Interview: Lynn Shelton on ‘Humpday’

Humpday, the third feature from local filmmaker Lynn Shelton, made its world premiere in the Dramatic Competition section of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It was the first film sale of the festival and went on to win a Special Jury Prize “For the Spirit of Independence.” It subsequently played in the exclusive Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and was the Centerpiece Gala for the Northwest Connections sidebar at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year. It makes its theatrical debut on Friday, June 10 in New York and Seattle.

Lynn Shelton
Lynn Shelton

Humpday is the story of best friends – one married and seemingly content in a conventional lifestyle, the other an aimless traveler whose artistic ambitions are unmatched by his accomplishments – who reunite after 10 years and make an unusual commitment to an extreme art project: two straight men having sex on camera for an amateur porno festival. Mark Duplass (of The Puffy Chair and Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Joshua Leonard (co-star of the indie blockbuster The Blair Witch Project) play the very straight buddies who essentially dare each other into the project and Seattle stage actress Alycia Delmore co-stars as Duplass’s wife. The rest of Shelton’s cast and crew was drawn from the pool of Seattle talent. I had previously interviewed Shelton about her first two features, We Go Way Back and My Effortless Brilliance [read the interview on Parallax View here] and and then kept running into her at screenings and receptions. Wouldn’t you know, we became friends. This interview was conducted at her home in January 2009, mere days before she left for the Sundance premiere (and before the film’s sale to Magnolia). It was relaxed and fun, probably the last interview she gave under such easy-going conditions, and he we hung out for over an hour talking movies, her particular approach to filmmaking and the Seattle independent scene, among other things.

How did you come to cast Mark Duplass?

I met Mark on the set of True Adolescents, which was being shot in Seattle in August of ’07. He was starring in it and I was shooting still photography. We knew of each other, we had mutual friends in the filmmaking community, so it was sort of like no introduction was necessary. We just gave each other a big old hug the first time we saw each other and immediately bonded as filmmakers. We would jabber away over the craft table and at lunch and we realized we had a lot in common in terms of our filmmaking philosophies. And it was really clear that we wanted to work together in some capacity by the time he went back to L.A.. I told him that I wanted to direct him.

So how did you settle on this project?

Mark sent me a script as soon as he got back to L.A. that he was hoping he would produce and I would direct, starring his wife, Katie. That ended up being nixed for other reasons but then a month or so after that, I think it was October, I called Mark with this 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.” So that was when we brought Josh [Leonard] in.

You had not met Josh before?

I had never met Josh before, I didn’t know of Josh, I hadn’t even seen Blair Witch. I didn’t know him at all, but they had met at the Woodstock Film Festival in ’05 or ’06 when Jay and Mark were there with The Puffy Chair and Josh was there was a short film, The Youth in Us, because he’s also a filmmaker. He didn’t know my work either so I sent him my first two films and luckily he really dug them, a lot. And he really wanted to work with Mark as well, so he was on board right away. And then we developed… A lot of phone calls, they both live in L.A., so a lot of phone calls, three-way chatting conference calls along the way.

Your lead actors were both filmmakers in their own right?

Yes.

Is it different directing someone used to being a director themselves?

It’s helpful because in this particular kind of filmmaking style. Casting is always really important, but in the case of this kind of methodology, you’re really casting writers as well as actors. It doesn’t mean that the actors have to be actual writers, it’s just that they have to comfortable enough to improvise. Some actors just can’t improvise. They’re great if they have lines and have got a script, but they really can’t come up with their own thing. But a lot of the methods that we use on set come from the training that I have as an actor:

How do you script for such an improvisational model?

Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard
Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard

You always hear people talk about how a script is just a blueprint and then things really shift on set. This is even more of that. The training that I have as an actor is what comes into play: Incredibly specific backstory, incredibly clear objectives, everybody knows exactly what they want out of that scene specifically and they know exactly what’s come before. If they have all of those basic good acting craft things in place, then the tension is there, everything is all set in place. I have everything laid out ahead of time except for the actual words that they are going to be saying.

Because Mark and Josh are filmmakers, it somehow makes it easier for them. And I want the actors in early in the process so that they can be a party to their own character’s development. You can’t really figure out exactly what’s going to happen until you figure out who the characters are. So that’s why as the characters are developing, the plot becomes more and more specific and you can shift that around. So it’s a very organic way of working and it seems to work really well, at least in this case. And Alycia [Delmore] totally held her own. She has tons of theater experience but very little camera experience. I think she was a little nervous about the fact that they had way more experience than she did for the first five minutes of the whole shoot and then realized that they were very generous and she totally kicked ass too.

