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Lynn Shelton's new film Humpday rests on a delicious premise: what if two straight guys, recently reunited college buddies—one a house-owning married frump named Ben (writer/director/actor Mark Duplass) and the other, Andrew, a peripatetic wandering bohemian (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project)—make a stupid drunken bet to go "beyond gay" in an amateur porn film? The result is an awkward, funny lost weekend as the two old friends one-up each other in displays of machismo and bravado.
And although the silly, emotional foibles of dudes are what's driving the story, Shelton and crew (including the nicely nuanced Alycia Delmore as Anna, Ben's wife) take the simple plot into interesting places. As Ben and Andrew figure out whether they're going to go through with the bet or not, they're exploring universal issues, spurred on by sexuality: the pursuit of art, and the faces and poses that we put on for the world.
A hit at this year's Sundance, Humpday has gone on to a host of festival showings, including the Director's Fortnight in Cannes. We talked with Shelton and Duplass at the offices of Magnolia Pictures, where the two plus Leonard (the actors are far better looking than Humpday would have you believe; Shelton is also quite striking) had a chance to paw through the cookie jar, the closet of Magnolia screeners. Pointing at Leonard's pile, which had Let the Right One In and a DVD of The Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker's 2008 festival flick), Duplass enthused, "That movie is hilarious. Hilarious and tragic!"
Tribeca: So the idea for this movie came along when your friend, filmmaker Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs), saw Seattle's Humpfest (an amateur porn film festival) and he couldn't stop talking about it?
Lynn Shelton: I knew already that I wanted to make a movie with Mark. I met him on the set of True Adolescents [a 2000 film starring Duplass and Melissa Leo], and we hit it off. I thought we should collaborate in some way, so I had been thinking about different scenarios to put him in and what kind of characters it would be fun to have him play. And Joe came to stay with me in Seattle, went to Hump[fest], and yeah, he talked about the gay porn for several days afterwards. I think he was a little self-conscious about the process he was going through, trying to figure out why he was so compelled by it, but he really was and I thought his response was really fascinating.
Tribeca: I read a piece that compared your process of making films to Mike Leigh's collaborative tradition?
LS: In the beginning, Leigh heavily involves the actors, and at the end of an intensive, six-month workshopping period, they come out with a full script and they make the movie in a traditional way. The main way in which I think I'm similar to Leigh is that I involve the actors heavily in the development of their characters, and once they figure out their characters, then we can develop the plot. It's not as labor intensive—I was able to have just a smattering of conversations with these guys over the course of several months. Then we had this one intensive weekend where we went down to L.A. and we locked ourselves in a room and we really figured out the backstory. It wasnt anywhere near six months of intensive rehearsing/workshop/at all.
There was no rehearsal at all. I have this fantasy that someday I'm going to make a movie like this and shoot the whole thing twice. Because there were some scenes that were absolutely beautiful and perfect the first time out, there's a dynamic quality, especially in the hotel room, and you can never recapture it. And there were other scenes that the second time were much improved by doing them again. So we shot the thing in order but there were a couple of things that we had a second chance with. Sometimes you're playing for keeps, and sometimes you're doing it again, but I'd love to have a second whack at it, another rung on the evolution of this process I'm working with.
Tribeca: Do you have a theater background?
LS: I started in the theater, I started working as an actor when I was 11 and continued to do that in my 20s, heavily, all in the theater. Then I went to photography graduate school and became an editor—a lot of various skill sets, so both the theater and the editing came in handy in this process.
Tribeca: Mark, you're working on 8 projects (including a role in the next Noah Baumbach film and directing Fox Searchlight's Untitled Duplass Brothers Project with Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei) at once. Where did Humpday fit in?
Mark Duplass: There was a part of me that was gearing up to make my first big studio movie with my brother [the aforementioned and currently Untitled Duplass Brothers Project], and in doing so we kind of made a conscious decision: let's knock this one out of the park. Let's go make the kind of movie we know how to make really fucking well and execute that thing and do it to the best of our abilities. So we stayed in our wheelhouse and did the shit we know how to do well. And that left room for me to do something like Humpday, which is completely out of my comfort zone, really taking a chance on something that could've failed. That was very vital to me at the time—it was cool, like, let's feel young and stupid again, out of control, let's try to make something great. Maybe we'll fuck up, but we're all in it together.
Tribeca: How did the film play at Cannes? What was the reception?
MD: France was amazing. We got a four-minute standing ovation. We also had this really special screening in Cannes where they show it in normal theaters outside the festival, which I didn't even think about. It's for average people who want to come see this movie. But this audience was raised on the French New Wave—
LS: They were all older folks! They were 60 to 90. These people were—
MD: And they were obsessed! We had an hourlong Q&A. It was amazing.
Tribeca: So what do French people ask?
LS: Not American questions!
MD: Whether Josh and I are gay. One of them wanted to talk about why men are into sodomy but women aren't into sodomy, [but that was directed more towards the questioner's wife.]
LS: It was crazy. There was a lot of—I felt constantly challenged because they're so well versed in cinematic history and trying to talk about the canons of various film movements and where does this film fit, and also talking about the relationship between men and women and men and men in this way—
MD: It's much more conceptual—
LS: I was just trying not to seem like a dimwitted American, basically, with people quoting Nietzsche to me and it's like, oh my God, I'm out of my league. Of all the screenings I've attended, and I love to sit through them, for me the payoff is seeing it with an audience. We've had some amazing screenings—Seattle, Sundance, Cannes—but Brooklyn, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last weekend, I feel like Brooklyn is my hood! That was like the target demographic, so they just blew it out of the water.
Tribeca: I must admit, I watched this off a screener, and the experience didn't feel the same.
LS: This particular film, there's something about the communal experience with people, because the squirming and the gasping and the laughing, they all feed on it. It takes on a life of its own. It's really fun.