An Interview With Mark And Jay Duplass

The Duplass brothers are the writing and directing team behind an incredible amount of great films in the past few years. In 2005 they broke onto the scene with the low-budget indie The Puffy Chair, which was followed by Baghead, and their first studio films,Cyrus, and more recently, Jeff, Who Lives at Home. We were able to talk with them this week about the most recent microbudget film, The Do-Deca-Pentathalon — which is about a set of brothers competing in a 25-event Olympic-style battle — as well as a few other things, like their search for truth through improvisation, and why E.T. would probably look more like the Geico gecko if E.T. were to have come out today.

Videogum: So you guys have been making low budget, independent movies for a long time, and you’ve gotten to a point now where, with each new film, your stuff is being seen by larger and larger audiences, and you’re really getting a lot more recognition. Would you say that you’re happy with where you are in your career right now and your position in the industry?

Jay Duplass: Oh my god — like, I’m not just saying this — we feel incredibly blessed to be where we are. It’s been such a slow, organic growth that it feels very rooted, you know? From 2003, with our first short at Sundance, to now, almost nine years later, it’s not like we did a short and then went and directed a huge monster movie. It’s been a nice, organic assent. And I also feel like we have kind of a fan base now, people who like our movies. So it feels good not only that now people want to see them, but also it feels like even if we made a bad one one day that we wouldn’t get kicked out, because we’ve been around for a little while. We’re still very rooted, though, and I’m happy about that.

Videogum: What was the first movie, or short, you made where you thought, hey, maybe this is something that we could actually do for a living?

Jay: It was only very recently that we felt like we could actually do it for a living, and that’s honestly when we got greenlit for Cyrus. But I will say that the first short film that we made, called “This Is John,” was the big turning point. You know, we came up in film school in our early 20s, and we were trying to be like the Cohen brothers, and we were failing miserably. Everything we made was very weak. And one day we made an impromptu movie based on something that had happened in our own lives, with me shooting and Mark acting and improvising. We shot it on our parents’ home video camera, and it felt like a return to making movies as children, and it literally cost $3 — the price of a tape from the corner store. And that film got into Sundance. It was different in tone and style from everything we had done before, and we honestly just said, “Let’s just keep doing this, there’s something here.” I don’t really understand it, but people loved it at Sundance, so we continued to grow it very carefully and slowly. But that film was a giant turning point. I was pretty much ready to quit this whole charade and that’s what kept it alive for me, at least.

Videogum: Your newest film, The Do-Deca-Pentathalon, seems like a return to a very low-budget style, after things like Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives At Home. It’s based on a set of brothers you knew growing up, right? Is it a movie you’ve wanted to make for a long time, and what finally pushed you to do it?

Jay: It actually came about in a very interesting way, because we shot the film in 2008, but then we got greenlit to make Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives At Home, and because this was more of a self-financed microbudget indie we sort of had to put it on the shelf to do our studio projects. It wasn’t until last year that we actually got around to finishing editing the film. So it’s been in the works for a long time, and it’s been kind of a personal favorite of ours. And I think it does, to a certain degree, represent the kind of movies we were making before our studio films — like The Puffy Chair. There was no consideration for marketing or business at all. It was purely creatively driven, so it’s been really exciting for us on that note.

Videogum: And you’re distributing this one in an entirely different way than any of your previous movies, on Video On Demand and iTunes, etc., first. What made you decide to go that route?

Jay: Well, since we’ve made five movies in the last six years, all we hear from the audience is, “This movie looks sort of interesting, but it’s only playing in like two or three hundred theaters and it’s nowhere near me.” And then they have to wait five months or so to see it on DVD. So what we’re doing with this film is basically like giving it to our audiences early on VOD. It’s actually going out June 26, before the theatrical release. So everyone who’s been asking to see our past movies, or to see some of the other movies we’ve released but that aren’t available in there city, this is us saying, Hey, you guys can watch this cheaply on VOD. So we’re hoping people will check it out.

Videogum: Your films are, for the most part, largely improvised. Was Do-Deca-Pentathalon done the same way?

Mark Duplass: Yeah, we improvised all of it — every take.

Videogum: With that method, do you even run into difficulties maintaining the tone that you set out to achieve, or the vision for how your characters are going to be perceived? Is that something you really have to watch over?

