One of the notable things to come out of SXSW is the so-called mumblecore movement, which like the word "indie," has taken on so many meanings that it doesn't really mean anything. (Check out Paste's long-winded answer to the question: "Is Indie Dead?") The term is mainly used as shorthand for micro-budget talking-head flicks and a generation of moviemakers who work on each other's films.
What really matters is what happens to these directors. My old NYU colleague John Pierson (film prof at the U of Texas, Austin and husband of SXSW producer Janet Pierson) feels strongly that one thing the old theatrical indie model did well (besides generating cash) was to support and develop the careers of emerging directors--something the new DIY model doesn't do.
Well, typically, the engaged and linked-in generation help each other. Take the most talented filmmakers to emerge from the mumblecore pack, Mark and Jay Duplass. As they have grown from The Puffy Chair and Baghead to Fox Searchlight-backed Sundance hit Cyrus, which boasts movie stars (John C. Reilly, Catherine Keener, Jonah Hill, Maria Tomei) without betraying the filmmakers' signature naturalistic style, they're supporting other filmmakers along the way. (My Sundance video interview with them is below.)
At the SXSW panel "The Kids Are Alright" (moderated by the LAT's Mark Olsen), they joined some of their collaborators: Mark's wife, actress/director Katie Aselton (The Freebie), old film school chum Bryan Poyser (Lovers of Hate) and animator Geoff Marslett (Mars).
Aselton's The Freebie is real, sexy, funny and painful. The actress (who co-starred with her husband in The Puffy Chair and the FX comedy series The League) wrote a high-concept six-page outline--a long-married couple decide to take one night off with someone else--and took off from there, casting Dax Shepard (Zathura) as her loving but randy husband. "Truth is, it came out of our bank account because we're married," Mark said. He and Jay did function as exec producers, giving feedback and editing advice. Phase 4 picked up The Freebie out of Sundance. (I flip-cammed Aselton and Shepard's entertaining Q & A, below.)
The Duplasses also exec-produced Poyser's second movie Lovers of Hate, about two men in love with the same woman. Another mumblecore veteran, director David Lowery, photographed the movie. Distributor IFC threw a SXSW dinner for Lovers of Hate, which is one of several IFC SXSW titles currently available on-demand. Mark Duplass considers Poyser to be a "more advanced screenwriter," he said, and when Poyser called just as they were feeling flush from having earned a salary on Cyrus, they agreed to invest some money to finish the film and recommended their foreign sales agent and publicist.
In demand as an actor (Humpday), Mark also agreed to star in animator Geoff Marslett's space adventure Mars. Marslett wanted to bring him on to add some honesty to the sci-fi romance. "My take on romance is goofy and melancholy," said Marslett (who shot the flatly-lit actors against a green screen, processed the colors, keyed out the actors, hand-drew the major lines on their faces and clothes, used a program to add shadows, and used CG to animate and composite everything with consistent colors). "Mark brings the right flavor to the character. He got that place of making it funny but not slapstick. He charms you and makes you laugh."
Comedy is a Duplass trademark. While they started out imitating their idols the Coen brothers, said Jay, they soon figured out their own on-the-fly approach by accident on a short. "I feel confident that if we did it another way we'd make bad movies."
They write their scripts "funny and light," said Mark, because when actors improvise, they "always take us to the dramatic side." Films like Cyrus don't fit any conventional genre. "It's not that much of a comedy, not that much of a drama," said Mark. "We're obsessed with plot and story, which never goes away. We don't do a lot of planning, don't know the balance until we're done with editing. We're looking for lightning on set. We then rebuild the scene around the lightning." Even on their next movie, the stoner comedy Jeff Who Lives at Home, which requires storyboards, "we will still mess them up," said Mark. "We're prepared to go on set with the first draft, but no one else is. It's hard on the actors, but fear is good for these movies."
"The only way I know how to tell a story is honestly and simply," said Aselton. "Naturalistic moments can have humor in them and can come from the deepest depths of sorrow and be funny. I'm never pushing for a joke. Dax brought some humor."
Poyser admitted that the Duplass shooting method terrifies him. His scripted stories "tend toward darker, uncomfortable places. The characters are trying to get out of bad situations. I'm trying to use comedy to get the audience on board, so that they are disarmed and ready for the more dramatic stuff that comes later."
Ironically, when Mark turned up on set for Greenberg, he had to follow Noah Baumbach's script word for word.
Here's the SXSW The Freebie Q & A:
And here's Making Of's interview with Aselton and Shepard:
And if you missed it, my Cyrus interview with Mark and Jay Duplass at Sundance: