On The League, Mark Duplass plays one of the FX show’s relentlessly dudish fantasy football douches. In real life, he makes quiet, oft-sensitive indie films with his brother Jay. Since 2005’s The Puffy Chair, which he co-wrote and starred in, Duplass has divided his time between acting in films both small (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Humpday) and slightly bigger (Greenberg, Lawrence Kasdan’s upcoming dying dog movie Darling Companion). He rarely acts for himself, having stayed behind the lens for Baghead, Cyrus and now Jeff Who Lives at Home. Despite making his last two films for studios (on the cheap), he’s not gunning for the next Marvel product: he and Jay already have another microbudgeted film, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, in the can, and Duplass wrote Black Rock for his wife, Kate Aselton, which was funded via a Kickstarter campaign. While in town for Jeff’s appearance at the Philadelphia Film Festival, Duplass sat down with PW.
PW: The films you make with your brother have thrice featured bickering and squabbling brothers. I’m assuming your relationship is better.
Mark Duplass: It is a lot better. We don’t bicker and squabble at all. I don’t know why we’re drawn to bickering and squabbling brothers, except that movies need conflict. We’re about as boring as it comes. We’re very respectful of eachother and very careful with our words. We’re brothers who are in a professional, working marriage.
PW: The overall aesthetic of your films hasn’t changed too dramatically since you’ve started working with actual budgets. Do you tend to film the same way?
MD: We do. We use more cameras, because we could only afford one for The Puffy Chair. There was a big battle we had with Fox Searchlight with Cyrus. They really wanted us to put a camera on a tripod next to our main camera. Jay and I are pretty affable, normal people, but when it comes to our movies and our way of working, we’re about as maniacal as it comes. We’re very protective of this process and we want to maintain that.
PW: How have the bigger budgets impacted your work?
MD: For Cyrus, it made us nervous. We wanted to make the money back for the studio. It makes you fiscally responsible. If The Puffy Chair sucked, it was $15,000. We’ll all live. If you make a $7 million stinker, it’s something else. But creatively speaking I wouldn’t say that Cyrus allowed us to do much more than we had been doing. We got to shoot on nicer cameras. We got to buy better music. We had a nice, huge crew, but that isn’t always a positive thing. When we were shooting The Puffy Chair, we could reorient a scene if we wanted. On Cyrus, there are 15 trucks that way, or we can’t shoot another way because our catering and craft services are over there. It comes with its own burden. In the case of Jeff, we needed the money because there are expensive elements in the film. We still made it for a bare bones cost. No one was getting rich off Jeff. All the money is on the screen. Our goal is to ask for the minimum amount of money we need to make the movie so we can make the movie that we want to make it.
PW: What led you after The Puffy Chair to not want to act in the movies you were writing and directing?
MD: I didn’t want to act in Baghead because I had just been in our other movie. I didn’t want us to turn into the Woody Allen thing. And my age wasn’t exactly right at the time. In Cyrus there was nothing that was role-appropriate for me, and we needed movie stars to greenlight the movie. Jeff was the same thing. I’m sure at some point I’ll be back in action, as it were, in front of a Duplass brothers movie.
PW: Your first two films don’t end on happy notes, but Cyrus and Jeff both wind up upbeat. Is that a marked change in your general attitude?
MD: It’s not a conscious thing. It could be subconscious. It could be that I’m happier. I can certainly say that in the case of Jeff, this was a clear case of making a lovable loser movie. Jeff to us is a lot like Rocky: he’s the guy without an ounce of cynicism. He’s pure hope, kind of dumb and really beautiful to me. Jeff is almost wish-fulfillment for me and Jay. We wish we were more like that and less in our heads and less second-guessing ourselves. Just wearing basketball shorts and a hoodie, making our way through the world.
PW: As you two are making studio films, you’re also still involved with small films. Black Rock was funded with a Kickstarter campaign. How do you choose which will have a budget and which basically won’t?
MD: It’s a lot of different reasons. Sometimes you want to own the whole movie. In the case of [Lynn Shelton’s My Sister’s Sister, co-starring Duplass], we wanted to own that whole movie, because it was cheap to make and financially and creatively it would pay off in the back-end. That was very similar to Black Rock. Black Rock could have been fucked up by having a studio, because a studio would probably want a straight genre film. We wanted to make it genre-adjacent. It’s a combination of wanting to keep creative control. Sometimes it makes sense to be your own studio.
PW: How fond were you of the so-called “mumblecore” movement when you were taking The Puffy Chair to festivals?
MD: “Mumblecore” is the most retarded thing on the planet. When we made The Puffy Chair there was no “mumblecore.” We showed up at South by Southwest in 2005 and there were four microbudget films there and someone said, “Mumblecore!” That’s what “mumblecore” is. It’s limiting, though, honestly, “Microbudget” is a nice, easy shorthand, too. It encapsulates the films more, it’s more accurate.
PW: Nowadays it’s common to wear a lot of hats, to direct and act and produce and do music.
MD: Well, I like being busy. And I like making a lot of stuff. I don’t think about it too much and get too precious. Some of them won’t be that great. And I’m OK with that.
Read our review of "Jeff Who Lives at Home" here.