After years of toiling on micro-budget film sets, sometimes as an editor-for-hire, director Lynn Shelton finally has her calling card in Humpday. It’s the Seattle-based artist’s third feature film, and after a parade of accolades from Sundance and beyond, it might be the last one she makes under the noble DIY banner. The film is an often hilarious portrait of two friends who’ve taken separate paths in life—one a burgeoning family man, the other a self-styled world traveler—who reunite and decide to film themselves having sex—amateur porn as art—to prove they’ve still got it, whatever it is. It’s a droll premise, but Shelton films the proceedings with an eye towards cinema verité, and devotion to spontaneity resulting in something moving and real. Here the director talks about the intersection of art and motherhood, her newfound opportunities, and why she’s terrified of Hollywood.
Are Andrew and Ben based on people you know in your own life? This particular project was super collaborative, and I find exactly the right people to invite into the collaborative process, which is really key. I really only want to work with people who are as invested in the end product as I am, and so the only way to do that is you don’t pay them more money, but you actually invite them to take ownership and to be true collaborators. Two guys in their early thirties are gonna know a lot more about these potential characters than me. I let them really inform those characters as much as they possibly can, so they’re drawing on their own personal experience. We have a lot of open ended conversations and roundtable discussions. We tell a lot of stories that we know, of people in our lives, the different dynamics we’ve come across, so it’s not like I’m not participating—I’m right there with them in the trenches, but they are really kind of the ones who are the driving force in determining who their characters should be.
What was it like collaborating with Mark, who is a director in his own right? Did he ever try to nudge himself into the director’s chair? For my first two films, I was the puppet master and put words into people’s mouths, figure out who they were going to be, and all that. But for Humpday, both Joshua, Mark and I, were sort of working together and it all ended up bleeding a little bit. There was just this constant flow of creativity that we generated, and it was just extrememly egoless. There was one weekend I went down to L.A., and we shut ourselves up in a room and came up with so much. We told all these stories from real life, and then turned them into specific details about these two characters. I had a treatment at that point, but we deconstructed it. The ideas were flowing so fast and thick, and I remember there were a couple of things they really felt strongly about, but I had the final say.
Out of the two leads, who do you identify with more? I’m really a combination, because I am this bohemian artist—I mean I’m not bohemian, but I am an artist—and I’ve never felt like I’m in a situation that doesn’t allow me to be an artist. But Ben is really on the straight and narrow and is based on my brother—Mark actually wears his clothes, and we went to check out his office, and he has all these little like knicknacks and subway maps pasted everywhere. He’s really a Transportation Planner, so I immediately thought: this is perfect. We wouldn’t even have to art direct, we would just use this office.I looked at my brother when I showed up, because I’ve never seen him in his work clothes, and he’s dressed like Mark is in the movie, and I’m like, oh my god, you’re such a dork. Ben has the more traditional job and he has his wife, and there really isn’t a creative outlet for him or any kind of opportunity to kind of bust out of the norm. I’m married, I have a mortgage, I have kid, so on one level I can totally relate to him, but I also do feel for Andrew’s character too, in that yearning to just have a real freedom and be able to do whatever the hell you want.
Was there a time as an artist when you felt like you weren’t being productive enough? I had a lot of anxiety when I was pregnant. I wanted to be a mom so bad that I was worried I would lose all desire. I grew up in Seattle, but I lived in New York for nine years and had a miscarriage. I had a battle with infertility and actually started making a movie, but then thought, what if I do become pregnant and actually have a baby—what is it going to be like? So I started interviewing women who were artists and who had become mothers. There were a couple of them who really had lost the desire to be artists, but it was okay, because they didn’t care anymore. They had a new project. It kind of replaced the old ambitions they had professionally, and I realized that if it does happen to me, I won’t care. The first film that I made as a mom, my kid was four months old and I remembered that spark. I had no desire to make work, and all of a sudden at the four month mark, I was like I gotta make something! I made this ridiculous short called Psychedelic Nursing Mama. It was just really silly, but it was this burst of creativity. I remember writing a poem when I was eight, and ever since then, I’ve done some form of artistic endeavor.
