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An Interview with Jay and Mark Duplass

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An Interview with Jay and Mark Duplass

So, last night while watching Cyrus, the word I repeatedly jotted down was “honest.”

Jay Duplass: Oh God, we’re gonna start crying now.

I’m wondering how you were able to keep and develop that honesty while working within a studio environment for the first time?

Mark Duplass: Well, we did work with a studio, but it’s Fox Searchlight, so you know, this is what they want to be doing. That being said, it was a production with an 80- or 100-person crew, so we did have to take some extra steps to create an intimate set that can give you the honesty you’re talking about. So the key for us was making sure that every set was a closed set. Jay on the camera, another cameraman, boom op, tops. And I would watch from a monitor and Jay and I would make sure to continue what we’ve always done, which is spend as much time as possible on the acting and with the actors. And keep everything technical that is happening out of the way of the actors. When you establish that set, it’s almost like theater. It’s just here, with the directors and the actors.

JD: But there were definitely many times where it was very hard. You can’t control that many people, and so many influences. And there’s a lot of money and a lot of pressure and there were definitely times where…honestly, my and Mark’s safe place was we would just walk away together. And, like, fuck all this stuff, let’s cut through all the fat right now and figure out what happened in that take. We would just get back to what we’ve always done which was…what do you want to see next, and are you happy with that? We would check in with each other. There was a constant litmus test of…what is happening in this story, and what is happening between these two human beings? And then how can we make it better? That’s how we got it to a more honest place.

Did you film the scenes in script order?

JD/MD: Yeah, we always do that.

How much does that help your process?

MD: It helps a ton. Occasionally we’d do little things out of order, non-emotional scenes, people walking in a house, but not the key scenes that are the progression of the story. For us, it’s critical how we shoot. The story itself doesn’t change too much but the nuanced interpersonal dynamics, we feel like you can never predict those things. So when you really see how passive-aggressive they’re being, are they more or less than you thought? That allows you to go into the scene the next day, knowing exactly what you shot and build right upon it.

What happens if you guys continue to progress and the studio, for budgetary reasons, tells you that you must shoot out of order? What are you willing to give up in your process?

JD: We’ll never give that up.

MD: Yeah. I mean we’re very amenable and we’re very easy filmmakers on a lot of fronts. We don’t require people to build us an elaborate, expensive set. Give us a house with eight-foot ceilings and we’ll shoot that shit. We don’t care, you know. So we’re very giving on a lot of fronts and what that says to people, when we say “no” we have to have this, they know we mean it. So you just save those important things. For us, the cast is crucial. The crewmembers being really nice, sweet, and sensitive people, and they have to believe in what we’re doing. And shooting in order is how we make our movies, so that’s a deal-breaker.

Have you guys ever thought about adapting a novel?

MD: Yeah, we adapted a novel for Sandra Bullock.

JD: It was a cool process.

MD: Yeah, it was really fun. So I think we, you know, we’re still in that phase where we have scripts in the drawer. But eventually, I’m sure we’ll, like, run out of ideas.

JD: Yeah, ha.

MD: So we’re not opposed to that, but right now we’re feeling like we got a couple more movies in the pipeline that we’d like to direct.

JD: But we also have a weird sense of authorship in that we are constantly re-authoring our art through production and editorial. Honestly, we worry about the responsibility of carrying someone else’s vision. Because, honestly, we trash our scripts. We’ll do whatever it takes to make something work and make a scene go.

MD: We’re so mean to our scripts. We’re brutal.

JD: We are!

So you don’t worry about potentially losing a character you wrote in the process of making a movie?

MD: We usually keep our characters, but if we had to lose a character to make a movie work—absolutely! Because it’s the worst thing in the world to be sitting in an audience and know what you’re giving them is a waste of their time. So it’s all about them, and this experience you’re creating for them.

After years of working on your micro-budget indie films, I’m curious what were the best things about working with a studio?

JD: Ooh, that’s a great question.

MD: There are a lot of cool little things, a lot of them are superficial, but they would mean a lot. Like, the food! It was insanely good. And it’s ready for you as soon as you get there. Or if you have to stay on set and work on a scene, someone will bring you food! And they ask you what you want and they bring it to you. It’s these little things that are normally, like, who needs that? But when you’re giving your entire person to a movie…when you say you’re tired, someone brings you a cup of coffee. It’s like—this is incredible!

JD: It’s actually better for the piece of art. We had a trailer, it was tiny, and we shared it. We’d sleep in the trailer; it was our special little nap space.

