The four-film deal Mark Duplass and his brother, Jay, made last year with Netflix is just one indication of how successful the prolific brothers have been at cranking out and marketing smart, talky, emotionally honest and sneakily funny movies and TV shows, in collaboration with an ever-expanding cohort of equally talented youngish actors and filmmakers. Blue Jay, directed by Alex Lehmann and written by Duplass, is the first of those four movies.
Improvised from a detailed but very short treatment and shot over just seven days, the black-and-white two-hander is about a reunion between two former high school sweethearts, Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson), and the distorting magnetic pull a lost love can exert on a person’s life. Throughout the film, Paulson’s centered warmth and slightly goofy humor make Jim’s enduring infatuation plausible while showcasing a loose-limbed, charming side the actress has never quite unloosed before on screen.
At a Four Seasons restaurant in New York to publicize the film on the day of its theatrical release, the two exhibited the same chemistry they exude in the film, watching each other intently as they spoke, occasionally leaning into one another for a hug and often cracking each other up.
So, Sarah, Blue Jay was your first experience with improv. Do you want to do it again?
Sarah Paulson: Yes! Yes! And I didn’t know that I would feel that way when I started.
What did you like about it?
Paulson: I liked how scared I felt, in addition to feeling also hyper-alert. That’s a kind of exciting place to be working from. When you have a script, I like having that kind of structure and that blueprint under my feet. It makes me feel secure, and there’s so much vulnerability to performing. But this taught me a lot about my instincts. Sometimes when you’re doing something that’s very text-based, you get very married to certain ideas about how something has to be, and then you stop operating in ways that are truthful. Or another actor can do something that doesn’t exactly go with something that’s already been written in your brain as to how it should be, and then you’re not actually in the moment. You’re missing opportunities to engage with the other actor, which will only make you better.
Were the different takes you did for each scene really different from one another?
Mark Duplass: Yeah, they usually are.
Paulson: Yeah, I think they were. We’d do what we were doing and then Alex [Lehmann] and Mark, both of whom had done that before, would say: “Here’s what I think works and here’s what I think we can let go of.” We shot everything sequentially, and Mark was able to hold everything in his brain, so he was really helpful—he and Alex both—to keep us on track.
Duplass [to Paulson]: Something I was just realizing as you were saying that is one thing you did really, really well with improvisation. When you have set texts, your ability to change from take to take is only through your intention, but when you don’t have a set text you can change your intention and your words. When you’re improvising, if you’re really, really not feeling it in the moment, what you end up doing—as a person often does in life—is using extra words to overcompensate. And, for instance, when you and I were sitting in those chairs after listening to the tape, you were very different from take to take. Because in the first takes you were finding your footing and you were using tons of words to express your emotion, and then as soon as you felt it, you got real quiet and used, like, half the words. You can’t really teach that.
That’s my favorite part of doing a movie that’s improvised: the ability to guide a scene not only with your intention, but also by using less or more words to make it organic.
Mark, you and your brother have always worked that way, encouraging your actors to improvise as they go, so you’ve compared what you do to making a documentary, catching things as they’re happening.
Have you ever thought about shooting an actual documentary?
Duplass: Yeah, we have. We’ve talked about it a lot. The truth is, I have little kids. It takes usually many, many years to chase a documentary subject, and it doesn’t always work out, and you can’t be in any control of it whatsoever. So, applying the documentary ethic to a narrative form allows me to do what I like to do, which is make a lot of things and be on set with a lot of different people, and it just suits my lifestyle more. But I’m sure I’ll make a documentary before I kick it.
Do you have any idea what you’d like to shoot?
Duplass: It usually has something to do with someone who ’s just completely pure. People who are hopelessly and helplessly themselves are so attractive to me. Jim has a little bit of that quality, in this movie. I know how to move around in the world so I can make situations comfortable and make people comfortable. People like me can walk into a room and know how to be a little more boisterous so they can be heard, or be a little more quiet because this person they’re talking to is intimidated.
Paulson: You’re nimble. You’re mentally nimble.
Duplass: There are other people who walk into a room and are just hopelessly and helplessly themselves. They’re borderline on the spectrum, and it creates such awkward interactions. They’re like dinosaurs—
Paulson: But there’s something really beautiful about it.
Duplass: They’re so beautiful!
Paulson: It’s like, wow, you’re not getting in your own way at all! You’re just being!
Duplass: Yeah. Mark Borchard from American Movie is a subject that I’m just obsessed with. Because he just can’t help it. And it makes him sad, and sweet, and funny, and just—I love those people!
So, a character study?
Duplass: Something like that, probably.
You’ve really embraced your role as a Hollywood outsider. At first, I feel like you and Jay made DIY movies on the cheap out of necessity, since it was the only way you could get them made, but now it seems like you choose it. You did Cyrus for a studio—
Duplass: Yeah. And Jeff Who Lives at Home. And Togetherness was kind of a studio-y thing too.
Yeah, which the studio killed.
Duplass: Yeah. Unfortunately, they killed it. Which was, like, that’s okay.
Well, not for those of us who loved that show. And maybe if you’d had control of it, you could have kept it going.
Duplass: You know, you’re right. If I had kept control, I could have kept it going. But I don’t know if that would have been good for me.
Paulson: Why don’t you start your own network?
Duplass: I did think, coming up at Sundance in 2005 with The Puffy Chair, that I would make this and it would spring me into Hollywood and that the independent film scene was merely a way station on the way to Hollywood.