The Duplass Brothers: “Honest and real and really unpredictable is what we’re really looking for”

Directors Jay & Mark Duplass talk about Cyrus, improvising and working with John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill!

Jay and Mark Duplass (The Duplass Brothers) are hot right now. They have Cyrus (starring John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill & Marisa Tomei) and are currently in pre-production on Jeff Who Lives At Home (with Ed Helms and Jason Segel).

To be honest, I’d never seen one of their films till Cyrus. I’d heard about them, especially once I got to Austin for SXSW, and was excited to see the film. The film is both hilarious and touching and you will love seeing John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill in different roles than you’re familiar seeing them in.

I got a chance to talk with them in a roundtable interview so most of the questions aren’t mine. I did ask some casting questions regarding John and Jonah. And check out the audio (above or on iTunes) portion for the whole discussion.

(For more on Cyrus, click here for my interview with the stars John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill)

How long have you guys been working on this script?

Jay: Good question. You know, we normally write our scripts pretty quickly when we it’s just us producing them because we know we’re gonna improvise the dialogue a bit so once the structure is rock solid we know we’re production-ready. But you know, this was a script where you have to write it well and make it attractive to actors and to the studios so that they want to greenlight it. So we just spent a little time making it look pretty, you know? The bells and whistles. We were, I think we worked on it for like a year or so on and off. We were doing other things at the time. But on and off before we actually got the greenlight.

Do you have any experience as children as of single parents dating again or knowing people in those situations?

Mark: No, none really. We are good little Catholic boys and our Catholic parents have been married for 42 years and are still together.

Jay: What we do have a lot of experience with is desperation (laughter). We have that in spades.

Mark: Inter-personal dysfunction.

Along those lines, when you guys have the photograph of breastfeeding (laughter), it was terribly icky, I was dying laughing. Were there other things like that that you took out because you were like, you know what, that’s just too icky? Or was that about it?

Mark: The level of ickiness was about what we had hoped it would be. There’s an ick-ometer that we have on set.

Jay: We were riding high at about a 3.8 the whole time. If you stay right there, if you go over, people start crying and it gets weird.

How frustrated were you guys with the Hollywood romantic comedies where Matthew McConaughey meets the perfect girl for him?

Mark: We’re not frustrated with it because we don’t go watch those kinds of films (laughter). We’re not really a part of that.

Jay: That is just a different kind of beast.

Mark: It’s a different type of entertainment. An inferior one (laughter).

Jay: I mean those movies, it’s weird, it’s like I’m not gonna be the person to say those movies shouldn’t be made because a lot of people get a shit ton of joy out of those things for $10. And a lot people think our movies are weird and stupid. To each his own is how we feel.

Well it seems like there’s more comedy to be mined from a real F’ed up situation than some high concept.

Mark: For our sensibility and our style, we really like to work with those, I mean you guys, I don’t know how many of you are from Austin or live here, but it’s like, it’s like those special weird people that come out of the wormholes of 78704 in Austin. Like those unique individuals that are just like, ’Wow, how are you making your way in the world. You’re barely hanging on here,’ and we love those people so much. And you know, to me it’s like they give the greatest opportunity for comedy because obviously they’re idiosyncratic and they’re doing these crazy things, but in the end, it’s all rooted in a very emotional thing that they’re going through. I mean, you know this is a funny movie but it’s also about a 20 year old kid who is desperately trying to hang onto his mother and a mother who is trying to figure out if she screwed up her son and how to move on. And a guy who feels like if I don’t find the woman I’m gonna be with, I’m gonna be alone for the rest of my life. That stuff’s not funny. And when you’re rooted in those things, you get a cool blend of that comedy-drama that we just like a lot.

Seems like the audience is really with John when he tells Jonah off and when he tells Catherine what the heck is wrong with the kid. Were you expecting those moments to play so well and how gratifying they were?

Jay: No, we were not expecting those moments to play so explosively. We knew people would feel the catharsis, but we didn’t know that it would be what it was last night.

Mark: We’re fucked basically because the movie is never going to play as well as it played last night.

Jay: That was a peak experience.

Mark: I’m never going to watch it again (laughter).

Jay: One thing we did sort of like have an instinct for is that people would be with John Reilly, and honestly there’s no coincidence as to why the character’s name is John. And I think just subconsciously we realized halfway through writing it we’re writing this for John Reilly, and if he doesn’t play this role, we’re not going to make this movie. I mean, he just has this quality to him. I mean, our characters do a lot of questionable stuff, you know?

Mark: Morally, spiritually, physically, sneaking around.

Jay: Absolutely questionable. And you know, John Riley, there’s just something so genuine and pure about him and his intention underneath it all that we knew that he would carry it and that everyone would be with him.

Mark: Basically if you’re going to cast or write a really unlikable character, cast somebody who’s really likeable.

