Jay Duplass on Jeff Who Lives at Home, Austin's Slacker Savants and the Duplass Secret to Success
For Mark and Jay Duplass, the sibling team behind The Puffy Chair, Baghead, and last year's Cyrus, success came only after years of frustration -- and only by happy accident. "All we were doing in the late '90s, in our twenties, was trying to be the Coen brothers," Jay Duplass laughed to Movieline, "and failing at that, because the Coen brothers are awesome and they're already the Coen brothers." It was only when the brothers Duplass stopped trying so hard, at the end of their creative rope and after years of fruitless attempts, that they found the formula for personal filmmaking that would become their signature.
After releasing their 2008 indie horror Baghead, the Duplasses ventured into studio territory with 2010's Cyrus, their first mainstream venture with studio backing (courtesy of Fox Searchlight) and name actors (Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly, and Marisa Tomei); next March, Paramount Vantage will release the slacker comedy Jeff Who Lives at Home, starring Jason Segel and Ed Helms. But, as Duplass explained via phone from the Savannah Film Festival, where he and his brother received the Cinevation Award for "imagination, inspiration and innovation in cinema," they haven't deviated from the indie spirit with which they work -- they just select their projects, and their collaborators, more carefully.
Read on for more with Jay Duplass on accidentally discovering his method (after years of post-film school frustration), why famous actors want to work with him and brother Mark, the security in having Sundance as a fall back plan, the Austin-area slacker savants who inspired Jeff Who Lives at Home, and the current status of the next Duplass release, the back-to-indie-roots sibling comedy The Do-Deca-Pentathlon.
Jeff Who Lives at Home plays tonight and tomorrow at AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
The award you're receiving in Savannah isn't just any award -- it honors "imagination, innovation, and inspiration" in filmmaking. What does that represent to you?
I can't believe it... honestly, it's very surreal, it's thrilling, and it's very hard to believe, honestly. You know, I didn't make a decent movie until I was 30 years old, and that was a seven-minute movie that cost $3. I think it's mainly because I went to film school, I tried really hard to be innovative and be interesting and be riveting and shit, you know, and my brother and I always wanted this stuff -- but really, all we were doing in the late '90s, in our twenties, was trying to be the Coen brothers. [Laughs] And failing at that, because the Coen brothers are awesome and they're already the Coen brothers. It might be a good idea not to try to be them, they already have that down pretty good.
How did you get from that to where you are now?
What ended up happening is, we ended up kind of just really losing it. Me in particular, in my late-20s, just kind of feeling like approaching 30: I have to get a real job, it sucks, I've been working on this for over a decade, I haven't made anything that I can say is even worth watching. And basically, in the basement of that awful time period, which lasted a couple of years, my brother said, "We're going to make a movie today." This was when digital cameras were first coming out. We made this movie this one day in Austin called This is John with our parents' video camera, where Mark acted in it and I shot it. It was like how we used to do it when we were kids. We made this movie, basically, about a guy who's trying to perfect the personal greeting on his answering machine and fails to do so, so much to the point that he's about to have a nervous breakdown, which is basically something that had happened to me a month before. It was the first time that we made a movie about what we go through in life. And it was literally just like, this happened to me, it's fucking totally embarrassing and tragic, but it made us giggle.
So my brother improvised it and I shot it and we cut it together, and it went to Sundance and got written up as this innovative, groundbreaking film. [Laughs] Which is what we were trying to do the whole time before, but we were just doing derivative shit! The first time we actually winged something, and did something deeply personal, they called it innovative and groundbreaking and all this stuff. So that's why I say that it's so surreal and counterintuitive to me, because we're not trying to be groundbreaking. We're just trying to not make something that sucks. And I honestly feel like that is still what we're trying to do. I know from talking to press now that we're doing deeply personal stuff.
That seems like a great revelation to have as an artist -- that what actually works is doing things your own way and telling personal stories. Do you feel like that negates all those years of going to film school, all that stuff -- could you have accomplished this at 20 if you had just let go and done things this way?
I doubt it. Because it wasn't a realization; it was an accident. It took me getting pounded down into nothing, and us having no money just picking up a camera saying, let's just see if we can make something that doesn't suck at this point. I really believe it had to happen this way. Or, it didn't have to happen this way but this is the way it happened, you know? It's only by talking about it in retrospect that we realize how it happened and why we did it. For us it was just the willingness to put our heads down and keep doing it.
The struggling filmmakers of the world will be happy to hear that, I'm sure. Your work together with Mark is known for a consistent style, not only in your cinematic sensibility but in your process. Does this revelation give you more confidence in the way you work? Has it been easy to stick to your guns as you work more and more with studios?
