That’s What Friends are For: Writer/Director Lynn Shelton on the Collaborative Process Behind Her Poignant Comedy, Humpday
Lynn Shelton has worked in a variety of creative forms for most of her life, but seems to have found her true voice in the role of writer-director. A Seattle native, Shelton spent her formative years immersed in painting, writing poetry, taking pictures and acting. She was a stage actress for ten years (and was told she was destined to work in film), and subsequently studied for an MFA in Photography at NYC’s School of Visual Arts. She then began working in film, both as an editor on movies such as The Outpatient (2002) and Hedda Gabler (2004) and as the creator of experimental and documentary projects The Clouds That Touch Us Out of Clear Skies (2000) and The Fruits of Our Labors (2005). Shelton made her feature debut as a writer-director with We Go Way Back, a poignant film centered on a twentysomething actress reflecting on her teenage life, which won the Grand Prize at Slamdance in 2006. She followed this up with the fantastically funny My Effortless Brilliance, about two old friends whose paths in life have diverged, which was released last year by IFC.
Humpday, Shelton’s third feature, is in many ways a companion piece to My Effortless Brilliance, as it revisits the idea of two college buddies who attempt to reignite their friendship after a period apart. This film, however, has a killer hook, as early on in the movie its two “bromantic” leads, devoted husband Ben (mumblecore director Mark Duplass) and wild adventurer Andrew (The Blair Witch Project‘s Josh Leonard), pledge to have sex with each other. During a night of debauchery, the pair decide to make a film for Hump, Seattle’s amateur porn festival, which will have the novelty of featuring non-gay intercourse between two very heterosexual men, and what begins as a drunken dare becomes a promise neither is willing to back down from. Humpday is a true crowdpleaser, and certainly fulfills the rich comic potential of its outrageous premise, but it is more than simply an absurd tale of one-upmanship. Whereas the Apatow model for such movies might have settled for superficial laughs, Shelton delves deeper into the unease behind the laughs and dares to ask more serious questions about her characters’ lives and their motivations for pursuing this folly to its illogical conclusion. As on her previous films, Shelton uses an improvisational approach that blurs the line between the role of actor and writer, demonstrating a rare ability to elicit from her cast naturalistic performances within rich and interesting narratives.
A few days before Humpday‘s world premiere at Sundance, Filmmaker spoke to Shelton about her use of structured improvisation, Joe Swanberg’s fascination with gay porn, and her brother vomiting during The Blair Witch Project.
Filmmaker: Where did the initial idea for the film come from?
Shelton: The starting point for me were that I knew I wanted to work with Mark Duplass, really bad. We met on the set of True Adolescents, which was shooting in Seattle in the summer of ’07, which I was a still photographer on. We’d known of each other, mostly through Joe Swanberg and other people in that world, but had never actually physically met. By the time that we met we were primed to meet each other, it was just a giant hug and it was like we’d known each other for years and we had a great, great bonding experience, just talking about films and comparing notes on how we approached making movies ourselves. 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 the 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. He got me thinking, “What would be some interesting scenarios of a movie that would be appropriate for him?” My original idea was actually two guys who were good friends: one was this kind of crazy guy who had a philosophy of life that was “I have to do everything in this world – you only have one life to live, so you’ve got to experience everything at least once. Literally everything!” Then his friend was more tame and domesticated and less adventurous, and there would be a Svengali-like hold of the one guy over the other, who would almost be living vicariously through these adventurous ideas. They would go to this amateur porn festival together and they would see gay porn there and the adventurous guy would be like, “Oh, my God, I’ve never been with a man! I have to do that! I have to open myself to that experience because I open myself to every experience and I’m that kind of guy.”
Filmmaker: And Joe Swanberg was somehow part of the inspiration for this?
Shelton: Yeah, he came to Seattle and stayed with us on our couch for about 10 days. Hump was happening then and he went to it and literally for a couple of days talked all the time about how fascinating it was. 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. He kept saying, “I wasn’t turned on by it – it wasn’t a sexual thing,” but at one point I remember him saying that he found it “sculptural.” It did something to his brain and he was just thinking about it a lot. And I just found it kind of funny! [laughs] 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.
