Most movies that people think of as being improvised actually aren’t, in the sense that none of the actors are inventing dialogue while the camera’s rolling. John Cassavetes encouraged his cast to invent behavior during a take, but he generally had them stick to scripted lines, with the exception of his (consequently patchy) debut, Shadows. Likewise, Mike Leigh begins each project without a screenplay, creating the characters and storyline in collaboration with actors over months of intensive improvisation, but then sits down and writes a meticulously crafted screenplay derived from that material. Genuine on-camera improv only really works for broad comedy, as in the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest—and even then, the results tend to be decidedly hit-or-miss, even though we’re surely being presented only with highlights. Truth is, it’s unbelievably hard to invent a conventional narrative on the fly without quickly getting bogged down in pointless digressions, awkward silences, self-conscious kickstarts, and mundane idiocies. You can almost always identify a fully improvised feature by how painfully clumsy and disjointed it feels.
All of which makes Lynn Shelton something of a miracle. I still haven’t seen her first film, We Go Way Back (2006), and didn’t much care for her second, My Effortless Brilliance (2008)—both of which were scripted. But with Humpday, she somehow created a space for her actors to communicate in a free-flowing, discursive, off-the-cuff way that never once degenerates into affected mannerism or rudderless wheel-spinning. (I’d thought it might have been just some freak alignment of these particular personalities, but Shelton’s forthcoming picture, Your Sister’s Sister, pulls off the same amazing trick with established pros like Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt.) What makes it especially remarkable is that she’s asking Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard to sell an inherently implausible idea: That two entirely straight dudes, who are also longtime best friends, would agree to have sex with each other—not obliquely in a three-way involving a woman, but as a full-on pseudo-gay experiment to be videotaped for an art project. It’s a testament to the skill of these three individuals that I not only buy their initial decision, but can even recognize the time and place in my own life when I might well have done something this stupid.
In my memory, this scene unfolded in a single unbroken take, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The longest shot is the first one, with Leonard at foreground right and Duplass at background left, and it only lasts about 30 seconds. After that it’s a succession of inelegant close-ups, cutting back and forth between the two. (Humpday was shot on the cheap with fairly cruddy video cameras, and Shelton hasn’t put much thought into composition, so it’s admittedly not what you’d call visually impressive.) All the same, I’m pretty sure we’re seeing mostly, if not exclusively, the same take here, if only because I find it hard to believe that a low-budget movie could achieve such perfect continuity without multiple cameras. Look at the very first cut, from the two-shot to Leonard, in the middle of his shamefaced nose-crinkle—there’s no way he precisely duplicated that expression from another angle. So even though we’re getting a certain amount of visual variety, with Shelton and editor Nat Sanders directing our attention throughout (often, as tends to be savvy, to the person who isn’t speaking), it’s as if the actors are spitballing in real time.
The challenge for Duplass and Leonard was to make it credible that their characters would commit, in daylight’s harsh glare, to the hilarious idea they’d floated the previous night while drunk off their asses at a “Dionysian” party. And I’d wager that somebody, whether it was one of those two or Shelton, decided long before the cameras rolled on this scene to make it a ¿quién es más macho? competition. But the way that struggle for dominance unfolds, with Leonard’s efforts to use Duplass’ domesticity as an escape hatch being thrown back at him until both men feel cornered into insisting that they’d happily go through with it, feels uncannily like various bullheaded arguments I had with friends in high school—one of which, to give you an idea, culminated in a guy taking up smoking solely to protest what he insisted were Draconian anti-smoking sentiments. (This was back in the mid-’80s, please note. They weren’t Draconian yet.) It’s like watching an expert tennis match in which what’s being volleyed is each player’s fragile conception of himself. The true game they’re playing is simply called Chicken, and neither will swerve.
As an unapologetic fan of The Blair Witch Project, then and now, I’ve always felt that its three actors deserved more credit than they got for its success, and was happy to see Leonard finally get a second chance to cut loose. He does a great job in this scene of finding exactly the right words to provoke Duplass into defensiveness, while still coming across as just a really bad manipulator; my favorite salvo is the phrase, “In the paradigm in which you live,” which he accompanies with a finger gesture suggesting a tiny, constrictive box in which Duplass has been trapped by marriage and a house. (“Paradigm” was frequently tossed around in my high-school moron debates. We had only the vaguest idea what it meant.) But the true evil genius here is Duplass, who somehow instinctively understands that articulating the blatant rhetorical strategies they’re employing will only ensnare them further. “I don’t think we should do this ’cause, like, neither one of us wants to back down,” he comes right out and says, which is entirely credible as code for “OH SWEET JESUS PLEASE NO!” but also ensures that they’ll both insist that that’s not what’s happening at all. He also correctly observes that Leonard is desperately attempting to shift the blame for the decision to back out, thereby forcing his buddy into a position of absolute conviction.
And the thing is, they both truly come across as sincere. You really have to watch the rest of the movie to comprehend just how badly they don’t want to bone each other; the only real evidence of it here is the black hole of a pause Duplass takes when Leonard asks, “You could or you would?” (You can almost see him think, “This is in real danger of becoming unhypothetical” before forging ahead.) That calculated beat aside, though, the entire conversation achieves a striking verisimilitude: both parties speaking simultaneously (while still hearing the other, and sometimes modifying what they’re saying in response), sentences that go nowhere, goofy neologisms like “weirdy-weird,” etc. At the same time, it hews to the tight dramatic structure you’d expect of a scripted scene, with every line pushing the central idea forward. What Shelton does to make this happen, I have no idea, but I could listen to her characters talk forever, even in movies like Your Sister’s Sister that wind up having no real third act. (Noel Murray more or less concurred in his report from Toronto last year.) They sound like everyone I know, to the point of making other ostensibly naturalistic but talk-heavy American movies feel slightly bogus. And if you can get your actors to put across a premise as preposterous as Humpday’s, there’s nowhere you can’t go.