Along with his older brother, Jay, Mark Duplass has carved out a varied career largely on his own terms, parlaying the indie success of “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead” into “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” two higher-profile yet still idiosyncratic comedies. This year les frères Duplass will be out in force, showcasing the full array of their talents as writers, directors and, in Mark’s case, as an actor. His latest film is Lawrence Kasdan’s “Darling Companion,” in which he plays a buttoned-up doctor named Bryan who, while helping his family search for a missing dog, develops a crush for an exotic, quirky housesitter, Carmen (Ayelet Zurer). Recently, on the eve of he and his wife, Katie Aselton, having their second child, ShockYa’s Brent Simon had the chance to speak to the younger Duplass one-on-one, about “Darling Companion,” sibling relationships, his packed summer schedule, and his thoughts on that “mumblecore” tag. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Ex-NBA coach Pat Riley actually trademarked the phrase “three-peat,” and he’s gone on to reap boatloads of cash from its use in merchandising. “Mumblecore” is a phrase often associated with you and your brother. First, how do you feel about it, and second, did you ever have any thoughts of trademarking it and reaping the lucrative, lucrative profits that surely would have followed?
Mark Duplass: (laughs) No, because we didn’t come up with it.
ShockYa: But Riley didn’t come up with the term “three-peat,” either!
MD: Well, the way I feel about mumblecore (as a term) is that it’s certainly outlived its welcome or usefulness, because I think there was a moment in 2005 when it was being used to define the new wave of micro-budget filmmaking that was a result of and accompanying this new wave of digital technology. These cameras came out that allowed us to make good-looking, functional films for $5,000 to $10,000. But after that it just became synonymous with micro-budget, and to me that doesn’t really do anything. I think the key to remember is that with Dogma 95, these [filmmakers] came up with that, curated it for themselves, and called themselves Dogma 95. Mumblecore was a press term that was applied to us. I feel like if anything I’m a plot whore — I love plot and story, and mumblecore seems to [now be associated with] people aimlessly talking, which I don’t think my movies do. They in fact very rigidly adhere to three-act screenplay structure.
ShockYa: So was there a period of resentment about label then?
MD: Not so much resentment, no. In 2005 it was great because the “New York Times” was writing articles about $10,000 movies, and that was great. For now, I don’t think that “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” has anything to do with mumblecore, and I would be bummed if someone stayed home instead of going to see the movie because they were like, “What’s mumblecore — that sounds kind of pretentious and elitist, and that doesn’t feel like me, so I’m not going to go see that movie.” It feels a little exclusionary.
ShockYa: Your next film that you and Jay directed, “The Do-Deca Pentathlon,” filmed before “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” and even “Cyrus,” but is finally being released this summer. What’s it like finally getting that out there?
MD: It’s great, man. It feels almost like the third in an unofficial trilogy from our first movie, “The Puffy Chair,” to “Baghead” and now “Do-Deca.” It represented a time for us when we didn’t think about whether a cast would draw an audience, we didn’t think about shit. We just went out with the most talented people we knew, and we made a movie. I look at it now and I don’t know how the fuck we made this film, because it’s like a $50 million broad comedy made for under $100,000. If you look at the DNA of the movie, it’s all these big sporting set pieces, and we just cobbled it together with our friends. It was a Herculean effort in a lot of ways. But I’m really proud of it because I’ve never really seen a movie quite like it. It’s low-fi, micro-budget broad comedy, in a way.
ShockYa: And is it really based on these two insanely competitive brothers that you knew, from down your street? And did you have any sense of that competitiveness with your brother, or did you observe their relationship refracted, and as this curious thing?
MD: It’s true, and based on those real guys. Jay and I aren’t that competitive, and I think that’s partially because there’s four years between us, which is a nice healthy age (difference). I accepted him early on as my leader. I didn’t try to buck him, you know what I’m saying? It makes a difference. If we were two years apart I think we would have beat the living shit out of each other. But every now and then, you get two or three beers in us and a ping pong table and some people come out that are not too savory.
ShockYa: And so who’s the reigning champion?
MD: It’s hard to say, cumulatively, over the years, because we haven’t played in a while, actually. I had a period where I was definitely up on Jay for a while, but I don’t know what would happen now, I’ll be honest. We both now have children, so everything changes.
