Selling Out with Soul: Career Advice from Mark Duplass

Festival hits The One I Love and Creep, FX’s The League, box-office hit Tammy, a new HBO show, Togetherness—that’s just some of the work Mark Duplass is serving up this year.

From the moment Duplass appeared on the scene alongside his brother, Jay, in 2005’s The Puffy Chair, to his turn in Zero Dark Thirty, the actor-director-writer-producer has juggled genres and budget levels with startling ease. Duplass’ ubiquity is made more remarkable by his creative integrity and commitment to cultivating a community of younger artists.

As The One I Love (directed by Charlie McDowell and starring Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) opens this weekend, we asked Duplass to explain how he built the castle in his “corner of the sandbox.” (This interview appears in our upcoming Complete Guide to Making Movies 2015 issue, on newsstands September 9, 2014.)

Copy of Mark Duplass

Duplass attends the premiere of 2014’s Tammy. Courtesy of Shutterstock.

Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Describe your current position in the moviemaking universe.

Mark Duplass (MD): I have one foot inside the studio system and one foot outside of it. I’ve been really lucky to be able to work as an actor on a show like The League, that essentially funds my independent filmmaking career. It’s what I loved about Cassavetes—that he would go act in movies and take the money and go make his movies. That’s part of what I’m doing with Tammy and The League. It also raises my profile, so when I go make a little independent film like The One I Love, it brings more awareness to that movie. There’s a synergy between the studio stuff and the independent stuff and in an ideal world, they work together in a very healthy way.

MM: You consciously think about that as a career model?

MD: One hundred percent. These days, I reverse-engineer movies: “What is a way that this movie can be made with zero pressure on it and with zero waiting involved?” I build a film from the materials available to me, and I fit it into the right budget space, so it’s bulletproof. The One I Love was designed to be done cheaply and quickly. It stars myself and Elisabeth Moss, so there’s a certain profile to it. We were always gonna make our money back. I never extend myself or my investors financially; I’m proud to say I’ve never lost anybody any money. Cyrus,which is the most mainstream film I’ve made, was a safe bet at a $6 million budget because it had enough movie stars in it.

Being sustainable is creating content at a scope that is not going to fail. That’s how you keep yourself from getting your heart broken. “Oh my god, my $10 million movie didn’t make money.” Maybe you shouldn’t be making movies without movie stars for $10 million. Maybe you should be doing stuff more responsibly. I really am pushing that more with my friends and my community.

MM: So you’re on your financial game from the get-go.

MD: Jay and I have become mentors to a lot of young filmmakers, who come to me saying, “I’ve been in development for six years, I’ve fallen out of financing 10 times, my cast has fallen out 12 times…” To directors like Charlie McDowell with The One I Love or Colin Trevorrow with Safety Not Guaranteed, I say, “Let me produce your movie. You’re not gonna make any money up front. I’ll get you only the bare materials you need to make it. But you’ll come out with good reviews, make a little bit of money on this—and I guarantee the next movie you make will get you paid.”

That can inspire creativity. In the case of The One I Love, I knew what Charlie was good at; I knew what I was good at. We started putting together a storyline that fit for me, Elisabeth Moss, and Ted Danson, Charlie’s stepfather. We found a location we had access to and a limited amount of money that I could bring to the project, and those were our limits. We built the movie to exist inside of that.

The One I Love 2

Director/unofficial Duplass mentee Charlie McDowell discusses a scene from The One I Love with Duplass and Moss

I take issue with independent moviemakers who complain about how the industry has changed, and how it’s so hard to get your movie greenlit, and how nobody wants to make important movies anymore. I don’t disagree with any of those things, but let’s stop complaining, people. Yeah, they’re not giving us a few hundred thousand dollars anymore to write and direct indie movies at Fox Searchlight. I get it. That time is over. But we have something else going on here that is amazing. You can make an epic movie with 25 effect shots and gorgeous cinematography for under $30,000 if you’re careful now. The 25-year-old kid who’s got a camera and a $10,000 movie has to wade through a sea of many more of those movies, but technology is so good. The Puffy Chair looks and sounds like shit!

MM: Do you see yourself taking bigger monetary risks as your career progresses?

MD: Absolutely. My financial advisers think I’m fucking crazy, and they constantly yell at me to diversify. But I don’t care. My movies are risky but who’s to say that independent film can’t be profitable? Even films like The Puffy Chair, Baghead and The Do-Deca-Pentathlon have been profitable. We make no salaries on them and trade favors and borrow cameras from each other. Everyone who works on the movie, from a movie star like Kate Bosworth in Black Rock, to a PA, gets a piece of the movie. My movies are like co-ops where the 10 to 25 people who work on them all have a piece.

I’m looking more and more to take financial responsibility. The more you have control of that, the less you have that depressing wasteland of development which every independent filmmaker hates and fears. From the moment I met Charlie McDowell, we were on location shooting within four months.

