"Two straight dudes getting it on"

Actors Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard talk about their challenging task in the button-pushing Sundance hit "Humpday."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published January 21, 2009 11:35AM (EST)

PARK CITY, Utah -- There's been an explosion of sexually and emotionally provocative films at Sundance this year, and the tone was set last Friday with the premiere of Seattle writer-director Lynn Shelton's adroit and challenging comedy "Humpday," which has since been acquired for release by Magnolia Pictures. (Intriguingly, "Humpday" will apparently be available on demand from Magnolia's HDNet cable network before it is released in theaters -- a new tweak of the ever-evolving indie distribution model.)

"Humpday" is about a pair of old college friends, Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), who've taken very different paths and are facing a 30ish early-midlife crisis. You've seen that movie before, I know. But for reasons that aren't easily summarized -- let's just say that lots of alcohol, a wild party at the house of someone they barely know and Ben's ambivalence about his marriage are all involved -- they decide to reconnect by making a porn film. Together. With nobody else in the room. As an "art project."

As Duplass and Leonard told me in the back room of a Park City art gallery over the weekend, they didn't exactly know what would happen between Ben and Andrew in that motel room until they shot the scene. But bear in mind that the summary I've given above sets up certain false expectations. This certainly isn't the kind of homophobic buddy comedy that protests way too much, but it also isn't a movie about coming out or about the joys of bisexuality. It isn't a vitamin-enriched story about sexual liberation of any variety. Instead, it's a smart and funny film -- adventurous both in theme and construction -- about two straight guys brave enough to face the thing that scares them most.

With me today in Park City are the two stars of the film "Humpday," which is definitely one of the hits at Sundance this year. Mark Duplass is one half of the Duplass brothers filmmaking team, but he's not the director of this film. His co-star is Joshua Leonard, probably best known for his role in "The Blair Witch Project." This is an exciting film, guys. Actors have this cliché about taking risks in films. I think you guys managed to do that this time.

Mark Duplass: We did take a risk. Not only did we take a risk about what we decided to display of ourselves in the inner and outer realms, but it was a risk from the front whether this movie was going to work at all. I mean, let's face it, just the concept of two straight dudes getting it on -- is that believable in any way? And we were all very skeptical but also very excited about the fact that we're really going to have to keep this under the microscope the whole time. Is this real? Is this real? That was our big question.

Joshua Leonard: Because I think it was a bit of an experiment, there was always a palpable sense of the possibility that it wouldn't work. And I think there was also a tremendous amount of trust between, at least between Mark and Lynn [Shelton] and I whereby we could both critique each other and critique ourselves safely. There was never a moment where any of us walked out of a scene and didn't feel like we had been allowed the latitude to find something that felt very true to us.

One of the things that occurred to me after seeing the film was that there's a kind of parallel between what the two characters are trying to do in the film -- trying to do this art project that may or may not work and this sex act that may or may not work -- and then what you guys were actually trying to do. So the whole thing, the inner story and the outer story, is a little bit like a high-wire act.

J.L.: I hadn't thought about that in those terms but one of the things that was very exciting about this movie is the way it was structured. There was no script. We shot from a detailed outline and we shot it all in sequential order so that the improvisation we were doing would sort of feed into the next shoot. We'd know what we had shot and could build upon it. And the thing that got us all excited was we decided that we would not know what's going to happen in the last scene, and we would not talk about it. We would rent a motel room for the boys, for all-night shooting, and we did. We shot for 12 hours and we would just show up and see what happens. So yeah, I guess there is a bit of a little meta-parallel to draw there.

Not to give anything away, we don't want to do that -- but you literally didn't know what was going to happen when they got, you know ...

J.L.: Absolutely no idea. Because, I think, throughout the course of the movie we had presented, or at least attempted to, this very three-dimensional journey. We had given them a ton of reasons to go through with it, and the desire to go through with it. And a ton of reasons to, you know, not be able to go through with it. So I think we walked in with all that information and had to face the music with ourselves once we got in that room and figure out where ...

M.D.: Just do what those characters would honestly do and just obey that.

I posted something about this film right after the screening and by the next morning there were about 10 e-mails in my box from people whose basic take on it was, “They can't possibly be straight guys if they were able to do this.” So you're provoking a reaction, totally sight unseen.

J.L.: Which is the obvious reaction. My first reaction, when Mark e-mailed me about the project, was the most obvious choice -- to go with the latent homosexuality of one of the characters. And it becomes a different movie at that point.

Sure. If one of these guys is about to come out, that's a totally different story.

J.L.: Absolutely. It's a completely different movie. And, I think, a much more overtly political movie. And that was not what this was. You know, this was really about the exploration of a friendship between two guys facing that age, which I think Mark and I can both really relate to. You hit the phase in your life when all of a sudden you're supposed to be an adult. And either you feel like you haven't done anything and that you have to get your life moving because all of a sudden, you know, you're getting less virile and less attractive to the opposite sex and you have to go out and build and conquer. Or you've made choices that feel like they've galvanized the rest of your life.