Is being an artist something that one simply is, or that one strives to be? I think you need to do it in order to get better at it. But I don’t know of anybody who is an artist who doesn’t just have that internal drive. The impulse has to come from somewhere.
You can’t be an artist for the sake of it? I don’t know of anyone who is. What’s the point? It’s too hard. For the first time in my entire 43 years of existence, there may be a prospect of actually making a living through my art, which I’ve never done before.
Is that because of this film? It’s because this film has done so well that I was chased by agents and managers, and I now have one of each. I’m being kind of courted by certain elements of Hollywood who really admire the film. I have a paying gig this summer as a director, which is mindblowing.
What’s the gig? It’s making a web series for MTV. The producer approached me at Sundance and thought it would be a really good fit. As soon as I heard it was MTV, I was kind of like, yeah I’m not so sure, but upon learning more about the project, it’s a perfect fit as I really really love music and musicians. It was the the brain child of Craig Brewer, who directed Hustle and Flow and who’s another regional filmmaker who’s intersected with Hollywood. Five Dollar Cover Memphis is what it’s called, and they want to do different cities, so they thought I might be a good pick to spearhead the one in Seattle. I’m going to take a dozen or so Seattle bands—I’ve interviewed them all and I’m writing little story lines. The whole thing takes place over the weekend and non-actors will perform these characters that are basically themselves reenacting these scenarios. That all gets interwoven into a really kickass documentation of these real musical performances.
Is there anything you can conceivably of doing if you weren’t doing this? The way I’ve been making a living is I’ve freelance edited for the last decade, and also I’ve been teaching part-time. If I had a parallel life, I may have become a mid-wife. I really was fascinated and interested in birth, and attended a lot of births with my friends. It’s also a sort of a secret desire of mine to do a stint as a rockstar.
Is there anything about Hollywood that sickens or repulses you? Sure, plenty! I’m terrified because I’ve put together my last two films. All three of my films have been these wonderful local projects with truly fantastic people on set, and I give credit to that assemblage. But the second and third time was all self-produced, so I decided exactly who was gonna be on set. They all have fantastic sense of humor, are really smart and really great to be around. It’s extremely intimate and sort of summer camp kind of feel. I don’t want to lose the deep joy I have found in making work in a really collaborative way. I get a bigger budget, I can easily see how that deep joy can be replaced by nothing but anxiety and misery. I’m on really high alert to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Is there a Hollywood film that you saw that you could see yourself making or that you wish you had made? Sure. Lost In Translation, The Savages, and I love Noah Baumbach. I thought Margot at The Wedding was inconceivably brilliant.
Do you see a space for your aesthetic within Hollywood? Sure, absolutely. And those are the types of producers that I’m talking to. Alexander Payne is another one that I love. There have been a number of great producers who have made films that are exactly the kind of films that I want to make. I’m very optimistic about it. I’m a little weary of studios. The bigger the budget people bring up, the more nervous I get.
The term Mumblecore, negative or positive? I don’t know anyone who embraces that term wholeheartedly. I think that it had a certain amount of youthfulness when it was first being used to bring attention to a group of films and filmmakers that were so small scaled. I feel like it’s kind of outgrown its youthfulness a little bit, it’s also just become a little outdated. I think that there are other terms that could be applied. DIY is a little bit more descriptive.
What are some of your favorite restaurants or bars in either Seattle or New York? Well my sister owns a restaurant in Dumbo called Superfine and it’s really great. It’s the most amazing place. I think one of my favorite places in Seattle was a place called Café Presse, on Capital Hill. It’s French and it’s cheap, and it’s sort of a bar at night and café during the day. It’s fantastic.