A chat with Joshua Leonard of “Humpday”

Joshua LeonardWhen you’re dealing with the press, what topic could possibly overshadow your new, Indie Spirit award-nominated and generally very well received comedy about two more or less ordinary straight dudes who decide to make a porno of themselves having sex…with each other? Well, “Humpday” star Joshua Leonard has had to deal with one of those “be careful what you wish you” show business situations in that the second film he was in about ten years back was an enormously profitable, zero-budget worldwide hit and horror pop-culture phenomenon – one that happens to be referenced in nearly every review of a certain recent zero-budget DIY horror hit.

Still, as one of the three actors/cum camera people/cum screenwriters who endured a deliberately scary and uncomfortable shoot in “The Blair Witch Project,” Leonard has leveraged his decade old flavor-of-the-month status into a solid career as a working actor with scores of credits ranging from the HBO movie “Live from Baghdad” to recent episodes of the new TV series, “Hung,” also on HBO. He’s also become a director. “Beautiful Losers,” a documentary he co-directed, is just hitting home video after a run on the festival circuit, and he recently completed shooting his dramatic feature debut as a writer-director, “The Lie.”

Still, he’s clearly very proud of his involvement in writer-director Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” alongside costar and previously interviewed fellow film-maker Mark Duplass – now a very close real-life buddy — and happy to have contributed to a new tightly-plotted but improvised movie where there was absolutely no attempt made to convince the world he was dead. His portrayal of Andrew – puppyish Peter Pan, would-be artiste and compulsive traveler/bohemian – remains the extremely funny heart of the film. He’s also, I was happy to find, a really fun guy to talk to. He’s obviously a lot more smarter and 10,000 times more mature than his movie alter-ego, but he’s every bit as easy to hang out with – even on a twenty-minute phone call set up by a publicist.

PH: I don’t always say this, but I really did like “Humpday.” I thought you guys were great.

JL: Thanks, man. What have you hated recently?

PH: [Laughs] I’m a critic, we could blow out entire time talking about that.

JL: [Laughs] That’s what I want to know.

PH: Fortunately, nothing of yours. Okay, so I’m going to ask everyone I talk to on the movie this question….

Just before I saw the movie at the L.A. Film Festival, I had reviewed the DVD for “The Odd Couple.” It was kind of interesting because it was sort of two of the poles of the male bonding thing and of course the whole idea of “bromance” has been  out now. I was just wondering how you thought “Humpday” fit in with all these movies that have been out there on this general topic.

JL: You gotta realize that when we were making this we were making it in such a bubble that we didn’t realize that we were potentially going to be able to coat-tail off any zeitgeist moment; that was not in the master plan.

PH: Mark said the same thing.

JL: No. All of a sudden “bromance” was a term and male bonding was being talked about and that kind of fortuitously happened right around the time that our movie was done. We were nothing but grateful for it because we certainly did not have the studio marketing dollar. Every time somebody talked about “Zack and Miri” or “Brüno” and happened to mention us, we considered that free publicity.

And I think in terms of what you were talking about with “The Odd Couple,” it’s those two archetypal characters. We kind of put two guys on either end of the responsibility spectrum and put them together in a room and it’s usually pretty funny to watch. We certainly far from invented that formula. I think we took advantage of what we care about in our lives and kind of updated it a little bit. And, also, we were working so far outside of the system that we could really push the envelope a little bit in terms of taking that concept to its hyperbolic extreme, without anybody looking over our shoulders and telling us what was or wasn’t appropriate or what would or wouldn’t play with an audience.

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PH: That’s one of the things that’s interesting about the movie. A lot of times, you’ll see films and people will ask if they are improvised and the response is “No, it was all written, but we really tried to make it look that way.” But this really was improvised and yet it really feels tight.

JL: [Laughs]. It certainly will play to our strong suit as a collective. Mark and I are both writer-directors as well. While neither of us will ever be cast in “Raging Bull 2,” it’s a vernacular that we’re comfortable with and kind of writing on the fly is something that’s really fun.

Lynn [Shelton] is very confident as a director because she picks people very carefully. She is an amazing curator of personalities and talents, and so she really gets the right group of people together to make her movies. I think everybody who was there was there in support of the process in which we were making it.

And then, the unsung hero of this whole thing being [editor] Nat Sanders. When you say the movie was “tight,” I promise you that had absolutely nothing to do with the acting that was actually put on. We focused on trying to make organic transitions and making this stupid/funny concept emotionally viable and really putting ourselves in the audience’s shoes and thinking: “Okay, where are we going to be skeptical and how can we answer those questions.”

But in terms of putting those together in five-minute propulsive scenes, that is absolutely, a thousand percent our editor. He could have made thousands and thousands of really bad, boring movies out of the footage, I’m sure.