M.D.: You're on that path and you kind of can't get off.

In different ways each of these guys is facing that kind of early midlife crisis moment … Mark, for people who don't know much about this movie, talk about where your character is when this movie starts.

M.D.: My character is ... he's married. He’s got a really nice job as a transportation planner. He's got a great wife. He's talking about having a baby. He's pretty much in line. And he's been on this path for a while. But the arrival of Andrew, his old college buddy and best friend, awakens those feelings that he had of who he was when he was with Andrew, when the whole world was laid out before him and the idealism and the dreams were right at his fingertips. And even though he's not dissatisfied with his life the way it is, it does bring up those parallel tracks. And it incites some, to say the least, interesting behavior on his part. [Laughter.]

And, Josh, your character, Andrew, is in a different place, although maybe not as different as he thinks.

J.L.: Absolutely. You know, Ben and Andrew had this motorcycle trip planned after college. And I think what set the course of what kind of comes to a head in this meeting is the fact that Ben bagged out of the motorcycle trip -- it was going to be our thesis project -- to take an internship. I went on the trip but could never actually get the writing in to complete my thesis, so I never finished school. And since then, I think what started out as a pure and true exploration of the world, from a very, like, adventurous and artistic perspective, has become much more of an external identity for Andrew, rather than something that remains true to his life. He calls himself an artist but he can't finish a project. He's never really created a piece of art. And there's a moment that I have toward the end of the film, where I confront the fact that the person who I like to present myself as and the person who I actually am have become such different things.

This idea that the two guys are going to be able to have sex together in front of a camera comes to embody just all these different things. It doesn't have much to do with homosexuality and heterosexuality, right?

M.D.: No. Challenges and things you're afraid of and following through and, you know, all the latent issues of dealing with the idealism you once had in your youth.

Some people may have the reaction, you know, "Straight actors playing gay, or bicurious characters, or however you want to put it, that's old news now." But this is really something different. You guys were really exploring a different arena than that.

M.D.: Yeah, I would agree. This is not "Brokeback Mountain." This is not like your typical gay or queer cinema film, and I don't know if it even belongs in that category because this is about two heterosexual guys exploring something. And you know, what we want from this movie -- what I would like to see from this movie, and what we're seeing here at Sundance -- is really heterosexual guys going in with the attitude of “This is ridiculous and there's no way that anyone could actually get to the point where they can actually consider that.” And then throughout the film, as Josh and I, through our characters, are exploring these issues, as Ben and Andrew are exploring this -- you know, they're smart people. They're talking everything out. And they're going there. And it starts to feel like, “OK. I can see how you might actually get to this place.” We show every part of the process of how it could get there so you can see and feel how these guys could do this.

I was really impressed with the direction in this film. Lynn Shelton has made a couple of features, but most people are not going to know who she is. Talk about what she was like on the set and what you saw in her.

J.L.: Lynn is an amazing collaborator. Lynn gets people to work at their best by fostering their best at all times. She has a very hands-off directing approach, until it's very needed. I would have given anything of myself to this film because, you know, she allowed it to belong to all of us in a very non-egocentric way.

Some people may expect, from the title and from the basic premise, a certain degree of "dude comedy." And that's in there, you know, the movie's very funny in places. And then it will go to these places of emotional honesty that's pretty far away from that. Without giving anything away, you do this one monologue in the film, Mark -- let's just call it the video-store monologue -- where you talk about the possibility of having sex with another guy, and it's this incredible moment of emotional nakedness for the character. And any man or any person that watches that is going to be like, “Wow. Where did he get that?” Somehow, you trusted Lynn enough to go there.

M.D.: Absolutely. And I mean, just me as a person—and I think Josh is pretty similar here -- we're pretty self-aware dudes, you know. And I personally have read a couple self-help books, you know? I've talked to some people from a couch who want to help me out with some things that are going on. [Laughter.] I'm not really afraid of anything that might be lingering in me, I'm actually like, super-excited about all those things. Because those things, to me, casting light on them just makes them easier and more fun to deal with. As far as I'm concerned, when you're making movies about these kinds of things, which are essentially, you know, the problems of some middle-class white dudes, I think you owe it to yourself to really go to the bottom, to really go all the way with that stuff.

J.L.: I think the comedy and the drama are on the same continuum. They're coming from the same human places. There weren't scenes that, “This is going to be a comic scene and this going to be a dramatic scene.”

M.D.: Right. It’s not a drama with fart jokes.

There's a minimum of those. Now, you know, it would really help the movie's marketing campaign and help those of us in the press, if we could leak it out that you guys are a couple in real life. Would that be OK with you?

J.L.: Absolutely.

M.D.: Not. [Laughter.]

J.L.: Just, if you can put some kind of media blackout, like, put a wall up so Mark's wife doesn't read about it.

M.D.: Yeah, we'll block that out. Actually, what would be the best thing, is if we just say “No” right here, and then we go to the nearest beach and get some pictures of Josh and me frolicking in the waves and post that alongside it. Then I think we'll be good.



Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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