Jay and Mark Duplass: Interview
“If this interview ended and we went and had a beer, you’d be telling us stuff, private stuff about yourself, just ‘cause that’s what we’re interested in.”

Over the past seven years the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, have together become one of the most distinctive forces in independent filmmaking. Their 2005 debut feature, The Puffy Chair, was an ultra-low budget brothers-and-relationships road movie that stood out for its indelible, improvised dialogue and what would come to be the brothers’ trademark of taking seemingly ordinary scenes in unexpected, honestly emotional directions. It won them the support of the Sundance crowd and led to 2008’s Baghead, which tested the mix of their distinctive talky, naturalistic atmosphere with another established film genre, horror. They went a bit Hollywood after that, casting John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill in 2010’s Cyrus, about a three-way relationship between a depressed film editor, the woman of his dreams, and her scheming, unbalanced son. They returned to their favorite theme, brotherly tension, with this year’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home, a heavily structured, loose-feeling meditation about, among other things, the benefits of being a slacker. Their new film, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (TMT Review), about estranged brothers (played by Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis) who reconnect as they compete against each other in a highly personal two-man Olympics contest, turns out to be their deepest exploration yet of the complicated bond between brothers. I was able to talk with the Duplasses over the phone from Los Angeles a few weeks before Do-Deca made its American premier.

(Note: The Duplass brothers are very funny, quick-witted guys who talk and joke over each other, often finishing one another’s sentences. They also come from the same town, New Orleans, and thus have similar-sounding voices and speech patterns. As this interview was conducted over a rather inadequate phone, there is some vagueness as to which brother spoke which quote at which time. Most of the quotes below are absolutely attributed to the appropriate brother, whom I could pin down whenever one would refer to the other by name. Whenever I have been unsure, the quote has been credited to “Jay or Mark,” and as they collaborate on both writing and direction, and are raising their families together in Los Angeles while keeping extremely busy with parallel and overlapping film and television careers, the distinction, where vague, is not of utmost importance.)


So how did you decide on a movie about a 25-event contest of brotherly conflict?

Jay: Well, we actually grew up down the street from two brothers who created a 25-event personal Olympics in which to destroy each other. The beginning of the story (for The Do-Deca-Pentathlon) is totally true. That competition ended before it could be finished and the results are shrouded in controversy because the parents ripped it up. So, over the past two decades Mark and I have constantly talked about it. It kept coming up. We have this sort of soup of ideas that we talk about with each other and they eventually turn into movies. When we came up with the concept that the two brothers would be estranged in later life and then reunite and kind of ruin a family get-together because they’d reignited the games, that’s when we sort of realized that there was a movie there.

Did Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly have to learn all of those games, or were they pretty good at them?

Jay: They did not. We hired people who were already skilled in such sporting events and who were big high school ex-athletes and who also had brothers. We didn’t have to explain anything because everyone knows when you have brothers, especially those born close to you in age, that, you know, nothing is more epic than competing against them.

In your movies you keep returning to Steve Zissis. Do you feel like he represents you guys?

Jay: Yeah, well we went to high school with Steve. He grew up in our world. He… it’s hard to describe, but he’s a vulnerable, inspired, hilarious, exciting, sad human being and I think screen-wise he feels the way we feel in life. I don’t know what it is. Most people refer to a beautiful woman as their muse, someone from their past, and for us, for some reason, it’s a 240-pound, balding Greek man.

We try to keep the lights out of their face, keep the gaggle of crew members away from them, so that they feel like they are in a room… where they can go anywhere they want… We want them to feel like they’re just anonymous regular people doing things.

So obviously he takes criticism well. In what way is he sad? Specifically, the scene in Do-Deca-Pentathlon, where he’s sitting on his bed, talking to his wife about his weight, did that come from him in the moment?

Mark: No, actually, Jay and I rewrote that scene about 10 minutes before we shot it. It was looking like it was going to be a standard couples-reconciliation scene; we were worried it was going to be a little pat and boring, so we transferred that energy right into Steve’s rather portly foot. It was an instinctual decision, and it’s very indicative of the filmmaking process with us. We couldn’t tell you why that scene was better, to have Steve start talking about his fat foot. But at the end of the scene it felt right to us, and we went with it.

Jay: And, most importantly, we didn’t have to explain intellectually to Steve why that needed to happen. Our direction was not, you know, a whole re-engineering of the whole scene, we just said, “Look, we’re gonna change the direction of the scene. The first thing you’re gonna do is notice how fat your foot is, and you’re gonna wonder how this whole thing happened.” And we did come up with some scripting stuff, but you know, we understand each other so well and he is so open that he was able to rush into that without missing a beat.

How did you come to cast Mark Kelly?

Mark: Mark Kelly was a friend of my wife Katie’s when she lived in Los Angeles before we moved back there. He’s a fantastic actor, but in particular we find that when you’re going to cast the quote-unquote villain, someone who’s doing a lot of depraved things, it’s really fun to cast someone who has the sweetest heart in the whole world. And he’s got that wonderful DNA. While he’s doing all these terrible things you can see and feel the sweetness from him. And plus he’s really fun to be around and he’s a fantastic athlete, so… it kind of just made him a triple threat in the movie.

He’s obviously doing bad things and he’s got this vile agenda, but he always seems like his more tender emotions are right below the surface.

Mark or Jay: He’s got a really puppydog quality that makes him really likeable.

In the prank-calling scene, was he calling real numbers?

Mark or Jay: We did start that way, but we were rolling so much tape that we decided just to switch tracks. But he did improvise three separate crank calls –

Jay or Mark: We should put that on the DVD. The different versions. They’re all fantastic.