Jay: Yeah, we’re definitely vigilant about it. But in a weird way, in production, we really just focus on truthfulness in the moment, and on achieving a very, full-on sense of reality. And we’re constantly watching our actors, making sure that what they’re doing is truthful. We prepare them and say, look — it’s not so much important that you nail things on the spot, it’s mostly important that what you’re doing is truthful. And honestly if you’re not feeling like doing anything in the moment, don’t do anything, because that will be the most interesting thing at that point, and maybe that will create an open door to sort of a magical moment. So we’re totally focused on just looking for actors to do it truthfully. And Mark and I use that as a tool to achieve some comedy as well. We’re just making sure that they’re focused and that the situation comes out funny. And the tone is honestly heavily, intellectually regulated in editorial, just because at that point we really have a lot of time to really think about the tightrope that we’re walking, and balancing the drama with the comedy. But, you know. In the moment it really is just about honesty for us.

Videogum: Has there ever been a time when something has been improvised that changed either the direction of the character, or your perception of the character?

Jay: There’s never anything that changes the DNA of where our character is headed in terms of improvisation, because we’re working from a script. It generally stays on the rails. But it’s all about that five to ten percent fluctuation of the inter-personal dynamics between the characters. That’s what you get out of improvisation that makes it exciting to us. So the train’s still on the rails, but it’s just weaving slowly and ever-so-slightly, so it’s organic, surprising, and interesting.

Videogum: So you each just had your second baby, right?

Mark: Yep, we both have two kids.

Videogum: Do you have a running list of movies that you’re excited to share with your kids, at different points in their lives?

Jay: Oh, yeah. That’s not even something that we’ve discussed — I don’t think it’s been brought up until now. But I know, for sure, that I do. And I can guarantee that Mark has a trigger list in his head, you know, because Mark and I were both raised on movies. It’s kind of like the religion of our family. We were attached to HBO growing up, and we were honestly watching movies way way ahead of when we should’ve been. We were six and nine, watching hard-hitting relationship movies like Ordinary People. It’s part of who we are, so, I don’t know about you Mark, but I definitely–

Mark: I will not show any movies, ever, to my children.

Jay: Yeah?

Mark: No, wait a minute, I already blew that one. Nevermind!

Jay: We were talking yesterday about how you’re not supposed to show movies to kids until they’re two, and I think we’ve both broken that rule a little bit. I will share with you something that I thought was really awesome — I have eight nieces and nephews on my wife’s side and when we go home to see them every summer, we pick a movie to show them. Last summer I showed them E.T., just to see how the pacing would work on them, and they loved it. Which was amazing. But the 8-year-old girl who saw it, the first time she saw E.T. she was a little grossed out by him. And I was like, “Why, what’s going on?” And she’s like, “…E.T. looks like a big steak!” So that is the benefit of showing these movies you know and love to young people. They can contextualize it for us.

Mark: Yeah, if E.T. were made today he would definitely be way better looking, and a lot less like the mascot from Outback. Maybe like — I feel like the gecko from Geico is a good looking dude, you know.

Jay: Yeah.

Videogum: Oh, yeah. And very charming.

Mark: Yeah, exactly. He has a lot more personality.

Videogum: Something like that would probably come across a lot better today, you’re right. And this is for Mark, it’s kind of in the same vein: On top of everything else that you do — raising children, acting, writing, and directing — why have you given yourself the job of recommending a movie from Netflix on Twitter every single day?

Mark: It was a terrible idea. You know, I joined Twitter and I wanted to find my “thing.” You know, you’re always looking for what’s going to be your “thing.” And I didn’t think I was going to be able to be witty enough to tell jokes, like all the good jokesters do on there. So I was like, “Oh, I’ll recommend movies. And I’ll do it for a year!” It was awesome for about two or three months, but now the well is running dry a little bit. I’m struggling, sifting through Netflix looking for movies. But I’m determined to finish a year of recommendations, so I’ll officially end on October 1st of this year. But it’s definitely getting into, like, weird-ass documentary land. Which, incidentally enough, some people are really into. So it’s been difficult, but some people like it, so I’m going to continue.

Videogum: So to close, can you tell me something that you guys are looking forward to in the future, with your careers or otherwise?

Jay: Really just the same thing that we’ve been doing, which is that Mark and I are constantly talking about ideas, and talking about ourselves, and the people we know and love, and the things we observe in the world. Just creating this giant sweep of characters, and very specified things, and stuff that just gets us excited. And, honestly, we have lots of different applications for that. But right now we’ve made five movies in six years and we’re in much more of an incubation and writing mode. We’re juggling a lot of things right now — writing a script for Todd Phillips as well, and rebooting Same Time, Next Year, a movie for Scott Rudin, so there’s a lot of possibilities out there, and we feel really lucky and excited to be in this position.