July 10, 2009|It's mere coincidence, filmmaker Lynn Shelton will tell you, that her last two movies plumb the phenomenon of men reaching a make-or-break point in their friendships. Coincidence also, one assumes, that both films feature these bosom bros sprawled out across the same bed after the climax. The soft-spoken exploration Shelton began in My Effortless Brilliance (2008) finds a comedic payoff in Humpday, her third feature, which won a special jury prize at Sundance. In June, the film came to the Seattle International Film Festival for its first screening in Shelton's native city and base of operations--where it proceeded to win none of SIFF's upper-echelon awards, netting low runner-up status in the categories of best film and best actor (for Mark Duplass) and a second-place showing for Shelton as best director (with first-place going to The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow). Symptoms of a hometown backlash? Still, her flick had already outpaced many of its SIFF fellows in the race for distribution and strong word-of-mouth.
Shelton took her earliest steps into film as an editor, after years of work as a theatre actor and playwright. (I first encountered her cutting-room work, without knowing her name, in Paul Willis' 2004 half-a-dream rendition of Hedda Gabler.) My Effortless Brilliance cast Seattle actor/journalist/rock star Sean Nelson as an awkward writer seeking to reconnect with the friend who brutally dumped him (Basil Harris). Humpday finds filmmaker-actors Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard improvising away as college pals, estranged by time and distance, who decide to have sex together on video as an art project. By this route, the movie gets at the vulnerable points of straight male interaction in a way that Hollywood buddy comedies--built largely of road-trip snafus, pussy quests, and snide homophobia--seldom do. At SIFF, Shelton spoke of cutting her teeth on several documentaries and experimental films before her 2006 debut feature, We Go Way Back, which lies far from the testosterone territory she would soon stake out: its central character is an actress coping with the phantom of her 13-year-old self.
LYNN SHELTON: I had never been on a film set before, and especially with my background as an actor, I was just amazed at how every component of the production model seemed designed to obstruct the central work of the production, which was the acting. Everything made it so hard on the actors!
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Boom mike right here in your face, lighting on this side, the grip on the ladder...
Exactly. And having thirty people standing around waiting for you, and you have five minutes to do the scene... It was really difficult. Seattle has a great, great pool of wonderful theatre actors, people who blow me away as actors, but you get them in this artificial environment, and it's like, "Wow, this is really tough." I started to fantasize about making a film that would be a completely actor-centred set. So My Effortless Brilliance, which was my second feature, was a total experiment, just to see what it would be like to do something completely actor-centred. I called it an upside-down model of filmmaking, because instead of writing a script and coming up with ideas of characters and then trying to find people to fill those roles, I thought, "What if you started with the people and you costume-designed characters?"--invited them to develop characters with you, in tandem, kind of like the way Mike Leigh does it, from the ground up. You put a backstory together, just so those people are really fleshed out. And then on set, you just make sure it's gonna be as natural and organic and non-artificial an environment as possible. So really all they have to do is kind of be. They don't have to act or even memorize lines. So the way that I work now--the last two films I've worked on, anyway--I start with a very loose premise, and I'm able to actually figure out exactly how they're gonna interact in each scene, so I can write the scenes, I can figure out how the whole thing is gonna look. And on set, we arrive with a very structured outline, but there's no dialogue written, and so the actual words all come out of their mouths. Because I know that their dialogue is gonna be much more natural than anything I could come up with for them.
Is this why I can't find a screenplay credit for Humpday?
Well, it says it's written by me, and [the actors] are all listed as script consultants. It's funny, because it's a very collaborative way of working, but I'm the one that comes up with the emotional beats in each scene and how every scene is gonna feed into the next. I really worked hard to get a very strong narrative drive. And then the final draft of the writing is in the editing room, and the editing phase. I always say that casting is always extremely important for a film. In this case, though, it's absolutely paramount, because not every actor is capable of working this way, and the people so embody their characters that I can't imagine the film being made with any other combination of people. But just as important, I think, just as much credit has to go to the editor and to the editing stage of the process. It's almost like you're setting up a false documentary. You know how documentaries are written in the editing room? It's the same thing--you're setting up this situation so that it's a very real-life-like situation. You have two cameras, you're shooting it documentary style. Instead of rehearsing, we just talk and talk and talk and make sure everybody knows what their backstory is, where we're at, and then they go for twenty, thirty minutes. And then in the edit room, we write and carve that down to five-minute scenes. That's a huge process. So they're giving us gold, but they're also overwriting and going all over the place and we have to carve that down.
