Capone talks sex and the straight man with HUMPDAY writer-director Lynn Shelton!!!
Published at: July 20, 2009, 8:46 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here.
Seattle-based writer-director-actress Lynn Shelton has made one of my favorite films of the year and certainly one of the funniest. It's a little movie called HUMPDAY that you may never have heard of, but I'm guessing you will before the summer is over. If you've stepped foot anywhere near an arthouse in the last few weeks, you've probably seen the poster of stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard standing shirtless staring at each other longingly in about the least gay way possibly. Despite the fact that HUMPDAY is about two straight men attempting to have sex, there's almost nothing sexy or homoerotic about the film, and that's exactly Shelton's intention. But above all other things, the film captures in the most humorous way the way men relate to each other, the way couples relate to each other, and the dance that everyone does around each other when intimacy enters into the equation.
I first saw HUMPDAY at the SXSW Film Festival in March and I kind of obsessed over showing this film to AICN readers in Chicago ever since. Thankfully, Magnolia Pictures is really pulling out the stops on promoting this film, and sent Shelton to Chicago for our packed-house screening a few weeks back, and she sat down with me to talk earlier that same day. Shelton's gained a great deal of recognition with her previous film, MY EFFORTLESS BRILLIANCE, and HUMPDAY was one of the first unsigned films to premiere at Sundance this year and get a distribution deal. The film also won the Special Jury Prize and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Her first features, WE GO WAY BACK, won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance in 2006.
Shelton has an extremely interesting way of building, writing (if you can call it that), and directing her films, but I'll let her tell you about that process. She also happens to co-star in HUMPDAY as Monica, a bisexual woman who sets her eyes on Leonard's character for a threesome, an encounter that reveals a great deal about just how open-minded his character really is. And if you don't mind my saying, Shelton is also a bit on the gorgeous side. But don't take my word for it; check out the movie and find out for yourself. I can't wait to see where this filmmaker's career takes her; she's a genuine talent with a unique way of getting her films made and made well. Would-be filmmakers should pay special attention. Enjoy Lynn Shelton…
Lynn Shelton: Thanks for bringing us to Chicago.
Capone: My pleasure. After I saw the film at SXSW, I contacted somebody and just asked, "Can we show this is Chicago?" And once they got onboard with the idea, I got greedy and said, "Can we bring some people out with it?" I didn't know at the time it had a release date; I just wanted to show it.
LS: Perfect, well I'm glad it worked out.
Capone: I noticed that for your last film, the screenwriting credit and the actors’ credits are remarkably similar. And on HUMPDAY, there's no writing credit. [This has actually changed since this interview was conducted; now Shelton has the writing credit as well.] Was there a significantly different process to composing the story between the two films?
LS: No, it was very similar. It was just kind of practical choice to divide up the credits this way for this film. But it's a collaborative development process. In both cases, I bring the actors in early enough, when it was loose enough…the fact is, I can't write the plot or cement what's going to happen in each scene until I know who the characters are, and I know that I want the actors heavily involved in that process. It's all in quest of extreme naturalism in the acting and writing, which I have a really high standard for. I found that a couple things happen when I invite the actors in to that process. Number 1, they're able to draw on their own personal experience and observations, first-hand experiences of knowing other people, bring personal information into that character. So the naturalism goes up. But also, they take ownership. So everybody has partial ownership of the project. I just feel like the level of engagement goes up, and the quality goes up. It's fascinating and it's really true.
I'm a control freak, so it hasn't been an easy, natural fit for me to become this collaborative. But I've found that the more collaborative I've become, the better the end product is. I've noticed there actually is a lot of structural guidance, but I'm trying to make it as invisible as possible. The first step is to be extremely careful about who I invite into that process. And once I know I have somebody I can believe in, I give them a lot of trust. But if it's the wrong person, I'm screwed. It's really essential. And it's not just the actors, it's the people on set too. I carefully handpick the eight people or whatever allowed to help out.
And then the other place where my control is totally exerted is in the edit room. As much credit as I give the actors for coming up with this incredible gold of material to work with, I have to give both my skill as an editor--because that's my background--so on set, I'm watching these long, meandering takes. I've got two cameras on them and they're going 20, 30, 40 minutes, and I'm watching them as an editor to make sure I have the ingredients there so that in the edit room, I'll be able to carve it out. And in the edit process itself, I work with a really beautiful editor--yes, he's beautiful physically as a man but, I mean, he's a beautiful editor as well--Nat Sanders. He and I worked beautifully together. Because the footage we had could have easily made any number of very mediocre-to-terrible films. Really, you are writing the script in the edit room. It's like a fly-on-the-wall documentary in that way, where you have all this footage and you have to find the story. It's very much like that. I couldn't do this if I wasn't an editor.
