Comedy Drew On Local Encounter

Genesis Of Acclaimed 'Humpday' Goes Back To Two Conversations At '06 Maryland Film Festival

July 30, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

The acclaimed new comedy Humpday takes its gimmick from a grass-roots Seattle porn celebration, but the creative epiphany that made the movie possible occurred at the Maryland Film Festival.

In Humpday, writer-director Lynn Shelton riffs on the Seattle sex-film festival HUMP!, which has been showcasing home-made sex movies since 2005. She came up with an attention-getting hook: Two heterosexual guys decide to grab the grand prize at "Humpfest" by making gay love while insisting that they're straight.

But the only reason Humpday exists is that Shelton attended Baltimore's eclectic and director-friendly Maryland Film Festival three years ago. She took maximum advantage of festival director Jed Dietz's desire to connect filmmakers to audiences and other filmmakers.

Were it not for the friends she made at the MFF in 2006, Shelton might still be struggling to polish some worthy independent feature and get it into the marketplace - instead of winning raves across the country with an ultra-contemporary, semi-improvised movie. Opening on Friday exclusively at the Charles, it isn't just a classy remake of Zack and Miri Make a Porno or a blood-brother to Bruno. It's a realer-than-real art house cousin to commercial bromances such as I Love You, Man. And it has snatched critical favor out of the hands of bromance king Judd Apatow and provocation king Sacha Baron Cohen.

According to Dietz, "At a place like Sundance, the filmmakers are properly focused on getting their product out and taking advantage of the publicity and making sure people see your movie. When you're here, the whole atmosphere is different: It's all about the art."

Over the phone from Seattle last week, Shelton said that in 2006, she felt as if she'd come to the right place. After all, Shelton, too, is all about the art.

The film she showed at the 2006 festival was her autobiographical debut feature, We Go Way Back. It portrayed an emotionally and artistically stalled 23-year-old actor confronting the disappointment of her 13-year-old super-creative self. It was a classical choice for a first film, reflecting Shelton's own artistic wanderings from the theater to experimental movies and film editing. And she wrote and shot it in a classical way, with a finished script, on 35mm film.

After her visit to MFF '06, Shelton would never do that again.

Late one night at the Cloud Club on top of the Inner Harbor's Brookshire Suites Hotel, Shelton shared two life-altering conversations. One was with James Burke, who had directed Aurora Borealis with Donald Sutherland, Joshua Jackson and Juliette Lewis. "He was at the tail end of his festival circuit, and he was exhausted," Shelton recalls, but he and Shelton began swapping "war stories" about fighting to keep on top of a schedule and a budget as they jumped from one location and 35mm camera set-up to the next.

The other was with Joe Swanberg, the renowned leader of the "mumblecore" movement. He had filmed LOL with his friends and a cheap digital camera on real-life sets with almost no cash at all ($3,000). What he did have was a bunch of loyal buddies who enjoyed themselves on weekend shooting sprees even when they stretched over the course of eight months.

As a serious director who also likes to have fun, Shelton found it hard to resist the LOL model of moviemaking - and not just for its on-set entertainment value. Even before she met Swanberg, Shelton realized she wanted to work on "actor-centered" movie sets. On her first film, she observed that waiting for the crew to rig the lighting was hardest on the actors, who had to perform the key artistic task: emotional exposure. Shelton also marveled that a couple of spontaneous flourishes, including an improvised game of Pictionary, had more reality and zest than her scripted scenes.

She decided from there on to treat actors as full partners in creating characters, dialogue and behavior. "What would happen if you started with actors you knew you wanted to work with and custom-designed roles for them? What if you [had] nothing but practical light and a pared-down crew on real locations? Then I meet Joe - and he's achieved this incredible level of naturalism while having so much fun doing it."

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