Before sitting down for my one on one (or two on one, such as it is) with the Duplass Bros, I sat through a roundtable interview with them. The brothers are well known for their seriously cheap indie films, but the big studios have taken notice, and they’ve had a couple of scripts bought by the dependents, like Fox Searchlight. While talking about this, Mark Duplass said that the guy whose career they’ve always loved is John Sayles. ‘So are you telling us you’re writing a giant alligator movie? I asked. ‘Wouldn’t that be so much fun?’ Mark laughed.
There’s this stigma about micro-indies (especially in the ‘mumblecore’ movement, a bullshit term that I don’t like for low budget movies about people in their twenties and filmed improv style and with mostly non-professional actors) where it’s believed that indie guys are too cool to like genre film. The Duplass Bros explode that, and I think they’d be psyched to get a chance to do a real science fiction movie. To me John Sayles sums up what this site is all about – going from Piranha to Matewan. It’s all about spanning the spectrum, and that’s what the Duplass boys do.
Their new film, Baghead is a comedy that has horror elements – four failing actors go to a cabin in the woods to write a script they can star in, and when they start writing a movie about a killer with a bag on his head, they begin having sightings of a guy in the woods with a bag on his head. There are scares in Baghead that got to me more than most real horror films, and it’s still funny and a little touching at the same time.
The thing that keeps interesting me is the idea of mumblecore as a movement. I’m interested in where you guys stand on that – you distance yourself in the press notes from it since your characters do not in fact mumble.
Mark: I think the core difference for us when we think about it is that we love the feel and texture of mumblecore and the things mumblecore says it is. We love the feel of the handheld camera work, of the naturalistic acting, of the DV aesthetic, of the fact that you can do a movie cheaply and still have it be pertinent in the world. But what makes us different is that we are just genre and plot whores. We really love our movies to drive forward. In many ways our movies are these wolves in sheep’s clothing – they have straight Hollywood drive-in stories, they’re just shaggier. I guess we’re pretty happy there’s any movement that’s talking about little cheap movies, but at the same time we’re kind of one foot in, one foot out.
Do you think that putting a name on a movement like that can ghettoize it?
Mark: Yeah. That’s inevitable. Any movement would do that.
Jay: It’s also the type of there where anything like that, in the initiation, is good for all members involved, but over time can become destructive.
Mark: It’s like Fleetwood Mac.
What has to happen is that you guys turn your back on your mumblecore roots, and then that becomes the next story everyone latches on to…
Jay: Exactly. It’s weird. We didn’t make Baghead because we wanted to show what we could do beyond mumblecore – we made Baghead because we wanted to make Baghead. It didn’t have anything to do with the movement. Mark and I have been making movies this specific way for four or five years and we never called it anything. Now someone has come along and called it something, so…
You guys mentioned Linklater before. Is Slacker a mumblecore movie?
Jay: It’s a mumblecore movie to a tee. It has no plot, it has people you would know – but they’re weirder in general, because people in Austin tend to be.
Mark: People in their twenties wandering aimlessly and the relationship dynamics that happen between them.
Jay: That would apply to a lot of things. The only thing that would suck about mumblecore is backlash. I think it’s starting to come. I would hate to see a really talented 23 year old kid make a movie next year that is really inspired and amazing but, because it has the aesthetics of what has been come to be known as mumblecore, get dogged. That would suck.
You guys talk about Cassaveted. Someone else who talks about Cassavetes a lot is Judd Apatow. Is there something about the state of film today that makes audiences interested in this kind of rambling, improvisational style?
Jay: I think it has everything to do with how many reality TV shows are happening right now. I think what people want is not a predictable, spoonfed thing. Particularly with our stuff, the actors we documented as documentarians would, and what we’re excited about is that we don’t know what will happen from one moment to the next and I think that transfers to the audience. As intelligent movie goers I think all three of us here when we go into a movie, within the first five minutes, we can lay out the damn plot -
It’ll be one of two possible endings.
