“Everything has been gravy”: Lynn Shelton, director of “Humpday”

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Writer/director Lynn Shelton couldn’t be happier with how the release of her newest film, Humpday, has been going. In fact, she says, “everything has been gravy” since its premiere in January; it opens July 31 at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis. The feature, Shelton’s third, was accepted at Sundance and SXSW and earned a slot in the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.

Humpday follows Ben (Mark Duplass, Baghead and The Puffy Chair) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project), who have been friends since college but haven’t seen each other in a decade. Ben is happily married and has a job and a house; Ben suddenly appears on his doorstep after traveling around the world, and from this moment on, things start to get dicey. One evening, they go to an bohemian party and when the alcohol starts to kick in, the party heats up, and Ben and Andrew make a vow to enter an amateur porn contest—not only enter the contest, but have sex together on camera. What further complicates the situation is they’re both straight and one of them needs to mention this dare to Ben’s wife Anna (Alycia Delmore).

I spoke with Shelton by phone during her busy press day in Seattle, two days before the film premiered in the Centerpiece gala at the Seattle International Film Festival. I also contacted her more recently to ask her about the success of Humpday’s recent opening weekend, when it pulled in close to $30,000 on only two screens: one in New York and the other in her hometown, Seattle.

Congratulations on the film and getting it into these incredible film festivals.
Yes, the film has been quite a fairytale. For me anyway, it has been very surprising and delightful.

So the film was inspired by an actual porn contest that takes place in Seattle that’s put on an alternative weekly magazine called The Stranger, a contest called Hump Fest?
Sort of. At one point it was called Hump Fest but now they’ve changed it to just HUMP! They hold it in October and they just opened submissions for this year, so it gives people plenty of time to make the actual film. The idea it’s supposed to be for non-filmmakers and it’s an amateur event. This is going to be the fifth year.

How did this story intrigue you? How did you get Mark and Josh to go along with this story? Were they part of the creation too?
In the last two films I’ve made [My Effortless Brilliance and We Go Way Back], I employed an unorthodox method of creation: instead of writing a script from beginning to end, thinking of characters in my head, I start with a person that I want to work with. For example, on my second film, My Effortless Brilliance, I was curious to work with Sean Nelson. In this case with Humpday, I started with Mark Duplass, who I met on the set of a film that was shooting in Seattle called True Adolescents, which just premiered a film month ago. We had mutual friends and met on that set, I was the still photographer that basically I volunteered to be so I could meet him. I fell in love with his acting on that film, and [with him] as a person—we really hit it off. We wanted to collaborate at some point, so I approached him about a month after filming was done and went to L.A., where he lives, with an idea for a couple of characters. [We imagined a] relationship between two friends who would be different types: one would be more domesticated and conservative, and the other one would be more crazy, the try-anything type. I envisioned Mark in the crazier role, but he was really feeling a connection to the domesticated character because that’s where he was at in his own life. And then I had this idea about these two straight guys for some reason would get themselves into this pickle where they decided that they had to try and have sex together for whatever reason. It was a really loose idea. I like to start off early enough in the process without having to many things in place when I approach the actor because I want them to be heavily involved with their own character’s development. The quest here was for an extremity in naturalism in both the writing and acting. I found that the more collaborative I am in the whole development process with the actors, the more authentic it’s going to feel, the more three-dimensional the character, the more believable the relationship between the characters. So we invited Josh early on, and then Alycia came on board. All three of them were involved with creating texture for their characters, and then once I get to know the characters we can start to figure out and get input from them on what will happen in each of the scenes, but I’ll decide how the movie will play out. When we arrive on set, we’ve got structured outlines and they provide all the dialogue and we’ve got two cameras going—so in the editing room, it’s very similar to a documentary style. So in a way we’re setting up a false documentary situation, and then in the editing room, I’ll take these 20- to 30-minute scenes and cut them down to five-minute scenes.

How long did it take to make the film?
I’ll give you the entire timeline. Mark and I met in August of 2007, in October I went to L.A. to meet with Mark and pitch him the idea. In May 2008, I meet with Josh and Mark—Josh lives in L.A. too—and spent a weekend with them to come up with the back story. They arrived on set in late June and we did 10 days of shooting. My editor Nat and I had about two and a half months to worked on the edit before we had to turn our submission in to Sundance. And then we spent a couple months polishing it up and fixing the color correction, [editing] the sound and writing the music in order for the premiere at Sundance in January.

You have a minor part in the film. Was this something that you wanted to play yourself, or did you want someone else to play the role?
Well, I have a background in theater from a long time ago and I enjoy acting. I’ve started to take on small parts in films that my friends are making but I never planned on playing this part. There is something interesting about this way of working: I’ve never attempted to audition anybody, and I’m really casting out of instinct or [casting] people I’ve worked with before in other scenarios—but I’ve never figured out how to sit down and audition a brand new person to cast. I was stumped; I didn’t have somebody immediately come to mind who I personally knew who could play this part, but I had a very clear vision who I wanted her to be. It was Mark, actually, who suggested after I was stressing over who it should be, he said, “You should actually just play it, Lynn.” At first I balked at the thought, but then I realized it was in the back of my head from that moment on. Last May, I was cast as the lead in a short, so I was in all the scenes, and I learned a lot in it and I gained confidence as an actor. Coming from that theater background helped, but I think I didn’t have that same level of confidence in front of the camera. So once I had that experience from acting in the short, my confidence grew that I wouldn’t necessarily ruin myself if I appeared in Humpday. It was quite a challenge for me since it was the first time I ever attempted to act in a film I was directing. I found it completely a matter of different skill sets, but also two conflicting points of view or states of mind. When I’m acting, if I want to do a good job, I really think you have to lose yourself and not to appear to be self-conscious, not to be looking at the scene at some bird’s eye view, as you do as a director. I don’t know how people do it or how people act and direct at the same time, especially in a lead role, but I realized in order to do it that way I had to have everything completely preplanned so I would know exactly what the cinematographer was going to be doing and basically, I’d have to know what the whole scene was about before we shot it.

After the film premiered at Sundance it was bought by Magnolia Pictures for distribution. It screened at SXSW and Cannes, but what does it mean to screen the film for the first time in Seattle after everything that has happened with it? Are you a bit anxious?
I grew up here and I grew up going to these theaters and actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. So after going to all these pretty great and important festivals, I swear to God, I’m just as excited if not more so about the Centerpiece gala. I’m just overwhelmed with honor and I don’t know if they have ever given the Centerpiece spot to a Seattle-based film. So I’m wondering why I am so nervous, so excited, about opening here. My friends and people I love will be in the audience [at SIFF], but I [also] cannot wait for the film to play at the Harvard Exit. It is somewhat of a childhood dream to have my film screen at the beautiful and historic Egyptian Theater during SIFF and then open at the Harvard Exit for its theatrical run. I couldn’t have asked for anything more exciting.

What has been the most surprising thing for you since the film opening?
Just the fact that it’s being released at all is the loveliest surprise for me.

Did you ever imagine this kind of success for the film, when you were meeting with Josh and Mark last summer?
No, I did not. I really, really did not. My goals for this film were modest: (a) make a movie that I could be proud of and (b) get it into Sundance. Those goals were met long ago. Everything else has been gravy. The fact that there has been so much gravy makes me feel constantly humbled and utterly grateful.

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins@yahoo.com) writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.

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