With two films out this year, directors Mark and Jay Duplass continue to add to their unique independent filmmaking repertoire. After breaking onto the scene in 2005 with “The Puffy Chair,” the Duplass brothers have since etched out a formidable place for themselves in the film industry and have proven to be directors to keep a close eye on. Following another micro-budget project in 2008, the horror/comedy “Baghead,” Mark and Jay were given the opportunity to make their first studio film, the 2010 dark comedy “Cyrus,” which starred Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly, and Marisa Tomei. Hill played the title character, an extremely dependent young man who butts heads with his mother’s new boyfriend.
This year, the Duplass brothers give movie audiences “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” and “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon.” In “Jeff,” Jason Segel (“The Muppets”) stars as an apathetic man living in his mother’s basement who is waiting for a sign that will lead him to his true calling in life. In the smaller-budgeted “Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” Mark and Jay tell the story of two rival brothers who challenge each other to a 25-event Olympic showdown.
During an interview with me at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Mark and Jay talked about their own sibling rivalry, which centers on the sport of ping-pong, and the intimate feeling they want all their films to have, no matter what the budget.
Both of your latest films, “Jeff Who Lives at Home” and “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” feature brothers who have some issues with each other they have to work out in different ways. Specifically in “Do-Deca,” there is some sibling rivalry. Can either of you admit when your brother is better at something than you are?
Mark Duplass: Oh, yeah. We’ve been through tons and tons of therapy and have no egos left at all. I’ll go ahead and rattle of a few things for you: Jay is more patient, elegant, and a better long-distance runner than me. He’s a much better editor than I am in general. When he’s improvising as a lead guitar player, his solos are more spiritual than mine. He’s better at…Wait, I don’t know if that’s true anymore. I was going to say you were better at portion control with your food than I am, but I think now I’m doing better than you on that front.
Jay Duplass: You’ve got that shit on lockdown, dude. I had to switch to eating food I don’t even enjoy. It’s portion control because I don’t enjoy what I eat anymore. You are far more evolved than me in the food category. I would just have to say Mark is infinitely better than me at compliments. That was wonderful, Mark! Thank you! What a great way to start an interview!
JD: My god. Well, even though people think I am the more spiritual and sensitive one, I think Mark just might be more spiritually evolved than me, which would probably be a surprise to our friends.
I read “Do-Deca” was actually shot before “Jeff” and even before your film last year, “Cyrus,” although most people won’t get to see it until later this year. When you revisit a film like this two years later, do you see how you’ve evolved as filmmakers?
MD: Yeah, it’s kind of like watching a video of yourself when you’re like 16 years old. You would immediately say, “Oh, my god, I was so different.” And then you’d see something else and you’d say, “Oh my god, I haven’t changed at all.” That’s the way we feel. “Do-Deca” is a shaggy, micro-budgeted movie with some actors who are also some of our best friends. It represents a time in our lives, like with “Puffy Chair” and “Baghead,” when we were running around like maniacs with a camera trying to figure out what we were doing. While in some ways it’s rougher and less refined, the heart and the spirit and the tone of what we are doing is exactly the same.
What are your family reunions like, if you actually have them?
MD: A lot of ping-pong.
JD: Yeah, well, our parents live in Los Angeles near us now, so we get together a lot. And, yes, there is a lot of ping-pong. We’re an activity-based family. We like to do things. We don’t like just sitting around talking. There is definitely competition. When Mark and I were younger – before I left for college – when we were both in high school, we had these raucous two-on-two ping-pong competitions where my mom and I were on one side and Mark and my dad were on the other side. It was freakin’ epic. What would we play, like best two out of three every day after school?
MD: Some people remember McEnroe vs. Connors, but they had nothing on us.
Would your family consider the both of you the successful Duplasses?
MD: Well, that’s weird because we’ve never discussed that and we’ve never thought about it in any way, shape, or form. I know my parents were super proud of us. There were no industry connections for us growing up. We grew up in the suburbs and just found our way to filmmaking by making up the process. There is definitely this feeling like, “How the hell did we get to the point where we can make a studio movie?”
OK, so now what I’m going to do is name a competitive event and you tell me who would win. Arm wrestling?
MD: I would win.
MD: Jay would win.
JD: Yeah, the problem is I will sacrifice my enjoyment of the event to win.
JD: Mark would win.
MD: Yeah, I would win that one.
I was going to ask about a game of midnight ping-pong, but I’m assuming it’s too close to call.
MD: Yeah, midnight ping-pong would be a toss up. I think that would probably be our closest event. Jay was clearly dominant in the early years. Then when Jay went to college, my dad and I got really good. When he came home, we would destroy him. Those were dark years for Jay. Then he joined forces with Susan Sarandon and her ping-pong club. Now, it’s a dead heat.
Speaking of Susan Sarandon, I really enjoyed “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” Would you consider it your most mature film to date?
MD: Interesting. We don’t know. I love all my children, but I love that one a little bit more.
JD: I think it’s definitely the one we’re most proud of.
In your last three films you’ve had similar types of male characters who go through life without much responsibility – almost like a grown-up kid. If these kinds of men existed in real life, which I’m sure they do, would you consider them losers? Do they need to get a life?
JD: No, we’re very much the opposite of that. I think we approach all of our characters with the ultimate love. In the case of “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” what excites us about that story is that we’re taking a character who lives in his mom’s basement and smoke a lot of pot and has been judged by society about what kind of person he is, but we’re focused on a completely different side of the story. We introduce him as such, but 99 percent of the movie is spent on the other side of that character, which is usually neglected [in other movies]. It’s the heroic side of this person who is cautiously choosing not to go down the normal road in life and take the road less traveled and wait for what he feels is the grand design for his life. Mark and I see that as somewhat tragic, but also beautiful and exciting.
We’ve seen your films grow in production over the years. I’m wondering, is it easier to make a movie with more money to spend?
MD: It’s not quite that simple. I would say one challenge we face making bigger-budget films is doing big things but still making them feel intimate. We’re not trying to leave behind our small-budget roots. We’re trying to incorporate smaller, personal stories into bigger-budget filmmaking. In doing so, we want all these elements to shape the tone. It’s nice to have some money to throw at it, but we still have to curate it, creatively speaking.
Do you feel like there are different levels of independent filmmaking? If so, do you think those levels are dictated by the budget or the mindset of the filmmakers? I’m just wondering if you’ve ever rolled your eyes at someone who calls themselves an independent filmmaker that you feel doesn’t fall under that category.
JD: We don’t really obsess over categories and qualifications whether it’s with other people or with ourselves. We’re just super busy trying to make something that doesn’t suck, which we find very challenging. We feel like making movies is very hard and making good movies is almost impossible and takes 100 percent of our attention, love, care and effort. We did have a discussion one time with John C. Reilly, which I think we subconsciously go back to. What he said was that he’s been on $100,000 movies that have felt like the most controlled studio set you’ve ever been on, and he’s been on $100 million movies that have felt like someone making a film in their backyard because there is an element of freedom and chance. We’ve felt that, too, as we’ve been through the system. It really emanates from the mindset of the creators themselves.