Lynn Shelton made quite the impression in 2009 with her second feature film, "Humpday," the story of two straight guys and life-long friends (filmmaker and actors Mark Duplass and Josh Leonard) who decide to shoot and enter a porn film festival with a project that stars themselves (and only themselves). The film received huge buzz in its Sundance debut, and then went on to numerous festivals and events including Cannes, Edinburgh, Provincetown, Seattle, and Los Angeles. It's now been nominated for the John Cassevetes Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, where Shelton won the Someone to Watch Award last year for "My Effortless Brilliance." indieWIRE contacted Shelton to discuss her career, "Humpday"'s development, and the joy of an Indie Spirit nod.
Shelton on her background and how "Humpday" developed...
I'm 44 and live in Seattle, WA which is where I also grew up. I spent the Nineties living in NYC, first doing acting - mostly at downtown performance spaces -before turning my creative energies to photography and experimental film. (Instead of going to film school, I got an MFA in Photography and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts.) In 1999, I returned to Seattle, eight months pregnant, to be near family. I started gigging locally on a lot of narrative work as an editor, and that's when I really got the bug to direct features.
"Humpday" was essentially built around the actors. I first pitched the concept to Mark Duplass, who then suggested that Joshua Leonard would make a great co-star, and the three of us collaborated together for a while to fill out the characters and the storyline, until I realized that there were gaping holes in the script because we needed the input of whichever actress would be playing the role of "Anna" (the wife of Mark's character, "Ben") before we could write those scenes that she was in. So Alycia Delmore was invited into the mix. It was a very organic, intimate, collaborative way of working. And that approach extended onto the set where each highly-valued member of the small crew (Ben Kasulke as DP, Vinny Smith on Sound/Music, and Jasminka Vukcevic as Production Designer) were invited to be heavily involved in the act of creating the movie.
In addition to a very scaled back set, we lit the room 360 degrees so we could point the two cameras almost anywhere, and then the actors improvised off of a structured outline. We shot the whole thing in order, and digitally, so that the takes could be as long as they needed to be. The true, final script got written in the edit room. (I credit the beautiful, redemptive art of editing as being the reason I can work this way effectively; both because of my background as an editor as well as because of having such an incredible ally in the edit room: Mr. Nat Sanders, whom everyone should hire immediately--along with all my other amazing collaborators.)
Shelton on the challenges of making "Humpday"...
Pulling together a feature on a shoestring budget is always a challenge. But 'Humpday' was designed to be affordable. For instance, more things unfold across a smaller number of scenes and we had a total of only four locations. I specifically incorporated resources that I either had at my disposal or that I instinctively knew I'd be able to access with relative ease, cutting all the expensive stuff out of the film entirely (explosions, car crashes, gun battles, etc.) It doesn't work for every kind of movie, but for a small-scale, character-based story, set in a domestic sphere like this one, a smaller-scale set and a lower budget can actually be your friends.
Shelton on what the Indie Spirit Awards mean to her...
The Independent Spirit Awards mean an enormous amount to me. Receiving the "Acura Someone to Watch" award last year honestly meant more to me than getting into Sundance for the first time. It's so incredibly difficult to make independent films... the fact that this distinguished event exists to celebrate that hard work is really really awesome.
Shelton on her favorite indies of 2009...
There were a lot of films that blew me away in 2009 but "The Hurt Locker" tops the list for me. Absolutely perfect filmmaking.
...and future projects...
I'm honored to be working with Anne Carey and Ted Hope on a project that I'm super excited about - the movie version of Joshua Ferris' best-selling novel "Then We Came To An End" - and I have a couple of other projects coming down the pipeline as well...
This is part of a series of profiles and interviews that indieWIRE will be publishing in the days leading up to the 2010 Film Independent Spirit Awards that profiles nominees in the Best First Feature and John Cassavetes Award categories. Previous editions include:
Spirits 2010 | "Crazy Heart" Director Scott Cooper: “Truly independent in spirit.”
Spirits 2010 | Tom Ford: "I have always been obsessed by film."
Spirits 2010 |"Zero Bridge"'s Tariq Tapa: "We were starting from ground zero every day"
Spirits 2010 | "Paranormal"'s Peli: "The film had to have the look and feel of authentic home video"
Spirits 2010 | "New Year"'s Tom Quinn: "This incredible honor is exhilarating and a total thrill."
Spirits 2010 | "Practice"'s Alvarez: "Everyone who worked on the film should feel like they own it."