Capone: When you bring in the actors, what are you doing with them in those initial days when you have them in early? Are you working on histories between the two guys?
LS: Yes. Elaborate histories. It all ends bleeding over. So what happens is, I start with the person I want to work with. In my second features film is was Sean Nelson, this buddy I had who I just had a feeling would be a great center of a film. And in this case, it was Mark. We had just met on the set of a feature I was shooting stills on, and we just really hit it off and I thought his acting was incredible. So I really wanted to work with him. So I came up with this idea and I pitched him the other character [in HUMPDAY]; I wanted him to play the Andrew character, and he immediately said, "I've got to play the domesticated dude. That's where I'm at." And I said, "I'm going to need help finding somebody as charismatic as you are, because I want the bohemian guy to be a match. I don't want him to be less charismatic. So he almost immediately thought of Joshua. It was Mark's first instinct. I didn't know Joshua, he didn't know me from Adam, but I gave him my first two features, and he dug me and he wanted to work with Mark.
And so at that point, what I came to Mark with was two really guys who were best friends in college but their lifestyles have diverged dramatically now, and they get each other in this mutual dare in which they decide they have to have sex with each other. It was that loose, and I thought, well maybe they'd go to Hump [a Seattle amateur porn festival] and get inspired to have sex but not necessary make a movie. All this different configurations that eventually let to the idea that they were going to make "great art." So I was developing the outline, and we knew the basic direction, so it wasn't like, "Oh it's these guys Ben and Andrew; you can make up who you want them to be." It was specifically: This guy has a house and a wife. Then I hammered out with Mark, "How long do you think you and [Ben's wife] Anna have been together?" And the same with Joshua.
Then you're also coming up with stories at the same time. And then as you're getting to know them in that same discussion, you're starting to say, "What if there's a scene where such and such happens?" And that would evolve. And we did that over the course of several months, but it wasn't very labor intensive. We'd have this two-hour phone conversation every so often, once a month with each of them. And then I came down to L.A. for a weekend, and we shut ourselves off in a room and we really hammered out all these details and all this backstory. We had conversations about whether the audience was going to want to know if one of them is secretly gay. What's the deal? Have they ever had experiences like this before? So I came up with that basement scene, and I basically interviewed them and asked them to tell me their stories with homosexuality. That story is based on a story that Mark told us, the video store clerk story. The way that they are in that scene happens to be really close to their own personal experiences. And they're not playing themselves in the movie, but they are drawing on personal experience. From the outset, I was not interested in making a broad farce, and they were totally on board with that, so we were all looking for authenticity every step of the way. And everybody was on high alert, both in the development process and also on set for false notes. We shot this in order, so there was one time where we were able to adjust a scene because we were going to shoot the following scene the next day, and we had to readjust that to as necessary. It was a very organic and collaborative way of working, and really fulfilling.
Capone: I'm sure many people will see this particular scene differently, but the party scene where the guys hatch the idea to have sex for the porn really made me laugh, because I have been to so many parties where creative people--writers, filmmakers, artists--have conversations where they come up with all of these ideas that will never happen. They spend hours talking about something they will never do. And this film is that shows us what happens when one of those bad ideas actually come to fruition.
LS: [laughs] Totally. And I have a pet peeve about parties in movies that feel like "parties." It drives me nuts, and you especially see that in low-budget films. And I really wanted that to feel authentic. But it also had to have this whole "down the rabbit hole" kind of feel, because it had to create the perfect context for which such a crazy idea would come up. So it's so normalized; they're all coming up with these crazy projects, and these guys are like, "Yeah, we're cool. We can do something like that too." But the lynchpin scene for me is the next morning on the porch after the basketball scene. They start off saying, "Wow, that was nuts, eh? That's obviously never going to happen. What the hell was that about?" And by the end, they've gotten themselves into, "It's on!", because they're trying to let each other off the hook.
Capone: Well, that's the ultimate macho conceit: I'm so straight that I could have sex with a guy, and it's wouldn't be gay.
LS: Which is the ultimate irony. I love it; it's so ridiculous. It's so great, because these guys aren't stupid. They're really smart. And you're watching them, step by step, getting themselves into this corner. I knew if that scene didn't work, the whole film would just fall apart.
Capone: The other scene that struck a chord with me is the one where Mark is trying and failing to tell his wife about what he's going to do. In my head, I imagine a similar scenario being played out when you told Mark the idea for the movie.
