Exclusive: Q&A with Lynn Shelton, Director of Humpday

Seattle-based independent filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s Humpday is a smart bromantic comedy about a pair of old friends who reunite only to discover that they’ve now got little in common. Ben (Mark Duplass) is saddled with “pleats, pedometer, and a wife” while Andrew (Joshua Leonard) is a nomadic artist who has yet to produce a piece of work to show for it. Cue The Stranger’s annual amateur porn festival and a strange competition to out dude each other by starring in a film together and you’ve got yourself the most insightful look at adult relationships that you’ll see this year.

Flavorpill sat down with Shelton earlier this summer to discuss the benefits (and disadvantages) of being a Sundance darling, her problems with The Hangover, and the reason why she should be the new poster girl for late bloomers everywhere. 

Flavorpill: I feel like each year Sundance has one filmmaker who they fall in love with and this year that was you. Is that weird?

Lynn Shelton: Yeah! I mean, it was crazy. But what was even weirder for me was definitely the standing ovation that we got at Cannes. I felt like I had to be living somebody else’s life. I mean, it’s really — it has been quite a year. I’ve been making movies for a while, and — yeah, it’s really strange. Every week there’s a new amazing person who has written me, and I look at my inbox and I’m just like “What? Are you kidding me? You’ve gotta be kidding.” It’s surreal.

FP: Is being thrust into the spotlight more fun or scary?

LS: Oh, I’d say it’s definitely more fun. But even if good things happen, it’s new and different. It means you have to expand your current comfort zone. So that’s all, to varying degrees, uncomfortable, all the anxiety created. There’s been a lot of that going on this year. I have representation now, which I never thought that I would. I never had the ambition to intersect with Hollywood. I mean, I’m just being completely honest. It might sound strange, but it’s absolutely true. And I certainly never expected I’d have the opportunity to do that, so both of those things went hand in hand. Reading scripts and novels that might be turned into scripts or are already turned into scripts; meeting with producers who have produced films I really admire; it’s all really exciting. It’s very heady.

But it also takes some reimagination. In my head, I’ve been making movies in a very small way, but it enables me to have total control over everything, every aspect. I only have to please myself when I am actually editing the film. I’ve been so autonomous, and so trying to imagine working on a larger scale where I would have to lose control — at first, it was daunting and a little scary. I think I’ve grown into the idea so it’s less freaky now. It’s mostly just exciting now and sort of fun.

FP: Mark Duplass was the first actor you brought on to Humpday. What was it that made you want to work with him on this project?

LS: Well, I really liked Puffy Chair, and we had mutual friends; we’d never met before but two months after I met Joe Swanberg at a film festival with my first film, he was putting Mark into Hannah Takes the Stairs. And then he showed up in Seattle. He was there for a month, to be in this movie True Adolescents, which just had its premiere at SXSW. I volunteered to be a still photographer. I love being on sets anyway, and I knew a lot of the people who were crewing that movie. I was also avoiding editing — I didn’t want to be alone in a room.

In retrospect, my secret plan was to meet and bond with Mark. Because I just had a good feeling about it. It sort of happened instantaneously. I remember showing up on set, and he was walking down this walkway toward me. We both recognized each other immediately, and we both put our arms out — “Oh, Shelton!” “Oh, Duplass!” “Finally, we meet in person!” It was really funny, we were so prepared.

And then we just bonded, talked about filmmaking constantly. I got to be in a privileged position on set, since I had be ready to jump in and take photographs before they moved the lighting. I got to be right there watching all of that. He’s just incredible and so fun to watch; he’s exactly the kind of actor I want to work with. He was working in a traditional way, so he had these lines he had to say, but every time he said them he’d figure out a way to keep it fresh, loose. It never felt like he was saying the same thing twice. He was very elastic. And best of all, he always brought out the best of everyone he was working with — very generous. You could actually feel that he was genuinely listening, which can be rare.

He just blew me away, as an actor. I loved him as a person but I also loved him as an actor, so I knew right away. I put it out there that I would love to work with him, and he immediately just pitched something to me.

FP: But originally the idea came out of a conversation you had with Joe [Swanberg]?

LS: Yeah. I’d met Mark; he’d gone back to L.A. I think it was about a month later, and all that time I’d been thinking about scenarios. What I do is, I have this person and I put them in different scenarios.

FP: So in your head you’re sort of putting Mark as a character in different scenes?

LS: Exactly. What would it be fun for him to play, what kind of relationships, dynamics… Joe was in town. Hannah was showing and I think he was a judge for some local film festival. He stayed in our house. And he went to see Hump, which is referred to as Humpfest in the movie, and he couldn’t stop talking about the gay porn. That was the main thing about it, I started thinking about the relationship between straight guys and gayness. Joe isn’t someone who’s ultra defensive. I mean he did say it didn’t turn him on, but he kept saying, “I found it so compelling.” I think he was trying to figure out why, because it was eluding him. I just thought it was really interesting. It’s also nice because Joe didn’t censor himself. Maybe a different straight guy would have gone and had the same reaction, but wouldn’t have told anyone.

