The Nerve Interview: Humpday director Lynn Shelton

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A smash on the festival circuit, the new film Humpday follows two straight college friends, the staid and married Ben (Mark Duplass) and the still-peripatetic Andrew (Joshua Leonard), who reconnect in their thirties and opt, on a dare of sorts, to have sex with one another in a local amateur-porn contest. The micro-budgeted film has just begun its nationwide rollout, and director Lynn Shelton is a bit tired, but gregarious. Over a pot of tea, she holds forth on the contrasts between men and women on homosexuality, her desire to create realistic characters, and the advantages and limitations of the “mumblecore” genre in which she’s often lumped. — Litsa Dremousis

Several reviewers have compared you to Judd Apatow. I don’t see it.
No. Some territory overlaps, the “bromance” thing, which is kind of the surface. But yeah, I think they’re really different. I mean the main thing for me is that I was not setting out to make a comedy, specifically a broad comedy.

You’ve said that there were times on the set when it didn’t feel like a comedy.humpday3
It never felt like a comedy on the set. Rarely. Because we were never playing for yucks, you know? For the most part, it’s real people talking in an authentic way. It’s an exploration of the nuances of the ways humans interact and the complicated ways they’re trying to reconcile their different selves. Andrew has this image of himself as being open to everything and having a soul that’s really free and open-minded and open to adventure. He’s coming up against his limitations. He’s terrified to do this art project and he’s pissed off at himself because he doesn’t want to be a fucking square.

That rang really true.
He’s supposed to be the opposite. And to find out he’s just a square is so devastating for him. And, of course, with Ben, you see all the different selves he’s trying to reconcile. You see him with his wife, Anna, and you see it in the very first scene when Andrew arrives at the house and Ben is there with the two of them and is already like, “Who am I? And how can I be with both of them at the same time?” He’s freaking out. And later, he invites her to the party but he’s really gently dissuading her from being there because he knows he’s not going to be able to be that other person if she’s there.

A number of rave reviews have referred to Humpday as “subversive”. I can’t imagine a film where two straight women contemplate sleeping with each other getting labeled “subversive.”Ten years from now, will Humpday still be considered groundbreaking?
I don’t know if we’ll ever reach that point. It’s really difficult for me to imagine. You know, I was asked by a journalist, “You really don’t think it would be the same for straight women?” We were talking about the special relationship straight men have towards gayness and how even the most progressive, average straight guy has this low-grade homophobia.

Not in this offensive, “I don’t like gay people!” kind of way. They could have lots of beloved gay friends, as long as everyone knows, “I’m straight!” It’s the specific, literal meaning of the word: “fear of homosexuality.” And it means two straight guys who are friends are going to have a problem expressing their love in a really simple way. I’ve witnessed this throughout my life, these intense, passionate platonic relationships between two straight guys. And always, when they express their love, it has to be in this joshing sort of way, or there has to be an amendment to it, because otherwise, what does it mean? And so the journalist asked, “You really don’t think women have that same tension?” And it’s like, “No.”  I mean, I’ve witnessed it. It’s okay for two straight chicks to totally make out in a club. That’s cliché now. If you think of that particular example, I find it impossible to imagine, in America anyway, that straight guys would be cool with it if two straight guys made out for fun in a club. I just don’t see that ever happening.

You’ve said you used to believe everyone is bisexual and then you changed your mind. Do you think it’s a question of genetics or cultural norm or both?humpday2
I have to look really specifically at this study I read about in Savage Love. About how on the spectrum, gay and straight men tend to be more polarized. And women, even if they’re basically straight or basically gay, there’s just a little bit more gray area.

It seems that way. It really does.
I remember reading that the study indicates that it really is biological. Though there’s so much indoctrination on such deep levels. And that’s not to say that there aren’t bisexual men. And there are women who will never experience the other sexual identity. But it’s interesting to me. And it does happen to line up with what I’ve observed.

Is the amateur porn contest a gimmick to move the plot forward, or do you think it’s important in itself?
The whole idea came from the Hump contest. A friend stayed with me in Seattle and went to see it, then talked for three days constantly about the gay porn scenes. He didn’t care what it would seem like, because he’s very secure in his sexuality. Part of the inspiration was my own response to him because I thought it was so cute. There were different ways to set it up, but the main thing was for the characters to have this challenge together.

I like that a camera is part of it because it essentially forces them to document it. With a different plot mechanism, they wouldn’t have had to document it in the same way.
I specifically didn’t want them to be gay. We thought about having one of them be closeted but knew it would be much more interesting if they’re both really straight. It upped the stakes.

Ben’s wife Anna is one of my favorite parts of the film. She’s intelligent and funny and empathetic and sexual and she doesn’t let Ben off the hook, but it’s done with love. We’re all sick of seeing those two-dimensional wife or girlfriend roles.
The whore with the heart of gold or the total bitch. Anna had to be as complicated and sympathetic as the guys just on principle. But also, the film wouldn’t have worked if Anna were a cipher, if she was just like someone there to serve Mark’s character. We knew we wanted Ben to be a little dissatisfied in his life, so if he was just totally in love and in a totally hot, passionate relationship, it would have different. But I didn’t want there to be this disaffectation, either. I wanted them to have a good relation where you root for them from minute one.

Is it frustrating to keep finding the word “mumblecore” in so many of the reviews?
The only problem I have with “mumblecore” is the word itself, because the movement, the group of filmmakers I’m associated with, I love being associated with and most of them are buddies of mine. And I love a lot of the things mumblecore sort of stands for. But I despise the name. Who would want to go see a movie where people mumble?