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Her buddy film doesn’t exactly play it straight

Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s indie film “Humpday’’ has received early critical praise, capturing the Special Jury Prize this year at Sundance. Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s indie film “Humpday’’ has received early critical praise, capturing the Special Jury Prize this year at Sundance. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / July 19, 2009

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Two heterosexual male friends impulsively decide to make a gay porn film - starring themselves. How far might they carry their bromantic dare? And at what risk to their testosterone-addled psyches? That’s the premise behind “Humpday,’’ a comedy-drama written and directed by Seattle-based filmmaker Lynn Shelton. Chosen for the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors Fortnight Showcase, “Humpday,’’ Shelton’s third feature-length film, has generated even more buzz since capturing a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It opens locally Friday.

Shelton, 43, builds her latest film around a pair of old college buddies whose porn-flick gambit veers back and forth between farcical and uncomfortable. Ben (played by Mark Duplass) is newly married and preparing to start a family. Andrew (Joshua Leonard) is a globe-trotting slacker who can’t finish anything consequential in his life. Their dramatic foils include Ben’s wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), and Monica, a bisexual object of Andrew’s affections, played with comic flair by Shelton herself.

An accomplished film editor and documentarian, Shelton has blossomed into an acclaimed indie director with films like “My Effortless Brilliance’’ (2008). Along with Mark and Jay Duplass, Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, and a few others, she’s frequently identified with the “mumblecore’’ film movement. Though she dislikes the term, as Shelton explained during a recent visit to Boston, she wholeheartedly embraces the artistic company in which it places her.

Q. Let’s start with “Humpday.’’ In the summer of “Brüno,’’ how far can you expect to push gay-male satire before feeling the backlash?

A. It could be I haven’t met the haters yet, but the reaction so far has been all positive. It’s not a gay-themed movie anyway. It’s actually the opposite. These guys are so straight it gets them into a pickle they can’t out of.

Q. Straight, maybe, but they’re also clearly confused about their identities.

A. Exactly. Like, if you had a crush on a guy when you were 18, can you still consider yourself straight? The film is really about how one’s sense of self changes over time. Ben thinks he’s the same crazy guy he was in college. Andrew is this open-minded guy who discovers he has limitations like everyone else. One question I still ask myself after watching the movie is, did they make the connection again that they once had? Or did they just miss it? I’m still not sure.

Q. You’re not?

A. I’m not the best person to analyze my films.

Q. Talk about making this film. I understand you first approached Mark Duplass with a story outline but no fully developed script.

A. Correct. I like to involve the actors when things are still loose and they can flesh out their own characters. It’s a very organic process. For me, the Holy Grail is the extreme naturalism I can best get through improvisation. I wanted it to feel like a documentary, that as the story’s unfolding these characters seem like real flesh and blood. At the same time, I wanted to make a tight film, one that had the structure of classic scriptwriting where every scene has a purpose and feeds into the next.

Q. How do you manage that?

A. When I arrive on set, I have everything worked out except the actual dialogue. We all know what’s going to happen and what the point of every scene is. The actors know they have to hit certain milestones. Then we talk a lot before shooting and let the cameras roll.

Q. Do you shoot multiple takes of each scene?

A. Generally, no. We use two cameras, so we never have to repeat scenes in order to get reaction shots. And we go for 20-minute takes, sometimes even 30 or 40, which can be a very messy process. The actors have to trust I’ll get rid of the bad and keep the good. In the editing room, we’ll tighten and tighten, constructing bridges where we need them. It’s more akin to editing an unscripted documentary than a traditional feature.

Q. There’s a pivotal scene where Ben’s wife learns the truth about this proposed film project. How much was blocked out beforehand and how much improvised on set?

A. That scene gets brought up a lot. We cut out a lot of early dialogue, as I knew we would, because I wanted the chemistry between Andrew and Anna to feel real as the scene builds. But we knew there would be a transition moment when they begin bonding, and Joshua and Alycia got to that moment brilliantly. Not every actor can do this. To not only be immersed in your own character but be building the scene’s scaffolding, too. It’s like setting up a spike shot [in volleyball].

Q. What’s your role in making all this happen?

A. I’m a total control freak. The trick is, I exert my control freakness at key moments. One is selecting the right people to work with, cast and crew, because most movie sets don’t operate on this actor-centered vibe. The other place I exert control is the editing room.

Q. To what extent do you identify with the so-called mumblecore genre?

A. I know no filmmaker who embraces the term, which sounds both awful and dismissive. It did have a certain usefulness a couple of years ago, though, when it was coined to group together a number of films and filmmakers with certain ways of working in common. Mostly it was this DIY thing. None of us were waiting for someone to give us a million dollars to fund our films. We all use handheld, cinema verite cameras. To varying degrees, we all trust our actors to work without a script. “Humpday’’ is a prime example. It could never have been made with a studio situation or having to please investors. At the outset we thought it would never work, but we said, “Let’s try it. If it fails, it will quietly die a little death in Seattle.’’

Q. Instead, you’ve made a sleeper summer-date movie.

A. [laughs] I think it’s a great date movie, particularly for couples who’ve been together a long time. People who don’t know each other that well? I’m not so sure.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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