Jay: One of two possible endings! Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. We’re obsessed with not knowing where it’s going to go at every turn, keeping it organic. You build these moments that are pregnant situations, that anything can happen. That’s when it gets really exciting.
Mark: Specifically when it comes to Apatow I don’t think America is an audience that doesn’t want to be spoonfed – they do want to be spoonfed. The box office numbers show that they want to be spoonfed. What we’re doing with Baghead, and what I think Apatow is doing as well, is that he’s not offering a movie that says, ‘Come here and be challenged by naturalism.’ What he’s doing is he’s offering the standard archetype of every kind of movie that gets made – the high school ‘Let’s get drunk and get laid’ movie, the 40 year old guy who can’t get laid and fall in love movie – but within that he’s offering individuality and specificity and a little shagginess. Likewise, that’s what Jay and I are interested in doing: offering enough in the plot that people know, ‘I’m in a safe place, I’m in a plane I’ve been in before, but within that it’s nice and loose and shaggy and different.’ I think it’s kind of like a halfway house – there’s something different in there, but plotwise it’s leaning on old archetypes.
Jay: We’ve been on this tour for a little while and we’ve been talking about where our lives are now: Mark has a kid and I have a pregnant wife right now. I’ll talk about this thing that happened with my pregnant wife and it sounds like a stock scenario, but when it happens to you! When it happens to you, dude, when it comes down in a real specific way and it’s like the watershed moment isn’t my wife is in her third trimester and she’s having a tough time, the watershed moment is like…
Mark: We were in Best Buy…
Jay: We were in Best Buy and I almost lost my whole existence.
Mark: Over the router booster. How did that happen?
Jay: It’s weird. I think that’s how we see our movies – we see ourselves experiencing stock, repeated situations in our lives, but the way we experience them is so specific and so hilarious, that’s the way we want to see them come out in our movies.
Is there a concern that as you make your living as filmmakers and get successful those situations are no longer relatable to other people? Like Nirvana has their third album and it’s all Kurt whining about being famous.
Mark: I think that’s certainly possibly, but I think Jay and I are sensitive enough, and complainers enough, that we’ll find something that connects with the masses.
Jay: I don’t know what it is about us, but we’re just built as domestic people. I think a lot of people if they were experiencing the success we’re experiencing they’d be out getting laid but we’re getting married, having babies, trying to buy a house. Just doing the same stuff that basically our parents did.
Mark: We’re still of the people.
So your Sundance experience wasn’t blowing rails with Harvey?
Mark: I wish.
Jay: Our Sundance experience was like going around… we definitely had that treatment, where we got to go to condos and meet the buyers, but then it would be me and Mark at our condo by ourselves ordering Pizza Hut. Stressing about whether our movie was going to sell or not.
I have to ask everyone who was at Sundance: did you guys get sick?
Mark: Yeah. Brutally sick.
Jay: It lasted a week and a half.
Mark: It was terrible.
It was the Andromeda Strain. Everybody I talked to from that Sundance was sick.
Jay: We were actually sick during the negotiation of our deals and it was terrifying.
Mark: I was in a feverish state, trying to figure out what was going on.
Jay: This is going to determine whether or not I can buy a house next year or not.
Ross told me I should ask you guys about Choose Your Own Adventure.
Mark: It’s the nickname that Jay Deuby has given to the way we shoot. We shoot chronicalogically, knowing where we’re going. Then we hit this place and go, ‘Hmm, I could see it going this way or going this way equally. I don’t know what’s best for the movie.’ We have this rule that you’re crazy on set, so get options. So we say, okay, shoot em both. Then we start going down the path and it happens again. Then we start going back and think, ‘We should shoot another version of this, which is modified by version 2a, which is itself modified by version 1a…’
Jay: The toughest part really is that you’re inspired and you’re going off this really weird tree here but you don’t want to abandon this great tree -
Mark: This oak.
Jay: - that you’ve created.
