The Duplass Brothers on Cyrus, Jeff Who Lives at Home, and Why They Don't Read Scripts
The new comedy Cyrus may be low-budget by most studio standards, but for directors Mark and Jay Duplass, it was a whole new world. The brothers made their name in mumblecore until Fox Searchlight came calling, but with more money, more crew members, and actors like Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly, and Marisa Tomei involved, the Duplasses had to work just as hard to preserve the shaggy, improvisatory aesthetic that got them the job in the first place.
In a candid interview with Movieline, Mark and Jay opened up about what their crew thought of them, why they're unlikely to direct someone else's script, and what's in store for their next movie, the stoner comedy Jeff Who Lives at Home.
So much is made of how much improvisation there is on your movies, but you do write full scripts first, right? How is it that you're not precious about actors keeping your dialogue as-is?
MARK DUPLASS: A lot of the actors on this were like, "Why don't we do the script? It's good." Our feeling is that when you do the script...it sounds like a script.
JAY DUPLASS: There's two reasons to go for it. One is to find happy accidents and have people be surprised, but more specifically, it's all about achieving an extra level of naturalism. Other people may be able to do this, but we can't achieve it without loosening everything up, including the dialogue and the blocking and the way that we shoot. We don't do setups -- we put two people in a room and say, "Go for it." They can't plan for what's going to come next, and they don't know what the other person's going to say, so they have to truly be in that moment. What usually ends up happening is that they're a little bit confused and a lot more vulnerable than they would normally be. That replicates the way that Mark and I experience the world and, more importantly, what we want to be communicating on film. We want to give you guys in the audience that sense that when a scene starts, anything can happen.
Marisa told me that you guys wanted her character to be schlubbier, but she wanted to make her kind of hot and pulled together. Can you talk about conceiving that character with her?
MARK DUPLASS: We originally had an idea in our heads of what we were gonna do, but what's more important to us is that the actors are really connecting with their characters. Honestly, above all else, it's about inspiration. It's about encouraging them to find the sorts of things that will make them fired up and inspired to play the character and get really specific about it. Once she started talking about what she saw for the character and we heard the reasons and saw the clothes she was picking, we thought, "Oh my God, you're already thinking about this so much deeper than we are."
JAY DUPLASS: Unless it's totally wrong for the character, why wouldn't you want your actors to feel pride and ownership over their choices? To me, that's just a matter of ego, that you'd have somebody who couldn't deal with the fact that he gave his actors some freedom and they had a better idea. That's crazy to us. You need to feed your actors and make them feel inspired and feel like, "This was my choice and I get to do this!" When you do that, you get the best energy out of them.
Movies like this one don't usually employ closed sets, but yours does. Did you seek to do that to replicate the intimate vibes of your earlier films?
JAY DUPLASS: Oh yeah. It's all about manufacturing intimacy.
So was it awkward to break it to all these crew members you'd hired, "Sorry guys, but we don't really want you on set all that much?"
MARK DUPLASS: Yeah. We talked about it with our first AD, Cas Donovan, who protected us and taught us how to make one of our movies in a big bubble. In the end, it was great: they hired people who understood our creative vision and weren't threatened by that. They had just as much input in their roles, it was just at different times. If anything, they had more input, because Jay and I are less specific about wardrobe and set design as we are about character and story. We give them a lot of rope. At the end of the day, they understood that it's bad for the movie if every time we yell "Cut," they have to run in and dab at [the actors'] faces and pull their hair, because it takes them out of the character.
It's one thing to experiment and take the time to find your scene when you're shooting a no-budget indie. When you're doing Cyrus for Fox Searchlight, are you conscious that money is being burned off and more crew members are standing around while you do that?
MARK DUPLASS: We're aware of it, but we had promised ourselves not to play in that realm. It's not our job.
JAY DUPLASS: It's at the back of your brain a little bit, but you just kind of have to tell yourself, "This is what it is." Do we really need all these people to shoot a movie? No, but the union requires that we have all these people here. At the same time, we were the only movie shooting in LA at the time and we gave a hundred people jobs. That's great, and that came from Rupert Murdoch's pocket. [Laughs]
Does it ever inhibit you, like, "We'd love to keep shooting this scene, but I guess we should move on..."
MARK DUPLASS: You've got to stick to your guns. We feel that, and we're human, and it's embarrassing at times. Particularly since it was our first studio movie, it was like, "Everyone around here thinks we don't know what we're doing right now, and you know why?"
JAY DUPLASS: Because we don't. [Laughs]
MARK DUPLASS: We may not know where to take a scene but then you throw something in there and bam, it hits! I mean, we've come to embrace that. For us, being able to admit that you may not know what's right is part of the process. If you act like you do and just move forward, you'll probably just get something half-assed out of it.