Talkin’ Mumblecore with Lynn Shelton and Mark Duplass

If you haven’t heard about “Humpday,” that’s about to change. It’s been the critical darling at nearly every festival it’s graced all over the world. And it starts in limited theatrical release this weekend. I reckon it won’t be long before writer/director Lynn Shelton is a household name. That’s because “Humpday” is more than just a film about two straight dudes trying to convince themselves to have sex with each other for a porn festival. It also covers very relatable yet infrequently explored concepts like liberal homophobia, the perpetual bohemian, and insecurities about settling into urban adulthood, all through an improvised narrative structure. The result is a natural, occasionally moving, and completely hilarious comedy that gives Apatow and Co. a run for their money.

“Humpday” was inspired by a real amateur porn festival that is hosted by alternative weekly paper, The Stranger, in Lynn Shelton’s hometown of Seattle, WA. Stranger editor Dan Savage recently challenged Lynn to create a Hump! film herself for this year’s competition and she accepted. So if you live in Seattle and manage to score a ticket to this always sold-out event, it’s possible that the next Lynn Shelton film you see may be a bit on the blue side. Fortunately for the Hump! artists, they destroy all of the films after the last screening, allowing actors to be porn stars for one night only. So if you can’t make it to the fest this year, you’ll just have to watch “Humpday” and leave it up to your imagination…

I talked with Lynn and “Humpday” star, Mark Duplass, about the process of creating such a unique film and whether or not we might see some alternate endings on the DVD release.

Lynn, since you’re something of a local celebrity in Seattle, Humpday sold out every showing at SIFF. But you’re traveling all over the world with the film. How has it been received elsewhere? What aspect of the story do you think people are responding to the most?

LYNN: Everyone hates it. It’s really a bummer. No, they’re wonderful. Everyone really likes it. The quietest audience was in Edinburgh. But they tell me that’s just because the Scots are raised to be polite…or something. They’re not allowed to laugh or they get whipped at home. But they gave me the critic’s award there, the Rotten Tomatoes Critic’s Award, so I guess they didn’t hate it that much.

“That’s exactly the look my wife gets on her face when I try and bullshit her.”

Well, that’s a relief! What aspect of the story do you think people are responding to the most?

LYNN: Well, that’s the thing that’s so cool is that there seems to be a lots of ways in to this story. I mean, it’s incredible. Five people will come up to me after a screening and say “God, this is the best movie about male friendship I’ve ever seen!” and somebody else will say “I can’t believe that marriage in that movie. That’s exactly the look my wife gets on her face when I try and bullshit her.” And somebody else is excited about the exploration of the sexual identity boundaries or whatever. It really seems to hit people on an individualized basis, which is awesome. There are a lot different things for people to hook into.

MARK: It’s also my abs.

LYNN: Right. That’s a given.

With “My Effortless Brilliance,” you did fantastic job photographing the essence of the Washington wilderness. Likewise, in “Humpday,” you beautifully captured the quintessential images of life in Seattle. I particularly love the shot of Edith Macefield’s diminutive house in Ballard sandwiched between high-rise condos. Do the scenic shots happen organically or do you have a shot list you follow?

LYNN: It’s pretty organic. There’s not a specific shot list. That particular montage that you’re referring to we did shoot when the boys were still in town. And all it said on my outline was “Ben is driving…a driving montage. Andrew is walking to the hotel.” And then we just kind of drove around and looked for nice streets to show Andrew walking down. And I think that somebody had showed Josh Edith’s house. I think it was Josh’s idea to shoot in front of that house. That’s what Ben told me. But it was very much in the moment, wracking our brains that day. Where can we go? Where are we gonna drive next? Where can we shoot? And with some of the other montages like the one with the Olympic mountains and the one with the bus driving by…I went out with a camera later and shot those. Same with some of the driving footage of the office scene in the beginning. We just needed more footage so I went out and filled in the blanks and captured some…stuff.

Lynn, you’ve mentioned that you had a long time desire to work with Mark. What about his work attracted you specifically and how did you guys hook up?

