It was the bromance no one saw coming. In January 2009, budding filmmaker Lynn Shelton made her Sundance debut with her third feature film, an improvised offering called “Humpday.” Starring fellow filmmakers Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard, the film put a nutty twist on the buddy comedy, following a pair of long-time best pals who decide to make their own homegrown porno, featuring the two of them having sex. One problem: they’re not actually gay, and the idea — a product of drunken one-ups-manship — freaks both of them out.
The result was an amiable comedy about two dudes forced to grow up in unexpected ways. Made for less than $20,000, the comedy was a hit on the festival circuit, earning Shelton a special jury Prize at Sundance, the John Cassavetes Award, and inclusion on the National Board of Review’s list of top indie films of the year. Magnolia Pictures picked the film up at Sundance, releasing it in the thick of the summer season, 10 years ago this month.
“‘Humpday’ was so tiny, everybody who worked on that movie [got points], it just seemed fair,” Shelton said in a recent interview with IndieWire in support of her newest release, the similarly scrappy “Sword of Trust.” “If I made money, they made money.” That’s not the case for her these days. “I can’t make a movie that small anymore,” she said. “It’s just not possible to make a movie for that little. It’s got to be more than that.” (The film was profitable: It made over $400,000 in domestic release.)
Every part of the film’s creation was scrappy. Shelton and her skeleton crew shot in just 10 days. The film’s “screenplay” was a 10-page outline that the filmmaker said had “basically no dialogue.” Since Duplass and Leonard are also filmmakers, Shelton said she knew that her stars could deliver, but she still gets jittery when talking about the stress of such small-scale filmmaking.
“Even when it’s just two people [in a scene], it’s very stressful, because you don’t know if you’re going to get all the ingredients,” she said. “I could never in a million years do this process if I hadn’t been an editor before, part of my brain is always clocking, ‘Okay, do I have enough ingredients in the grocery store cart to take home and make a delicious dinner? And not just any dinner?’ That’s the best analogy I can come up with. I think I actually stole it from Ang Lee, but it really is a good one.”
While “Humpday” tackles subject matter that feels timely even today, including mining the concept of “toxic masculinity” (in “Humpday” parlance, “some weird straight guy macho thing”), Shelton said she was not especially adept at elaborating on those deeper themes.
“I’m so in it, and then somebody else will point shit out to me, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I never thought about that,'” she said. “Somebody will describe a film of mine, and I’ll be like, ‘I am totally going to use that next time I do the elevator pitch for it because I don’t know how to describe my own movie.'”
In 2012, Shelton got an unexpected interpretation of her own work when Israeli filmmaker and actor Yvan Attal adapted “Humpday” for a French-language version entitled “Do Not Disturb.” “One of the most interesting kind of gender studies lab experiments I’ve ever experienced was watching, side by side, my version and the French version of ‘Humpday,'” Shelton said. “It is fucking fascinating.”
Attal scripted out what Shelton, Duplass, and Leonard had mostly improvised for the screen. “He actually used the script and shot it in a traditional way with a kazillion more dollars and famous people,” she explained. (The film featured Attal and François Cluzet in the lead roles, with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Asia Argento playing supporting parts.)
Shelton wasn’t precious about another filmmaker tackling her breakout film, but in retrospect, some aspects of it don’t sit well with her. “He kept saying, ‘Well, we’re changing a couple key things, and it’s because it’s French,'” she said. “But clearly when you watch it, it’s because maybe, yes, it’s French, but it’s also a man directing it.”
In the film’s final scene, Attel puts an uncomfortable twist on the original. “Instead of them just sort of giving up after talking themselves out of it, he goes into this crazy [scene where] one tries to sort of rape the other one,” she said. “I mean, he really goes into the male toxicity, but doesn’t examine it in a way. It really made it clear for me [that] what made this very male-based story different was because it was from my perspective. I’m skewering maleness and male toxicity, and the tendency of males to be idiots in a very loving way is the crux of it.”
Ten years later, Shelton still isn’t caught up in gender-based questions about the film. It’s not remarkable to her that a woman made it, but she was still subjected to questions about her place in the world of filmmaking while promoting the movie in 2009. The environment has improved since then.
“In the past, it was more like I was a unicorn,” the filmmaker said. “I often would be the only feature narrative filmmaker at a festival. People were just coming up to me and going, ‘Oh my God. What the fuck? How does it feel to be a female filmmaker?’ and I’d be like, ‘I don’t have any idea what it would feel like to be anything else, so I don’t know what to tell you.'”
These days, Shelton is happy that she can now appear on entire lists of other female filmmakers. She’s not a unicorn anymore, but perhaps “Humpday” is the magic spark that pushed Shelton into a career that spans multiple years and films.
“I’m glad I took the route I did, that I just kept making my own fucking movies and not waiting for permission,” Shelton said. “I made eight movies in 13 years. I feel so lucky. Maybe nobody’s fucking seen them, but at least I’ve made them.”