PH: [Laughs] I’ve got to say I’ve seen a lot of these movies, going back to John Cassavettes, who had his own thing going on. Still, it’s unusual. I’m sure Nat deserves a lot of the credit, but I’m sure you gave him the beats to work with.

Anyhow, moving on just a little bit, I want ask a question about the way you decided who was going to be who. Originally, Mark was going to be Andrew, but when you came aboard, it was sort of never a question that it was you who would be Andrew. I was wondering…I was just looking at your Wikipedia entry. It said that as a teen that, like Andrew did a bit later in his life, you had actually traveled through Mexico. Was that always there?

JL: I think that, once again, it’s what you’re good at and what you’re not. I don’t think if you ever hired me to improvise a Ph.D. character, I would ever do something authentic.

Where improvising works best is where you’re pulling at least facets of your own personality into the story; you don’t have to reach very far….I pulled a lot from my past and a lot of stuff from my late teens and early twenties and kind of transposed that in my head as to what that would feel like if I was still doing those same exact things in my mid-thirties – I think we all have have friends like that…

PH: Some of us are that.

JL: [Chuckles] Some of us want to be that. But, with Andrew, his real cross to bear in the course of this film and in the course of his life is…I think that stuff starts out as exploration and the longer you do it at a certain point you cross over into just straight avoidance. I think he’s done that somewhere along the way and hasn’t really admitted that to himself. This situation kind of gives him a perfect opportunity to confront that.

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PH: And now we’re at the eight minute point here and I’m just curious: Do you ever get to go through an interview where no one mentions “Blair Witch”?

JL: (Quiet for a moment): I think there was one. [Chuckles]. I had to think about it. There might have been one or two.

PH: I actually didn’t make the connection until I was watching the extras on the DVD. I saw “Blair Witch” at the time. I liked it; I’m rather easily scared and so it really scared the heck out of me. That was you in the corner at the end of the movie, right …or was it the other guy?

JL: I think it was Mike [Michael C. Williams] in the corner.

PH: Oh, I’m sorry.

JL: It’s okay.

PH: Anyhow, you guys really scared me. It is kind of interesting that this probably going to be something – I hope — that will be on your Wikipedia page now right alongside “Blair Witch.” It’s kind of an interesting case of two poles of your career because that was obviously also a case where you were effectively a co-writer. And, in that case, even a co-director/co-cinematographer because you were holding a camera.

JL: Andrew has his cross to bear and I have my cross to bear. On one side, it’s something that I am so fucking proud of….There’s a part of me that looks back on the 14 year-old version of myself who discovered punk rock and was like “people can just make things.” You can just go out and make stuff and you don’t have to wait for permission to do it. And I really, to this day, believe in that ethos.

You know, the first time Mark and I ever met, I virtually stalked him. We became friends later, but I saw “The Puffy Chair” and that film just blew my mind. It’s speaking to me, very specifically generationally. Also, it was a great piece of art that was made by any means necessary, which I think is fantastic.

That being said, being back at Sundance, ten years to the day of the premiere of “Blair Witch” with another low-budget improvised film, there was [chuckling] that feeling like “Is this my lot in life?” Will I just never make any money and keep doing cool, obscure movies and every once in a while one of them will pop up?

I’ve tried the other stuff and I’ve done bigger and far worse things. I never get a chance to give as much of my authentic self as I would like. I think one of the great things about growing up is just figuring out what you’re good at and what you don’t have to waste your time, or anybody else’s time, trying to pursue anymore

PH: And this is the other question you’re probably getting asked all the time, but I still have to ask it. Have you seen “Paranormal Activity”?

JL: I haven’t seen it yet. I hear it’s good.

PH: It is very good, but I was also thinking that they had it a lot easier than you guys did. They spent the whole movie in a townhouse in San Diego.

JL: [Laughs] Yes, the comfort level [on “Blair Witch”] was not often good. Fifty degree weather with rain….I have just finished directing a film, so I haven’t seen anything.

PH: I think for you, personally, you’ll find it an interesting film to watch. Anyhow, here’s a question that one of my editors, Will Harris, always asks. Of the movies between “Blair Witch” and “Humpday,” are they any you feel didn’t get enough love?

JL: Hmm. Uhm…

PH: Especially, I should say – not to put anybody down.

JL: There are other movies I did that I’m proud of. Not all of them for sure. At the end of the day, I think, kind of across the board, when a movie hits a vein with an audience…I am an audience member. I am part of a demographic and I kinda get it.

There are some movies that I personally really like but should they have blown up into huge successes? No. I’m a film geek. I like stuff that is a little more rarefied sometimes and not everybody’s going to like that. I don’t know if I would say “yes” to that.

PH: Okay. The one that I’m sorry I missed, which I haven’t seen, is “Live from Baghdad,” where you were actually third billed [after Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter].

JL: I really liked “Live from Baghdad” but plenty of people saw that movie.