LYNN: Well, we live in the same filmmaking community but had not actually had a chance to meet personally. We have a lot of mutual friends. And we finally met when he came to Seattle to star in another film that was being shot called “True Adolescents.” And that was in the summer of 07. And I put myself on the set basically so that I could meet him because I’d always wanted to. I really wanted to meet him. I admired his work in “Puffy Chair” but what really sold me was watching him on set, just being there. Because I was a still photographer on set I got to be really close by while I watched him do take after take after take and he was so loose and had a really good ability to keep it fresh. It was a traditional scripted movie and with that kind of acting I know how hard it is to keep it really fresh and elastic. And he also got the best out of the other actors he was working with. It was just the kind of actor I wanted to work with.

But we just really hit it off as buddies. We really liked each other and we shared our filmmaking philosophies, which we had a lot in common it, seemed…Yeah! A lot of common ground there. So that’s how we met.

Mark, as one half of the Duplass brothers, you’re often in charge on set. How much control over your character did Lynn give you and would you have liked more or less control?

MARK: You know, I never really thought about, like, “Do I have enough control or do I not have enough control.” I mean, she brought me in so early in the process we were really kind of building the thing together. It sounds a little bit rosy-colored but it was true. There was a sense of “What are the best ideas? What are the most exciting ideas?” Lynn was very receptive and she’s very smart about watching you and what makes you excited so whether I came up with an idea or she came up with an idea, when she sees my eyes light up, she knows that’s the time to use it. So she’s very good at cultivating a lot of that stuff and making you feel like what you’re most excited about is worthy. So that was really helpful.

And then in terms of being on set, we’d set up so much back story and Josh and I have such a good existing chemistry between us in terms of how we relate personally and also with Alycia as well, that I felt basically I could do whatever the fuck I wanted to do and it was a totally safe zone. Because I can go long, I can be shaggy, I can talk for 30 minutes and Lynn has her eye on the ball. And she knows that “OK, this is too much. This is not working for our narrative. Let’s curb that. Let’s emphasize this. Let’s go over here.” It was great! It was the perfect combination of just, like, being in the creative nest. Being able to be free enough to do what you want to do but also knowing you have, you know, somebody there to look out for your best interest and look out for the movie so you don’t have to shoulder the whole thing, you know?

It was great! It was the perfect combination of just, like, being in the creative nest.

Yeah. Actually, in light of the humor and cleverness of the film’s dialog, it’s amazing that there was no script, really. Were there any lines or monologues that you came up with before shooting or were they all just on the spot?

MARK: Most of the stuff was on the spot, but the movie was…even though there was no scripted dialog it was pretty heavily plotted in terms of what we were going to be doing, what points we needed to hit in certain scenes, etc. The only thing that I really prepared ahead of time, or knew what I was going to say, was when my character and Andrew end up in the basement together and I talk about that video store clerk.

LYNN: You did that in the mirror for a couple hours, right?

MARK: (Pause) Yeah!

(Laughter)

MARK: I do everything in the mirror before I start…Lynn was so straight with that face, that for a second I actually thought I had done that and forgotten about it. “I did? Oh god!” I’m NOT crazy. The mirror! Great sale on that one.

LYNN: Thanks.

MARK: Um…yeah, that was the one thing that was sort of prepared. But, you know, it’s a good example of how this movie works. It’s like, I knew basically what the story was but I didn’t have the lines plotted out so when you’re saying them it feels like it’s happening for the first time because it is.

LYNN: The idea is that they’re so embodied in their characters that they can kind of don their characters like a glove or something…like a body condom.(Laughs) And then they don’t really have to act. I mean, this is how it felt for me when I work this way as an actor. It almost feels like you’re just BEING, you know? As that character, you’re sort of playing in that character. I don’t know. It’s very different than acting lines in a traditional way. You don’t have to bring so much technique…like technical skill level to bear. It’s much more instinctive and organic. At the same time, there has to be a part of you that is always looking ahead and thinking about how to scaffold the scene together. And a lot of the acting is, as opposed to saying exactly the right thing, you need to set the next person up. So it’s like assisting each other. Like passing a ball as you move across the soccer field. You know, you’re passing the ball, passing the ball, passing the ball…shooting it ahead so that the next person can get it to that next point. And what’s so great about it too is that it really emphasizes that it really is a team building exercise.(Laughs) It’s a team effort. And it really kind of forces you to do what acting is supposed to do, which is reacting, right? You’re setting up the next person to be able to react off of what you just said.

