EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
From the Sundance catalog: “It’s been a decade since Ben and Andrew were the bad boys of their college campus. Ben has settled down and found a job, wife, and home. Andrew took the alternate route as a vagabond artist, skipping the globe from Chiapas to Cambodia. When Andrew shows up, unannounced, on Ben’s doorstep, they easily fall back into their old dynamic of heterosexual one-upmanship. After a night of perfunctory carousing, the two find themselves locked in a mutual dare: to enter an amateur porn contest. But what kind of boundary-breaking porn can two dudes make? After the booze and “big talk” run out, only one idea remains—they will have sex together…on camera. It’s not gay; it’s beyond gay. It’s not porn; it’s an art project. But how will it work? And more importantly, who will tell Anna, Ben’s wife?”
Director: Lynn Shelton
Screenwriter: Lynn Shelton
Producer: Lynn Shelton
Coproducers: Jennifer Maas, Steven Schardt
Cinematographer: Ben Kasulke
Editor: Nat Sanders
Production Designer: Jasminka Vukcevic
Composer: Vinny Smith
Cast: Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore, Lynn Shelton, Trina Willard
U.S.A., 2009, 92 mins., color
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Lynn Shelton. I was born in 1965 and was raised in Seattle, Washington, where I live today. After college (I have a BA in Theater from the U. of Washington), I lived in New York City for nine years but when I got pregnant, my husband and I decided to move back here so we could raise our kid around family. I teach part time in the Digital Filmmaking program at the Art Institute of Seattle.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I’ve had a long, circuitous route to becoming a feature filmmaker. I started out as a poet when I was just a kid and added painting and photography and acting as time went on. Acting for the stage became my chief focus for many years, but I eventually went back to school and received an MFA in Photography and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts. I started making films in graduate school, as a solo artist, and continued to make small, poetic films—experimental documentaries mostly—for nearly a decade. My first exposure to narrative work was as an editor. I was lucky enough to edit several shorts and a couple of features (“Outpatient”, “Hedda Gabler”). When the nonprofit film studio “The Film Company” (now defunct) offered me the extraordinary opportunity to write and direct a feature length film, I leapt at the chance. The result, We Go Way Back, was my first feature, and making it was my film school. I’ll never work as a solo artist again—I’m completely in love with creative collaboration.
How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?
“Humpday” exists because I wanted to work with Mark Duplass, whom I’d met on the set of “True Adolescents”, a movie he was acting in and I was shooting stills for. A month or so after that production wrapped in Seattle and Mark had gone back to LA, I called him and pitched the idea of a movie in which two straight friends would attempt to have sex together. He paused for about half a second and then said, “All right let’s do this thing”, bless his heart. I’ve always been interested in the boundaries of sexual identity and how rigid or fluid those boundaries might be for different people. I thought taking two guys who were particularly invested in their “straightness”, and placing them (or getting them to place themselves) in a situation that would challenge their heterosexuality would make for some interesting dramatic tension and awesomely squeamish humor.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making “Humpday”…
Making my first feature film, “We Go Way Back”, converted me once and for all from a solo artist to a collaborative one, but I found myself frustrated by how a traditional film set can inhibit the central work of the project—that of the acting. In an effort to attain a higher level of naturalism in my second feature, “My Effortless Brilliance”, I decided to experiment with an “upside-down” model of filmmaking, reducing the crew roster and equipment list to a minimum and inviting the actors in during the script development process, so that they could help flesh out of their own characters. The plotline comes together as we discover who the characters are—it’s a very organic process. This deeply collaborative aesthetic continues onto the set, where the actors are given a lot of freedom over the actual dialog and two cameras are employed to create instant coverage during what tend to be very long takes.
“Humpday” was created in much the same way, with the added element of shooting the whole thing in order. Our quest was always, at every step of the way, to find the truth of how these characters would react and behave in each situation. Within such a filmmaking model, the edit phase becomes incredibly important. It is, more than ever, the real writing phase—much like with a documentary. I think of it as sculpting in marble—chipping away the excess material to find the work of art within.
My influences are directors who are masters of naturalism, such as Altman and Leigh. For tight, strongly edited films bursting at the seams with underspoken emotion and subtext, Ang Lee is a favorite. And my buddy Joe Swanberg showed me that you don’t have to wait around for someone to give you permission to make a movie; you can just gather your resources, and make the thing happen yourself.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Well, my two wonderful lead actors, Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard, are busy, busy guys. They are filmmakers in addition to being actors and their schedules were insane and constantly in flux. Luckily, my scaled-back version of filmmaking required that I only have them for about 10-12 days. If the production had been any longer, I don’t think I would have been able to make the film. It came down to the wire a couple of times but it all worked out in the end.
What are some of your favorite films, and what are your other creative influences?
Claire Denis’ “Friday Night” was the first film that made me feel like: “I could do that”, I think because it said so much, captured so much nuance and emotion with purely cinematic language and very few actual words. I love “My Name is Ivan” by Tarkovsky. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” is one of my favorite films of all time. “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, “The Ice Storm”… It’s hard for me to stop at just a few! Other creative influences are anything that moves me…good art, good poetry. I’m kind of nuts about Mark Morris, the choreographer. If I had a million dollars I’d just follow his company around, like a contemporary-dance Deadhead.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
For myself, ultimately, I think I define success by being able to keep making movies. On my own terms. I always want to feel like I can take risks, that I can fail even. That I can keep exploring and evolving as an artist, and that I can give my creative collaborators that same chance.
What are your future projects?
I am really excited about a project that I hope will happen this coming year starring Sean Nelson (of “My Effortless Brilliance”) and the great Sherman Alexie. And I’m really looking forward to making a movie about girls some day.