Three hetero filmmakers team up to make the indie ‘Humpday,’ the first ‘post-gay’ film. But do they get it right?
When Lynn Shelton decides to make a film, it’s not the script that comes first, not even the premise. It’s the actors.
"I wanted to work with [actor] Mark Duplass," the Seattle filmmaker says plainly about her impetus for making "Humpday," an indie film already attracting a lot of national attention. "I like to create a real actor-centered set. Instead of starting with a script I started with the people."
So how exactly did Shelton, a straight woman, decide that her feature would center around two men — Duplass and Joshua Leonard, who are straight in real life
and in the movie — deciding to have sex with each other for an "artsy" porno?
"The basic premise was taking characters and putting them in situations out of their comfort zone," Shelton says. "We asked, what scenario would be fun to play?" And the result was "Humpday," a so-called "post-gay" film about the making of the first "post-gay" film.
In it, Duplass plays Ben, a buttoned-down husband visited by his free-spirited best friend, Andrew (Leonard). During a drunken party, they propose making a porn film in which they have sex with each other. The issue becomes, in the bright light of day, will either back down?
"Humpday" has invited many comparisons to "Bruno," in part owing to their coincidental release dates ("Humpday" opens in Dallas Friday). Both pose the question: How comfortable do Americans really feel about their sexuality when confronted by the bugaboo — or is it "bugger-boo?" — of situational homosexuality? (Shelton says she hasn’t seen "Bruno," but heard the films compared this way: "One is about homosexual panic and the other is about a homosexual causing a panic.") And both films explore this experience through the eyes of straight people.
Shelton’s OK with that.
"Sacha Baron Cohen is really trying to push buttons — there’s a total shock factor. Mine is really the opposite. Though mine sounds raunchy, I only wanted to approach it in a believable and anti-misogynistic way."
As part of the improvisation she used to create the script, Shelton asked both actors outright: What is the extent of your gay experience? The monologue delivered by Ben in the film is partially derived from Duplass’ own experience.
"I knew I needed a scene that addressed if these guys were gay or what kind of homosexual experiences they had had, so I asked them about it. The video store clerk story was based on something real that Mark had happen —maybe a quarter of it is real. The beginnings of his own experience ended up in the movie."
Spoiler alert: The ending is revealed in the next few paragraphs.
In the end, though, Duplass’ own gay history didn’t help the characters commit to the moment, so to speak. Ben and Andrew end up in bed together, trying to justify having sex, but can’t do it.
"The end was the one thing we didn’t know — the script was structured up until the hotel room," Shelton says. "We were looking for total honesty and we said [to the actors], ‘You really know these guys. I need you to live this scene out in the moment as you actually could.’ They wanted to be able to do it without any trickery or it wouldn’t have felt like art. I kinda wanted something to happen between them, but what made me happy was the honesty took over."
That’s when I point out the problem with casting two straight men: As a practical matter, there was no chance they would both conclude that their characters would have sex. Unlike "The Big Chill," where Glenn Close as an actress has no vested interest in whether Kevin Kline will sleep with a friend, Duplass and Leonard are living this. And how far would they really be willing to go for a movie? Shelton’s improvisational style set up a foregone conclusion: that the men would eventually wimp out. I can hear her nodding over the phone.
"I feel your pain," she says.
Where have we heard that before?
"Humpday" opens at Landmark’s Magnolia Theater today.
The high-concept bromantic comedy "Humpday"— about two straight friends who make a gentleman’s agreement to have sex with each other on film as an experiment, has, intentionally or not, provided scores of men (gay and straight) with the perfect new come-on line: "I want to have sex with you not because I want to have sex, but because I want to create art with you. By fucking."
This isn’t so original, really. John Cameron Mitchell’s "Shortbus" was far more experimental (containing actual sex), and Mike White’s "Chuck & Buck" got its zing by the reveal that one seemingly hetero man had slept with his gay buddy. And Kevin Smith’s recent "Zack & Miri Makes a Porno" is almost identical.
But none of that kept the straight man in the seat next to me from squirming like a vegan in a slaughterhouse, even when nothing "gay" was happening onscreen. It’s the anticipation of disgust that creeped him out, and so far as I could tell, true disgust never came.
That’s because "Humpday" is a sweet little gem of a film, a largely improvisational indie that wears its appealing naturalism on its sleeve.
That is until the ending.
"Humpday’s" doom is also its attraction: It’s premise is already well-known to the likely audience, so once we see it coming — once we get the characters and the arc — it becomes its own self-referential porno. It’s a movie about sex made by straight people about straight people who want to make a movie about sex. Figure that one out. And, like true porn, it calls for — no, demands — a money shot. At least metaphorically.
Luxuriate in the process of the filmmaking, as writer-director Lynn Shelton composes tight scenes between talking heads as they explore deep issues about happiness and identity. Bask in the acting, which resonates with authenticity. But don’t expect to walk away satisfied.
Maybe satisfaction is impossible without being, as plagued "Bruno," a politically-incorrect neutron bomb: He shoots, it scores… but at too high a cost.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 24, 2009.