MD: Also in the post-production process, having someone there to organize everything. The post-production supervisor—that was so critical. Having a first assistant director who really organized and directed all of our extras for us. So when we showed up they were 90% there. So there was a lot of that pre-work, people who get it up to a first draft and then we can just finesse. It saved us a lot of energy. And that feels cool! I’m not above saying that. It’s like [in a high-pitched voice] we’re like REAL directors! You know it makes you feel good.

I lived in Austin for six years and love South by Southwest. I know you lived here for a while. How great does it feel to come back with this film? I know you’ve done it before but—

JD: This is a whole different thing.

MD: It was different.

JD: This is Paramount, Saturday night. It’s like the slot we dreamed of since the early ’90s. Mark was saying earlier, we had dinner with our parents and we realized we were a little late and we were hustling down Congress—

MD: Scuttlebuttin’ I believe is the word.

JD: We walked up to the theater and we saw the name of the movie on the marquee and it totally knocked us out. We were like, “Oh my God, it’s happening right now!”...you know? Because we’ve looked up to [Richard] Linklater and [Robert] Rodriguez so much and just wanted to be them! And be in that place. And we’ve struggled for so long—

MD: Struggled for so long.

JD: To see that come together kind of snuck up on us a little bit. And honestly, that crowd in the Paramount. My God! They got every, tiny, little joke. Every little nuance that Mark and I…we always have them in our movies, and we’re like, oh, those will be for the seven or eight people in America who get it, but everyone in that theater was getting it all! We were like—oh my God, you get us.

And it seemed like the audience had a lot of Austinites in it.

MD: Yes, 78704 is our universe.

Speaking of parents, my dad doesn’t know who you are and hasn’t seen any of your films, but I told him I was doing an interview with you and he somehow convinced me to ask you a question of his.

JD: That’s awesome.

So he sent like 10, but the one I picked was: What question do you want to be asked, so you can answer the answer you’ve always wanted to answer?

JD: Wow! You have an awesome dad.

MD: Well, that is difficult. It’s a minute-to-minute thing…God!

Okay, well what’s something about Cyrus that you feel never gets asked?

MD: You know what I always want to hear from people, I don’t know why, it’s kind of small. But most people who watch our movies assume that we’re all just out there getting stoned and having fun and ripping with the camera. I would love to have someone basically ask me: You know a lot of people assume or think that your filmmaking process is fun, but watching your movies I get the feeling that it’s a torturous, difficult process. Is that the case?

JD: And then we cry and fall down!

MD: And then we say, yes, you get us!

JD: Honestly, what I would like to do with every interviewer who comes in is be able to ask them a question, because we get really tired of talking about ourselves. So the question I would ask is: What do you want more than anything else in this world?

Uhhh…gosh!

[Mark and Jay laugh maniacally]

MD: Yes!!

Umm…

MD: That’s so weird, because as you said that, I was thinking of a different question that provides the same answer. Which is: If we were going to make a movie starring you, what would it be about?

Ummm…

JD: What’s your life trajectory? What’s your life story?

Well, oh God, how did this happen? Dad!

[Jay laughs maniacally]

MD: Son of a bitch dad.

Honestly, I’m writing my own first feature script. I can’t believe I’m talking about this…but the genuineness that came from Cyrus is something I really strive for with every film I make. That honest…thing that emanates from the screen when I watch very few narrative films…

JD/MD: Yeah, yeah.

That is so hard to achieve. So if I could accomplish that, not to kiss your asses or anything, but if I could get to that point as a director, that would be one definite goal.

JD: We understand that because we’re still trying to do that.

MD: You’ll have to tell your dad we say hi.

Oh, I will. So, what do you think about the Austin film scene? I know you’re both involved in a lot of projects.

JD: For us it’s thrilling because we’ve known all these people forever and we have felt like there’s some amazing stuff happening here.

MD: John Bryant, Bryan Poyser, the Zellner brothers…

JD: Bujalski is here and it’s like these are really special people and they tell unique stories and it’s awesome for us to see that rise and see other people appreciate it.

Is that why you are producers on so many projects?

MD: Definitely, because we love them. We don’t necessarily generate these projects. They are their own creative forces; they’re making their own stuff.

So what do you do to help them?

JD: We do whatever they need.

MD: Yeah, whatever they need. In the case of Bryan Poyser’s movie, it was a little bit of money to finish the movie. Doing some test screenings with him and giving him some feedback. Then when he got into Sundance, helping with some of the business stuff that we have experience with. Like, the right sales agent, and the right publicist and things like that.

JD: And it’s really awareness. We talk about them to people all the time in Hollywood. We live there now.

MD: And it’s fucking easy because we love their movies.

Right. How’s Hollywood?

MD: It’s nutty, but we live on the east side of town.

JD: We’re trying to replicate South Austin in Los Angeles.

MD: Yeah, we live in East L.A. And it’s pretty close, believe it or not.