Humpday written and directed by Lynn Shelton was one of those movies that came out of Sundance this year with a lot of buzz. The premise sounded funny but stupid: two old college friends, Ben and Andrew played by Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard, -- straight guys -- decide to make a porn flick together. My first thought was another stupid bromance.
This movie (which opens Friday) is anything but stupid. Shelton takes on some of the biggest taboo issues in a way that really makes you think. She tackles sexuality -- male sexuality -- and while the idea of making the film might have started as a joke in a drunken haze, it takes on a lot of loaded issues which I found brilliant. These guys ask themselves if they could really have sex with each other and if they are even thinking about it does that mean they could be gay? The film layers on other life issues like am I on the right path? Did I just settle? And the ultimate question do I know who I am? The third player in the film is Ben's wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) a woman who thought she knew her husband but when she finds out about the film is forced to look at her husband and herself differently.
This is a really good movie. I love that here is a woman exploring issues about guys in such a funny, smart and respectful way that it will hopefully continue to dispel the fallacy that women can only direct films about women.
Lynn Shelton answered some questions about the film:
W&H: Why did you want to tell this story?
Lynn Shelton: Good drama (and comedy) often comes from the simple act of placing characters in a situation that is not usual nor comfortable for them. That's what Humpday does, at its most basic level. And I knew that placing these particular characters into this particular uncomfortable situation was going to allow for an exploration of all kinds of things that interest me: the limitations of friendship (specifically male friendship), the nuances of marital relationships, the various guises we don depending on the context (at home with our mates vs. flying solo at a wild swinging party for example), coming to grips with the fact that the image we have of ourselves doesn't necessarily jibe with who we are in actuality...not to mention issues of sexual politics: the low grade homophobia of the average, well-meaning straight guy, the rigidity/fluidity of the boundaries of our sexual identity.
W&H: Your film is so funny yet really touches on some important cultural issues like masculinity and sexuality. How important was keeping it funny and light?
LS: Although humor is present in every one of my films, it has always been used as a way to make the darker, heavier stuff in my stories more palatable. I never set out to make Humpday a comedy. We played every scene straight. I mean, we were not unaware of the potential for laughter, but we really didn't think about it on set. We were never playing for laughs nor looking for opportunities for jokes. The scene in which Ben's wife Anna finds out the true nature of the "art project" gets a huge amount of laughter in the theater (albeit awkward, anxiety-ridden laughter), but shooting that scene was incredibly intense; it was by far the hardest, most serious day on set.
W&H: This summer both you and Kathryn Bigelow are directing films that we don't see women direct very often. Stories about guys. Why do you think that is such an issue when it is never an issue when men direct women?
LS: Hmm, can I be obvious and say there is probably a double standard for male vs. female directors? Sadly, I think that's actually the case. And it probably stems from the fact that there are proportionately so many fewer women directors than men ones that each project is perhaps more closely scrutinized for its content. But maybe it's more equal than we realize...I've read that Mike Leigh gets asked all the time about why he makes movies about women (and very good ones at that) and his very apt answer is that he doesn't make movies about women or about men...he makes movies about people.
W&H: I have described your film as a bromance without the typical misogyny since there is no overt hatred towards women in the film. How important was it to you that Anna be an important piece of the story?
LS: It was vitally, vitally important to me. It was also vitally important to me that this film not be a homophobic one, by the way. But yes, back to Anna: I am as proud of her character and her role in the film as I am of any other element in it. She so easily could have been a cipher, or a character only there to serve Ben's character. I didn't want her to be that, and I didn't want her to be a harpie or a doormat either. I wanted her to be smart and sympathetic and as fully fleshed out and complicated as the two guys in the film, even though she doesn't get the same amount of screen time. It was important to me as a matter of principle (how sick am I of the cardboard cut-out ancillary "girlfriend" or "wife" character in male-driven movies?) but also because if you don't care about Anna and the relationship between she and Ben, the movie simply wouldn't work. There would be no stakes, no tension, no emotional investment as to whether or not the boys do it and how the whole story unfolds.
W&H: Explain to people what the "upside-down" model of filmmaking is and why it works so well for you.
LS: 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 hand-craft 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. 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.
W&H: What are you working on next?
LS: I'm shooting "$5 Cover Seattle", a music-based web series being produced by MTV. It was the brainchild of another independent filmmaker, Craig Brewer, whose original version, "$5 Cover Memphis", can be seen on MTV.com right now. I'm very excited about the project because it's a great fit for my creative style, plus I get to work intimately a bunch of sexy rockstars..pretty much a dream come true.
The film opens in NY and Seattle this weekend and rolls out across the country over the summer. Here's info on where the film is playing.