She added, “It wasn’t as if Joe was like, ‘I need to have sex with a man!’ but it was fascinating that this very straight guy was just like, ‘Boy, that was really an interesting sight to see!’ Some little switch was flipped for him, and at that point I thought, ‘Well, this just seems very amusing to me that this straight guy is so interested in gay porn,’ and that was what got me going in that direction of straight guys and gay porn and gay sex.’”

Humpday, 2009, Alycia Delmore

Duplass sent Shelton a script he was hoping she’d direct starring his wife, Katie Aselton. That never came to pass, but about a month later, Shelton called Duplass with an idea. “It took me a little while to get the nerve up because I was a little worried about how he would react, I wanted to pitch it just right, but basically I said: ‘The idea is two best friends from college, ten years later their lives have sort of diverged, but the basic premise is they decide they have to try and have sex together, two straight friends.’ He sort of paused for half a second and then said, ‘Okay! Sounds great!’ The interesting thing was that I originally had seen him in the other role, this idea of the wild, adventuring nomadic artist, very charismatic. He immediately said, ‘I’ve got to play the domesticated dude. That’s just where I am in my life right now and that would be more interesting for me.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to need help finding the other guy because I don’t know anybody as charismatic as you and he needs to be at least as charismatic as you.’”

Mark Duplass had met Joshua Leonard at the 2005 Woodstock Film Festival, where he and his brother Jay Duplass were screening their film The Puffy Chair (2005) and Leonard — best known for his role in The Blair Witch Project (1999) — was presenting a short he’d directed. Duplass revealed, “I knew enough that [there] 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.”

Humpday, 2009, Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard

Shelton enthused, “The thing that was so beautiful is that when I first gave Mark the idea — it took me a few days to build up the courage to actually pitch it to him, the whole idea, because I totally didn’t see how he would say yes — and not only did he say yes, he said, ‘I don’t see how we can succeed doing this.’ We didn’t want to make a movie that was going to be just sort of a broad farce or slapstick comedy, we really wanted to make it only if we could do it in a believable way.” Duplass claimed, “I honestly didn’t have any hesitations. I mean, when we made this project, the bromance and that sort of zeitgeist wasn’t really around as much. It’s happened. I guess we lucked out making a movie about a subject that was interesting and that people were talking about at the time. That really wasn’t at the forefront of our brains, and in terms of me being maybe hesitant or reserved, the only concern I really had was that we would make a movie that was flippant with the sexual politics, and I didn’t want to trivialize any of that stuff.”

In addition to taking a chance on content that fell outside the norms of mainstream film, Shelton committed to trying a radically new approach to production. “After experiencing the traditional model of filmmaking with my first feature, I wanted to try creating a totally actor-centered atmosphere on set with my second feature film. It was really an experiment to see if I could capture a level of naturalism that would be so high, it would almost feel like a documentary. So instead of writing predetermined dialogue for characters that I thought up in my head, I decided to start with the people I wanted to work with and then handcraft characters custom designed just for them. I invite the actors in very early on in the process, when the film is still a loose story, because the actors will be heavily involved in the development of their own characters and I need to know who those characters are before I can cement how they will behave in each scene of the film.”

Humpday, 2009, Alycia Delmore, Joshua Leonard

She continued, “The film organically evolves from that point on. By the time we get to the set, everyone has a detailed backstory and they are all intimately acquainted with their own characters. Instead of a proper script, we have a detailed outline of all the scenes. We know the point of every scene, and the emotional map of every scene, but the actors come up with the actual words on their own. With the right casting (as well as a very high skill level in the editing room), I have found that this kind of highly structured, highly directed improvisation can give me both the naturalism that I crave as well as the structure that I love.” With a day job was teaching part-time at the Art Institute of Seattle’s digital filmmaking program, Shelton applied for grants and collected donations from friends and family to self-finance Humpday. She claimed her budget ended up “less than a million dollars but more than 10 dollars.”

