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An Interview with Lynn Shelton, Director of “Humpday”

August 7, 2009

Tonight (Friday, August 7th) and tomorrow (Saturday, August 8th) at midnight, The Coolidge Corner Theater screens Humpday – Director Lynn Shelton’s Sundance Award winning film about two regulars guys who want to make an irregular artistic statement: a porn film unlike any other.

Beanywood recently spoke with Lynn about the making of her film…


Joshua Lenoard as "Andrew" and Mark Duplass as "Ben."

Joshua Lenoard as "Andrew" and Mark Duplass as "Ben."

BEANYWOOD: Can you tell us about the inception of the film, how did you begin putting things in motion?

LYNN SHELTON: I started with Mark Duplass, who I really wanted to work with. I pitched him the premise of the project. It was really loose. I actually saw him in the Andrew role, originally, and he immediately said he wanted to play the domesticated guy, because that’s the sort of how he’s living. He was sharing sort of a kinship with that guy because he was newly married and about to give birth to a baby, their first kid. And as soon as he said that, I knew it. I initially saw him in the adventurer role, and so he’d be like the charismatic one. So I said to him, “Now I need to find someone as charismatic as you, because that changes the whole power dynamic I had in my head between the two characters. And he thought of Joshua, and introduced us. And I thought that they were just such a great match. There were just always sort of dead even, you know?

BEANYWOOD: Do you prefer to work with your actors very early in the process?

SHELTON: Yes, always. I invited them in very early into the process, very similar to my film [My] Effortless Brilliance, in the way that I involved the actors in the development of their own characters, so that they could bring even more naturalism. And then as I get to know who the characters are, then I can cement what’s going to be happening in the movie, in the plot, in each scene; the arc of each scene and how each scene will feed into the next and so on. So when we show up on set we have this very structured outline. I want the naturalism of the improvisation, but I don’t want … I also wanted to make a very movie-going experience.

BEANYWOOD: Mark, he is all about the naturalization of it. That’s what he brings. I think that’s his special thing. I don’t know how else to describe it. But that’s what he’s done in his other stuff. It would be interesting to see the other stuff he came up with that you had to cut, either because it was really good and it didn’t work, or it didn’t simply tie in to where the movie was going. But he comes up with terrific, character-defining things.

SHELTON: There’s plenty of it, yes. But I wanted it to be a tight film. I wanted it to have a strong narrative drive. I wanted it to have that sense that a scene ends when it should end, and then it leaves you really curious to see what’s going to happen next. That whole kind of movie going experience and sensation, you know? At the same time that it feels like it’s actually unfolding right in front of you.

BEANYWOOD: You know, the funny thing you just said, that it’s a tight film, because when I think of something – as much as I don’t want to describe it as mumblecore, since you’re working with some of the guys who are fortunately or unfortunately (I know Joe Swanburg hates the term) – but mumblecore is typically sort of aimless.

SHELTON: Nobody embraces that term. Everybody hates the term [She laughs].

BEANYWOOD: I know. I’m averse to using it, and if I could come up with another way to describe this movie, I would.

SHELTON: Basically you can say, well, you could just call it something else. You could call it New Generation DIY Filmmakers. There are all kinds of other ways, New American Independent Cinema. But yes, I know what you’re saying.

BEANYWOOD: How do you tighten something like that up? Are you looking for beats in the conversation?

SHELTON: You give them a lot of guidance. When Joe works – and I love Joe’s movies, too – but for me, his method is a lot looser than mine. He goes in and he sort of says, “Let’s find this. Let’s just figure this scene out together today and see what unfolds.” It’s very, very on-your-feet, in-the-moment. It’s extremely sort of experiential.

BEANYWOOD: This is close to the way some of the other directors have said that they set it up, with just like an outline. When I interviewed Mark for Baghead, he said they went into it with an outline and they just sort of made it up as they go. But you were very specific as to what the beats and the changes would be?

SHELTON: I go in with a very clear objective. I have every component of a script, except the actual words. So I know exactly what the emotional map is going to be. I know the arc of every scene. It’s the only way a movie like this can be done. I mean, if you think about what unfolds in each scene and how everything has a very specific point that leads to the next one, it’s very planned. I had to have that all planned out. So, it was all planed out beforehand.

BEANYWOOD: It’s important not to give anything away here, but your one exception was the ending.

SHELTON: Yes, the exception was the end. I didn’t want to know what was going to happen in that last scene, because we wanted to keep that open so that we wouldn’t be kind of heading towards it, like heading towards a pre-determined ending for the rest of the film. But also just to keep it super, super dynamic. And from the very beginning I was not interested in making a broad, farcical comedy. I wanted to make something very authentic. We only wanted to make this movie if we could. It seemed like an impossible challenge, but we were really excited to see if we could somehow accomplish the impossible feat of making a movie that, when you got out of it at the end of it, you realized: I could totally see how two guys like that could actually have a weekend like that; that it would be totally believable every step of the way. We were all on high alert for any false notes. That was our primary goal. And getting to the end, we shot the whole thing in sequence.

humpday3

Ben and Andrew consider their "Humpday" plans.

BEANYWOOD: Approaching the movie this way must have given Mark and Josh’s characters a lot of fear and apprehension, and perhaps boosted their egos.