The other cool thing was the way they would bring little surprises to bear. I was just recounting how Joshua showed up at the house for his first scene and nobody knew he had a duck. We had not talked about that crazy duck. We had a couple hours off before. He’d gone and found it at some store and surprised everybody with it. And so they were able to genuinely react to, like, this stupid duck. And it was beautiful! They constantly did that throughout the whole movie. They had little things they would pull out of their back pocket and surprise each other with.

You’re primarily known as a filmmaker, Lynn, at least locally, but you have dabbled in acting and you play a pivotal role in the movie. You did a wonderful job mining the free-spirited art chick character. Is acting something that you’re interested in continuing to pursue or have your roles come more out of convenience and/or budgetary constraints?

LYNN: I was an actor for many many many years. That’s how I started. I got a B.A. in theatre. I moved to New York after college to do theatre and so it’s been nice to revisit. It’s started to come back up into my life again in the last couple of years and I’ve done a few projects with some other directors. And I really enjoy it. I actually found it very difficult to direct in this particular fashion. It really requires, at least for me…I like to really be on my feet during the shooting so that I can really make last minute decisions and adjustments as the scene is being shot. So to work in that way and act as a director in your own scene is basically impossible. I realize that if I want to act in my own movies I have to, at least for those scenes, work in a more traditional way where I have to pre-visualize everything a little more tightly and plan things ahead of time. So it was a real good learning experience and I enjoyed it immensely but I also realized that I really have to have certain things in place in order to do it. And I think I’d rather just act in other people’s projects. But yeah! I would like to keep doing it. I’m not going to, like, get a head shot and go out and start auditioning but if somebody invites me into a project that looks interesting, I’ll dive in. I really do like it.

Were there ever multiple takes in certain scenes with different outcomes? And if so, how did you decide which was the correct outcome for the characters?

LYNN: Will you take that, Mark, for a little bit while I…

MARK: While you munch? While you stuff your face?

LYNN: While I eat my chips.

MARK: While you munch your gluten-free shit?

(Laughter)

“…we walked in to the hotel room where the boys were presumably going to or not going to have sex…”

MARK: Um…You know, most of the scenes kind of ended up working out pretty well on the first or second take, minus 20% shifting/re-focusing. There were a couple of scenes that we re-shot because they were just not as good as we hoped they could be. You know, when you’re improvising, sometimes you get the beautiful lightening and the spark and sometimes you get a piece of shit and a couple of times we got a piece of shit. And so we re-shot those. And the last scene of the film was the one that had the greatest potential to be “God knows what the fuck’s going to happen” because we walked in to the hotel room where the boys were presumably going to or not going to have sex and we did not know whether they would. And we shot for 12 hours so there’s a lot of different ways we could have ended the movie and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was right.

So there are alternate endings out there, maybe, which we’ll see on the DVD?

LYNN: The one with the really hardcore graphic fucking.

Yeah! That’s what everyone wants to see.

MARK: But there’s something about that one that was…

LYNN: Hollow.

MARK: It was a little hollow. And it was so loud that we blew the sound on it. And we figured we couldn’t ADR it. And Ben Kasulke was an excellent D.P. but he missed the cum shot so…

(Laughter)

From a narrative perspective, actually, I was curious why the characters didn’t bring any booze into the hotel room since booze is what got them there in the first place.

MARK: I’ve actually heard that before. Have you heard this before?

LYNN: Many, many times. And what if they smoked pot? If they tried sensual touch? Um…[Laughs] What my answer’s been is that I really feel like these guys wanted it pure. Like they really wanted to be able to do it. I mean, it’s what they come to…this realization that they come to is “Wow, this is going to be really hard just doing it from our own resources that we brought to bear.” But that’s the only way it would be worth doing, you know, if it was going to be true art. If they sort of tricked themselves into doing it…if they took Viagra or took cocaine or did booze or whatever it would be somehow tainted, I think.

MARK: I agree with you. The way I’ve always described it is, you know, mountain climbers don’t really feel like they’ve achieved the same thing if they’ve had to use steroids to climb the mountain. They want to get up there on their own.

LYNN: Mmhm. And that’s what it’s like for these guys. It’s like climbing Mount Everest or something. It’s a challenge to see if they can do something totally out of their comfort zone…for the challenge of it. Not for any sort of lust or anything.

MARK: That’s certainly how they talk about it to each other.

Originally posted on July 13, 2009. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *