Directing on a Dime: The (Budgetary) Highs and Lows of the Duplass Brothers

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This is an interesting week to be the Duplass brothers. Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jay and Mark’s biggest film to date, is hitting theaters in wide release today, less than a week after they had another new movie premiere at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival. Though, to be fair, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon isn’t exactly “new.” A tale of two brothers (played by Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis) reviving a competition they invented when they were kids, shooting on Do-Deca—which premieres on VOD on June 26th and hits theaters July 6th—wrapped four years ago, before they began work on their first studio film, 2010’s Cyrus. With no new projects currently in the works, Do-Deca looks to be the brothers’ last Mumblecore film, at least for now. As a long-time fan of their films, taking a look at Jeff and Do-Deca back-to-back makes me wonder: How much has changed for the duo, how much remains the same and what’s in store for them in the future? I sat down with them at SXSW to ask just that.

Andy Young (MM): How does it feel to have your biggest film and one of your smallest both play in the same week?

Mark Duplass (MD): It’s kind of emotional for me. We were kind of in a hurry to finish Do-Deca for SXSW, and then it was like “BAM!” I’m in a seat watching it with the cast and crew. It brought back all these memories of the way we used to make movies before we did any studio films: Running around with our best friends like idiots and figuring it all out in the process. That’s not to say we haven’t enjoyed making our studio films, but it was very strange to be thinking of Jeff, our biggest movie yet, coming out this week and then Do-Deca, which in some ways is one of our smallest, also getting released.

MM: So Do-Deca was shot before Cyrus, but after Baghead (2008). Why did it take so long to come out?

Jay Duplass (JD): Well, it takes a long time to edit one of our movies, because we use so much improvisation. Basically, right when we finished shooting Do-Deca we started editing, and Fox Searchlight became very happy with our script for Cyrus and gave us the green light to do it, which our cast and crew was really excited about because we took them with us into the studio system.

MD: And right when Cyrus came out, we got greenlit for Jeff. We all got into unions and moved up together, which for all of us was a big deal, but it also meant they had to wait to see Do-Deca.

JD: Once we finished Jeff, we literally started hammering on Do-Deca just to make sure we could get it done in time for SXSW.

MM: I want to talk about the cinematography of your movies. You guys have definitely crafted an aesthetic throughout all of your films, largely incorporating handheld cameras and zooming. Why do you do this in your films, and how do you go about directing your cinematographer and camera operators to capture these moments you’re looking for in the frame?

JD: It all starts from [our] love of truthfulness in performance, the influence of documentaries and the style of cinéma vérité. We’re obsessed with documentaries, and our whole set is geared toward letting the actors come into a room and have a real moment with each other without cutting or redirecting. That means we have to light the whole set and bring the apparatus of the camera to the actor—

MD: With a big-ass zoom lens. (laughs)

JD: —so that when something happens, we get it. So all of that is me and the other camera operators reacting to what we see in the moment. And when someone has a big moment, we can get that close up.

MD: I’ve worked on sets as an actor where we do the master and the actor is having their big, emotional breakdown across from me and afterwards the director goes, “Great, now let’s relight for 45 minutes and we’ll get the close-up!” And they missed that moment! Jay’s our main camera operator on all of our movies, and it’s good having a director in there because, for us, the zoom means we’ll never miss that moment.

JD: We’re obsessed with that extra level of truthfulness in reality, and we feel like we know when someone is having a real moment as opposed to when they’re just recreating one. It’s something we feel, and audiences can feel it, too. I think that’s what’s special about our films: When someone has a breakdown, it’s real and you feel it. We want the actors and the audience to feel that this isn’t a safe, locked-down situation, because anything could happen.

MM: What is it like to return to editing for a movie you made four years ago?

MD: The first reaction was, ‘Oh, this movie’s in much better shape than we thought it was,’ and then a week later we were like, ‘Oh, we have a lot of work to do….’ We had two editors on Do-Deca: Jay Deuby, who always works with us, and… Nat Sanders, who did Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister. We all tag-teamed it together. I can’t say for sure if the movie would be significantly different had we edited it four years ago as opposed to now, but I’m sure we’ve grown as filmmakers, which would affect the cut.

MM: Do you think Do-Deca would have been a different movie if it had been your Cyrus, where you got a big budget and big stars?

MD: Yeah, because the bones of the movie were very broad. If that had been our first studio project, I think it would have gotten away from us.

MM: The movie is about a competition between two brothers, and it’s based on a real competition between two brothers who lived across the street from you while you were growing up. During the writing process, did you draw on them or on your own relationship at all?

JD: The energy those two brothers had was definitely the seed of it. Mark and I have this “soup” of ideas that we constantly discuss: Things that could happen to people, potential guidelines… but I would say, when we’re creating [the] story, we’re not that attached to real things that have happened to us. We write better when they have, and we can always use our own experiences, but what’s very important is the tone and the energy of it. In this case, two brothers love each other but need to beat the crap out of each other for reasons they don’t understand, and it’s the only way they can express their affection for each other.

MM: I was going to ask what your next project is going to be, but a better question would probably be what relationship do you want to tackle next?

MD: We’ve been able to make a movie a year for five or six years now, and we’ve kind of burned through those, so I think it’s time for us to incubate and write some more stuff. We have this Microsoft Word document that has 80 different movie ideas with different scopes and sizes, and each is based on whatever we think is right for the DNA of the script. I don’t know what’s gonna come out of us next at this point, honestly.

MM: Since you shot Do-Deca, you’ve made two studio films together, and you’ve also each had children, families and projects separate from each other. How has that growth affected your working relationship and/or the stories you want to tell together?

MD: Specifically applying to Do-Deca, it was a much more freeing process, because we didn’t feel like the success of our careers hinged on its performance: We just thought, ‘Let’s make the best piece of art we can and go from there.’ But in terms of globally and our relationship, our taste levels have remained the same, and they never waver. And that’s a truly fantastic thing. But our personal styles have definitely differed over time: I have a huge work appetite, and Jay is more interested in a more balanced life. Maybe that’ll make it into a movie at some point…

JD: But it’s interesting when you ask us that question, because it’s hard for me to objectively say what’s changed and what’s the same. Our whole process is about de-intellectualization and trying not to over-think what we’re doing and where we’re going; we just know when something is right to do, it just clicks, and that’s from when we have an idea to when a take happens on set and lightning strikes. It becomes very clear to us. It’s newness, something we haven’t heard or seen before, and it’s kind of unavoidable because we don’t know what it’ll be until it happens.

Jeff Who Lives at Home, starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon, is out in theaters today, March 16th. The Do-Deca Pentathlon is set for a June 2012 release by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Red Flag Releasing.

Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer who lives in Austin, Texas and studies in the University of Texas at Austin’s film program. At the age of twenty, he has directed over 150 short films and one feature, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy also has experience directing for theatre, television and animation, and he continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.

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