Writer-director-producer-actor Mark Duplass has an unusual career plan, to say the least. As far as he's concerned, he gets more pleasure and satisfaction out of collaborating as a writer-producer-actor on various micro-budget projects than he does getting funding from the studios for bigger-budgeted projects. With time, he has become more militant about this. Duplass can afford to be, thanks to his hit TV series "The League."
A workaholic to rival Steven Soderbergh, Duplass writes and directs movies with his brother Jay ("The Puffy Chair," "Baghead," "Cyrus"), writes and acts with director Lynn Shelton ("Humpday" and "Your Sister's Sister") and Colin Trevorrow ("Safety Not Guaranteed"), produces with his wife, actress Katie Aselton, and other up-and-coming directors ("Black Rock," "Creep") and sometimes functions as an actor-for-hire on such films as "Zero Dark Thirty," "Darling Companion" and "Tammy."
Arguably, he and his brother Jay's semi-autobiographical micro-budget "The Do-Deca-Pentathlon," shot with a bunch of actor pals at their parent's house in New Orleans, was a funnier comedy than studio project "Jeff Who Lives At Home." And Duplass thoroughly enjoyed producing and starring in POV video horror flick "Creep," the first installment in a new Jason Blum franchise. (Video with Mark and Jay Duplass here, Mark Duplass and Jason Blum here.)
On the occasion of Duplass's latest movie "The One I Love" (on VOD now and in theaters August 22) a two-hander relationship mystery co-starring Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men," "Top of the Lake") that Radius-TWC bought out of Sundance, Duplass came by Sneak Preview to explain his working method (NOTE SPOILERS AT BOTTOM):
I read somewhere that you are of Cajun extraction. Is that true? Did you grow up in New Orleans?
Mark Duplass: I’ve got a little Cajun in me. I grew up in New Orleans — the suburbs my whole life. Watched a lot of HBO.
How did you and your brother Jay get started making movies in the first place?
Well, my dad bought one of those VHS cameras that goes directly into the VCR in the mid-80s, when we were little kids. We just started shooting stupid little films together. I think we remade “The Blob” with our beanbag coming down the stairs, in a stop-motion kind of way; it was pretty cool. We just kept going, and we struggled quite a bit to find what our voice might be. We were making serious dramas, and that wasn’t good for us. Somewhere in our mid-20s, we kind of found what we liked and went from there.
I know people misuse the word “improvisation,” so you tell me. It’s evolved over time, and I don’t think anybody is quite as good at it as you are.
Yeah, improvisation is traditionally used, in my world and the comedy world--you have those people who say, “improvisation means, ‘I’m going on a joke run.’” Right? I’m going to try to make some jokes for the movie. So, if you’re in a Judd Apatow movie, you have the script, and they say, “Let’s improv one.” And then you start riffing. In regards to "The One I Love," the improvisation we used is quite different, because the script we used for this movie is highly detailed, highly plotted — it’s a 50-page outline. Every scene is carefully detailed: the plot movements of A, B, C, D, and what the characters are doing.
But there’s no dialogue written, so every piece of dialogue in the film is improvised. But you’re not “riffing” and trying to find something. You’re just being as organic as you can with your motivations and the trajectory of the scene, and using surprises so the person opposite you in the scene will not be lazy and rest on their heels, so it can feel, hopefully, a little bit more spontaneous than if it were rehearsed.
The fifty script pages were not just a collaboration between you and Elisabeth and Charlie McDowell. This was his first movie, right?
It is. These movies are kinds of arts-and-crafts-y; in many ways, they function like a co-op. We abscond to this location with a group of 20 or so people that are involved. The core creative team was myself, Charlie, Elisabeth, [writer] Justin Lader, and [producer] Mel Eslyn. The way we began was, Charlie came to me. He’s 29 and has seen my movies. He said to me, “Look, I’ve been trying to make a $5 million movie; I’ve been waiting four years and I’ve been getting my ass kicked. I can’t get my money. Would you consider making a little movie with me?” I said, “Sure. What are you interested in?”
