At a time when the very foundations of how films are made, shown and distributed are in flux, it makes sense that new and different kinds of filmmakers will emerge. While the stereotype of a Sundance director may still be that of a sharp twentysomething guy straight out of film school running on credit cards and bratty gumption, director Lynn Shelton is a married, 43-year-old part-time art school teacher and mother of a 10-year-old boy. How's that for the new face of independent film?
Shelton's latest feature, "Humpday," has its premiere today at the Sundance Film Festival, where it is looking for distribution and is screening as part of the high-pressure U.S. dramatic competition section.
The film tells the story of two unexpectedly reunited friends, Ben and Andrew, who fall back into their dynamic of chiding competition. Ben has settled down into a stable life, while Andrew still sees himself as a bohemian wanderer. Somehow they decide it would be a good idea to enter a contest that would involve making a gay porn film together. Besides their own trepidations, emotional roadblocks and shaky self-images, they must also steer the idea around Ben's understandably skeptical wife.
On the phone from Seattle, Shelton admitted she gets a kick out of having a film she can boil down to a "sexy hook" by describing the story as "two dudes attempting to out-dude each other by attempting to do each other."
Shelton has been steadily working her way up the ranks of the festival circuit for the last few years. Her first feature, "We Go Way Back," won the Grand Jury Award at the neighboring 2006 Slamdance Film Festival, and her second, "My Effortless Brilliance," premiered at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by IFC Films. "Brilliance" also earned Shelton a nomination for this year's Acura Someone to Watch Award at Film Independent's Spirit Awards, which will be held on Feb. 21.
Playing Ben and Andrew, respectively, are Mark Duplass, a filmmaker at Sundance last year with "Baghead," and Joshua Leonard, who previously appeared in one of the all-time Sundance sensations, "The Blair Witch Project." Ben's wife is played by Seattle actress Alycia Delmore.
In a direct response to difficulties during the production of her debut, both "My Effortless Brilliance" and "Humpday" were made in a loose, improvisatory style that Shelton referred to as "an upside-down way of making movies." She casts the roles first, largely based on the personalities of people she likes, and the characters are then tailored to fit the performers. From there, after much mutual discussion, a story is decided upon. The scenes are shot chronologically to allow for story adjustments along the way.
One benefit of this shoot-from-the-hip style is that when it came time to film the climactic scene of "Humpday" -- the will they or won't they moment -- Shelton and her cast still hadn't planned the outcome.
"That was the one thing we kept from ourselves," Shelton explained, "was deciding what would happen in that hotel room. We wanted it always to be the feeling of being unsure, just trying to keep that feeling of dynamic immediacy, 'What's going to happen next?'
"In retrospect, the things I really wanted to have happen did happen," she said. "The connection that I wanted to be made between them, to just be open to it, really earnestly wanting to be able to do it. When we walked out the next morning from that hotel room, Mark and Josh were convinced we didn't have it. And I knew we had it, I was pretty darn sure."