SHELTON: It wasn’t that they knew they were going to “do it,” we wanted to keep it very vital and dynamic, so the possibility that they could be doing it – they did realize it might not work out – but that we dropped away all of our individual desire for what we wanted to see happen at the end of the film and just really, really kept it as honest as possible.

BEANYWOOD: Did you learn anything from the shoot of My Effortless Brilliance that you were excited and proud to be able to apply to Humpday.

SHELTON: Oh yeah! The main thing I learned was that I could actually make a movie this way. So I was much more sure handed. I had much more confidence. With Brilliance, my goal, my chief objective was to create a documentary-like feel. To really make it seem like you were sitting in a room with these people who were actually living out these scenes; once I figured out how to accomplish that, I was able to move on to other goal with Humpday, such as: the strong narrative drive, the on-the-edge-of-your-seat feeling, and upping the visuals. My Effortless Brilliance was my second feature film, and I really liked a lot of the way it looked, but parts of it were super shaky. I still wanted there to be an organic feeling, but I didn’t want you to be sea-sick. We stabilized the camera a little bit more. We got better eye lines, so, instead of having speaking to each other across the room for points of view, we were always making sure we had better eye lines. And we added a little bit of lighting, because Brilliance literally had no lighting, so for the indoor, evening scenes, it was really a struggle in the color-correction suite; so we added a little bit of lighting just to make it nicer and easier. We just tried to up the visual quality just a little bit.

BEANYWOOD: When you’re talking about a better eye line, can you clarify the difference?

SHELTON: What I mean by a line is, is where you‘re facing the camera. So, if you guys are having conversations, a lot of time, as with Brilliance, I would be across the room with the camera, and so you’d be in profile to the camera, which just isn’t very interesting. But with Humpday, I would actually get over the shoulder. But you have to be really careful because you’ll get the other camera in each other’s viewfinder.

BEANYWOOD: So you were covering the action with two cameras?

SHELTON: Always, so they never had to repeat with they were doing. So, what we would get is, if you think about the hangover scene for instance, which is one of the scenes I just love visually, when the two of them are in the morning light and they’re both looking super hungover, and yet kind of beautifully lit and angelic, that was a scene that had to work in a house that was really small, and the room was really tiny, so I had to put my DP out the window to get Mark. And then I was in the living room looking through the doorway at Joshua, because he also – if you’re using these Panasonic HD cameras, and you’re at the long end of the lens it just looks better; so if you’re all the way zoomed in, it looks more cinematic. But that was the main stuff. I really felt confident with this process, as kind of scary as it can be on set, and sometimes it’s really messy, the actors can look at me and say, “Okay, I think we got it.” And I’d be like, “Really?” I mean, sometimes. Not always. But sometimes I would be like, “Are you sure?” Because they would have gone on for like thirty minutes, with long, messy, meandering takes. But I’m watching it as an editor, and I’m just checking to make sure that all the ingredients are going to be in there, because the editing room is really where it gets written; very much like a documentary. It’s very much like you’re setting up a fly-on-the-wall documentary situation on a fake documentary. And just the way a documentary like that is written in the editing room, because there’s no script, you’re just following the story as it’s happening. That’s how this is written. So this movie easily could have been a very, very, very mediocre movie, or a really terrible movie with less skill in the editing room.

BEANYWOOD: In maintaining the believability of these situations, were there any moments where, in the improvisational points, the believability suddenly cracked? It’s a fragile thing.

SHELTON: I know. It’s hard, but everybody was on the same page and that never happened. Of all the things we had to fix or construct or deal with in the edit room, I don’t know, I can’t think of a single thing that was trying to Band-Aid a performance. Everybody was so in that world. And not everybody can act like this. I think a small percentage of actors can actually work this way, because you’re… many, many, fine, fine actors really need the text as their buttress. That’s what they’re clinging to, you know? And then they build the whole performance on it. And if you take that away from them, then they just have nothing.

BEANYWOOD: It’s funny, because it looks like anybody could pick up this style of acting. So it’s actually like, something that looks easy is, in reality, complicated.

SHELTON: It seems effortless because those guys are so good at it and it seems like they’re just “being.” The problem is, you have to not only be naturalistic in the moment and be in your character, but you also have to kind of always have this eye looking ahead, and you have to be thinking about scaffolding that them. Like, I need to be able to set this up so that they can react in this way. And this piece of information has to be revealed in a very careful way, you know? They sort of always have to be thinking about that. And a lot of it is just sort of basic action 101, where everybody just sort of has a clear objective and a very clear action. But you also have to kind of be thinking about the scaffolding of the scene as well. Some people are such good actors, and they can really get lost in the character, but they just lose sight of where the scene is supposed to go. And then other people with bring something to the surface too quickly. Like, you were mentioning, like presenting a false note without really realizing that’s now how it would happen in real life. But everyone on this set, they really seemed to get it. They really seemed to have the right balance. And it wasn’t that we didn’t have to work to get there sometimes, you know? But it tended to be typically in only two or three or four takes at the most. It wasn’t like we were doing it sixty times. It was kind of cool.

BEANYWOOD: You’ve done a lot of interviews, has anyone brought to your attention a criticism of the film where you were like, “Wow, I didn’t realize that.” Was there anything that sticks out, negatively or positively?

SHELTON: No, but someone did point out to me recently that my character I play in the movie is kind of like this instigator. She’s kind of playing this similar role that I’m playing as the director. That I’m making these guys do this thing. And I was like, “Oh! That never even occurred to me.”

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