That’s an unconventional filmmaking model.

There are tons of people who do their own versions. Altman was famous, of course, for improvising on set and letting the actors go and go and go, and overlapping and talking at the same time. And I’m really intrigued by Mike Leigh. He employs improvisation in the development of the script and brings the actors in very early. It’s just that they do it all before they shoot, so they’re going through all these improvisations to develop their characters and the plot and the script and then they get it all written down, then rehearse the hell out of it and then shoot. I just work in a very similar process except that I’m shooting the improv, but my actors have as much influence on my script as the actors have on his scripts. And then there’s folks like my buddy Joe Swanberg, who is much looser and usually doesn’t have nearly as much structure going into the shooting process. He just lets them just formulate each scene and then letting that scene inform what’s going to happen in the next scene, so he has an even vaguer sense of what’s going to happen before he gets on set. I can’t work that loosely. I have to have much more structure. And then the Duplass brothers have a whole script written but tell the actors to throw the actual words out. So they know exactly what’s going to happen. I think I have the closes kinship to them because they know what’s actually going to happen throughout the whole movie. I really want there to be tight narrative structure but then give them a lot of freedom in how they actually play out each scene. And of course there was Cassavetes. So there’s plenty of other people working that way but we all have our own take.

Cassavetes, like Leigh would develop the script through improvisations and then put those improvisations on paper and stick to the script.

Right. And the reason I shy away from that is that I find that if you have words on a page, there’s something that happens, at least in my experience, there’s something that happens with trying to make those words seem fresh. It’s very difficult. I really depends on the actor you’re working with, of course. Obviously if you’re working with Meryl Streep or Samantha Morton or Robert DeNiro and other really technical actors who can do forty takes and keep it fresh every time. But it’s a very specific skill set and very technical. I feel this other method has a level of naturalism that is more easily obtainable if you let people add in, ‘Oh, I can say it differently every time,’ as part of the freedom that they have to keep it fresh. We use two cameras 90% of the time so that you have instant coverage and you don’t have to have them replicate, you don’t have ten set-ups for the same lines so you can have something to cut to in the editing room.

What does this approach give you that traditional filmmaking models don’t?

Obviously there’s challenges to every filmmaking style but the truthfulness is the thing that I think is going to sell it. I was really concerned with it in this film because the set-up, the premise, is so absurd that the only way I felt that I could sell the comedy, or sell the story at all, was if you really believe every step of the way that these were real characters: you believe them as people, you believe their relationships, you recognize yourself or other people you know in the characters and the relationships to some extent and that they could actually get themselves into that kind of a bind. That they could actually live out a weekend that is as ridiculous as they do in the movie. I think we pulled it off.

Your first film, We Go Way Back, was more traditionally scripted. How did you move into this style?

My Efforless Brilliance
My Efforless Brilliance

When I was on the circuit with We Go Way Back, I was looking ahead to my second film and I didn’t know what it was going to be a the time, it was still unformed. I had all these ideas that I wanted to experiment with and I didn’t know anybody else who was experimenting with these things. The key thing that I found really frustrating on a traditional film set was that I felt that the acting was constantly being impeded with all the equipment and the brouhaha. I found it really inorganic and that was really difficult for me. I wanted to see what it would be like if you got rid of all the lights and shot everything in order and let them improvise. What I was really intimidated by was I didn’t know how to put together a budget. Joe Swanberg was on the circuit with LOL, and the thing that was really inspiring to me was that he made LOL for $3000 and it took him eight months. He just got his friends together for a few hours each weekend and it was so empowering to know that you could make it happen, just gather your resources, let’s shoot in this apartment that we have access to and make a film that you can shoot in an apartment. That was the thing that I found endlessly inspiring. So I had access to a cabin in the woods so how about shooting in a cabin in the woods [for the film My Effortless Brilliance]. And it’s a really nice thing to be able to pass on to students, because I teach filmmaking at the Art Institute. Don’t write a script that’s going to require you to be in Paris with an elephant and a hot air balloon. Think about what you have.

Your leads are from out of the area but your crew and supporting cast is from right here in the area, correct?

