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Exclusive: Mark Duplass Talks Your Sister’s Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed, Jean Shorts

The Chinese calendar may state otherwise, but 2012 is most assuredly the year of Mark Duplass. After all, the multi-hyphenate extraordinaire has four films in theaters as an actor and two others, “Kevin, Who Lives at Home” and “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” which he co-wrote and directed with his older brother, Jay. In director Colin Trevorrow’s Sundance Award-winning “Safety Not Guaranteed,” Duplass stars as Kenneth, a troubled guy who, convinced he can travel through time, is looking for a partner to go back with him. In Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister,” he’s a damaged guy, still grieving the loss of a brother from one earlier, who gets caught in between his longtime friend (Emily Blunt) and her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt). For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to sit down with Duplass one-on-one recently, and chat about those delightful films, the differences in his working relationships with each of the two directors, the perils of bicycle-smashing and… jean shorts. The conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: When we last spoke, for “Darling Companion,” you were on the eve of having your second child (which wife Katie Aselton has since delivered). Between that, and the beddings that your small role in “People Like Us,” which I recently saw, and “Your Sister’s Sister” provide, your virility is in full bloom, it seems.

Mark Duplass: I like this, I like this! Yes. My manhood has now arrived.

ShockYa: Somewhere there’s an astrological chart that shows this as a time of ascendancy for you. So for “Safety Not Guaranteed” you came on as a producer [but actually] ended up being cast in the lead role of Kenneth. You’re a producer on “Your Sister’s Sister” as well. What were the similarities or differences in [producing] duties on the two films?

MD: That’s a good question. Lynn and I previously made “Humpday” together, so our collaboration was pretty firmly in place, in terms of how we worked together. And I think my biggest contribution to a movie like “Your Sister’s Sister” is in the form of getting the story straight, and then as an actor improvising with the other actors and making sure that story stays on track. I’m kind of the ringleader of the actors, because I’m one of the filmmaker team, a little bit. In the case of “Safety Not Guaranteed,” Colin hadn’t made a feature film before, so I was a little bit more involved in setting up the infrastructure of the film, and making sure that all the elements were correct — enough time for the actors to give their performances, and these kinds of things. But, in that case, the script was perfect going into it, and they didn’t need me at all for story consultation. So when I was on set I was much more of a pure actor, and not guiding the story like I do in Lynn’s movies.

ShockYa: You, Rosemarie, Emily and even (costar) Mike Birbiglia all have the additional credit of “creative consultant” on “Your Sister’s Sister.” What does that entail?

MD: That’s basically because there’s no traditional script and we’re making up all the dialogue as we go, it’s all improvised. So I think Lynn and the production team all felt like there should be a credit for that contribution.

ShockYa: Something like “G.I. Joe” might not quote-unquote have a script before shooting begins, and yet the result is markedly different. …Even though it’s not a traditional, polished screenplay, what do you have and what does it look like when you start shooting with Lynn?

MD: On “Humpday” we had a 15-page outline, and in the case of “Your Sister’s Sister” there was a shorter outline. And then by the time we started shooting Lynn had made a 70-page treatment that had some dialogue suggestions and also the basic structures of all the scenes. That said, that stuff changes on set a little bit. So every day after shooting we’re saying, “Oh, you know what? It would be so much better if she apologized instead of him in this scene. And let’s take this scene and put it on the beach, because that will be better.” So there is always morphing and changing as you go, and at the end of the day you have to be on your feet as an actor because you never know what’s going to come at you, and it’s all about keeping one half of your brain inhabiting your character and listening well, and the other half guiding the narrative and story itself.

ShockYa: When we spoke for “Darling Companion,” you talked about the type of actors you look for in the films you do with your brother, and very much wanting people who would embrace —

MD: Yes, the cliff-jumping.

ShockYa: Right. Emily and Rosemarie fit so well here. What was the casting process like, and had they done anything like this before?

MD: Emily’s first movie is this incredible film called “My Summer of Love,” from 2004 I think. That movie is improvised, but she hasn’t done a lot since then, and Rose had very little experience improvising. But they had both seen “Humpday” and understood the quality we were going for, so it wasn’t like there was a big education in getting them up to speed. In terms of my opinion, just what I believe, once [actors] understand the type of film we’re doing — what it looks like, what it feels like — it’s really all about having the desire to do that jump off of a cliff. If they’re excited by the exploration and the fact that there will be failures as well as successes, then they’ll be great at it. If they’re annoyed by it, then it’s going to be rough.

ShockYa: When you say failures as well as successes, are those things that, owing to the experience and collaboration that you and Lynn have, you can identify pretty readily on set?

MD: Yes, we’re getting better and better at identifying the failures. Some are very obvious. And usually the failures come when you’re improvising and trying to create a seamless transition into the next beat of the scene. And you’ll see somebody say, “Speaking of coffee, which is brown, that brown couch over there is…” [laughs] When you hear that, you know that you have to figure something else out. But I would say that in general that the more we do this, the better we’re getting at ferreting out those problems and solving them up front so we don’t leave it all on the editor.