So I started thinking about what an interesting juxtaposition it was. My initial idea was it would be this sort of power dynamic that ended up being very different in the film. There would be the adventurous, try anything once kind of guy, and then his sort of more domesticated buddy who is kept in this Svengali-like hold by his more adventurous friend. Maybe the two can go to Hump, but for whatever reason they get inspired. The adventurous one, who thinks he should try everything once, realizes he’s never done it with a guy.

When I pitched it to Mark, he said, “Oh I have to be the domesticated guy” because I had pitched it with him as being the other character. He’s very charismatic! So immediately in my head, it was like, “Oh, shit. I need somebody who’s at least as charismatic as you are.” But it also equalized the two characters, which I think is much more interesting. One of the things I love about this process, is it does really evolve. It also makes it difficult to pitch — it’s one of the reasons that it’s really nice to be in control of everything, including the funding, because the final product can shift drastically from the initial concept. If I was trying to get all these other people on board, I wouldn’t be able to be nearly so organic. It keeps shifting until the final edit.

FP: With the relationship between the two men being so centerstage, were you worried about keeping the role of Anna [Ben’s wife] getting short-shifted?

LS: No, I’m really proud of the marriage relationship and of her role. I started with Mark, and Mark very quickly thought of Josh [Leonard], and Josh came on board quickly. So the three of us were the ones who had all this elaborate backstory we were developing. I worked with the two of them for a long time, and then I realized that there were these holes I couldn’t fill because I needed to know who Anna was. I’m trying to imagine different things and I realized I really needed her to figure them out.

I finally got Alycia [Delmore] involved, and it was terrifying because I knew this long list of things I didn’t want her to be: I didn’t want her to be a cipher; I didn’t want her to be a doormat; I didn’t want her to be a bitchy, sort of frigid nag. I really wanted her to be likeable and sympathetic, and as fully fleshed out as they were. But it wasn’t her movie; it is this thing that happens to those two guys on the poster — you know, they’re there for a reason. And yet, I realized in retrospect that that relationship, although it doesn’t get nearly as much screentime, is really important. You need to care about them, and I think people are rooting for their relationship from the first scene. This is a sweet couple that you want to see succeed.

FP: Lucky for her, this is not a Judd Apatow movie.

LS: Have you seen The Hangover? The two major female characters… I’m trying to think if there’s anyone else. No. There are two major female characters: there’s the whore with the heart of gold, and there’s the bitch. My husband actually whispered to me, “I wonder if she’s supposed to be bitch.” You just can’t believe it. Anyway. Such a flatness. I’ve been reading script after script after script, and at this point I’m just really pissed off about it. It’s like, who do you think you are? It’s so upsetting. It’s ridiculous.

FP: As a female director do you feel like people expect you to look out for the female characters more?

LS: Oh, I don’t think about that.

FP: It’s just who you are as a director. Period.

LS: Yeah. You know, when people ask me — because I do get a lot of questions about — some of them almost hostile, “Who do you think you are?” kind of questions. “How can you be making movies about men? When you’re, you know, a woman.” I read recently that Mike Leigh gets the same kind of question about making movies about women. He gets really pissy and says, “I make movies about people.” And that’s a perfect answer. There’s this theory of multiple intelligences, and I may not be smart on many of the others, but my emotional intelligence is pretty high up there. I’ve always been a close observer of human beings and what makes them tick, regardless of gender.

FP: You spent ten years working on other projects before you made your first feature film. If you’d gone off on your own earlier, would the stories you’ve decided to tell have been different?

LS : My first film, We Go Way Back, is sort of about this. In my 20s I don’t know that I had stories or recognized that I had my own voice. It was sort of my secret shame, that I could only be an actor because I didn’t have words of my own, which is sort of a a common experience for women of that age. I know a lot of women who have gone through it — losing your sense of agency or clarity of vision at that point in your life.

What’s interesting to me, very early on in the process of making my first feature, it became very clear to me that I’d finally found what I’d always been meant to do. But I don’t think I could have done it earlier; I just wasn’t ready. It was like I needed that several decades without film school. I used to say my first feature was film school for me because that was the first time I saw the set, but then I realized no, that’s not fair because the ten years of acting, or however many years, and then the photography and the editing, it all was my film school.

But most of all it was this process of me gaining more and more confidence and life experience and maturity, so then I had something to say. I could start to look and find stories that I don’t think I was capable of before, if that makes sense. So it’s hard for me to imagine making a feature at 30, because I don’t think — and certainly at 20, oh my God! I just wasn’t ready. Hooray for  late bloomers!