Lynn Shelton on Humpday

Writer-director Lynn Shelton’s new movie, Humpday, has a simple setup: Just two straight dudes makin’ gay porn. What? It’s an art project.

Ten years or so after they went to college together, Andrew (Joshua Leonard) is a boho drifter and Ben (Mark Duplass) owns a happy middle-class home. And now, to the dismay of Ben’s wife Anna (Alycia Delmore), the perfect little storm of impromptu reunion, wine, weed, and impending amateur porn festival has stirred up the man-boys’ aggro angst.

Shelton told me all about it on the phone.

How did “Humpday” come to be?

Mark Duplass was my starting point. We just really had a lot to talk about, creatively, when we met. We had decided that we were going to find ways to collaborate. So I was trying to think of different characters that might be fun for him to try on. One of the things that I had in the back of my head as a good recipe for drama–and humor–is to put characters outside of their comfort zones. And to get them to do it to themselves. A friend of mine went to Hump! and told me about it and I was thinking, “Why do I find it so cute that this straight guy is talking so much about the gay porn he’d seen?” So Mark and I had been talking about movies we liked, and what’s a good approach. And it’s such a simple idea, really knowing who the characters are and putting them into this uncomfortable situation. I pitched him this character. I had seen him in the other role, as the adventurer guy, but Mark said, “I’m really feeling Ben because I’m newly married,” and he was in a similar place. So for Andrew, I knew I needed somebody who was equally charismatic. Mark thought of Joshua Leonard pretty quickly, and introduced me. And he just had a really good instinct there. So we had one great weekend where I went down to L.A., where the two boys and I shut ourselves into a hotel, and I was able to glean more information about them and about their own attitudes. We ended up with every component of the script, but later, when we came to set, I left the dialogue up to them.

What have you learned about how straight guys deal with gayness?

Ha! Wow. This is why I make movies: I can’t verbalize everything in a perfect way. I’m actually very instinctive. But let me try to answer. There is the particular attachment that they seem to have to their sexual identity. They just want to make it clear to everybody that they’re not gay. This is really interesting. With two straight guys who love each other in a platonic way, because they’re straight guys, automatically it’s very poignant. It’s hard to just say, “I love you,” without all this nervous joshing about it.

What have you learned about how movies deal with straight guys dealing with gayness?

Before Sundance, I had no idea what the scope of the audience might be. I was so happy to see a lot of women in their fifties, in their fur coats, who were just howling. I was also concerned that I not make a film that was homophobic in any way, and the gay community has loved it. But straight guys are who it’s for, really. It’s kind of a love letter to them. I went men to see it and feel known and to recognize themselves and enjoy themselves. I have heard reports that some people get uncomfortable, of course. This movie actually changes with different audiences, because people laugh more in big groups. That discomfort converts into laughter. I had people emailing me after they’d seen it, saying, “I’ve never had such a great time with so many people I don’t know.”

What’s the most intimate part of making movies?

When I made my first feature, it transformed me as an artist. I had been doing everything by myself. For the most part I would shoot and edit and deisgn and do everything alone. So making my first feature, I completely fell in love with collaboration. It’s particularly intimate for me. I take the normal amount of collaboration and push it to the edge. It’s sort of a chemical thing, creative collaboration. I can’t think of a way to get closer to someone. I mean outside of a romantic relationship, or even sex. It can be so fulfilling. It really is all about finding the right chemistry. Sort of like multiple marriages, right? There are lots of people that I love but I don’t know that I can work with. Making movies is really stressful. You have to make sure that the way that everybody handles stress will balance out. Everything about it for me is intimate.

What would it take for a creative project to intrigue and frighten you the way Ben and Andrew’s project intrigues and frightens them?

I don’t want to give away the ending, but there’s a scene where Ben is like, “What, exactly, makes this a great piece of art?” They think it’s because it scares them. And that’s the final question: Is that valid, that it’s art just because they’re terrified? I can think of times when I’ve felt it’s really important to face my fear, but that’s not generally how I drive myself. I do try to raise the bar on myself. The way that the movie unfolded…I just had this instinct that there would be a lot of territory that could be explored. My goal was not a broad slapstick farce, but a believable story. We were all on high alert for false notes the whole way. So, when you’re looking for real-life motivations, stuff comes up. I knew the audience would want to know: Is either of these guys gay? What’s their experience? You have to think about, OK, why would his wife give him permission? And I’m really sick and tired of seeing really cipher-like roles for girlfriends or wives. I knew I didn’t want her to be a harpy or a doormat. I don’t think the movie would have worked if she was any of those things. So all of a sudden these layers appear. All of a sudden the movie becomes about a marriage. Or about our relationships with ourselves–our concepts of ourselves, as compared with who we turned out to be.