LS: [laughs] I thought of the idea, and I wait a full five days because I really had no idea how he would react. And I really wanted him to say yes, but I was like, "God, I don't know." I remember wondering, how would I pitch it, how would I sell him on it. And I ended up just coming out with this, and he's either going to say yes or no. I was really nervous, it's true.
Capone: I love the idea that beyond the sexual component, these two guys feel like they have something to prove to each other about their lives. Andrew envisions himself this free spirit with an artistic mind, and can do anything in the name of art. And Ben is trying to prove that he's not as domesticated as Andrew thinks he is.
LS: And Andrew is trying to prove that to himself too. It's so poignant when the three-way doesn't follow through, because he realizes he's a square. His whole identity, his whole life is based on this vision that he has of himself as being open to everything and being this kind of totally adventurous, open-minded guy. And he finds his limitations and bumps up against them, and they thwart him.
Capone: Is it deliberate that at that time in Ben's life that he's basically being treated as a baby-making machine by his wife? Even their sex life has come down to something that's more mechanical.
LS: I thought about that a lot. In the first scene, I wanted to quickly establish where these guys were at in their relationship. And one of the things I wanted to show was that they're not in this full, passionate, heated place in their relationship in terms of their sex life. But at the same time, I wanted to establish that there's not some sort of dis-affectation. It's a good relationship; they're a couple that talks things out, they find humor in the other person easily and can laugh easily. They're a couple worth rooting for. There's deep affection there. And the fact that he is realizing, "Oh God, I'm in this domestic prison." He sees his old friend and remembers, "I'm like that guy inside. I know what you see here, but I'm still the same inside." And he realizes that he's built this prison around himself, this domestic place. But just because he's feeling this sudden dissatisfaction or anxiety about that doesn't mean it's not a strong marriage or that it's not a good relationship. The baby-making machine thing, if he hadn't abandoned her the night before, I'm sure they would have had a lovely lovemaking experience. [laughs] It's not like that every time, but it's an interesting point.
Capone: Obviously this is not a gay-themed film, I don't think.
Capone: But has their been a response to this film from the gay community or gay film critics?
LS: Sure. I'm trying to decide if it's because there are more gay men at festivals in general. I know there's a pretty strong presence at Sundance. I don't know what the percentages are. Or if it's just because they're drawn to my film because they think…I mean, I try to be clear that it's not gay because I don't want people coming in thinking it's a gay film and disappoint them. But it seems like 75 percent of my fan base at this point are gay men. I have yet to meet a gay guy who doesn't like this film. It's really interesting. And they are well aware that it's not a gay movie. It seems like it's a huge number that come up to me who are gay men.
Capone: But the reaction has been wholly positive?
LS: Very positive, yeah. I remember there was one gentleman at a Sundance screening, at a Q&A, who was very sensitive and disturbed by the fact that everyone was laughing in the last scene. He felt like it was homophobic laughter, and that people were laughing and squirming at the idea of two guys being together. And the whole audience was very upset with him because it was like, "No, it wasn't that at all. That's ridiculous. It's just these two particular guys." I can't say there isn't going to be anybody who isn't going to feel hurt or something, but boy, I'd say huge, vast number of people do not seem to have a problem with this movie. And I bent over backwards to make sure I wasn't making a homophobic film, even if these two guys have their own anxiety about homosexuality and a personal relationship to gayness. They clearly have this fear of being gay; there's something going on there.
Capone: I suspected these two guys were both a little homophobic, and they've going through with this to prove that they're not gay.
LS: Exactly. "No, we're cool. Really." And a lot of straight men have told me that they recognize that. It's not cool to be homophobic, but there's still this residual anxiety that people, even ones who have dearly beloved gay friends, just for themselves, they have to constantly reassure themselves that they're straight. And they need everyone else to know that too. So it's this funny territory. But I really did not want to make a homophobic film, so the gay characters that are in the film are normalized and positive and normal and fine. And I wanted to show that for some people, sexual identity and sexual experimentation is no big deal; it's very fluid. So that's another reason those two girls are in there.
Capone: What have you found that women have taken away from the film?
LS: Well the beautiful thing is that, for a large part of them, their way in is through Anna. And they really, really dig her and they love the marriage. That's the most response I've been getting from women. She's the stand-in for the audience in general, because she's like, "You're doing WHAT?!" She's also, when he comes in in the morning after the ovulation sex scene, when they're talking it out and he's rationalizing, she just doesn't let him get away with it. I worked very hard to make sure she wasn't going to be a cipher or a doormat or a harpy. She needed to be three dimensional and be someone you would be able to relate to.