PH: [Laughs] It was on TV.

JL: Yeah, it’s an HBO movie. I’m thinking more the tiny little, experimental/independent films. That hit the people it was supposed to hit.

PH: Well, let’s talk about the movie that you just finished directing. What’s that going to be?

JL: It’s another tightly outlined but improv-dialogue film also kind of high-concept/reverse-engineered into something a little more human. It’s actually based on a T.C. Boyle story that I optioned out The New Yorker called “The Lie.” It’s about a guy who has, kind of slowly in the domestication process, given up his artistic dreams. He has a bit of a breakdown one day and decides he doesn’t want to go to work, gets backed into a corner and lies to his boss and says his newborn baby has just died. The movie takes place in the ensuing five days in which he throws the bomb into his life and when it blows up in his face.

Ben [Kasulke], who shot “Humpday” shot it. It was all friends and favors. I got the most amazing cast. I just called up all my favorite actor friends and got them to come out and play. Mark Weber from “Shrink” and “Broken Flowers”; Jess Weixler from “Teeth”; Jane Adams who I had done “Hung” with; PJ [James] Ransone from “The Wire”; Alicia Shawkat from “Arrested Development”; Kelli Garner from “Lars and the Real Girl”; Holly Woodlawn from the old Andy Warhol films….

PH: Wow.

JL: It was just the coolest group of people. [We also had] Kirk Baltz who was the cop who got his ear cut off in “Reservoir Dogs.” God, I hope he gets work because he’s absolutely brilliant.

It was another [movie] done very much in the spirit in which we did “Humpday” and, production wise, a little more difficult because it was a 15 day shoot with 22 locations with a 5 and a half-month old baby as our third lead…Not easy.

PH: [Laughs] I can imagine. This is an interesting one because I can’t tell from the concept whether it’s going to be black comedy or drama. Do you know what genre it’s going to be with a movie like this?

JL: Oh, we’re defying genres these days. I don’t know. “Dramedy” is such a terrible word to say. Who wants to say they made a “dramedy”?

PH: [Laughs]

JL: I think the same way that you hear the pitch on “Humpday” and you say, “Oh, that sounds…pretty stupid…”

PH: [Laughs some more.]

JL:...I think it’s one of those movies that absolutely is humorous, but where “Humpday” was kind of a movie about friendship and self-identity and taking responsibility for your adulthood, this is very much a movie about the struggle to grow-up and retain your ideals – the myths of growing up versus the reality of it. I think what’s great and fun to me about couching it all in this high concept is that you can address all those issues pretty head on, without running the risk of becoming too didactic and having your audience turn on you and feel like you’re trying to teach them a lesson.

PH: It sounds very interesting. It’s also interesting that you’re adapting something that’s been written in an improvisational way.

JL: I’m just curious what T.C.’s going to think.

PH: Yes, because it’s going to go in different directions, obviously.

JL: Well, yeah. Also, it’s a 15-page story and we shot 55 hours worth of footage for a 90 minute movie. The character that Mark Weber plays is mentioned twice in the whole story, peripherally, and he plays one of the most instrumental roles in the film. A lot of things you have to invent from whole cloth in order to make it work structurally.

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PH: We’re probably getting to where you need to move on….’

PUBLICIST (breaking in): About one more question, Bob, okay?

PH: That’s exactly what I was going to ask. Getting back to something I probably should have asked you before…that final scene in “Humpday.” We know that there was no plan. I asked Mark this, but did you have like a million contingencies in your head since you didn’t know what he was going to do. Was it “If he does X, I’ll do Y”? Did you think about it in that way beforehand?

JL: It’s funny, and I’m not a touchy-feely actor guy. It’s a little bit more storytelling and pragmatism, the way I look at it. But I will say that because we shot the film in sequence and we basically have been living in the character’s skin for ten days, there was so little thought that went into that scene. There was so little premeditation…

It was really one of those rare experiences that I seldom have as an actor where I just walked into the situation and owned the character and was able to respond as things came up. What’s funny about it is that every take of that scene was probably, at it its shortest, forty minutes…I think we did about 12 takes; we shot until dawn. I would say probably 70% of what made it into the final film was from the first few takes. It was all the stuff where it was freshest.

It’s what’s fun about working with your friends. What’s fun about improvising is that you get to know what people’s buttons are. Sometimes you find a grenade and you stick it in your back pocket and you know you’re going to throw it at somebody at any given point. It gives you a little power coming into the scene. If you’re working with somebody as smart as Mark, you throw it out, and he tosses an atom bomb right back at you and then you’ve got to deal with that.

PH: So, in a way it would be kind of pointless to plan ahead?

JL: Exactly.

PH: Okay, we’ll thank you very much Andrew…I mean Joshua – this is how good you are! (laughing)

JL: I take that as a compliment.

  

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