He said, “I love what you do with relationships, but I’d be interested in something more genre-oriented.” I saw his short; I saw how slick he was, cinematically, which is something I don’t do very well. He’s very good with shots in cinema.
I have a document on my computer with about a hundred different kernels of movie ideas I keep going through. So I opened it up and I said, “I have this one idea,” and what I pitched to him was basically, “A couple is fighting. They go to sleep; she wakes up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. She hears her husband in the other room, and she goes in and she sees him. They make up. He apologizes really well. They make love. She goes back to bed, and, when she returns, her husband’s still in the bed.” I said, “I have no idea what the tone is.”
So he said, “Let me think about it.” He went away, talked to his writing partner, pitched me some things, and the three of us started having phone conversations, I’d say, once every two or three days over the course of about two weeks. In that process, we settled on the basic form of the movie, and then I sent them away to write the first draft. They brought it back to me, and it was really good right away.
What makes my developing process healthy is that I didn’t make them wait until it was finalized and finished; I green lit the movie right there at a certain price. From the moment he walked in my office to the moment we were shooting, it was about three months. We built this little movie from the ground up together. I gave [Charlie] this basic concept, we brought in [Justin], and we started talking about it.
The three of us started pitching this idea, and once we came up with a female character, I pulled Elisabeth into the process and the four of us started working it. And again, this movie has been reverse-engineered to be a movie that we know we could make. Two characters in the same location [Ojai] and two-and-a-half weeks on a very limited budget. We built everything to co-exist inside that model. Once we brought in Mel to produce, she was able to guide us in terms of logistical things — what we could have on our budget and things like that.
The great part about this process is that, every day, the scenes themselves live and breathe a little bit because you’re improvising. So we’d shoot a scene, be done that night, all have dinner together — because we’re living together while making this movie — and say, “Okay.” For instance, when we first got to the location, we were like, “Ethan and Sophie are getting along a little bit better than we might have thought in the script,” because Elisabeth and I have a little bit more chemistry. “So that’s good. Let’s use the fact that they have chemistry. We can make their fights go a little bit further because they’re connected, and we’ll use those to push them a little bit further.” That’s why I like to shoot these movies improvised, because you can build upon a chemistry that’s natural and not be locked into a certain way of doing things.
I call you a multi-tasker: how do you find time to do all these things? Does it feed you in a good way, or do you overextend yourself?
I totally overextend myself; I have to figure that out so I don’t have a heart attack sometime soon. But I sleep eight hours a night; I’m not that kind of a crazy person. But I’m a very collaborative collaborator, and I’m very good at delegating. I only pick people to work with that I think are nice and sweet and I’m going to have fun with. Sometimes it doesn’t go so well, but in the case of a movie like this, with Charlie — who’s 29, who’s hungry, who’s smart — he was ready to do this. So, when we start together, he’s tight to my chest, and soon as he starts to get it, you start letting the rope out. It’s like your kids almost: letting it out, letting it out, letting it out. By the time we were on day three of shooting, I was just an actor on his movie. I way backed off.
So horror film “Creep,” in which you play the title role, is another example where you went with another unknown director.
Not that nice in it. It was similar. Patrick Brice, who I worked with, his husband got out of film school. I had dinner with him and I loved him; he sees people the way I do. We both loved “My Dinner with Andre.” We were talking about it, and we were like, “You can’t make that movie again. Those guys were special, but what if someone made a ‘My Dinner with Andre’ that just went terribly wrong? The worst meal you could imagine.” That got us excited, so we wrote a five-page outline together, and we went to my cabin for a week, and we shot this movie about a Craigslist encounter that goes terribly bad.
But, to your question of how that feeds me… I’m 37, I have two young kids, I’m married, I’m kind of a homebody, and when I work with young filmmakers, they bring me things almost as often as I bring things to them. I can show them things about how to exist in the industry, and I can show them how to get attention with a movie — either by being in it or fostering it. But they’re juicing me up with all this new, inspired energy, so it’s mutually beneficial.