Mark: In case you’re just crazy on the day.
Jay: In case you’re out of your mind. With Baghead it was pretty interesting because we used every furthest permutation we came up with.
How do you keep track? Do you have a chart?
Mark: It’s all mental exhaustion. Our editors help a lot.
Do you ever go back and realize that you’ve made a whole different movie than you set out to make?
Mark: We never go that far. We’re not doing that improv film where it’s like ‘Fuck, we’ve added a new character.’ We’re always headed to our climax.
The four characters seem like perfect Hollywood archetypes, and they’re just the right amount. How did you arrive at that set up?
Mark: In the initial stages I knew some friends of friends who had this dynamic, and had seen how they existed in this dynamic. As soon as I heard about it and I saw them at a bar, I was like, ‘Oh God, this is so obvious.’ It sort of laid itself out. There wasn’t any functional decision that four was the right number. It was just these four people.
Jay: Probably every scene and character in our movies come from something in real life. Mark and I get so fired up by what’s real, and we’re always getting inspired.
Mark: Why is it that when you hear a great story and then someone says, ‘And that was a true story,’ you go ‘REALLY?’ You get extra psyched.
Jay: We basically fund our movies with that shit. We know that when we’re in the woods getting our asses kicked, it’s going to take something that exciting to want to finish it out.
You guys talked about being film school nerds, and being genre fans. What genres would you like to tackle next?
Mark: We love them all, man. We loved what Big Lebowski did – let’s have a Phillip Marlowe story, but with this feeling -
Jay: Have it be about a dude who doesn’t do anything.
Mark: Who can’t get it done. The detective genre for us is really, really exciting. It usually has to do with a death, but for us it might have to do with someone has to detect who might have kissed their girlfriend last month or something.
Jay: I want to make a David Lynch movie with a bunch of idiots in it.
Mark: For us it’s about taking these big genres and boiling them down to the epicly small. For us finding a grandiose, big story is all about mining the tiniest things possible and from there allowing the extrapolation to be what’s big. We just love the little details.
You bring up Lebowski. You talk about having characters who are idiots. You’re brothers who direct. With the Coen Brothers sometimes you can feel how much they don’t like their characters, how they’re making fun of them. But in Baghead these are characters these are characters you could be laughing at, they’re these self-deluding fools, but you love them. How important is it that you love these characters.
Jay: Thank God you feel that way.
Mark: I think we probably wouldn’t make a movie if we didn’t love [the characters].
Jay: It’s a concern of ours, and we’re glad that’s generally people’s read on it. We just hope that because we love them so much it will come out in the movie.
Mark: We don’t want that objective, ‘look how funny these people are’ and we trash them.
Jay: It’s almost like the more pathetic they get, the more we love them.
How do you get those characters? Do you do rehearsals or do you just get everybody in the cabin and start shooting.
Mark: We don’t do rehearsals. We basically get everybody together, try some clothes on and in a day or two we’re shooting pretty quickly. That being said, we often end reshooting the first scene of our movie. We’ve actually reshot the first scenes of all our movies. We’re starting to rethink that process because we’re not quite warmed up on day one and we lose some stuff. It can also be the bad form of spontaneity instead of the good kind. We’ll have to adjust – maybe some more hang out time, or maybe we’ll shoot some bullshit, fake throwaway scene to get that out of the way and then shoot the first scene.
What did you guys just finish shooting?
Mark: The Do-Deca-Pentathalon. It’s a movie about overly competitive brothers who set up their own personal 25 event Olympics, and it’s a true story. It’s not based on us. And it’s kind of our take on the sports movie genre.
What’s going to happen with that?
Mark: We’re going to sell it for 25 million dollars and blow up.
Ballast was part of your Sundance class, and that was a film that was sold to IFC but then the director took it back and is now distributing it himself. Would you guys ever do something like that?
Mark: If the deals were so bad -
Jay: If no one was interested -
Mark: – but this whole Sony Classics thing is awesome! It’s really cool.