ShockYa: How did your first films evolve, and why do you think you’ve starred in them, and acted in other movies, while Jay hasn’t? Did you have a natural performance instinct from a young age that was just not present in Jay?
MD: I think it was a functional thing that started when we were six and 10, because our dad bought a video camera and Jay was the only one strong/smart enough to operate it.
ShockYa: So he was bossing you around and filming you?
MD: That’s really it, and I think that dynamic just stuck. I really believe that, to a certain degree. Jay has never been in front of the camera strictly because he’s always behind the camera.
ShockYa: There’s a free-range, ambling feeling to “Darling Companion.” What sort of conversations did you have with Lawrence about the script and its thematic content, if any, before shooting?
MD: My first conversation with Lawrence and Meg (Kasdan’s wife and co-writer) was about manhood and how it’s represented in cinema these days. Very specifically, Bryan is a different kind of man — he’s not a man because he’s sensitive and aware of his feelings, Bryan is kind of a 1970s or ’80s man, where he’s like, “I’m going to be a fucking surgeon, line up my mortgage, get the right wife and be set.” And that was cool, because I’m a very self-aware, therapy-type of person. I’ve read my New Age books, and I kn0w all my feelings, and Bryan is very distinctly not in touch with those things at the front of this movie. I think Lawrence was curious if I could play that, and concerned quite frankly. So we had a great talk, did some reads and he was happy with what I did. But we got off on a good foot, so that I would play someone who was a little different than me personally.
ShockYa: What do you think is the nature of Bryan’s attraction to Carmen?
MD: I think Bryan has set a course for his life, and feels like a lot of us, to a certain degree, that if he just stays on this path, at least it won’t be disastrous. It might not be great, but he doesn’t think [life will] be miserable. And then this meteorite comes into his path and blows the whole thing up, and that’s Carmen. She doesn’t have her feet on the ground, and he’s not only sexually attracted to her, but I think he sees that there’s another way of seeing the world. And that knocks him out of his boots, I think.
ShockYa: You’ve been quite busy —
MD: (interrupting) Yes, shooting “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” last year, then Jay and I edited that, then I flew straight out and shot “Darling Companion,” then went and shot “Your Sister’s Sister” right after that, had the holidays, and then went into “Safety Not Guaranteed” (which also comes out this summer) after that. It was definitely a busy year last year, and into 2012.
ShockYa: Is that pace by design, or more just a matter of opportunity?
MD: No, what it is is a machine that I’ve built since I was 22 years old, which is based on the belief that nothing will come to me unless I generate it. I’ve just always believed that, it’s kind of in my DNA. I created the story and was an exec producer on “Your Sister’s Sister,” and I produced “Safety Not Guaranteed” and was in it, and (FX sitcom) “The League” was a direct result of coming out of them seeing me in “The Puffy Chair.” I used to just fill up my life with what I generated, and I’m kind of getting to the point where now other opportunities are coming in too, so I have to figure out how to balance those two — whether that means I generate less and accept more, or if I’m going to have to block out some of those opportunities. But I can’t take everything or my schedule will be too full to be a normal human being. So I’m in the process of figuring it out.
ShockYa: A couple years ago there were a couple op-ed pieces and a big cinematic conversation about the beta male in films, schlubby characters up in their own heads, and/or less assertive than a lot of film protagonists. Do you feel there’s any overlap with your movies?
MD: I tend to believe that a lot of my characters are wolves in sheep’s clothing. I think if you take Josh from “The Puffy Chair,” that’s a good example — he looks like a slacker who was in bands and is now trying to book them and doesn’t know what he’s doing, but that’s actually a really type-A, driven and frustrated person who does that. So I think that the long and the short of it is while sometimes the people in my movies wear hoodies they often [have] a darker, deep, desperate quality to them that’s different from your average man-child or beta male.
ShockYa: Hoodies, of course, now can’t be rehabilitated, according to Geraldo Rivera.
MD: Absolutely. (laughs) It’s tough.
ShockYa: “Darling Companion” is Lawrence Kasdan’s 11th film as a director, but his first independent production. Did he mention or fret about that, and making his schedule?