Like a lot of people in the industry, you’ve moved into television. I imagine much of your support for these more experimental things comes from “The League,” but now you’re doing your own show with Jay — a bigger show, called “Togetherness,” about couples. How did that happen?
HBO courted Jay and I for a while, saying, “You should really come make a show with us. You can do what you want here; this is a perfect place to make a show about inter-relationship dynamics and what you guys do.” We said, “We just don’t want to be stuck in TV. It seems like it takes forever, and we want to make movies.” They said, “Look, come make an eight-episode season with us. It’s like making a movie. I promise you: I know the shitty studio notes you get when you go to these other places. We will not do that to you. We will support you and let you make the show you want to make. You can count on us.”
So we were kind of like, “Well, that actually sounds pretty good.” And they were so true to their word. I thought I was going to have be a career Miramax, Focus Features, Fox Searchlight type of filmmaker, but the reality is, those movies are not making as much money, so they’re clamping down on fear as to how they can be made and how they can make money. It really thwarts your ability to make the movie you want to make. In my opinion. HBO has a subscription service, and people come to it because they’re going to watch “Game of Thrones”; you’re this other cool thing that adds value. They’re so open to what you can make, and they just said, “We’d like to make a show about couples in their ‘30s.” We built this thing and literally got to do whatever we wanted. It’s been amazing.
You have Melanie Lynskey, who was here the other day. Who else?
So it’s myself and Melanie Lynskey. We play a married couple, and then it’s my longtime collaborator, Steve Zissis, who I went to high school with. He was in “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” he’s in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” he’s in “Baghead.” And then Amanda Peet, who’s also in the show.
The wife of David Benioff. She also happens to be a very good actress.
The wife of David Benioff, who created “Game of Thrones.” Yeah. So that’s been great.
When does that start?
That’s going to air in January. It’ll air with “Girls.” We’re just finishing that up right now. But to your point about being on TV and being in “The League”: I loved John Cassavetes growing up. I thought, “This guy’s incredible. He’s making movies with his friends, he’s exploring, and he’s acting in the studio system to pay for it, which is the coolest thing.” I can’t get the studio-system jobs, but I can be on TV and make a shit-ton of money there, and then I’m self-funding five movies this year, and my financial advisors hate me and think I’m crazy. But they work and prove responsible, because I’ve never lost money on a movie. I just love doing it.
What are the projects you’re working on now?
“The One I Love” is coming out August 22nd. “Creep,” which I just finished and sold — also to Radius — we’re going to do a trilogy of those movies. I’m going to make two more towards the end of year. My new show “Togetherness" will come out on HBO in January. This is the time when you start submitting your movies to Toronto and Sundance, so I have five others that I’m producing and working on, and I have two television shows I’m making independently. I’m very interested in taking the model of independent film directly into television, which it’s time for. Rather than just go out and say, “Hey, here’s my script and pilot,” and then they just cancel you — because that’s what they do — I’m trying to cut through all that and just say, “Here is a season of a television show. If you like it, you have to buy this and buy one more.” So I can guarantee being on the air.
So you’ll pay for that in advance, then shoot it. Wow. Netflix might give you the money?
Yeah. They might, but...I know it sounds crazy, but I’d rather gamble on myself. The money I have to make by owning myself and the control I have over the content is worthwhile to me, rather than getting an upfront price tag, having our salaries be low, and we feel like we should be grateful because… I don’t want to do that any more.
Is “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” an example of where you felt slightly compromised on what you ended up doing?
[Jay and I] did pretty well on “Jeff,” actually, because that was independently financed by Steve Rales, who runs Indian Paintbrush. But [on others] there was a bit of a battle. Ultimately, I’ve almost gotten to make what I want to make; it’s just a question of how much yelling you have to do to get there, and an unfortunate reality of this town is they often don’t think you’re passionate unless you’re screaming. I like to be a sensitive person. I’ve been to therapy; I know that you need to validate people and listen to them, hear them. I’m in a marriage and I know all about this stuff. When you do that in a studio meeting, they think you’re weak and walk all over you. When you yell, it’s “this guy has vision and passion!” Which sucks! But I’ve been put in that position. Sometimes you have to do that.