Capone: Without giving away the ending, the tone of the ending is interesting because it ends on a very melancholy note. It's the saddest moment in the film, and it came as a big surprise to me. Is that what you intended or is that just what the guys came up with?
LS: What we did was deliberately kept that last scene an open question. We didn't want the rest of the movie to be acting and writing aiming toward this pre-destination. And we thought the whole movie would be more dynamic if we kept it secret--not even a secret, but a secret from ourselves. And every step of the way, we didn't want to make a broad farce. We wanted to keep a high alert for false notes and keep things believable every step of the way. So we were able to get to that last scene, and I was able to say, "Okay guys, really know Ben and Andrew, and I need you to live this scene out in the moment as these guys." And we all just ditched these preconceived visions or agendas that we had, and we really went for honestly. And I was the second camera operator except when I was in front of the camera, and we tackled it piece by piece, so we took when Ben's waiting for Andrew's arrival, and then the arrival, and then the testimonial. We did several takes. We were open to anything, they were open to anything. But because we were being so honest all the way through…people have asked could it have ended any other way, and I think not really. The one thing I will say is that at the very end, Ben really felt strongly that he had to leave and go back to Anna. So the way that played out--as soon as he tells him that and how he leaves and the coda after that--we did lots of versions of that. It was all basically colors of the same idea, if that makes sense, different shades of the same thing. The reason I chose that one is there is that laughter and he does find solace for a moment before he goes back to his completely solitary life.
The thing I like about the ending is that it brings up one of my favorite themes that underlines the entire movie--the reason the movie even exists, the reason he shows up on the doorstep is here's this guy who has completely constructed his life for freedom, and he therefore excised any chance for true intimacy with another human being. And I think he's lonely at that moment in his life, and he looks back and he sees that this is the one relationship that he felt a true connection to another human being, and he wants to reconnect with this guy. And I think Ben's interested in reconnecting too, but it's really about Andrew's desire to reconnect. The big question at the end is, did that happen or not at any point during that story? For me, they’re closer in the basement scene when they're sharing their vulnerabilities with each other than they are in the end scene. The irony is that they're trying to get rid of all emotion--"Let's approach this as a mechanical thing. It'll be easier not to kiss." And the awkwardness and tension there, even though they are trying to this really physically intimate, is actually pulling them apart even farther in terms of true emotional intimacy. It's so fascinating. That's the poignancy of the film right there in a nutshell. The harder they try to reconnect, the harder they bounce off each other.
Capone: How much footage did you shoot for that last scene in the hotel room?
LS: We checked into the hotel at seven at night, and we checked out at seven in the morning, and we were shooting for a large part of that. I mean, overall the shooting ratio was not that terrible at all for the movie. It was 25, 27 hours for a 90-minute film, and that scene takes up about a half an hour, and it definitely was a higher shooting ratio. But not as bad as you'd think...but it could have been eight to ten hours at least.
Capone: The first screening of the film at SXSW would have taken place just a day or two after the premiere of I LOVE YOU, MAN opened the fest. And a lot of people were drawing comparisons between the two films. Have you seen it, and I'm kind of curious what you thought if you had.
LS: [laughs] I was in L.A. when they put the first billboard up, and I was like "Wow, that could have been a title and the poster for our film." It's crazy, so funny.
Capone: I do think it's funny that these two very different films came out near each other that explore male relationships. It's unheard of in the modern era.
LS: And someone pointed out--I didn't see the film--but I guess there's a kiss in the film, where a guy thinks there on a date. And somebody pointed out that 10 years ago, you couldn't have had a scene like that in a film like that, because there would have been this ick factor that just doesn't exist now. My film certainly couldn't have been made 10 years ago either. But the fact that you could have a scene at the Dionysius party that is so believable because the subculture that's represented in that scene is truly out in existence and commonplace now, at least in Seattle. Attitudes in general allow for talking about man crushes and stuff like that.
Capone: In one of the right ups about your film, someone referred to the relationship as a "bromance," which is a word I've hated from the second I first hear it, but that word wasn't really around a year ago.
LS: Exactly. And when we were trying to come up with a way to describe the film for Sundance, we came up with "the bromantic comedy." We thought we were inventing it, but of course it's all over the place now.
Capone: I also really liked the way you illustrate both between the husband and wife and between the two guys, that sort of dance we do with people that we think we're close to when we're trying to discuss touchy subject. In this film, it's Mark attempting to tell his wife what's he's going to do, but that could have been anything that he knows is going to explode into a confrontation.