Were there aspects of Cyrus’ backstory that you just couldn’t work into the movie? I’m kind of curious what got Cyrus to the point that he got to. You alluded to things like him being homeschooled.

Jay: Our philosophy is we want to get by with as little back story as possible because our filmmaking is –

Mark: Exposition makes us vomit.

Jay: Our filmmaking is in the moment, just trying to really be there. You have to have a little of it. We try to just get it all from the behavior. These are movies where people are just talking to each other, but we do work with mystery a lot and creating mystery. What is going on with this person?

Mark: You hear, dad’s not in the picture. You see the breastfeeding. He’s obviously very intelligent, he’s homeschooled. So, we like that kind of keeping the audience just engaged and just make sure they’re not ahead of us.

How much do you coach Jonah?

Mark: We don’t have to coach him at all. Conversations about the nature of the character and people, but Jonah is like us. It’s a corny phrase, that student of the human condition. He loves people, and he loves the idiosyncrasies. You can sit with him at a café and watch people walking by and just have a blast talking about the strange things that they’re doing. So he loved Cyrus, and he loved like how funny and dark and weird he could be. And his instincts were really dead on, so we’re of course directing him in the scenes to get where the story needed to go, but in terms of a style and the flavors of the character, he was dead on.

Jay: And the way we approach it, too, is not so specifically like well want this character to be this way. It really comes down to, what’s happening on set? Is it weird? Is it interesting? And if it’s not, if there’s nothing really special about it, we’ll be like, let’s throw a wrench in here. We’ll take Jonah aside and we’ll tell him a little secret, and Mark will take Marisa aside and tell her a secret and they won’t know what’s happening and they’ll come into the scene. And we’re like whoa! That was the alchemy that created the spark of something that we all would feel is like wow, that’s – that felt really real.

Mark: That felt really honest.

Jay: That felt really honest and real and really unpredictable is what we’re really looking for.

What’s next for you guys?

Mark: World domination.

Jay: We’re actually in preproduction right now in New Orleans for our next movie that Jason Reitman is producing, and it’s called Jeff Who Lives at Home. And it’s about a guy named Jeff who’s about 30 years old who lives in his mom’s basement. He’s basically like waiting for the universe to deliver his destiny to him. So like one day he goes out to run an errand for his mom, totally banal errand, and he randomly runs into his like disgruntled brother, Pat, and the two of them embark on this epic journey through the suburbs and strip malls of Baton Rouge to ultimately find their destiny.

You guys have this extremely distinctive style, and how much of that was based on decisions you made and how much of it was a necessity?

Mark: It definitely was necessity being the mother of invention for us, you know? Got a camera, we don’t have a lot of lights, so we’re just going to light the whole thing. We’re gonna shoot it 360. Where’s that actor going? I’m zooming around to find him. And then all of a sudden we’re like, this is cool, there’s an organic and kind of kinetic energy to this. And really, just point blank, just functionally speaking, we’re not like trying to shake around the cameras and move. That’s what we’re doing when we’re trying to find the action. We’re following the actors around, and so there’s no pre-determined camera moves. They come directly out of the chaos of what the actors are doing.

You guys do documentaries and acting. Do you have to schedule blocks of time to write your scripts together, like a month?

Mark: No because we tend to ping-pong things a lot. The story process for us is like, it sounds corny, but it’s like this oral tradition like by the hearth, we kind of start telling little stories back and forth to each other.


Mark: Yeah we got pipes.

Jay: We share the same armchair. And then it develops, and then at some point it makes its way onto this stack of notecards that represents each scene. And then once we’ve got that, we could pretty much go into the movie shooting at that point, but other people wouldn’t pay for it. So then we write the script from there, and you know, we’re we work pretty autonomously on that front where we just, you know, it’s basically a process of I barf this out go fix it, barf it back you fix it. It’s a process of inspiration and somebody being quality control.

Any real arguments between you in terms of ideas?

Mark: This is the way the arguments work. Very little, because two heads are better than one. But they way they normally work is like for instance coming in here, our lunch was sitting outside. And Jay was like, I think we should have our lunch now. And I’d be like I think we should go inside before we have our lunch. And then we’ll look at each other. This didn’t happen (laughter). And then we’ll look at each other. And then within about a minute, we’ll realize that one of us is more passionate about it than the other, and we always follow the one who is more passionate.

You guys have an incredible cast, and I can’t imagine anybody else playing the roles. Did you guys get the people you wanted?

Mark: Yeah, we did. We were really lucky.

Jay: I mean honestly, like, we wrote the movie for John, and then we met Jonah, and once we hung out with him, we were like this kid is incredible. He has this quiet intensity that no one has seen yet and we want to show this. And Marisa [Tomei] also she came and talked to us about one of our first movies The Puffy Chair, and she was very passionate about it. And was very clear-minded about what we were doing. She understood it on a really like core level. So, I mean we just feel like we got so lucky. We were able to attract these unbelievable actors. And they wanted to work on our playing field.

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