But you don’t have to do that with Lynn Shelton. Or Colin Trevorrow on “Safety Not Guaranteed,” another example where you collaborated with a young director. Who has gone on to "Jurassic Park"!
I work with really smart first-time directors. I think, “you're like what I thought when I was 28. You’re full of these ideas, you’re a cool person, and you don’t know how to put yourself on film yet.” The first thing I ask them is, “What was the last conversation you had where you knew you had to go to sleep for work the next day, but you couldn’t go to sleep because you were so excited — you were up with your friends drinking wine? Something in the content of that conversation is what you should be making your movie about.”
It took me ten years to figure that out. When my brother and I would sit on an airplane and watch the crazy people coming on the airplane and tell weird little stories about them — people-watch in our private little sense of humor — that’s where your stuff comes from. I feel like, as a producer, I have something like that to offer: eliciting stuff out of people.
In an ideal world you would be moving up in the movie business, but you’re still working at a micro-budget level. Is there an opportunity for you to grow and make a living?
I’ll be perfectly honest with you: the way I work on a micro-budget makes me more money and makes me more creatively satisfied than if I was doing movies at a 4-to-$7-million level. It sounds crazy, but I now have the connections in the industry so that I can borrow cameras and I can borrow locations. Everybody comes to work for [a small flat rate] per day — whether you’re a PA or a director, whoever you are. It’s all Communism. But you get points, and everybody’s an owner in the movie.
Which movies follow this model?
Quite a few of them. “Creep” is a great example of that; “The One I Love” is a good example of that. “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Baghead,” “Pentathlon” — the list goes on and on. I take money from my TV shows and I do everything. What I do is, I don’t hog 80% of the profits like a studio would, because everybody’s doing the work, so I share a huge chunk of the movie with my cast and crew — anywhere from 50 to 80% of it, depending on how complex it is. We take that movie, we sell it, and I make sure the distributors get a piece of it, because I don’t beat up my distributors. If it’s going to be profitable, you owe me some of that. When you break down the finances… when you go from a $5 million movie, you make $30,000, maybe, and you get no points. But when I make these little movies and we sell them, people walk away with windfalls. You’d be surprised.
Something like “Black Rock” was a movie that we made for [a tiny budget and sold for much more than that]; I shared that with all my cast and crew; Katie and I put up all the money; and we still see dividends that come in profit. That’s more than you would make on those kinds of movies, but we put up no salary at the front. We risk the movie, we risk our efforts, but that’s how you get cool stuff made. I’m willing to have some errors, too. I haven’t lost money yet, but I’m sure I will at some point.
The other thing you’re doing is acting for hire. “Tammy” was one example. What was that like for you?
Fantastic. Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone are the nicest, sweetest people on the planet, and, speaking candidly about that movie, I talked to them and said, “Look: I’m not going to make the studio pay me a ton of money. I need to shoot it in two weeks, so I can be home with my kids and do my other work. Give me a little piece of it, if it’s a huge success, and we’ll have this great two-week experience together.” It was great because I got to get all kinds of exposure, this movie is going out on 3,000 screens, and that brings value to me being in a little movie like “The One I Love.”
Why do you think people dumped on the movie as much as they did?
The movie did really, really well. I think they wanted to make a sensitive dramedy. This is Ben’s first movie, and he happened to have the greatest and the worst thing in his movie, which is the biggest international comedy star. That meant Warner Bros. wanted to make that movie into a 4th-of-July extravaganza of comedic fall-downs, and they got pushed in that direction.
I’m not a snob about having my movies watched at home, and the average home has a 42-inch television in it. That’s a great place to watch a movie about relationships and faces and feelings. I have no problem with people watching my movie in a home instead of a theater. I have two kids; I barely get out to the theater.