Welcome to Directing on a Dime, where indie moviemaker Andy Young provides tips and insight for moviemakers whose budget is more The Blair Witch Project than Avatar. Have questions for Andy about low-budget (or no-budget) moviemaking? Ask away at .
Mark and Jay Duplass have become posterboys for the new generation of low-budget indie directors. Their first feature, The Puffy Chair, was completed on a budget of $15,000 and went on to be a festival hit. It was followed by Baghead, an unconventional horror film that was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and 2010’s Cyrus, starring John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei. The brothers’ next film, Jeff Who Lives at Home, is their biggest project yet; it stars Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon and is expected to be released later this year. Though their budgets have gotten bigger, the brothers have stayed true to their indie roots. I had a chance to speak with Jay Duplass about the on-set differences between indie and studio movies, what he thinks about film school and his role in the highly-anticipated re-imagining of Richard Linklater’s Slacker.
Andy Young (MM): When did you figure out you wanted to be a moviemaker?
Jay Duplass (JD): My brother and I were always creative, and we would do all sorts of creative projects around our house. We made movies when we were kids, but they weren’t talented or gifted movies. It was when we saw [the Coen brothers’] Raising Arizona that we realized [movies are something that] somebody physically makes. Raising Arizona didn’t just show up from Hollywood; it had a personality. That’s when we started thinking about [making movies].
MM: Talk about your experience studying in UT Austin’s film school.
JD: I was [at the University of Texas studying] for a psychology degree. I was dabbling in the film program, taking a few classes here and there. One day I was hanging out with a friend of mine, a research grad student, and she said “If you want to be a researcher, you’ll probably get a job in Nebraska and you won’t have much choice over your life. It’s not that glamorous; you should think about doing what you really want to do, which is make movies.” And it started to occur to me that guys like [Robert] Rodriguez and Linklater were coming up around that time in Austin. And I was like, “I’m gonna take another year, go to school and do more filmmaking.” I just loved it, and I didn’t look back after that point.
MM: What did you do after school?
JD: I made a feature called Connect 5, which only about 17 people have seen. It was not very good. Then Avid had a massive price break from $90,000 to $28,000, so Mark and I sold our cars and got our dad to give us a little money to buy an Avid. So I edited tons of independent movies that were being made at that time. I did that for about five years, but the problem was that I wasn’t making films, I was just editing–which is still a good lesson in what to do and what not to do, but I wanted to go out on set and get that firsthand experience. So I started making super-cheap films, because the technology was getting cheaper and cheaper. This Is John only cost $2.00 for a single DV tape. That changed everything. It was all improvised, and it was a stab in the dark to come up with something, but it tapped into this very specific thing which I now realize is what Mark and I have to offer the world: A weird sense of humor about desperate, passive-aggressive people and their painful human interactions.
MM: The Puffy Chair is one of my favorite movies. Can you describe the process you went through making it?
JD: We had spent the better part of our 20s trying to make movies like the Coen brothers and failing miserably. Prior to that we had made three shorts that were really successful on the festival circuit, all of which we made for really cheap (the most expensive one was $100), and they were all winning awards and going to Sundance and Berlin. We finally felt confident in our ability to make one scene work, so [when we set out to make] The Puffy Chair, we wanted to make it like a bunch of short films in a row and tie it all together with some sort of spine, and a road movie seemed like the right way to do that. So we made it for $15,000; at the time it seemed like a lot of money, but we also thought “Well, we don’t have to sell it for much to make our money back”.
MM: You and your brother wrote a great article for Moviemaker about a year ago about the pros and cons of working with a studio. Can you talk about some of the changes you had to make to your process when you did Cyrus?
JD: It really comes down to the crew size. The Puffy Chair had a cast and crew of like six or seven people, and we were paying them with pizza. The positive on a big movie set is that you don’t have to load the lights and stuff, which can take away from the energy you put into your art. But the other side is that you have a bunch of people standing around, and things take longer. . . but that’s for a movie that can be shot cheaply. Cyrus could have been shot cheaply, but with our new movie, Jeff Who Lives at Home, we needed a studio. There are some movies that require millions of dollars, and Jeff Who Lives at Home was one of them.
MM: Can you give us a progress report on Jeff Who Lives at Home?
JD: No, but the wheels are turning.
MM: You directed a segment of Slacker 2011. Which scene did you do, and was there any pressure to live up to the original?
JD: Not really, because the idea was to reinvent the scenes and make them applicable to 2011. I did the scene where the girlfriend gives the boyfriend’s Diet Coke to the homeless guy, and they argue. It’s interesting that they assigned that one to me. Of all the scenes in Slacker, I get the one where a boyfriend and girlfriend fight, which I seem to not be able to avoid. But yeah, I had a lot of fun with it. That movie was such a huge influence on me. I went to college in 1991 when Slacker was playing at the [now closed] Dobie Theater, and it was kind of like a weird picture album of what life was like in Austin when I first got there.
MM: What’s your next project?
JD: [Mark and I] shot a movie called The Do-Deca-Pentathlon back before we even shot Cyrus. It’s another small movie; we were editing it when we got the green light for Cyrus, so we had to put The Do-Deca-Pentathlon on the shelf for awhile. We got Jeff back-to-back [with Cyrus], so now that we’re starting to move forward with that, we’re getting back to Do-Deca this fall.
I also made a movie called Kevin. It’s a documentary about one of my childhood heroes, Kevin Gant, an Austin musician who kind of disappeared and is now making his comeback. It’s going to have its L.A. premiere at [the] Don’t Knock the Rock [music documentary festival] on July 28th. It’s been getting some interest from distributors.
MM: Do you think film school is worth it?
JD: I think it is if you need a nurturing environment to figure out who you are as an artist and what you have to offer the world. I can’t say that it’s smart financially, because now low-budget films are so easy to make, especially with the [Canon] 5D [Digital SLR camera]. It’s probably a better move to just make lots and lots of movies [without going to film school]. But when people are left to their own devices, they don’t make art regularly. They need people to tell them to make art regularly, and that’s what film school does. So it really depends on the individual.
MM: Any advice for aspiring moviemakers?
JD: Same advice: Make tons of them, and make them cheaply. Making a film is very complex, and it’s difficult to have all the elements come together in just the right way so that your film ends up being decent. It took me 10 years to make anything that I felt was a unique contribution to the world. Just make lots of movies so that, when they suck, you have the resources to get up and try again.
Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer living in Austin, Texas. At the age of twenty, he has produced over 100 short films and one feature film, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. He now lives in Austin, where he is writing a book on the making of The Legend of Action Man. Andy continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.