Lynn Shelton: ‘I can make men run for the hills'

They’ve bickered in buddy movies, and they’ve hugged in ‘bromances’. But the chaps in Lynn Shelton’s ‘Humpday’ actually bare their souls – and much more besides. Demetrios Matheou meets a director with boys on the brain
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The Independent Culture

The buddy movie dynamic of two men bickering when they clearly can’t do without each other has driven films from cop dramas to comedies, road movies to Westerns. The genre has recently been given fresh impetus and a new name, the “bromance”, thanks largely to the prolific producer/writer/ director Judd Apatow and his ribald comedies in which unreconstructed males struggle to bond. But it would be wrong to deduce from that catchy new term that films such as Superbad, Pineapple Express or I Love You, Man are really exploring the complexities of male friendship, let alone male love. For that, it seems, we need a woman.

Lynn Shelton’s Humpday is a film whose treatment of sexual identity and the idiosyncrasies of male friendship is at once serious and highly amusing, daring and disconcerting. Or, as she puts it, Humpday is “a film that makes a lot of straight men run for the hills”.

The story concerns two heterosexual Seattle friends, happily married Ben and bohemian Andrew, who reunite after several years apart in the midst of a drink-and-drugs bender and talk themselves into entering the local amateur porn-film festival as the stars of their own gay porn movie. When they sober up, the reality of their idea dawns on them. But can they back down? And how will Ben explain it to his wife?

Shelton won the Special Jury Prize for the film at this year’s Sundance Festival, where she found herself dubbed “the female Apatow”. It is an obvious, if lazy comparison. “I love Judd Apatow, because he brought humanity to a crass genre,” she says. “But he does something very different. We never played Humpday for laughs. The humour comes from a different place, from people recognising themselves and what they’ve observed in others.”

Indeed, the Hump porn festival actually exists and, according to Shelton, reflects a strong, sex-positive subculture in the city. “Hump is sponsored by our alternative weekly paper, The Stranger. The idea is to encourage everyone – amateurs, everyday people – to make their own porn films, as a celebration of sexuality and having fun. So the films end up being very humorous, not even really porn, but blue. Sock-puppet sex, cheeky stuff.”

Did she attend the festival, as part of her research? “I never get a chance to go myself, as it sells out so quickly. I’m never fast enough on the trigger,” she laughs. “But I’ve talked to so many people who have gone and have described the work, that I feel I have been.” As it happens, the premise of the film struck Shelton when a film-maker friend reported back from his adventures at Hump. “He’s straight, but he kept talking about the gay porn. I felt that it was really quite cute, and funny, that he was fascinated by these films, yet couldn’t figure out why. So I started thinking about the intense, straight-male relationships I’ve seen, with their seemingly homoerotic undercurrents. American men can be very touch-feely, but it’s macho touching – there’s a lot of chest-bumping action. They can be so passionate about each other, but when it’s time to express that love, they’re uncomfortable: whereas straight women can just say ‘I love you’ and it’s no big deal.

“One of Humpday’s themes is the question, what is it to be a man? Sexuality is part of it, but it’s more about sexual identity. Ultimately, it becomes about choice. Ben and Andrew struggle so hard to be gay, just for a day, that it makes you realise that you can’t really choose what you are.”

Shelton, who plays one of the hosts of the Dionysian party in which the friends’ porn pact is sealed, started out as an actress, moving from Seattle to New York to work in the theatre, before slowly moving, via photography and film editing, to directing – first making experimental films then, after she returned to Seattle in 1999, features. Humpday is her third. Her previous film, My Effortless Brilliance, was also about a male friendship, albeit one that is falling apart.

Why this fascination with the opposite sex? “Actually, I had 10 years of experimental work that was pretty much women-centred. I made an experimental documentary about miscarriages, another about the psycho-emotional impact of becoming a mother, one about female body hair. But then I hit on a working process focused on the acting, the starting point of which is the actors I want to work with. And those have happened to be men.”

In Humpday, that guy was Mark Duplass, who plays Ben, and is a leading light of the “mumblecore” movement of US independent film-making, which includes directors Andrew Bujawski (Funny Ha Ha), Aaron Katz (Dance Party, USA) and Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs), the latter being the man whose fascination with Hump prompted her film. Mumblecore’s low-fi realist, improvisational style and situational humour are all in evidence in Humpday. If Shelton is one of the boys, it’s one of these boys.

“The film-makers associated with that movement are friends of mine and I would be proud to be considered part of their community. These people are genuinely passionate about making good films. They’re just picking up a camera, getting their friends together and saying, ‘Let’s make movies,’ not waiting around for a million bucks to do it”

The 43-year-old is suddenly in demand. At home, she’s now made her own contribution to Hump with a variation on Humpday’s wonderful, climactic hotel scene, and has just finished $5 Cover: Seattle for MTV, a series of 12 fictional vignettes featuring local musicians, which Shelton describes as “a postcard from the city, via the local music scene”, and will be shown online in January.

She’s had overtures from Hollywood, too. “I am exploring working with bigger producers, on a bigger scale,” she admits. “But I still want to make my personal, small Seattle films, which you can make in a week with a small crew. I don’t want to lose the joy of that.”

Shelton doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the change in her fortunes has come with a buddy movie. “You know, my first feature, We Go Way Back, was a total chick-flick, and I couldn’t help noticing that My Effortless Brilliance got way more love. That’s when I realised that all the critics are men, and if you make a film men can relate to, it’s amazing what it will do to your career.”

‘Humpday’ (15) is released on Friday

Friendly fire: Lynn Shelton’s five favourite buddy films

Thelma & Louise (1991, Ridley Scott)

“Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon kick ass as friends whose weekend escape takes a violent turn, forcing them to make for Mexico. The only – and I mean only – problem with this movie is that they don’t kiss before they fly off the cliff”

Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola)

“A Judd Apatow production, this is a hilarious – and touching – account of highschool geeks whose friendship is tested during a chaotic party night. The sleeping-bag scene is perfection”

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, George Roy Hill)

“Paul Newman and Robert Redford play chalkand- cheese train robbers – the smart joker and the moody gun-slinger who just can’t shake that posse. It’s the most romantic buddyship that’s ever been conveyed on film”

His Girl Friday 1940, Howard Hawks)

“Hawks’ brilliant version of The Front Page, with Cary Grant’s scheming newspaper editor stopping at nothing to keep hold of his star reporter, who just happens to be his ex-wife. Rosalind Russell is a better man – and a better match for Grant's fast and witty banter - than 99 per cent of men could ever hope to be”

The Whole Shootin' Match (1978, Eagle Pennell)

“A style as laidback as its two heroes – likeable losers with mad, get-rich-quick schemes, such as working as flyingsquirrel ranchers. Their height difference should put this friendship in the history books