AWFJ Women On Film – Mark Duplass and Josh Leonard talk “Humpday” – Jennifer Merin

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In Humpday,”the big buzz independent movie from this year’s Sundance Festival, actors Mark Duplass and Josh Leonard play college best buddies who reunite after years of following entirely separate paths to different lifestyles. On a whim, they decide they’re going to make a porno video of themselves having sex with each other. The challenge for them is that they’re both straight.

In New York to chat about the acclaimed movie — and about the subject of male sexuality, which always seems to come up in any discussion of Humpday — the two guys naturally fall into concluding sentences for each other. They haven’t known each other since college. In fact, the became friends on the Humpday set. And, they’re clearly on the same page.

“It’s kind of a carry over from what happened while we were on the Humpday set,“ says Duplass. “Lynn Shelton (the film’s writer-director) works with a lot of improvisation so…”

“we got to know each other well while we were working on our characters and developing our characters’ relationship to each other,” Leonard concludes.

That relationship is certainly interesting. Your characters are both clearly heterosexual–Mark, your character has a steady, serious girlfriend and Josh, you’re quite the freewheeling womanizer in the film. So why do these two guys decide to make a porno of themselves having sex with each other?

DUPLASS: Well, I think they have a lot of latent issues. Not so much questioning their sexuality or about being attracted to each other in that way, but about figuring out their roles in life in other ways…

LEONARD: I think they just fall into the idea of doing the video when they’re high and goofy and showing off for each other — and for some other people who happen to be in the room and egging them on. And, once the idea is there, they‘re more self-conscious, more timid about being the first to back down than they are about going through with it.

DUPLASS: Yeah, they push each other further into idea of doing this, sort of egging each other on, finding ways to make their porno plan become a real one. I think they’re really kind of jealous of each other’s life style — at least of the impression they have of each other‘s life style.

LEONARD: Yeah, they’re curious about each other, and wonder what the other one has experienced since they were best friends when they were young.

DUPLASS: Like they’re testing themselves against each other. And they‘re not really thinking it through or figuring out what it will be like or why they’re doing it–until the actual moment comes.

But, in a way, the movie’s basic premise seems so very preposterous. Were you at all concerned that it wouldn’t be believable?

DUPLASS: Yeah, I worried about that a lot. Actually, we all were concerned. We knew we had to make it as real as possible because it‘s such a funny and unlikely story that we would push it over the edge if we played the inherent humor in it.

LEONARD: Lynn (Shelton, the film’s writer-director) was very clear about this. We were constantly aware of the need to keep it real.

I understand that Lynn relies a lot on improvisation while shooting, and would sometimes let the camera run for 40 minutes on a single take. Was that particularly challenging?

LEONARD: Sometimes the takes for even longer than that. Lynn just let us play it out to see where we would go. There was no script. We shot from a detailed outline and it was all shot in sequential order so the improvisations would feed from one scene into the next and we’d know what we’d already shot and could build on it.

DUPLASS: Yeah, we were excited by not knowing what was going to happen next, by letting it evolve naturally and truthfully.

LEONARD: It was structured, ‘though. We were doing a structured improvisation on the whole movie, and we shot everything in less than two weeks. We were on a tight schedule and budget, so we moved quickly. There was a constant sense of experimentation, but there was always a palpable awareness that it might not work. But that was counteracted by the tremendous amount of trust between us, at least between Lynn and Mark and me. That‘s Lynn. She’s amazing. She set up an environment where we could critique each other openly. So, we always felt we had the latitude to find something that felt true and honest to all of us.

DUPLASS: Actually, Lynn first asked me to play Andrew — Josh’s part. But, that’s the kind of character I’ve been playing mostly, that type of guy. But, I thought it would be nice to play a guy who’s more like who I am at this time in my life, especially in a film where I’d be improvising everything. I wanted to dig in deep and to make it real. And, for me, that character was Ben, really. I was a newly married guy living in a nice house, just like Ben was. And, you know, I thought immediately of Josh for Andrew. Really, Josh came to mind immediately And it worked out quite well.

