Mark Duplass (left) and Jay Duplass (right)
Over the course of seven years and five feature films, brothers Jay and Mark Duplass have established their unique brand of filmmaking, often making low or no-budget films that feature stories of eccentric and loveable underdogs. Their first two films, The Puffy Chair and Baghead, were no-budget, handmade productions, and their second two, Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, combined their unique sensibilities as independent filmmakers with larger budgets, studio productions, and big-name actors including Jonah Hill (Moneyball) and Jason Segel (The Muppets).
After being filmed in 2008, the Duplass Brothers’ latest film The Do-Deca Pentathlon is finally seeing the light of day. In addition to being one of the Duplass Brothers funniest and most purely entertaining films, the film features career-best performances from regular Duplass cast members Steve Zissis and Jennifer Lafleur along with recurring Mad Men cast member Mark Kelly. Currently available on Video On-Demand, the film opens in limited theatrical release on Friday, July 6th. I recently enjoyed a chat with Jay and Mark Duplass in anticipation of the film’s multi-platform release. Here’s what the Duplass Brothers shared with me about their shared approach to filmmaking, protecting their creative process regardless of the scale of a project, and crafting The Do-Deca Pentathlon.
Jackson Truax: Jay, when you introduced Cyrus at the LA Film Festival in 2010 you said, “This is my brother Mark, I can’t do anything without him.” Even for brothers, your bond seems really, really strong. Where does that bond come from, and how does it manifest itself the filmmaking process?
Jay Duplass: We’ve always just been really, really close. That’s something that I can’t really explain. That’s just something that has happened since we were kids. We’ve always shared a lot and been kindred spirits. Specifically, within the process of making films, we find it extremely challenging to make movies, and to make good movies… All siblings share a very specific sense of humor. It makes you bolder in being able to come forth with that, a little bit more confident. You just know that somebody’s got your back… They know you better than anyone else, and they’re going to force you to be your best. And force is really the word. It’s encourage, but it’s also force. Because we hold each other to a very, very high standard that requires a level of intimacy and frankness that I think is extremely difficult to achieve outside of being siblings.
JT: With The Puffy Chair and with Baghead you guys showed a certain sensibility and a certain approach to filmmaking. Both Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home combined that with a more mainstream sensibility, with great success. What are the biggest challenges in that, and what about it did you find most fulfilling?
Mark Duplass: I think the challenge for us is trying to maintain that special intimacy and that sense of “messiness” that made our original films endearing to people. But, also to take that and make it work within the studio system. The answer to that question was, we have to be very, very careful who we hire, who we work with, and we have to make sure that we communicate ourselves to everybody up front. Which, to be honest with you, is a huge pain in the ass. It’s very difficult to do. Because sometimes art is instinctual, and not intellectual. Sometimes, we need to say, in the case of The Do-Deca Pentathlon, “We’re rewriting this scene. And now, it’s not going to be about this. It’s going to be about this guy talking about his fat foot.” And if you have to explain that to a studio, they’ll never let you do it. So we are still able to make the kinds of movies we want to make. We just have to really prepare correctly. We have to just make sure we communicate everything we’re doing. And that’s more difficult.
JT: You’ve really honed your process of working with actors, including having conversations on the set about, “Is there anything you can relate to that you can bring from your life?” And being open to a lot of improvisation. How feasible is that on a larger project with a lot of infrastructure, and how much of that depends on the actor you’re working with?
Jay: It definitely depends on the actors. And it is feasible.
Mark: It’s mandatory.
Jay: It’s mandatory. It’s the only way we know how to make movies that we love and that we care about and to make movies that are uniquely our own. But it’s exactly what Mark said. You have to lay an enormous amount of groundwork. Specifically with, for instance, famous actors, we have to have an in-depth conversation with them about the nature of what it is that we’re doing and the fact that, even though it does look like a lot of fun, it’s pretty grueling. At the end of the day, I don’t think we can say that we have a ton of fun on-set. But what we can say, unequivocally, is that the process is incredibly fulfilling. Because you exhaust every ounce of your being. Because you’re not in the process of enacting some specified vision. You’re actually in the process of –
Jay: Discovering, and clamoring around in the dark. And looking for something that you don’t really know is there.
JT: You guys shot Jeff, Who Lives at Home before Cyrus was even released. When did you start writing and shooting The Do-Deca-Pentathlon?
Mark: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon was written in 2006. And it was shot in 2008. We shot it before Cyrus and before Jeff, Who Lives at Home. We had to put it on he shelf. Because we were on the studio clock, getting paid. We paid for The Do-Deca-Pentathlon ourselves. So it was easy for us to put it on the shelf for a while. We were not able to finish it. It sat there, on the shelf, for literally two-and-a-half years while we finished making Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Then we went back to it and said, “God, I hope this movie’s good” and rewatched it. Then we brought in Julian Wass to do the score for us. I think that’s when the movie really came together.
JT: After you decided to take The Do-Deca-Pentathlon out of the studio system and make it yourselves, how much rewriting of the script did you need to do?
Jay: There wasn’t really that much rewriting. We paired it down a little bit, but we honestly tackled quite a bit of it.
Mark: We staged a 5K race. On our own.
Jay: We staged a 5K race. What we actually did, was instead of fully staging a 5K race, we piggybacked onto an actual 5K race. We put our actors in an actual 5K race and filmed the critical moments of that race where we would see a volume of people. Then we would ask some of those people to stay around. Then we had limited extras. Then we would shoot the medium size scenes. Eventually, everybody was gone and we were just shooting stuff on that actual 5K race scene. We changed very little to reduce it down to a micro-budget film. It was challenging. It was really hard on us. It was a very difficult film to just get inside the camera. But that was just the logistics stuff. The emotional stuff, the stuff that happens in the house, was everything we that had always been doing and continue to do.
