DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Humpday: Interview with Lynn Shelton

Thursday 2 July 2009

Humpday: Interview with Lynn Shelton

One of the best films at Sundance this year was Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” – a marvellous low budget comedy about two best friends who, despite being straight, make a bet to try and have gay sex as a test of their friendship (Click HERE for my review). Sounds absurd and ridiculous, yet Shelton and his actors manage to establish a rock solid foundation of realism that we can’t help put ourselves in that situation and believe wholly in their journey. "Humpday" opens around North America on July 10.

If the press screening didn’t go off really well I knew something special was going happen with this film the day after, when, in a rented room above an art gallery on Main St., the publicist, the director, and the three stars assembled to do press interviews.

I found myself waiting on a staircase with a bunch of other journalists politely waiting their turn to talk to the team. There seemed to be more takers than expected, and so everyone seemed to be rushing around trying fit everyone in. And when it was finally my turn I was only allowed 5mins!

Five minutes was all I needed to figure out that Lynn Shelton had cracked a new filmmaking methodology breaking the traditional mould of cinema’s order of operations. Idea – Outline – Script – Financing – Casting – Filming. In order to achieve a distinct naturalism without visible improvisation Shelton employed a self-developed method of ‘upside down’ filmmaking. It’s not like it hasn't been done before - Mike Leigh has been doing this type of thing for years, and this type of naturalism is a hallmark of the so-called 'Mumblecore' films. But Shelton's film is by far the most accessible of this new American film movement and teaming up with fellow ‘mumblecore’ actor/director Mark Duplass is key for Shelton to elevate her film from festival-darling to a legitimate contender for best comedy of the year.

So, I finally was allowed into the room. The publicists had separated the guys and the girls – actors Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard ambled off to some other room, and luckily I got to sit down with the lovely ladies of the film – director Lynn Shelton and her female lead Alycia Delmore:

DFD: Talk about the genesis of the film, how it started and how you got the actors involved with it.

LYNN: I really built it around the actors. We really started with one actor, Mark Duplass. I had admired his work and he’s a filmmaker, and one half of the Duplass Brothers. I’d seen “The Puffy Chair”, I hadn’t seen “Baghead” yet but and I was also becoming good friends with friends of his and so we had all these mutual acquaintances. And he ended coming up to Seattle where I lived to star in a film called True Adolescence, which was an independent film being shot there. And I got myself on set because I like to be on set but really I was there to meet Mark. That was the key motivation for me, so I volunteered my time as a stills photographer to get myself there. And we really bonded. We were really primed to meet each other because we’d heard of each others’ films and our filmmaking methodologies and it seemed we had something in common. And we sure did. It really seemed like we were of the same ilk. Watching him act too I knew I really wanted to work with him. About a month after he got back to LA I gave him a call and I pitched this idea to him.

DFD: Did you have a script at this point?

LYNN: No, I didn’t. This is my third feature – my first film was made in a very traditional way – script first, then casting and everything else. I then came up with what I’ve been deeming, an ‘upside down’ version of filmmaking, because I found that trying to get a level of naturalism that I approved of was very difficult doing it the traditional way. And so I put a number of things into place, and first and foremost was to start with an actor, then a sort of a theme or premise, and really early on bring them in so we can develop the character, so it’s really customized for them. It’s like a club.

DFD: What was the core idea in Humpday?

LYNN: Basically I called Mark and said, ‘I know it sounds a little crazy but the idea I have is that there are two best friends who are straight and they’ll both have different personalities and then, for whatever reason, they decide to try and have sex together. I didn’t know if it was going to be a film yet or not. The main thing was they were going to have gay sex together. It was really loose at that point, and I had some things in place but not others. And the thing that was cool about it was bringing in the performers early on so you can get to know their characters as you develop them and their relationships as the plot is coming together. Especially with a script like this which is so far out in its premise. Its very crazy, ridiculous and we knew, the only way we could pull this off, was not to make an absurd random crazy farce, but grounded in humanity and believability. And the way to do that I thought was to have these fully fleshed out characters that we believed was real people. And once you know who the characters are and what’s supposed to happen in the scene you really know how these people are going to react in a believable way. So that’s why its 'upside down'.

DFD: Alycia, how were you working in that process?

ALYCIA: There was definitely a learning curve. I come from a theatre background and don’t have a lot of experience on film. I actually thought my theatre background was helpful rather than coming from a traditional film world. My only film experience involved being in one of Lynn’s other movies. We knew everything that was going to happen, the arc of the scene, but only where each character would start in the scene and hopefully end up, all of the in-between was up to us. We’d improvise through the scene and then we’d stop and talk about what worked and what didn’t work.

LYNN: And since they embodied their characters if they weren’t feeling it, they’d say, ‘Ben would not say this’. And so if we had an idea, ‘well this is how its gonna play out’ we had the freedom to go with it. I remember this one scene in particular, we just had to change it, because it just wasn’t working. We just couldn’t get from A to B. We said ‘nobody’s going to buy that he would do this’. And so we were always checking back, that scepticism was always pulling us back to ask again and again, from the audience’s point of view, would you believe this? And by just remaining true to the characters it was knowing who they were.

ALYCIA: In some ways having all the responsibility of the actual dialogue on your shoulders kept us honest because you get to a point of when you’re saying things like ‘this doesn’t sound like me. I’m just talking for the sake of talking, to get somewhere.’ So we really managed to keep ourselves honest that way. At least I hope we did.

DFD: I thought it was terrific. When Ben was talking, his dialogue sounded like me talking. Seriously, his words, manner of speech. It was uncanny.

LYNN: I can’t write that way – natural dialogue. Some people can. As long as you cast the right people, it really depends on that. There are actors who really aren’t comfortable with that. Coming up with their own words. If you can find someone who is comfortable with just coming out with what that they would actually say, all they need is the acting ‘objective’, those basic means. What’s going on in the scene, what does my character want, all the acting school things, and when they’re comfortable they're are just always gonna sound more like how speech comes out of somebody’s real mouth. Which is a really tall order. I found to write something down a piece of paper and say ‘ok make this sound like something you’d actually say’ is hard. And that is something I’m always on a quest for. I wanted it to feel like a documentary.

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