Yes. I had one co-producer on Brilliance but he wasn’t on set and he wasn’t as involved in the pre-production process. I really hands-on produced that film and it was really tough, especially on set. I really realized I somebody, I needed an assistant director, I need a producer, I need someone to help me run things and make sure people are going to be set and all of that so I can just concentrate on the creative aspect of what I’m doing. So I have two co-producers, Steven Schardt and Jennifer Maas, who I added to my roster, and expanded my crew just a tiny bit for Humpday. It’s a really tricky thing. I don’t want the set to be too large because even if people are willing to work for free, I can’t have everybody there because it just gets too distracting and spread out, the focus just gets spread out. Whereas I find if you keep it small and everybody feels really valued and they always have something to do and that they’re really needed there, they have more investment in what’s going on and they’ll do a better job. But everybody is really focused on the work that’s being done. It’s just not possible when you have a larger crew.

But that means you have to keep your film small as well.

Yes. 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. We try to set up the lights in such a way that they can really look okay wherever they are in the room so that they can just do what they want to do and we’re following them. That style of filmmaking works great with two-person scenes, it’s a little bit harder with three-person scenes but it’s possible, but when you get a larger scene… The biggest challenge was the 24-hour day that we spent where we had the big party scene, where we had twenty extras and musicians playing and a big house with lots of rooms where we needed to be able to shoot in every room. Because we only had access to that location for one day, we had a lot of scenes to shoot in that day and it was nuts. And to top it all off, I was acting in that scene so the entire day I was acting. Aughhh! It was horrible.

So we did expand the crew a little, we had two grips and we had an extra gaffer and we had more lights, so it gets a little bit more traditional filmmaking because of the amount of coverage you have to get, you actually have to change the lighting set-ups if you don’t have enough lights and enough equipment to have it all from overhead. The lighting is a big deal because you want the movie to look good. So if you wanted to do a period piece, or you wanted to do a film with more people, with a car chase or something, you wouldn’t be able to have that pure Shelton method that I love. You’d have to make some adjustments. But I still think it’s possible for me to act in my own movies, I just have to pre-visualize more specifically and more thoroughly than I have to if I’m right there behind the camera. My favorite shot in that party scene is at the very beginning of it when Ben [Kasukle, the DP] and I really walked through exactly what he was going to be doing, exactly what the camera was going to be seeing. He follows the characters through a walkthrough of the house, from one room into another room into another room, and it just worked out beautifully and, again, I was in that scene so I had no idea until I got into the cutting room if it had worked. And it was beautiful, it was just how I imagined it because we were so thorough about how we prepared for it. And then there were other scenes where we didn’t get around to doing that. So it works best if it’s on a small scale and you have to make some adjustments if it’s going to be bigger.

How did you end up casting yourself in a supporting role?

I really do like to think of a part at the same time as I think of the person I want to play the part. Even better is the other way around, I can think of a person and then form the part for them. I’m actually in the movie because I was stumped on who to cast. I had this idea of who she was but I couldn’t think of anybody to play her and it was Mark who actually suggested that I should be the one to play that part. I balked for a second just because I was nervous about whether I could direct and act at the same time, I couldn’t see how that could work. What really did it for me – because we started talking about this movie a little over a year ago – was I was asked to be in a Fly Film by my friend Megan Griffiths in the Spring, and I did it – I was the lead in that – and I had such a good time and I gained a lot of confidence, I felt that I learned a lot about acting for camera, so then I thought, okay, I can do this.

To be a local filmmaker and keep doing it locally means you have to create some kind of filmmaking support community. You have to have cinematographers and editors, you need access to equipment and work spaces, you need high end resources. Does Seattle have that?

Absolutely! I feel like the bench in Seattle is really deep, there’s a lot of talented crew here. I’m grateful everyday for everybody who chooses to stay here, or at least have one home here. For instance, I know a lot of crew folk who are able to keep one foot in Seattle and then do a lot of work in Spokane because there is a lot of work going on there. North by Northwest is, I think, the name of the company that has been doing a lot of productions there. They call it Spokanegelis. And Portland. I know that triangle of work keeps them in the area. And the fact of the matter is that you can. It was great to work with two folks who are based in L.A. and just bring them up for the production. It wasn’t a terrible hardship to put them up. It would be hard to bring in an entire crew. But even if Ben decides to move to New York at some point, for instance, I know I can bring him back for a month or two. My editor, Nat Sanders, was willing to move here for a couple of months from L.A., and then he moved on to New York to work on a movie there. That gets a little harder when folks get at a level where they start to have families and stuff, but so far people seem able to make that work.