How far do you usually go to ensure the verisimilitude that’s kind of the mark of your movies?

Jay : I mean, it’s a scene-by-scene, case-by-case basis. We’re always trying to mine the deepest truest stuff, and a big part of our direction is talking to actors about the things that they’ve experienced and that they’ve been through. It’s part of the behind-the-scenes conversations. In general it’s just what Mark and I are obsessed with, that’s what we talk to people about. If this interview ended and we went and had a beer, you’d be telling us stuff, private stuff about yourself just ‘cause that’s what we’re interested in.

Wow, that sounds really enticing.

Jay: And then we would exploit it when we put it on film, and then you would blush and cringe when you saw it in a movie theater. But yeah, every once and awhile we will actually draw from one of those specific experiences if an actor is comfortable with it. Usually they always are.

I’ve read that you shoot your films and run your sets in an attempt to recreate the way you experience life. As your life has changed and you’ve become more successful and better known and been able to get bigger budgets, has that changed the way you put life into your productions?

Jay: Absolutely. The next film we wrote is about the conflict of whether to purchase a three- or four-bedroom home.

Mark: That is what we’re going through right now. No, I’m kidding. But I think that’s a valid point, and I think the distinction we would make is, when we discuss quote-unquote the way that we experience life, it’s about our vision of where our life is particularly at. It’s creating an environment on set that feels as much like real life as possible for the actors. And by that we mean, we don’t give them any blocking or specific marks to hit. We try to keep the lights out of their face, keep the gaggle of crew members away from them, so that they feel like they are in a room… where they can go anywhere they want… There’s a camera or two around, and a guy with a microphone, but otherwise, we want them to feel like they’re just anonymous regular people doing things. And we find when we foster that environment we get the most naturalistic and, ideally, realistic performance.

Now that you’re in the bigger leagues and you have the means available to you, have you thought about attempting something that’s more stylistically rigid? More specific lighting, more camera movement, faster editing, etc… And if we could speculate, what do you think that might look like?

Jay: We actually don’t, you know, aspire to anything technically. And I think that that comes from a conscious decision that we made a long time ago, when we were in film school, and after film school when we were trying to make films, we noticed that 80 percent of (the on-set) energy was spent on technical and 20 percent was spent when the actors show up, and we’ve since reversed that ratio, and since we did that those are the only films we’ve ever made that anyone has responded to. So, more importantly, that’s all Mark and I care about is story and acting. I mean, in terms of aesthetics, what turns us on is stuff that looks and feels real. We do have thoughts of making bigger movies, movies that might have more characters and explore bigger themes, but we’re always gonna be concerned with the emotionality of it, and we also feel like our filmmaking style provides a special window into those things that we love the most, which are the internal machinations of human beings and how they deal with each other and how they are trying to achieve what they want – or what they think they want – in life.

Speaking of the greater themes, one of the main things I see running through your films – and it’s not always the protagonist – is the attempt by a normal person to try to be decent, and to maintain their sincerity in a cynical or ironic world. Does that sound fair to you?

Jay: I don’t know. That’s interesting. My only response to that could be that Mark and I operate in a cave, and we don’t really think objectively that much about what we’re trying to do; we mostly just ask each other the question, “What do you want to see next?” But we are obsessed with sincerity and trying to do well and trying to do difficult things in what can be… I guess we could describe it as a somewhat cynical world. But that’s not talking about our characters, that’s talking about Mark and me and how we feel in the world. So it certainly could be accurate that that’s what we’re doing with our characters. I think it’s what we’re drawn to and what we like, and I think those kind of characters are inspiring to us and we find them… they have that wonderful combination of sweet, funny, a little bit sad, and, ultimately, if we do it right, heroic.

Most people refer to a beautiful woman as their muse, someone from their past, and for us, for some reason, it’s a 240-pound, balding Greek man.

Do you read criticism of your films, and do you ever respond to it?

Mark: What I do, to be perfectly honest: I check in to see like Rotten Tomatoes stuff, see what the numbers look like, and when I see one that looks to be a superlative and complimentary one, I read that. And then if I come across a negative word I just stop reading.

Jay: That’s exactly what I do. I don’t read it at all if it’s negative.

Mark: But I like to know, I don’t avoid it completely. I like to know how people are responding to the film, and the reason why it does well or does not, according to critics.

Jay: Yeah, I want to know the percentages but I don’t want to know the details.

A press agent indicated to me that you’re on the East Coast right now. What are you working on?

Mark: That person lied to you. We are on the West Coast. We are in Los Ang-uh-leez.

Oh. I’m on the West Coast too. I’m up in Portland, Oregon.

Mark: We are what, 800 miles from you? No, a thousand maybe… I’m headed that way tomorrow morning because of the Olympic Track Trials.

Really? Tell me about that.

Mark: I’m a big fan. Um, I’m going to commune with the spirit of Prefontaine .

Jay: He’s gonna have sex with the ghost of a dead runner.

Mark: Yeah.

Jay: It’s not about being gay…

Mark: They’re not really gender-specific at that point, really.

Jay: No.

The spirit of Prefontaine?

Mark: Yeah, the spirit of Prefontaine I guess is genderless at this juncture.

Yeah, probably. That happens with all spirits.

Jay: And instead of “have sex” I would use the phrase “make love.”

Mark: I would too.

Wow.

Jay: We’re track guys, Mark ran track and I ran cross-country, and obviously we’re obsessed with sports. And because we couldn’t be Prefontaine, we just made a sports movie instead.

  

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