Well, that sounds like a kind of directorial decision– the sort you must make when you and your brother, Jay, direct your films (including The Puffy Chair and Baghead). As a team, you’re often credited with spurring on the ‘mumblecore’ school of independent filmmaking. Do you think the ‘mumblecore’ aesthetic has influenced Lynn and this film?

DUPLASS: Yeah, whenever we’re interviewed the subject of ‘mumblecore’ comes up, but I see some big differences between ‘mumblecore’ and the films I make with my brother, and with this movie. My brother and I sort of have one foot in ‘mumblecore’ and one foot out of it. But we really want to make all kinds of movies, not be restricted to one style or school. As for this film, I found it very free-ing to just be an actor on it.

Do you have an explanation about why audiences are responding so enthusiastically to Humpday?

DUPLASS: I think it’s because they get to watch two people –two guys — go through something that most of them would never go through themselves.

LEONARD: Yeah, I think people have more curiosity about the issues raised in Humpday and they have more connection to it than you might imagine. There’s that underlying element of suspense – are these guys really going to do it? Are they really going to have sex with each other and make a porno of it?

So is that the gripping element for audiences? Without revealing the ending, can we safely say that you didn’t know the final scene’s outcome before you shot it, and that the question of whether or not you were going to have sex was the essential subtext you were playing throughout the movie? But, are men really that obsessed with their sexuality? About whether they’re straight or gay or whatever?

DUPLASS: Yes, I think so. I think that this very real question for these characters, and that their journey throughout the movie is very three-dimensional, very real. By the end, we had given them a whole lot of reasons to go through with it, and they had the desire to go through with it. And, on the other hand, they have an equal number of reasons to not be able to go through with it. When we walked into that hotel room at the end of the shoot, we had to figure out in improvisation just what we would or would not do.

LEONARD: We decided we wouldn‘t decide in advance, and that we wouldn’t talk about it. When we got to that point, we would rent a motel room for the boys, for an all-night shoot. We would just show up, both knowing what we’d done before in previous scenes, and we’d shoot for 12 hours and see what would happen. And that’s just what we did. So there is a reality to that.

DUPLASS: We just did what those characters would honestly do and obeyed that. That was how the ending was decided.

But there’s no suggestion of overt or latent homosexuality as a motivating factor for either character. Why didn’t that come into play?

LEONARD: That would have been the most obvious — and least interesting — choice to go with latent homosexuality in one of the characters. Ane that would have made Humpday a very different movie — a more obviously political movie. But this was more about two friends who’d reached that phase in life where they’re examining who they by comparing themselves to each other. They’re at the age where they’re beginning to feel less attractive to the opposite sex, and less verile. They’ve made choices that seem to determine their future, and they’re not all together sure about them.

DUPLASS: They’re on a path they seem to be stuck on, and they‘re not sure it‘s right. So they‘re thinking of the ultimate test of that. If one of them is about to come out or is trying to seduce the other, that‘s really a different movie. My character, Ben, is a regular guy with a good job and a great wife, and they’re talking about having a baby. It’s a place a lot of guys find themselves in, and they’re happy there. But then Andrew drops in and shakes him up by reminding him of how he was when he was in college, and he’s drawn back into that behavior, and those dreams.

LEONARD: And Andrew, while challenging Ben, sees himself as an artist, but he never finished any projects, not even the thesis he set out to write in college. He comes on strong, but he’s actually a shell of the person he’d hoped to become and is constantly having to prove himself to himself. The idea of their having sex doesn’t really have much to do with homosexuality — latent or otherwise. It’s more about facing things you’re afraid of and following through with the idealistic goals and dreams you had when you were younger.

DUPLASS: Yeah, Humpday’s a movie about two dudes exploring their past and finding their way into the rest of their lives.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).