ShockYa: I don’t know if this is too pat a packaging, but is “Your Sister’s Sister” in your opinion a companion piece to “Humpday”?

MD: I think it is, in a way. Structurally speaking, they’re very similar — they’re movies designed to be made cheaply, with only a few central characters and a few locations. They can be shot quickly. And they’re somewhat comedically dramatic. So there are a lot of similarities there. In terms of the themes and the things being explored I think they’re very different, in that “Humpday” is this crazy, high-concept film, examining the lark of what happens if two straight guys decide to sleep together, and watching that intellectual concept play out. There’s no concept to “Your Sister’s Sister,” it’s just an odd love triangle film with these two sisters and this kind of fucked-up guy. And so we had much less to lean on, and it was going to live and die by the performances. In that way, it’s much more of a true acting chamber piece where we were really trying to make sure that, as screwed up as these people are, you could still love them the way we do.

ShockYa: It occurred to me that ["Your Sister’s Sister”] could have veered off into the grey area of the sliding scale of female sexuality. Part of “Humpday,” to whatever degree you assign it sexual or sociological underpinnings, veers off and sort of by and large disproves that flexibility in guys. That was never really in play for (the narrative of “Your Sister’s Sister,” was it)?

MD: Yeah, the politics of this film are much less than they were in “Humpday.” There are no statement being made about the nature of sexuality, there are only statements being made about these three people and their specific journeys.

ShockYa: Kenneth and Jack are very different characters, but each are hung up by shattering events in their pasts. [H[How closely]id you shoot the films, and did you assign or ponder any similarities between them in your mind?

MD: We shot “Your Sister’s Sister” in October of 2010, and “Safety Not Guaranteed” in May, 2011. I felt like these characters, even though they both wear jean jackets, are very, very different. [l[laughs]ecause one of the jean jackets has fuzz on the inside. No. [l[laughs] think that Jack was once very confident and had his shit together and the death of his brother completely derailed him. So he’s trying to rise up from that and get back on track. I don’t think Kenneth, from “Safety Not Guaranteed,” was ever on track. I think he always had a hard time and has always been on the fringes. His journey is about being loved for who he his, whereas Jack’s journey is about trying to get back to stability.

ShockYa: So, some would characterize these questions as stupid or silly, but I prefer to think of them as exhibiting levity.

MD: Brilliant!

ShockYa: [["Your Sister’s Sister” features a scene with]luten-free and/or soy-free pancakes — have you ever had those before?

MD: You know, I haven’t had those before, and I have to be honest with you, I was having to act the disgust in there, because first of all I will fucking eat anything, and second of all they weren’t that bad. You put syrup on anything, and I can and will eat it.

ShockYa: You touched on the jean jackets, but “Your Sister’s Sister” also delves into skinny jeans and jean shorts, one of which offends me greatly. If someone puts a gun to your head, which are you choosing?

MD: I will put it this way, in full honesty — the feeling of me swimming in jean shorts makes me feel like Don Henley in 1983, and that’s everything I’m going for in my life. It makes me feel timeless, it makes me feel like Boz Scaggs, floating in a raft in Laurel Canyon. So that sense memory brings me straight to the jean shorts. The skinny jeans are really not even an option for me at this point in my career, because I look so terrible in them that I believe the words would be “aging rock star.” So that’s a no-brainer, I’ll stick with the shorts.

ShockYa: And were these particular jean shorts a product of some unfortunate accident?

MD: I’ll borrow the words of Nick Kroll, my co-star on “The League,” because I wore them to set one day since, yes, those are really my jean shorts. I’d lost some weight, and they were old jeans, so when I cut them I accidentally cut them too short. When he saw them he just looked at me and said, “Okay, so they’re too short and they’re loose in the waist — could there be a worse combination of jean short elements?” And he’s absolutely right, but for some reason love is not a rational thing, and when you fall in love with a pair of shorts there’s nothing you can do. Those jean shorts are a lot like Jack himself — there’s no reason you should love Jack, but for some reason…

ShockYa: And what does your wife, Katie, think of the jean shorts?

MD: She does not like me to wear them in the pool if company is over. But she will put up with them if it’s just the family. It’s my superhero outfit that she allows me to wear in the home, but not outside.

ShockYa: Finally, you get to cathartically destroy a bike in “Your Sister’s Sister.” Was that more fun or awkward, given its size?

MD: There was only one of those bikes on the movie, so we had to shoot that at the right moment in time. There were not two. It was purchased for the film for, I believe, $15, and I almost broke my foot kicking that bike. I was not experienced in bike-crushing, and it got one nice bit on my right foot, actually. But I got over it in a couple weeks.

Written by: Brent Simon

Mark Duplass

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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