Mumblecore. It’s an annoying tag for a modern wave of indie movies, and here’s how Wikipedia defines it: ‘It is primarily characterized by ultra-low budget production (often
employing digital video cameras), focus on personal relationships
between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional
actors.’ Mumblecore is inextricably linked withe SXSW film festival, and among its most prominent filmmakers are Jay and Mark Duplass.
Except that I don’t think the Duplass Brothers make mumblecore movies. Neither do they,and I have an interview with them coming up where we discuss the term. But their movies are just low budget indies with a shaggy feeling – certainly no one is mumbling. And their latest film, Baghead, definitely doesn’t feel mumblecore (even though it stars mumblecore poster girl Greta Gerwig). It’s a very funny and occasionally really scary movie about four struggling actors who spend a weekend in the woods to brainstorm a script they can star in. When they begin writing a movie about four actors being stalked by a killer with a bag on his head, the movie seems to become reality.
Ross Partridge is a veteran actor and a director in his own right; in Baghead he plays Matt, the alpha male of the group. Matt is in a long time on again, off again relationship with Catherine (Elise Muller). His best friend is Chad (Steve Zissis), who is in love with Michelle (Greta Gerwig), who really has eyes for Matt. And then there’s that guy in the woods, with the bag on his head…
I really enjoyed Baghead -
You’ve seen it? You’re one of the first people I’ve talked to who has seen it. Talking to someone who has seen the movie makes it easier.
The film has a really great looseness to it. How much of the film is improv? How much is you guys on the day discovering those characters?
That’s one of the most popular questions, and it was asked in the Q&A in the film itself. Mark and Jay set up parameter where they let actors improv. They’re so generous, and they say, ‘You know what? The stuff we write won’t match what you guys come up with.’ The truth is that a lot of the stuff you see, 75% of it, is first takes. They don’t like to rehearse, and they don’t like to go over scenes again and again. That said, they’re extremely plot-oriented, and they’re not… I know they’re lumped into a mumblecore genre, and a lot of improvised films fall short because they’re so loose that they have a rambling plot as well as rambling dialogue. Jay and Mark are extremely crafted in their approach to improv. They know what they want to get, they know we’ll be able to say it better, but it’s not a free for all as far as storytelling.
The film itself isn’t rambling, and everything is set up right from the opening scene of the film. That’s tight screenwriting.
Talking about having these two brothers as directors, what’s that experience like? How do they work with you guys?
Jay is a shooter as well, so he’s on camera, and Mark is on boom. It’s like a documentary film. They’re an incredible duo to watch – one will speak and the other will finish his thoughts. They have very different ideas on what they want to acheive and how they want to get there but they’re on point with each other so closely that there’s never a variant with the story. They know the story they’re trying to tell. Mark will work with actors a lot, Jay is consumed with the technical aspect of it, but he also works with the actors. It’s such a pleasure to work with these guys.
You say Mark and Jay don’t like to do rehearsals, but right from the beginning the relationships between the characters feel very real and present. Did you guys hang out to get there, or did you just find it on the day?
We all sat down before we started shooting and had a pow wow. I knew Steve, who plays Chad, but I never met Greta before, or Elise. We sat down and talked about the pitfalls of the improv, what can happen, how they would talk to us during shooting. It was very freeing. We talked about the relationships and we talked about the parameters in which we wanted to see everyone with each other. The great thing about Jay and Mark is that they set up the parameters of the story and they know when to cut you off, or they know when you’re going the wrong way with the character. Or sometimes they don’t know and we discover it as we go along. Being in that free form flow, without pressure from studios, they have the ability to change things as they go along. Instead of worrying about page count or words on a page, they say let’s throw the page away and see what happens. So while the relationships were built in [to the script] our personalities began to inform the characters.
As far as my character there was a moment where I came outside [of the cabin], and the way the scene was written was basically as a meltdown of my character, where he comes to terms with the fact that we had all these ideas to become ‘movie stars’ and make a movie for ourselves and we could never come up with anything, and he was thinking ‘I’m a worthless piece of shit,’ and coming to terms with the idea that he would never be anything. Then it became more melodramatic. Mark and Jay saw what was happening and they said, ‘We’re going for a walk.’ We could tell how the film was going by how long Mark and Jay went for a walk. These guys would take these long walks and we’d say, ‘Aw shit, we’re really fucking up here.’ Then they’d come back and say, ‘Alright, we wrote this scene really poorly for the structure of the movie. Your intention now, instead of inflicting wounds on yourself, is you’re thinking about buying a hybrid car,’ or something inane as that, and then say, ‘Go.’ They’d throw you something like that and see if what we started would go different places with a different intention.
You’re playing a comedy and playing a thriller. Is it a challenge to switch gears?
It’s funny because if we had actually thought about what we were trying to pull off… every now and again we’d step back after a take and look at what we had been doing and would start cracking up. Would we even be able to sell this? The idea of a guy with a bag on his head is so ridiculous but the subtlety within that is what makes the story. All along it was like can we hook them in? At times we were trying to shift gears and find out how much suspense we wanted to create or how much comedy we wanted to find in a situation. For the most part we always wanted to be as funny as we could.
I imagine that the experience of being an actor who is trying to make it is familiar to every actor -
Are there elements of Matt that resonate with you?
I’m an actor so certainly there are parts of me, and some parts that I don’t really want to admit. But I think Matt is much more naive of his own possibilities, which is the kind of thing that might make him much more successful. Sometimes you go through with blinders on and you don’t think and you’re probably better off as an actor. He doesn’t limit himself by his own judgment. That’s more Matt than myself. But certainly I can relate to these characters. And having lived in Los Angeles, I tried to make him a little bit more palatable, where you can feel sorry for him.
At the end this movie is kind of a love story between Matt and Chad. Do you agree with that?
I do. It’s a real kind of buddy movie in an odd way. We didn’t know… at the end of the movie we had some ideas about how it would end, but I think the specific ending itself and how it went down was a result of Steve and my friendship that was built during the film. It was based on him knowing me and how I was preparing for the final scene, and it was a thing that was built in – his character could not forgive me. It was a suprise as well at the end [for me]. It was just a great choice that he made and we were all like, ‘Holy shit I think we got something here.’