BY Austin Bunn
July 06 2009 12:00 AM ET
"You're pretty solidly not gay," Andrew asserts to Ben in the film, and Ben answers, "Yeah, and I think the same about you," and we believe them. Apparently, the closest either has come to gay sex is an anecdote Ben tells about a video-store clerk with incredible eyes who coerced him into watching boring documentaries -- a "quasi-autobiographical" tale, says Duplass, that had him wondering what sex with a man would be like.
"Did you think about his balls?" Leonard asks at the time.
"No, I didn't," Duplass answers. "I just liked the way he looked at me."
"In hindsight, did you think about his balls when we were filming?"
"I am thinking about them right now," Duplass says, drifting off. "He'd be so much olderâ€¦"
Humpday isn't a coming-out story, Brokeback captured on camcorder, or an advertisement for bisexuality. If anything, it takes the latent energy in the homo-anxious bromances -- I Love You, Man or Jimmy Kimmel's "I'm F**cking Ben Affleck" -- and surfaces with something far more searching, awkward, and honest. Cannily, Ben's and Andrew's motives have more to do with self-esteem than sexuality -- the increasingly tenuous connection between who they are and who they think they are. Tucked-in and buttoned-down, Ben is desperate to prove "he's still a wild man inside," says director Shelton, and itinerant Andrew, "the guy who will try anything once," needs proof that he can actually finish something. When Ben's wife finally confronts him about his motives, the movie has the bravery to understate his case and not let him entirely understand his urge to have sex with his friend. "I just know it's important to me," he tells her, and she allows him to proceed, saying, "I don't want to live with you with this buried in you."
It's a mistake to think of Humpday 's story as plot, since the film was more like "carefully supervised jazz," Shelton says. Every scene was improvised by the actors, all situational riffs building to the big open question that no one had the answer to: What would happen in the hotel room at the end when they went to shoot the video? "I had every component of the script -- I knew the beats and objectives and the emotional development, I just didn't have a script," Shelton says. (No writer is credited with the screenplay.) Like other standouts in mumblecore -- a filmmaking movement known for its focus on personal relationships, improvised scripts, and nonprofessional actors -- a Cassavetes-style looseness gives Humpday a stumbly, verité warmth. As outrageous as the film's conceit might be, one never feels the actors reaching for their marks, because Shelton let Duplass and Leonard create them. Before shooting, they retreated for three days in Duplass's mother-in-law's apartment to develop the friendship's backstory, only glancingly referred to in the film.
Using an outline for a guide, they shot the film in sequence (another small but essential innovation of Shelton's method). Every scene then psychologically led into the next without contrivance. Hours of improvised takes were distilled and "redeemed" in the editing room, Shelton says. As a group, they decided to keep the film's climax a mystery even from themselves. "That was Mark's idea," Shelton says. "He didn't want anybody playing toward an inevitable end."
Shelton is a former documentary filmmaker, whose short films, about miscarriage and women's relationship to their body hair, were "personal and chicky," she says. After shooting her first dramatic feature -- We Go Way Back , about a 23-year-old girl who reads a letter written to her by her 13-year-old self -- Shelton found herself frustrated by the boggy, top-heavy methods of traditional filmmaking. "Actors would blow me away in audition, and then I'd get them on set, around 40 crew and lights, and they'd freeze up. Getting a natural performance was like pulling teeth." For her next film, My Effortless Brilliance , she slashed the size of the crew, reduced the lighting rig, and employed a small camera to create an easy set, focused on the needs of the actor. "Then I thought, Instead of casting people to fit this person I had in my head, what if I found people in real life that I knew or wanted to work with and cast them? "