It was at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival that Humpday came out.
That is, it came out for people to see—and out of the closet, so to speak, at the same time. The response was positive enough to snag the low-budget, shot-in-less-than-a-month comedy a distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures.
The storyline, after all, is an attention grabber. Two old friends get together and make a porn film. Before you say to yourself, “Haven’t we seen that plot before?,” let’s tell what makes Humpday different: The two friends are guys.
To be precise, the compadres are Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard). Ben is married to Anna (Alycia Delmore). Ben and porkchop specialist Anna are in serious discussions about having a child. Andrew, a bearded slacker, arrives unannounced one night. The two fellows attend a pot and booze-filled bohemian party in which a sex film contest is discussed. As quick as you can say “Don’t bogart that joint,” the pals decide they’ll enter the competition with the catch that they’ll have sex with each other.
Director Lynn Shelton, also a Seattle area resident and veteran of the DIY movement that has come to be known as “mumblecore,” came up with the premise, directed, and co-stars as one of the partygoers. Humpday is laidback but also breezy, brash and provocative in its depiction of the boundaries of male friendship, marriage, and macho attitudes.
Shelton, who also has the features We Go Way Back and Effortless Brilliance to her credit, recently sat down and talked to us in an exclusive interview.
MFF: Can you tell us how this film came together?
LS: I wrote a script and auditioned people. I was an editor before that. I never went to film school and had never been to film school. I made experimental films and documentaries. We had all the equipment (on Humpday), but not the time. All the time of the production day was spent on the lighting. It was frustrating because people were sitting around. I wanted to make it an actor-friendly set so they can create a naturalistic performance.
MFF: Can you tell us how you worked with the actors?
LS: I worked in an unorthodox fashion. I wouldn’t come up with a character until I came up with a actor I wanted to base the character on. So I started with people I wanted to work with and custom designed the characters for them and in tandem with them, inviting them into the process. It was a really close fit so they come in early in the process so I can cement them as the characters. There was often just me and two characters, the cinematographer and me holding the second camera. It was very intimate.
MFF: In Humpday, you used Mark Duplass, who, with his brother Jay, pioneered the whole mumblecore movement with such films as The Puffy Chair and Baghead. You also used other people who worked on his and other mumblecore films. So, is mumblecore a movement, or a genre, or what exactly?
LS: I don’t know any filmmaker who embraces the term mumblecore. Maybe if you use DIY or American independent cinema (they’d be happier). I’m happy and proud to be part of the community. I am good friends with Mark and Jay (Duplass), Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Aaron Katz (Quiet City). By grouping us all together, it’s kind of unfair, like grouping all films that cost $8 million and have a written script and 35 mm film are all the same. At the same time, the usefulness, I recognize—it brought attention to small films that no one would have paid attention to. So, it’s hard to feel bad about it, but you have to deal with the backlash. There are people who see that word, go running, they say ‘I’m never going to see a film like that.’ But the thing I admire about it is that I am proud of being part of the movement. They look at resources they have at their disposal and they go out and make things happen (usually on digital video). I think that’s really important. I don’t want to sit around five or seven years and wait for the money. I want to make the movie now. It’s very empowering.
MFF: And how about mumblecore’s relation to Dogme, the no-frills, use existing lighting and sound, hand-held video approach conceived by Lars von Trier?
LS: I love Dogme and I think it’s pretty cool, but I have no interest in making a strictly Dogme film. I’d rather steal elements that I like about Dogme. I think the whole scaled-down idea really works—it really helps put people at ease and create the level of naturalism that I really love.
MFF: How important is it to have the film reach theaters since there are alternative forms of distribution these days like pay-per-view and video-on-demand, and, also, since your film was actually shot on video?
LS: Humpday will be in 22 cities on 25 screens and I am thrilled to have a distributor to get it in theaters. With an audience, it takes on a character of its own. You hear them laughing and gasping and reacting. I am happy for my film to be on VOD (video on demand)…AFTER it goes to theaters. Maybe not every film I make is going to be blessed with a theatrical release, but since I have one now, I’m thrilled.
MFF: A lot of the mumblecore films have focused on twentysomethings or young thirtysomethings who talk a lot, feel depressed by their place in the world and are mostly guys.
LS: I can’t be grouped in that anymore, if you call it (mumblecore) that. That’s the thing, if you look at the original articles about mumblecore, I don’t match any of those checklist items. It depends how you size them up. If you define the movement by people putting their own films together, using improvisation in some form or another and a lot of hand-held cameras or cinema-verite style camerawork, then I would fit. But I certainly don’t fit the standard definition of guys in their twenties dealing with post-collegiate angst.