It sounds like as an editor, you're not intimidated by that loose atmosphere. I can see where a director could come in with a script, and then when somebody starts improvising, they go, "Oh my God"...
"...What's gonna happen?" Yeah, and I'm really tracing as we're going, tracing to make sure all the elements are in there that I'm gonna be able to put together. Unless you're used to it, it's hard on the actors. Sometimes you get to the end of a scene and it's like, "Really, that was there?" Like the guys at the end of the very last night--we shot everything in order, which was totally wonderful, a complete luxury. The very last night, we had the whole movie outlined up until the last scene, and then we didn't know what was gonna happen. We wanted to keep that a mystery. They knew their characters so well, and they had just lived out the rest of the movie, and I showed up on set and said, "Okay, you guys, you're really just going to be Andrew and Ben and you're going to do what these guys would do." So it was really exciting and dynamic. But by the morning, when we got out of there, they didn't think we had the ending of the movie. ...And I wasn't super, super, super sure, but I was pretty confident that it was there. They were like, "I don't know, you're probably gonna have to come down to L.A. and we'll have to rent a hotel room there, or at least do a coda." It was really funny. I was like, "Yeah, we'll see."
I want to talk about the film's ending, but I want to put that off for a second. How well did Josh and Mark know each other before they came into this project?
They don't know each other like they know each other in the film at all. And now, they're so cute--they're bonding, 'cause they're doing all this press together and I think they're really bro-ing down. ...But they're both filmmakers, and Joshua had a short film that was showing with one of the Duplass Brothers' films several years ago, so they met at a festival. They hadn't known each other that long, hadn't spent that much quality time together. Again, I can't tell you how important the backstory is. You don't hear a lot of direct references to it, but creating the chemistry between two characters, it's nice if they have a history together, and they just know what their history is.
They have a lot of dialogue about who they were together and what they were gonna do together, how those things fell by the wayside.
Totally, yeah--really specific, textured stories that they'd outlined, things that happened to each other. Maybe little betrayals, and each one has a different point of view on it.
Were you always interested in masculine relationships as a subject? In friendships between men?
It's interesting--I'm reading this great book, called Mike Leigh On Mike Leigh, and I guess he gets prickly when somebody says, "Your women are so great, you make films about women, why do you think that is?" "I make films about PEOPLE!" he says--women, men, it doesn't matter, they're people. That really is the case for me as well. The fact that my last two films have been about male friendship is purely because the starting point was a person I wanted to work with, and that person happened to be a guy. Like the first one, I wanted to look at the break-up of a platonic friendship. I thought maybe that was more of a woman-y, female thing, and when I came to Sean Nelson with the idea of it, he said, "No, I've had break-ups in my life too with male friends, and it's totally devastating." So we found a common ground there, and it just happened to be about male friendships, because he was a guy. So it was really happenstance. With this one, I have to say, I think one of the major themes of the film I like to point out is about marriage, and I'm really proud of the wife character [played by Alycia Delmore]. Even though she doesn't get as much screen time, I think that relationship is kind of the anchor. If she wasn't there, there wouldn't be nearly as much tension or drama going on in the film. But I have been interested in the male friendship, specifically between straight guys. I think two women that are good friends just have a lot more ease in the expression of their emotions for each other. Whereas two straight guys, if they really love each other, like really love each other, it gets complicated if they want to express that. There is a tension between straight guys and their relationship to gayness. It's really scary territory for a lot of guys, for whatever reason--how they're raised, or social stigma, whatever. They're really attached, often, to their identities as straight guys, and if they get too expressive in their love for another straight guy, what does that mean?
|"...Whatever kind of ulterior motives or desires that I had as a director, my ultimate goal was really that believability factor, and that overrode everything else."|
It's kind of interesting that you had a role for yourself in the film as Monica, the provocateur. Because here's the director, in this almost vérité fashion, in there going, "Oh, you should do it! You should totally do it! Oh no, don't back off now!"
