Yes, Lynn Shelton says, she understands why her new film, “Humpday,” has been tagged with the “mumblecore” label. That doesn’t mean she accepts it.
“It’s so inappropriate in so many ways,” the Seattle filmmaker says, sitting in the Garment District offices of Magnolia Pictures, which will release “Humpday” Friday. “The first articles I read defined it as a group of young folks in their 20s, mostly white men. They were making films about post-college angst and slacker lives. None of that really applies to me. I’m 43, a woman and I’m not making movies about people in their 20s.
“It was applied to very small DIY films that were thrown together with limited resources. So that aspect is true: the DIY sensibility, not wanting permission to make your movie, a high level of naturalism. Those are all things I’m interested in. I love the idea of not waiting for someone to give the green light. It’s very empowering. And I’m a filmmaker interested in finding human truth and the poetry in the mundane. I’m interested in smaller, character-driven stories. That all could be applied to mumblecore, I guess.”
“Humpday” is Shelton’s third film as a director (after early years as an editor), her second using the technique she employed for “Humpday.” Essentially, she came up with a general idea for the story, chose the actors, and then worked with them to develop an outline of scenes that would create a story. Before shooting each scene, she and the actors would talk about the goals of the scene – and then she’d let them improvise, often for 20-30 minutes at a time, figuring she would ultimately shape the film during editing.
“I invited the actors early on so they could figure out who the characters were,” she says. “As we got to know them, we figured out what would happen, plot how the scenes feed into each other, the emotional beats. We came on set with every component except the actual words.
“I want an extreme level of naturalism. But I want it to be funny, an entertaining ride. I want a tight, strong narrative to drive it, so you wonder what will happen next. I have a background in editing so I would make sure what I needed was in there. With the right editing, I knew I could make it something good. Ultimately, the draft of the script gets written in the editing room.”
“Humpday” deals with two college friends, Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Josh Leonard), who reconnect when Andrew drops in on Ben after not seeing him for a decade. In the course of a stoned, drunken evening at a party, they decide to enter Hump, Seattle’s amateur porn contest – and that the most radical idea they could pursue would be to have sex with each other on camera, despite the fact that both are straight.
“The idea was triggered by the experience of a visiting filmmaker friend,” Shelton recalls. “He went to Hump, and was really compelled by the experience of observing gay porn. He had never seen it; he’s a straight guy. He talked about it a lot over the course of the next few days.
“I was fascinated by the relationship between straight men and gay porn, the residual anxiety that straight guys feel about their own personal relationship to gay sex. They might be OK with the idea but they also worry that they might be secretly gay. There’s a lot of anxiety there. So I thought, what if I just play with that? It’s a situation of my own making – and really makes some guys squirm.”
Her original idea was to cast Mark Duplass (himself a mumblecore icon as both actor and filmmaker) as Andrew, the adventurous half of the pair, because of Duplass’ dynamic presence.
“The original idea was he would go to Hump, see gay porn and be inspired and be the guy who’s got to experience everything once, for his own personal checklist,” she says. “He would convince a friend who he has a Svengali-like hold over, and then we’d see what happens. When I pitched it to Mark, he said, ‘I’ve gotta play the domesticated guy.’ I immediately realized what a powerful dynamic that shift would make. But I needed somebody who would be his match. Mark thought of Josh and said this guy would be able to bring it.”
The film was a hit with critics and audiences at Sundance – and with its release this week, it establishes Shelton as a director to watch. Like many struggling directors who have sudden success, Shelton finds herself swamped with offers to do other films – to essentially leave her independent vision behind for the bigger paychecks that Hollywood has to offer.
“The idea of making a living after 15 years of making films that were not commercially viable is a prospect that’s truly exciting – and I am terrified,” Shelton says. “I’m very precious about my filmography. I don’t want to be a director for hire. I consider myself an artist who wants things a certain way. I’m excited to have agents and managers who get me. The way I’ve decided to ameliorate my anxiety is to try to continue to make films the way I did ‘Humpday.’ I hope every year-and-a-half to to make smaller films and experience the deep joy I felt on the set with eight other people. I’m extremely interested in a collaborative environment.”