Filmmaker: Did you ever consider casting Joe as one of the leads?
Shelton: Well, I was chatting with Joe and said, “So what about this idea of two straight guys having sex with each other?” and Joe immediately volunteered to be the one to have sex with Mark Duplass! [laughs] But when I started talking about it to Mark, we realized that the two characters needed to be the same age. I originally imagined Mark as being the Josh Leonard role, charismatic, crazy guy, but Mark immediately said, “I need to play the domesticated dude.” Then I needed someone else to play that role – it just didn’t seem like the right casting choice because of the age thing.
Filmmaker: Did you know Josh Leonard before you embarked on this project? Did you know him before?
Shelton: No. In fact, when Mark was adamant that he needed to play the domesticated guy, I said, “Well, you’re going to have to help me cast this part, because I need this part to be somebody who is as charismatic – if not more so – than you, and I don’t personally know any actor who is more charismatic than you, [laughs] so I’m going to need some help here.” Josh was actually the first person that Mark thought of. They had met at the Woodstock Film Festival, when Mark had Puffy Chair there and Josh was there with a short, The Youth in Us, and they became good friends. When Mark called Josh and threw the idea at him, vouched for me and said it was going to be an interesting project, he was interested right away. I remember we met on the phone, I pitched the movie to him – which was hard enough to pitch to Mark, who I already knew – and sent him my first two films. He really liked and responded well to both of them, and after that he was on board. I think he understood what I was trying to do and understood Mark’s way of making movies as well, so knew what he was in for.
Filmmaker: Were you aware of Josh as an actor, particularly in The Blair Witch Project?
Shelton: I’d never seen that film, and then I felt like I had to see it… I’m not a horror fan at all – I’m a total weakling and just don’t have the stomach for horror and so had no desire to see it. Also, I get really motion sick at the drop of a hat and that movie is terrible for that. My brother saw it in the theater and he had to run to the bathroom and vomit, so there was no way I was going to see it in the theater. People were telling me how incredibly scary it was and I was just like, “No, not for me…” Mark warned me, “You’re going to be really creeped out,” so when I watched it I ended up barely being able to look at the screen, I was so sick watching it on my little TV. I had to look at it peripherally, sideways on the couch, and I would be listening and glancing at the movie in the second half because I got so sick.
Filmmaker: Both Humpday and My Effortless Brilliance have an incredible feeling of spontaneity. How much free rein did you give Mark and Josh in order to achieve that sense of immediacy and naturalism?
Shelton: It’s very similar to a Mike Leigh paradigm, the only difference is that he actually writes down [workshopped dialogue] and submits the script before they go into production, but all those words came out of the actors’ mouths originally, because he uses improv to come up with the script. Even though he’s got it written down and can put his name on it and can say, “These are the lines I ultimately decided on using,” he takes the screenplay credit even though the actors are the ones who were very actively participating in the writing process.
Filmmaker: So he writes the film before shooting begins, whereas you essentially write in in the editing room.
Shelton: I write it in the edit suite – exactly. So I let them go on and on for a 40-minute take, and we’ve got two cameras, so they just play out the entire scene. And there were some scenes that were very different every time, like with the fight in the kitchen scene, for instance, we tried out a number of different things. Or the three-way scene – good lord, that scene had so many different colors to it! We really shaped it and wrote it in the edit room, and it’s very similar to a documentary where you’re the fly on the wall and you’re just gathering footage, and you could make a thousand really different movies from that raw material. I think about it as the idea of sculpting in marble: you have this big block of material, and you’re just carving and tweaking and tweaking. It’s just fascinating, because the core of some of the scenes are the same as when we were on set, but a lot of them are constructed after the fact. Sometimes you’d finish shooting a scene and I knew I had the elements to put it together, but a lot of the time the actors were like, “I don’t think we got it.” Like Mark and Josh didn’t think we had an ending.
Filmmaker: Had you planned the ending out at all?