LS: Well, what you've just said points to something that I think…my whole pitch--the one-line concept of the whole movie--is that it's a conduit, a McGuffin in a way, to get to us into the realm of purely a very recognizable human interaction. So the thing that makes me really pleased is when audience members come up to me and say, "That's exactly the look on my wife's face when I try and bullshit her." That's what I was going for, to try and put ordinary people into slightly extraordinary circumstance, and then watch them try and dig their way out when in fact they dig themselves deeper in a very recognizable, believable way. But ultimately it really is just about marriage and male friendship and our relationship with our own sense of self too. Ben is so different with Anna than he is with Andrew. We have different masks we put on with different people. Our sense of self changes over time. He use to be this kind of guy, and now he's this kind of guy, but he still feels this way inside. All those kind of issues, and coming up against your own limitations of who you think you are and who you really are. Those are the things that really interest me, and I'm just looking for an interesting prism through which to explore that stuff.
Capone: Where did Alycia Delmore [who plays Anna] come from? I've never seen her before, because she's your great secret weapon.
LS: You wouldn't have seen her; this is the only time she's been in a movie. She and I did a web series together. She lives in Seattle, and she's done tons of theater. And I did a broad comedy web series, and she played a really thankless, two-dimensional character and just breathed life into in a really inspiring way. We did a little bit of improv, and it was very instinctive. I just had a feeling she could totally hold her own with these guys. And the wife was really important to me; I needed her to be really sympathetic, and she has an immediate sweetness and openness to her face that makes you kind of fall in love with her. I thought it would be a good fit, and I love her in that role.
Capone: So you finally got to play the film in Seattle [at the Seattle International Film Festival]. How was that?
LS: Oh, it was amazing. I was so nervous than I was at Cannes--I'd just been in Cannes. And I told them I think it's because, if the French didn't like it, I would never have to see them again, but I have to see you guys every day, because it's my hometown. But it's also, I grew up movies so much and going to these cinemas when I was a little kid, and there's this incredible childhood wish fulfillment/fantasy-come-true thing that's just mind blowing. And it really sinks in just how lucky I am to do what I love to do.
Capone: They actually put the film in a showcase kind of position, right? My brother lives there, and he went to the screening; that's how I know about it.
LS: And they've never done that for a local film before. They have three galas. I mean, they have 300-400 films, and they have the opening and closing night and the centerpiece gala, which was us. And there was a huge party after--it was a big, big deal. I was so honored; it was really lovely.
Capone: Obviously, you've had a great deal of success coming out of Sundance, SXSW, playing at Cannes, and a prestigious spot at Seattle. This has to be a bit overwhelming.
LS: Oh yeah. This has been a big, breakthrough year for me. I got this Independent Spirit Award as well in February, and while I was there, I started meeting with agents. I was literally hounded, chased by agents and managers, which doesn't necessarily mean anything--it means I'm a blip on the radar [laughs]. I figured out a way to make films, put them together myself, and make them this wonderful second family that I have of collaborators up in the hinterlands of Seattle. And I never really had an ambition to intersect with Hollywood; I certainly never thought I'd have the opportunity to. I do have a manager, I do have an agent, and we're talking to amazing people that I admired for years-actors and producers. So I'm just trying to keep level headed and centered and grounded and figure out exactly what right fit is. I don't want to be a director for hire, but at the same time, the prospect of being able to make a living as a filmmaker is a nice one. I have a 10 year old and a husband and a mortgage, and it would be a really lovely thing not to be scraping by like we've been doing. It's pretty exciting, and I'm curious to see what's next.
Capone: If you are able to incorporate some of these actors that you've been hearing from, would you want them to adapt to your style of filmmaking?
LS: Well, I'm open. I came up with this way because I was searching for a certain level of naturalism in the acting and the writing. I've never had the benefit of working with a beautiful script. Some of my favorite films are scripted films, and they feel very real to me. I mean, Noah Baumbach is a great example of someone who is an amazing writer who works with amazing actors to turn those words into their own. There's hybrid situations where I can still invite actors in to help develop their own characters. Or you can take a script and throw it out the window for a scene and just try and improvise it. There are all kinds of mediums ways of doing it. The problem with not having an actual script in Hollywood is that that's the basis by which you develop and package the whole deal. I'm open to working with a script and working in a more traditional way, but I would like to continue making movies this way too, because I find it deeply fulfilling and it's a good fit for me. And it's almost spiritually rewarding, you know? And I think because I am such a control freak, when I am able to be that collaborative, it expands me in this wonderful way. It's a good process, so I hope to always continue doing it.
Capone: Great. Continued success, and we'll see you tonight.
LS: Very shortly, yeah. Thanks.