Collaborating with director of photography Ben Kasulke — who’d shot each of Shelton’s previous films — Humpday rolled June 2008 in Seattle. Utilizing two Panasonic HVX-200 digital camcorders, a schedule of no more than 12 days was allotted. To accomplish this, Shelton realized she needed help. An assistant director was hired and two co-producers — Steven Schardt and Jennifer Maas — were brought aboard to run the set. Shelton explained, “You’ve basically got two camera operators, you’ve got your DP and you’ve got a second camera operator, and eighty percent of the time I was the second camera operator, and you’ve got one sound person and then you’ve got maybe a couple of other people in the next room, basically that’s it on set along with your actors.” Editor Nat Sanders — who Shelton had met on the festival circuit — came up from Los Angeles to cut Humpday with the director over two and a half months. Sound department head Vince Smith would be tasked with composing the film’s sparse but quirky musical score.

Humpday, 2009

Humpday would be invited to the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it notched a nomination for Grand Jury Prize. Critics marveled over the movie as well. Robert Abele, The Los Angeles Times: “That Humpday is able to avoid standard-issue homosexual panic jokes almost entirely for something more thematically pointed — the bumpy humor of men who crave intimacy and change but can only articulate it as a ridiculous challenge — is a testament to Shelton’s filmmaking intelligence.” Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “Funny, yes, but also observant and thought-provoking.” Stephen Holden, The New York Times: “It is all the more remarkable for having been conceived by an empathetic woman with no apparent ax to grind and a sensibility tuned to the minutiae of straight-male bonding rituals. Men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but some observant Venusians understand the brute fundamentals of Martian psychology.”

Magnolia Pictures acquired worldwide distribution rights and planned a national on-demand release via their Ultra VOD platform. In a limited theatrical release in the United States July 2009, Humpday got enough ink to run up $407,377 at the domestic box office. Lynn Shelton remained grounded about her future plans. “Aside from doing right by this film and hoping it gets out into the world, I just want to keep making movies. It’s really as simple as that. I don’t have any specific goals — I don’t want to leap into the studio system, I just want to be able to stay in Seattle and keep making movies and not bankrupt my family. If it provides me with a broader range of options for budgets and a broader range of people, that would be a lovely side effect. Frankly, I’m a very actor-centric director, so my biggest fantasy would be for actors that I respect to see this film and want to work with me.”

Humpday, 2009, Joshua Leonard, Mark Duplass

Where’d You Get All of This?

Humpday. Sundance 2009 Preview w/Director Lynn Shelton” By Karina Longworth. Spoutblog, 15 January 2009

“Lynn Shelton: Humpday FilmMaker Magazine, 30 January 2009

“Lynn Shelton and the cast of Humpday, 6 July 2009

“Interview with Lynn Shelton, Director of Humpday By Melissa Silverstein. The Huffington Post, 8 July 2009

“Interview: Lynn Shelton on Humpday By Sean Axmaker. Parallax View, 9 July 2009

“Mark Duplass Talks Humpday and Future Projects” By Hayley Hosman. The Daily Californian, 22 July 2009

Humpday. DVD audio commentary by Mark Duplass & Joshua Leonard and Lynn Shelton. Magnolia Home Entertainment (2009)

Tags: Black comedy · Drunk scene · Interrogation · Midlife crisis · Psychoanalysis · Unconventional romance

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob // Jan 1, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Terrific coverage of a terrific film. HUMPDAY is what intelligent ensemble independent film-making is all about. Hope to see more from these creative people.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jan 1, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Bob: Thanks so much for dropping by and leaving those comments. Only time will tell if Shelton and Duplass can continue to make challenging films or whether the DIY format keeps them in a box, but I was very, very impressed with what they got on film here.

  • 3 Gay DVD Guy // Sep 1, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    I love independent movies and I have nothing but praise for the people involved in tackling the subjects and themes that mainstream Hollywood are too scared to touch without watering it down. great article too, thanks.

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