Jay and I do rewrite work on big Hollywood movies, so like Robin Hood, we pilfer from that and put that into independent filmmaking. We’re becoming a weird bastardized version of a studio. United Artists, in the ’70s, would bring in these young filmmakers and make their movies cheaply. Young filmmakers bring us ideas, and we cultivate them and help bring a cast to them. We try to put as much of the money to the table as we have available; sometimes we can do the whole thing, sometimes we bring in some other people.

MM: What conditions need to be in place when you take on a bigger studio project?

MD: I don’t haggle with big movies too much on money. I say, “Can you schedule me in and out quickly?” That way I can go home to see my kids and get back to my other projects. Creatively speaking, it has to be something that I feel like I’m gonna be good at. Sometimes it’s about looking at your career from a 30,000 foot view for a second and saying, “What does my career need at the moment?” Once my face gets to the place where it has enough foreign value… I’m already at the point where if I show up in a movie at Sundance, people wanna buy that movie. All that stuff puts a little more control in your pocket. I become my own studio.

MM: I love that you are entirely upfront about “selling out,” so to speak.

MD: I’ll take that as a compliment. I’m not doing Two and a Half Men; it’s fun to be on The League with my friends. This business of ours is very tricky. I call it a business, and sometimes independent filmmakers are like, “Aren’t we making art?” But having a healthy sense of this thing as a business is a key to longevity. There’s definitely an element of doing certain jobs to make money, to fund the little empire I’m growing in my corner of the sandbox. Three months a year, I go work on The League and with that money I go out and make three or four pieces of art and I mentor new filmmakers with that.

I know a lot of independent filmmakers who are like, “I’m gonna try to get as much fucking money as I can when I sell my movie!” It’s a bit of an “us versus them” mentality. But we’re in this ecosystem together. I’m friends with all of the distributors. I’m like, “Hey, you, come buy my movie, give me the money I’ve spent to make it and then let’s split the profits together. If it’s a huge success, we all win together; if it fails you won’t be in debt next year, when I need you to buy another movie.”

MM: What about younger moviemakers who aren’t at that position yet?

MD: It took me five years to make a decent movie. You should be making a five-minute movie every weekend until that five-minute movie is good, and sometimes it takes you 10 times, sometimes it takes you 20 times. And those movies should be free; you should be shooting in your apartments or at parks. Once you make the first one that’s good, try to get it into film festivals and write a feature that feels just like that. When you show up at your first film festival and you have that feature written, you’re on your way.

If you don’t get into festivals, your film’s probably not very good, so try again. If you did but you haven’t gotten anybody to purchase your movie, great—get a deal with Fandor or FilmBuff or Vimeo. Get your movie out there as much as you can and use your reviews to go make your next movie. I recommend that you get your first pay window on Netflix, because they have 50 million subscribers. The eyeballs you get there are so worthwhile. Sometimes your distributors are like, “I can make an extra $50,000 if I sell it to the Epix channel,” but nobody’s watching Epix. Don’t do that. Netflix made my career when The Puffy Chair started streaming there.

A still from 2005’s The Puffy Chair

MM: Is your level of output realistic for everyone? The DIY philosophy can be exhausting.

MD: The bigger your community is, the better chance you have of living longer and healthier inside of the independent filmmaking system. Cut to 2021, one of the filmmakers that I’m quote-unquote mentoring right now could very well be helping me out.

MM: It’s a pass-it-on kind of thing.

MD: They know things about the newer cameras that I don’t know about. It’s mutually beneficial. A little stable of people helps to buoy you as you move forward.

MM: Has social media allowed you to brand yourself and your output toward fans and collaborators?

MD: Twitter has done two things. One, I can reach my fanbase personally and drive them to projects, but two, I’m in a position where a distributor knows that I have a bunch of followers, which drives up the value of each of my projects. You can’t just promote-promote-promote on Twitter. My general rule is you should have 99 regular tweets for every promotional tweet. Don’t take advantage of your followers.

MM: What do you look for in a mentee?

MD: I like really nice, loving people. It always helps if they have made a short that I can see. But at the end of the day, it’s usually a gut feeling. “Is this person going to enrich my life by being with them over the next year and a half?”

I gravitate towards people are students of the human condition, because that’s what I like. Though I don’t want to become Woody Allen; I don’t want to just do couples and feelings walking on the street. My interests have gravitated more into genre—The One I Love is a romantic comedy but really isn’t, and Creep is a horror movie if My Dinner with André went into the horror direction.

MM: Does being married to a filmmaker [Katie Aselton] help you keep a certain level of creativity a constant?

MD: We just had a pool party at our house last weekend. I had this moment where there were like 50 people in my backyard, and I was like, “I love all these people’s movies. I’m so happy to get stoned and eat s’mores with them around my fire pit tonight and talk about the movies we’re going to make.” I love my community. MM

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This interview appears in MovieMaker‘s upcoming Complete Guide to Making Movies 2015, which hits newsstands September 9, 2014. The One I Love opens in theaters August 22, 2014, courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

 

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