MD: We made a joke about it early on, that I might be the only person who’s made a movie of this budget size recently. And the truth of the matter is that the producer, Anthony Bregman, knows this sphere quite well, so they really didn’t need me. But there were a couple of moments where I remember being in the car and the expensive camera rigs came out and the sun was going down, and I was feeling like we’re not going to get this shot and I maybe whispered a recommendation of, “Why don’t we shoot it this way, which I’ve done before?” I felt like, “Oh, I can be a bit useful here!” But by and large it was me learning from them rather than the other way around.
ShockYa: How would you describe his directing style?
MD: I think Larry has the ability to imagine the movie in his head, I think it played in a 100-minute loop in his head before he even shot it. I know some directors who have that, and I am very much not like that. It’s a process of discovery for me. But he’s there to exact a vision, and it makes you want to please him — or at least it did for me. It makes me want to give him what he wants rather than put the onus on myself to discover something interesting. For better or for worse, it made me trust him.
ShockYa: Going back and forth, as an actor and then the director or creator of so many projects, is that transition difficult at all?
MD: No, I had my first real taste of it on “Greenberg,” with Noah Baumbach. Like, that dude knows what he wants — doing his words, and the poetry of his words. I thought I was going to struggle more with it, and I think he was nervous. And Larry talked about it too, because I’m known as an improvisational actor in a lot of ways. So I thought, “Can I read scripted words and make them sound good?” It worked out great, though, and I’d honestly like to do more of it.
ShockYa: You’ve talked about the journey itself being the experience in the movies your brother and you direct. Part of this thesis is perhaps screwed up by the release order of some of these films, but [as you expand your circle of collaborators and work with more actors] what sort of things are you looking for in assuring the right fit? I think improvisation is a word much bandied about — and probably misused and misunderstood, since you’re not looking for the funniest people, per se — but what traits or characteristics are you most looking for, really?
MD: I’m looking for students of the human condition, and people that love people and who see the funny in things that are inherently dramatic. I’m looking for people who are excited by exploration, and not scared by it. And I’m looking for people who aren’t afraid to admit that they might not know what’s best — that’s really the key, you know? I know I’m headed down the path of a bad movie when my director keeps saying, “We got it, we got it, this is perfect!” And everybody else knows (otherwise), and goes, “Is that really right?” When someone comes to me and says, “I don’t know how to do this, I’m worried I’m fucking this up,” I’m like (claps loudly), “That’s my compatriot there!” And usually that makes itself clear within the first five minutes of a meeting, because honestly we’re lucky enough now that we’ve made five movies and people can see them and see what we do. And [if] they’re really attracted to the material then 99 percent of the time they’re going to be capable of doing it.
ShockYa: As far as the collaborative process with Jay, how do you find yourselves coming up with and honing stories?
MD: It’s usually a character, how things start, and then grow from there. We heavily story together; before the script-writing process we’ve got all the beats down. I do the bulk of the early writing, just in terms of getting it out, and Jay works a lot with quality control. We make a joke that I’m the bull and he’s the brakes. I think left to my own devices I would make twelve mediocre movies a year and left to his own devices Jay would make almost one masterpiece in his lifetime, but he wouldn’t finish it. (laughs) So somewhere in the middle we’re a nice balance for one another.
ShockYa: You’ll be back to shooting “The League” this summer, but what else is on tap?
MD: Some things I’m writing on spec, for Jay and I. We’re doing a lot of adaptations and re-write work, and we’ve really enjoyed almost having this other career as writers in the studio system. That’s been very fun.
ShockYa: I imagine that’s lucrative, and also nice, in that you’re free of a certain set of responsibilities, but how [easy is it] slipping into another voice?
MD: It’s great, I love it! Because like I said, I’m a story whore and a very well-studied, three-act structure writing person. I’ve always been that way, and Jay’s the same way. When everybody’s testing movies they bring in me and Jay, because we’re worked as editors for years, we’ve worked as writers and we’ve become known as, like, fixers. People started calling us and saying, “You’re very good in the edit room, would you want to come in earlier in the process and save us some money?” We didn’t think that would be us, but we’re like, “Yeah!” It’s great, man. It takes the pressure off of making big salaries as a director. We like making our movies modestly, so that [everyone] can make their money back. And then we pay our mortgages with this stuff and have a shit ton of fun doing it.
Written by: Brent Simon