(laughs) You'll be shocked to know you're the first person... I can't believe that I've never thought of that before, but literally, I've never thought of that. Oh my God, that's hysterical.
Really? The hidden hand becomes visible.
Yeah, that's totally the case. I never planned to be in the film. But I haven't figured out a way to audition people for this kind of working. It's very instinctive, how I cast people. Some people I've worked with before, but a lot of times I haven't. It's just a matter of either previous work I've seen, or just talking to them, I just have a sense they'll be good at it or something. And I just didn't have anybody in mind for this character. I could see her so clearly in my head, but I couldn't think of who to cast. Mark was the one who suggested, "You know who she is, you should just play her." And I said, "Oh, I guess I could, couldn't I?"
She's almost like the obverse of Ben's wife, in that she's this promise of what used to be, and something that he doesn't see at home. So he winds up trapped there, in a kind of After Hours experience.
Yeah, like going down the rabbit hole. I wanted it to really be a different environment--he just gets sucked into this vortex. Because I didn't think that the idea would have come up naturally any other way, unless it just seemed like, "Oh, everybody's doin' it, we gotta be cool, we gotta do it too!"
Did you ask yourself how the film might have changed if you'd come to the hotel room conclusion, and either a) the actors really go for it, or b) you as editor/director decide that we can leave this ambiguous--we can touch on this and let the audience decide for themselves what happened?"
You know, my main concern in this venture--and it was for all of us on set--was that it be believable every step of the way. So everybody was on alert for false notes, or if they weren't feeling it. And it didn't come up very often. I think I did a pretty good job of outlining a story that would allow for believability at every point. But there was one scene we were doing on set, and we had it outlined a certain way, and Mark was just like, "I know I said we were gonna do this, and the script said this, and I thought at the time it would work, but now that I'm here doing it, this is not what Ben would be doing. I don't believe it."
Specifically, he wouldn't be doing...?
It was a reaction, it was a specific way we thought the big fight was gonna play out, and something was supposed to happen. I don't even remember what it was, but it was something different that was supposed to happen in that scene--
The basketball fight?
No, no, when Andrew spills the beans to Anna, the big confrontation in the kitchen. He was gonna do something a little differently in that scene. It wasn't a huge adjustment, but it was enough of an adjustment that we then had to change the next scene--which was totally doable, because we were shooting in order, so it was great. But that was just an example of everybody really, always being on guard to make sure that it was feeling believable. So as much as maybe I had a certain vision... I'll just be up front about it: When I first had the idea, I hoped that something would happen between them. I didn't have any sense of what it would be, if it would be more emotional or if it would actually be physical, but I wanted something to go down between the two of them, in the quest for connecting, even if it wasn't really a genuine connection.
But whatever kind of ulterior motives or desires that I had as a director, my ultimate goal was really that believability factor, and that overrode everything else. We all let go of any preconceived notions or secret desires that we had of how we wanted that scene to come out. I genuinely believe that we did. And it was interesting, because somebody asked during a Q&A at Sundance if it could've come out differently in the end. And Josh said that they were open to it, they were open to whatever--although I don't think it would've been hardcore graphic sex. That was probably never a possibility. But anyway, he said, "That was the first time I'd ever kissed a guy, and if it had been sort of a warm, sensual experience, a comfortable thing, something could have likely happened differently in that scene." As it was, it really was exactly the way he played it onscreen. It really felt bizarre and just kind of awful in a strange way. Just like "Eucchh!", y'know? And from that moment on, that's what we had to contend with. He was really, as Andrew, feeling that same thing. Whether it was because they were good friends, or who knows--in a different combination, it maybe could've gone down a different way. But it was gonna be a struggle at that point.
You've done an online series that I haven't seen, "What The Funny", and I wanted to ask you about web production for a second. Is that something that you have an abiding interest in, or was that a one-off project?
