When writer/director Lynn Shelton first asked Mark Duplass to star in a movie about two straight buddies who drunkenly challenge one another to make an amateur porno together (then in the sober light of day refuse to back down), he was unconvinced: “When I heard that pitch, I was like, ‘I don’t think this movie is going to work.” Shelton eventually won him over, and Duplass came to believe his uncertainty about the premise enhanced the finished film. “And we encourage that in our audience members,” he adds. “If you’re skeptical about how this can work, come see the movie. We were really skeptical and kept the reality of human interaction under the microscope the whole time.”
Duplass is best known for his work with his brother Jay, as half of the writing/directing/producing team behind the low-budget (some might say mumblecore) indies “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead.” He started appearing in his own films out of economic necessity, but those roles have spawned a thriving side career acting in other directors’ projects. His performance in Shelton’s “Humpday,” a unique and moving twist on the classic buddy comedy, may be his best yet: low-key but heartfelt, funny without being jokey and, despite his early reservations, totally believable.
I spoke with Duplass at the offices of “Humpday” distributor Magnolia Pictures, in a conference room with a table, some chairs, and a “Humpday” poster featuring a picture of Duplass and co-star Joshua Leonard stripped to the waist. Asked about the image, Duplass nonchalantly replied, “The post-high school athlete body is funny.”
I read that some of the takes in “Humpday” were around 40 minutes long. Is that right?
Some of the takes were 50 minutes to an hour. Most were shorter than that. Take the scene where Andrew first comes in and we sit and have our conversation in the basement — those were 20-minute takes. Then Lynn and Nat Sanders, the editor, sift through and find the good stuff.
And you’re not going over the same things? It’s one long conversation?
Occasionally, it’ll come back to certain similar things. But they’re usually long conversations, and then we say “Okay, let’s do that again, just shorter.” And then Lynn will maybe pick some her favorite things that she liked and we’ll try to hit those.
Do you like working that way?
I love it. That conversation between Ben and Andrew would normally take 40 minutes. You have to condense it down to four or five for cinema, but it’s nice to do it for real once and feel what it is. In essence, you’re living as the characters for a moment. I don’t direct my actors that way in my own movies, but I really like doing it as an actor.
With “The Hurt Locker” coming out, I just rewatched “Point Break.” And there a few times in that movie where Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze look like they want to kiss.
Do you think the issues about masculinity and sexuality addressed in “Humpday” are the subtext of a lot of buddy movies?
I think the “Point Break” stuff is absolutely accidental and more about those guys taking themselves very seriously, which also happens to look like the “I want to fuck you” face. But I do think there’s something in the zeitgeist now about sensitive dude interaction. Now, it’s socially applauded for a man to be sensitive with his friends. I don’t know why that is, [but] there’s definitely something about the confusion of how to express the nature of that intimacy in this movie.
Ben and Andrew have a very complex relationship. They were those kids in college who were a bundle of dreams and ideals together. They were going to conquer the world. So no matter where they’ve gone in their lives, whenever they see each other, they’re going to remember that they’re no longer as idealistic as they were then. There’s a desire to be with each other because they want to feel some sense of that. All that weird stuff gets jumbled up and somehow parlays itself into this completely ridiculous idea that they will have sex with each other on film.