Shelton: We got to the hotel room and we didn’t know what was going to happen when we got there – that was the agreement that we’d made. We had some ideas and some starting points, but Mark was adamant that nobody in the cast or crew would know what was going to be the ending of the movie. We were there for 12 hours and we tried a number of different things out through the night, but when we left in the morning Mark and Josh were both pretty convinced that we didn’t have it and that I was going to have to come to L.A. to shoot some more. I was pretty exhausted and they were pretty adamant, but I knew that it was there. I didn’t know exactly which takes we would use or how we would put it together, but I was about 95% certain that we had it. It’s an interesting way of directing because, going back to the screenplay, I have everything in place: I know what the movie is going to be, except for the exact words that are going to be spoken. Especially with this movie, because I wanted every point in time to make people feel like “What’s going to happen next? I want to know what’s going to happen next!” In order to have that strong narrative drive, I had to have it all planned out and it was the opposite of “Oh, let’s just make a movie and improvise the whole plot.” It wasn’t like that at all. There was a lot of planning and a really strong blueprint. And, at the same time, we shot the whole thing in order so there was enough flexibility to evolve and adjust as we shot.
Filmmaker: Something that’s very evident from this and also Brilliance is your uncanny knack of capturing male relationships and the way that men talk to each other. How have you managed to do that so well?
Shelton: I think I credit my background as an actor, a photographer and a documentary maker. I’ve always loved people-watching. I remember in high school, I was a photographer and had a telephoto lens and could take these photographs safely and anonymously, just there watching and observing people and zoning in. I was teaching myself to be a close observer, and then I expanded that when I started doing interviews with people and trying to elicit people’s real self and draw them out and show their authentic selves. As an actor, it was the same thing – you have to be a close observer of people if you want to get to the heart of the character that you’re playing and my initial impulse has always been to go to the truth of something. With We Go Way Back, I found it painfully difficult to write a line on a page and then try to help somebody turn that into something that would sound like it would come out of their actual mouths. It just wasn’t the way I was going to find naturalism, but for me I just really enjoy working this way. It’s so organic and so collaborative. With both Brilliance and Humpday, I brought the actors in right at the very beginning before I had anything plotted out; I have this very loose idea, but before I can nail down the plot, I need to know who the characters are. And I can’t nail that down until I have the characters cast, because I want the actors to be a huge part of the development of their own characters. It’s really easy when they’re coming in at the beginning, because then can embody those characters and own them, and it’s fun.
Filmmaker: From a practical point of view, how have you managed to combine the demands of teaching and motherhood with pursuing your own career as an independent film director and making two films in the last two years?
Shelton: It’s helpful for me to see how much work I’ve been able to accomplish, because I think of myself as a really lazy person! [laughs] I’m somebody who, if I had a choice, would probably just stare out the window for hours at a time given the opportunity. Firstly, I have to say that I would not be able to do this if I didn’t have an incredibly supportive husband. He’s just so great about letting me check out from the family; in production, I have to just totally pass the child and all responsibility off to him and he’s just unbelievably wonderful about being willing to do that. It’s been a bit of a struggle, and I’ve had to learn how to create the work-life balance. With my first film, I’d never been on a set before and I was constantly trying to absorb new information because I didn’t know anything. I slept on average four hours a night for nine months and I went on vacation from my family. I was still sleeping here at night, but that was it. It was tough on us, but now with Humpday and Brilliance, we had much more compact production time and and the development process took place over months it was not too crazy. And the whole time I was teaching a day and a half, even during production, because I can’t afford not to. It’s a constant balancing act, but I’ve somehow figured out how to make it happen.
Filmmaker: Finally, with your Independent Spirit nomination, all the Sundance buzz around Humpday and your career clearly gathering momentum, what are your aims or goals Sundance and the next few years?
Shelton: Well, I’d love to sell Humpday, mainly because I paid the crew and cast either nothing or less than their worth and they all have a share in the film so I want to make sure that everybody who made the film possible gets something back. I would love for this film to be in theaters, and I know that that’s harder and harder these days but I’d sure love that too. I really envision it. 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.