JT: Your actors were union so you had to go SAG Ultra-Low Budget. Other than that, did you get permits for locations, or was this more a guerilla approach to filmmaking?
Mark: Total guerilla style. Not to get too semantic on it, but we like to abide by SAG stuff for all the actors. We take care of everybody with that, when they’re SAG actors. Beyond that, we’re not a signatory company, so everything else can be pretty non-union and under the gun. And that’s pretty much how we do it.
JT: What is it about Steve Zissis, Mark Kelly and Jennifer Lafleur that makes them an ideal match for your style of filmmaking?
Mark: I think there are three specific things. Steve Zissis, we’ve worked with forever. He trusts us more than anybody should ever trust anyone and will do anything for us, and is a truly inspired and sensitive human being. Mark Kelly is the perfect choice to play a villain in your movie. Because when you’re playing somebody who’s doing diabolical things, when you cast that person you want them to be as sweet and loving as possible, to get a counterpoint. So even though you see him doing this crazy shit, there’s a kindness to it, there’s a kindness behind the eyes, and a vulnerability… More importantly…they’re both ex-athletes who knew how to do this stuff, which is good. Then for Jen, she’s just a really kindhearted, great actor. That role could have easily been a shrew who was just nagging all the time. And she was able to infuse it with love.
JT: How has collaborating with your cast evolved over the course of making several films with them?
Jay: With Steve, we grew up with Steve. He’s from our hometown. We went to high school with him. That’s been a big part of why he’s been intrinsic to a lot of the films that we’ve made. It’s only grown over time. This pool of actors that we do work with and we repeat with, it is all about trying to create an environment where we’re communicating with actors the way that Mark and I communicate, which is almost telepathically. We have very similar taste. We know what the other loves. We can see it when we look at each other. We don’t even really have to have an intellectual conversation about it. The more you work with people and the more you know them –
Mark: The shorthand gets shorter.
Jay: The shorthand is a big deal. And also, knowing very specific things about their lives. And knowing how to key into certain things that can really unlock the potential there and make the scene sing.
JT: Mark, you appear as an actor in five movies that are out this year. You’re running the spectrum of the world of independent film, but also cropping up in much larger-budgeted films. How are those worlds different for you when building characters and playing scenes, or is it more second nature having had a range of experiences as a director?
Mark: I don’t feel the difference as much, when I go and do a movie like People Like Us, or Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie. These are people that appreciate honest performances and naturalism. That’s probably why they hired me. So I’m kind of doing my thing inside of their framework. So, it all feels very much part of the same world. Granted, I get a little nervous when I show up and it’s a small part and there’s a huge movie star across from me. That’s always inevitable. But I’m getting a little more comfortable with that.
JT: Lawrence Kasdan said he was surprised to get you to sign on to be in Darling Companion, because you don’t normally do those kinds of movies. What was it about that one that was attractive to you?
Mark: That was as much about the project as it was the life experience of spending six weeks with Lawrence and Meg Kasdan and Kevin Kline and Richard Jenkins and Dianne Wiest and Diane Keaton. To be with my heroes and my screen legends. It was Lawrence Kasdan’s first low-budget film. He said, “I love you as an actor. And I also know you know how to make low-budget movies. I’d like to have you there with me.” We were just good friends. So it was just a fantastic experience overall.
JT: You guys have had some really great uses of music in your films. “The Way You Laugh” by Dawes appears in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. How did you come to find and use that song?
Jay: That’s our music supervisor Marguerite Phillips. We lived around her in Austin. She’s a really great friend of ours. Again, a really close friend of ours that happens to be super-talented and happens to know who we are and what we love to do.
Mark: She really found that song for us and brought it to us.
JT: Having made a number of both micro-budgeted as well as studio films, where do you ideally see the trajectory of your collective career going at this point in terms of how you approach filmmaking?
Mark: It’s all about finding places that will allow us to make the kinds of movies that we make. We’re very entrenched in our process right now, and we’re not really looking to leave that. That being said, we like exploring different kind of stories. But in terms of making financially smaller films, whether that’s an independent film or a smaller studio film like Jeff, Who Lives at Home, that can make its money back, so it can be a little bit weird, and do what we do, is it. We want to sustain our corner of the sandbox for as long as we can.
Jay: For me, it’s just all about just coming up with ideas, and figuring out the context to make them in. That’s the most important thing.
Mark: Certain movies should be five grand. Certain movies should be fifty million.
Jay: I don’t know why we’re inspired to make the certain things that we do. They just happen. When they come up, they’re a force of nature. Our job is basically just to find a place for them to live. Sometimes that can be on a huge scale. Sometimes that’s going to be at $25,000. To us, it’s not that critical where it is. It just has to be an appropriate expression.
JT: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon will soon be available to audience members via VOD and then in theaters. Why is it important audience members seek out the film and make a point of watching it? What do you think it has to offer that’s unique?
Mark: We’ve done a lot of limited release films. And people complain that they can’t get it in their town. So for those of you who’ve been asking to get our limited release movies in your town, here is your chance. I would say that this is the funniest film, I think, that we’ve made, in terms of pure comedy. And it’s a very relatable movie. It is a sports comedy. But it’s a shaggy, low-fi, more relationship-oriented sports comedy. So, come see something you think you know, and we’ll give you something a little different, too.
Filed under: LiC Interview