That was a really unusual experience for me, because it was the first time I think ever that I had been hired as a director. It had been conceived, it had been written, it had been funded, and they tapped me to come in a steer the ship. I cast it and I crewed it, and I helped rewrite it a little bit, I gave my input, but it was not my baby. It was a really useful experience for me, because I got to know more Seattle actors, and it was the first time I had ever worked on just a comedy, a very broad comedy. But it's a little strange, because all of the other things in my filmography, they're my babies, and from the ground up I was figuring out what I wanted to be onscreen, from the conception to the end. And this was not that case. So it makes me a little nervous, really, because it will be online--it was sold to Cinetic, and they're a digital component, and I think they're just waiting for Humpday to come out, and then they'll release it online.
I think you can get it on DVD now.
You can buy it on DVD on Amazon, exactly. I'm proud of my work on it, but I just don't know if people are gonna distinguish it from my other films. It'll be really interesting to see. I'm really proud of all of the work that we did.
Do you like that distribution method, though? Obviously, you haven't seen it in action yet--
I think that web series are really interesting, and I'm actually in development on another one, and interestingly, again, it's a piece that I'm being commissioned to create. Although I do have a little bit more leeway in terms of the content, so I feel a little bit better about it. At Sundance, this guy, David Gale, with MTV New Media, came to me and said, "I think you'd be a real good candidate to direct the Seattle version of a series that was developed in Memphis by Craig Brewer, who did Hustle & Flow." It's called "$5 Cover", and "$5 Cover: Seattle" is being developed now. It's based on the lives of this small group of musicians. It's like six- to eight-minute episodes. The thing that's nice about those episodes is that it's like a short story--there's not a lot of time for intricate backstory or development. It's like you're droppin' in and kind of hangin' out with these people. Which I love--I think it's a really interesting format. I think mine is gonna have around twelve episodes or so, and every one also incorporates musical performance. It's sort of an interesting hybrid of documentary and performance. It's gonna be fun.
I was talking with [The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle director] David Russo, and we talked about web series development and direct-to-DVD stuff, and this was his take: "I do know that the theatre experience is destined to die. The indie sphere were the first ones to just throw in the towel, and say, 'It's only about story, it's not about sound and vision,' so they'll distribute things that are basically videos and try to get people to pay money in the theatre for them." What about that idea, that the way production and distribution happen now are forcing people to lay aside big-cinema experience in favour of smaller story?
Well, I think that that is true to a certain degree. I'm really interested in the cinematic experience. When you say big cinema, I don't know if it's so much big cinema like, whatever, Transformers, or maybe Doctor Zhivago. But I see the cinematic language being made up of many different languages, so the combination of all of these different elements is closer to human experience than anything else--specifically, human psychological, emotional experience. One of the great examples lately is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That is a movie that I wish that I had directed, for instance. Totally different than the last two films that I've made. My first film has elements like that, where you're actually using the technical aspects of the filmmaking languages to go into this person's point-of-view--the combination of sound design, music, slow-motion, blurry vision, shallow depth of field--all these different elements that you have at your disposal in the vocabulary of filmmaking to inhabit a space that's not just two people talking. But I'm really interested in both, and the last film goes to that a little bit--there are a few montages and moments that feel more sensual or visceral, human experiences that aren't just on that surface level.
Like the Dionysus House.
The Dionysus House, or when he comes in right before the three-way gone bad, and that whole section in there. So I am interested in both. And I freaking loved his movie, I LOVED Little Dizzle. I think it's incredible. I think Russo's a total genius. And I do think it's possible to have both. I teach music-video production--there's a totally web-based means of distribution for that, and it's a wide distribution. And yes, most music videos that are seen, Beyoncé or whoever, are more sort of conventional. But there are incredible pieces of art--Michel Gondry, Patrick Daughters, they do these incredible music videos that are very artistic and very cinematic with high, high production value, with these surreal and fantastic worlds that get tapped. That gives me great hope. I don't think that's ever gonna disappear, whether it's seen this big (indicates the size of an iPhone) or on a big screen.
You still have to give people a reason to look at it, no matter where it is. It has to stand out in some degree.
Absolutely. And there's so much competition, that's always a struggle. But I think that the quest will always be there. And I think the human desire to see that kind of work will always exist as well.