But there are a lot of people who are committed to Seattle and are here for the duration. And in organizational terms, I’ve color corrected my last two films at Modern Digital and they’ve done a great, great job and have been great to work with. I feel like I have a relationship with them and that they are willing to be flexible with me a little bit on budget and seem interested in supporting me as a local filmmaker, which is just great. And the Northwest Film Forum is like my second home and have offered me fiscal sponsorship on my last two project. The projects are such small scale financially that I was able to build up the money through tax-deductible donations rather than maxing out my own credit cards or having to worry about doing something I’ve done before, getting a lawyer and getting a business plan and finding investors. I was able to do what I did when I was an experimental filmmaker and documentary filmmaker, which I was much more comfortable with, which was going the nonprofit route and getting people to donate. I’m probably not going to do that again, I’m probably moving on to another tier, but Northwest Film Forum allowed me to do that.

The thing that’s nice about equipment is it’s getting more affordable. The last two films I shot were on HD but on a camera that is not exorbitantly expensive that you would have to rent from a big house that would cost thousands of dollars a day or a week. So the technology is a big boon for regional filmmakers working out of smaller communities. There’s tons of support here and tons of talents and it’s a great place to work.

You mentioned Joe Swanberg, who is major name in the so-called mumblecore movement. And Mark Duplass has sort of become the movements poster boy. I see a kinship in the way you approach filmmaking. There’s a looseness, an approach to the types of stories you tell, small crews and a specific type of creative collaboration with the actors.

I hate that word. I was on a mumbelcore panel with Mark in September of ’07 at Northwest Film Forum and someone asked about the movement, implying that all these films were the same. And what I said was, “It’s like saying that every film that was made for $8 million and has a script and was shot on 35mm film are somehow all the same.” These films are all going to be totally different depending on who the director it. The Duplass Bros. films are really different than Joe Swanberg’s films, which are really different than Aaron Katz’s films, because they’re all being made by completely different people. And we all have our different take. But yes, there is definitely a kinship.

What’s the future of that kind of filmmaking in a film distribution culture where these kinds of films aren’t considered commercial and there are fewer and fewer companies releasing these kinds of film?

This is a part of filmmaking that I’m just getting to know, so I’m really new to the whole business and distribution end, I’m just learning from my sales rep and others. On My Effortless Brilliance, my sole two objectives were to create a film that I was proud of – and specifically I was really proud of the performances and the writing, I wanted to reach a certain level of naturalism in the writing and acting and I achieved that for myself – and the other thing is I really wanted to go to SXSW and I wanted it to premiere there and I achieved that. And anything else was really icing. Getting an Independent Spirit Award nomination blew my mind and I was really blown away and thrilled that IFC wanted to distribute it. You just made a comment that most of these films aren’t considered commercial and just because it got into Sundance, even in the competition, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more commercial. I think five films sold out of Sundance last year – at the festival – which is a record low. It’s not like it was twelve or fifteen years ago when films we’re being snapped up for millions and millions of dollars at Sundance. At the same time, I can totally see this film selling out crowds at the local Landmark cinema. I really do think that it has an appeal and a reach as much as any film you might at the Egyptian or the Harvard Exit.

But there are fewer companies willing to take on these kinds of movies, and the studios are shutting down their independent releasing arms. There are fewer outlets for your kind of filmmaking. The last two major Seattle-based independent productions, Rick Stevenson’s Expiration Date and John Jeffcoat’s Outsourced, were self-distributed. You can continue to make films the way you do because they are so inexpensive. With a sale to IFC, like on My Effortless Brilliance, are you able to make your costs back and turns enough of a profit to make your next film?

Yes, and IFC had a special thing they launched called the Festival Direct Program, which enables a small film that didn’t have any stars in it, like mine, and also a few other films, like Medicine for Meloncholy, and some of them got a limited theatrical release as well, but they have a handful of films that they picked up at various festival. The contracts weren’t huge but it paid off for me because of the that I make movies and it wouldn’t have for Expiration Date or Outsourced because those budgets were just too much. It was wiser for them to go on their own. For me, it’s not a structure I had in place and I don’t have the energy to figure out how to do it. I just want to make movies

Are you on Facebook? If you become friends with Sundance, they have these little “Snackbox” video clips. There’s this wonderful little snippet of me and Mark and he’s giving me advice about my first year at Sundance. And he says, “Don’t worry too much about selling your film because it’s if it’s going to happen, it’ll happen, and if it’s not, it’s not. But you don’t have to worry because when you make movies the way we make movies, you can always make another movie.” Because I was saying, “The only thing I care about is I want to make another movie.” And that’s going to happen regardless. That’s the thing that’s coolest about making films on this scale.

Humpday opens in New York and Seattle on Friday, July 10.

humpday3


One Comments

Comments are closed.