No, it wasn't easy to transition. It just took a lot of steadfastness and a lot of conversations, honestly. Just a lot of care. Because a lot of people have this strange idea that we made Puffy Chair, we made Baghead, and then we just switched and did a studio film. But the reality is that after we made Puffy Chair we got tons and tons of meetings in L.A. because people wanted to take what we were doing and make it in the studio setting. That was 2005, when we premiered Puffy Chair at Sundance, and we didn't release Cyrus until 2010. We developed a bunch of different projects during that time at different studios and it took basically five years, and Fox Searchlight, to feel comfortable enough to know that we were going to be able to make a movie and it wasn't going to suck. We had other opportunities but we were going to be working in such crunched, or constricted, environments that we felt scared that we weren't going to be able to do and offer what we thought we had to offer.
So it was a very careful process, even hiring crew people on Cyrus; we interviewed everyone ourselves, which people don't do, because we wanted to make sure people had the right intentions and the right vibes. Everyone had to like what we were doing before, because we don't assume that everyone's going to like our movies. They're very specific, and we work in an unorthodox way. If people aren't excited about what they're making we don't want it to be a drag for them, and consequently a drag on our process. We don't really work in a framework of hostility and war, which most film sets are in my experience. We're making movies about subtle, personal things and if the sets aren't calm we feel like the subtle things can get lost.
You two are a unique case in that regard.
We're just careful, because for us it's not just about making a movie. We're also lucky in the sense that we can always go and make a $50,000 movie and if it doesn't suck we can sell it at Sundance for a lot more than that. So we rest very easy in our ability to make independent film, and not only that, we've really been fortunate and lucky that movie stars like what we do. We get a lot of phone calls and emails and messages from movie stars who are basically saying, 'I don't know what the hell y'all are doing over there but I like it and I want to be in it. And I'll sleep on your sofa.' For us that's been very empowering to know. Because that's where the real power lies, with distributing films: Having famous people in your movies, for better or for worse. But there's a great advantage to it. When we're on set it's hard, what we do with actors is very painstaking and there's a lot of chaos and a lot of confusion involved. [Laughs] What we have to go through to get what we get. But the upside of that is that people seem to be pretty attracted to acting in our movies.
It probably allows actors to exercise muscles, and in different ways, than they do on more traditional sets.
Yeah, and they get to have real moments. They get to do a whole scene all at once, which never happens, and to have a real moment with someone. It's almost like being in a play, but it's even better because it doesn't have to be that controlled. You can let it rip and see what happens and if it doesn't work out you can do it again. I think it's a pretty rewarding, and exhausting, way to work.
You filmed The Do-Deca-Pentathlon before Jeff Who Lives at Home, but we'll see Jeff in theaters first. Why is that?
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon we actually filmed before Cyrus. And right when we started editing Cyrus we got the greenlight from Fox Searchlight , because we had been developing all kinds of stuff and they weren't going and it wasn't ready, so we made Baghead, then we made The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, too. We got greenlit and we brought all of our crew over to Cyrus, and that included our editors. And everyone was thrilled because we were actually going to get paid real money for the first time. So we made Cyrus and we released it, and we got greenlit for Jeff Who Lives at Home immediately, which is the luckiest and most amazing thing in the world. So we made Jeff Who Lives at Home and when we finished editing Jeff we started back on The Do-Deca-Pentathon and we're actually fine-cutting it this fall.
When will it be released?
I don't know. I think it will be released sometime after March, because Jeff is released March 2.
You mentioned being confident that you could always take a smaller movie to Sundance, so there's a degree of security at least in that option.
Definitely. And you know, we've always tried to remember to make movies, not meetings. So many of our friends have gotten caught up in developing something for six years and then they wake up like, "Shit, we haven't made a movie in half a decade." That's crazy.
In Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jason Segel plays a slacker hero-basement dweller, which brings to mind the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori -- grown single men who still live at home, a total psycho-social phenomenon. What's behind Jeff's psyche in your film?
Well the movie is kind of inspired by us living in Austin, Texas and going to school there and watching a lot of really smart dudes kind of transfer out of academia into basements and efficiencies around Austin, Texas, engaging in philosophical thought and the nature of the universe, destiny, and their part in it all... and also potentially smoking some marijuana while doing that. A lot of people look at those dudes and call them stoner or slacker or laugh at them, and we do that too. But also, if you have breakfast with those dudes at like 7pm at a diner when they're wearing their cargo shorts, you realize how intensely thoughtful they are and how conscientious they can be, and honestly, how idealistic and hopeful and radical they are, too. Mark and I are at the same time amazed, but also their lives are kind of sad and tragic. But they're exciting and they're exciting to talk to, and there's that hopefulness there. So that's what the movie's about. It's about one of these guys going out into the world and actually interacting with the universe, when his thoughts about his destiny begin to interact with the real world. That's just exciting to us.
Talk about perfect casting -- how did Jason Segel get involved?
We had known him a little bit socially, and Jason Reitman as a producer was involved. We were talking about how he's kind of the perfect person to play this part. He read the script and just loved it, and we talked over dinner and knew we were going to make the movie.
Jeff Who Lives at Home is schedule to hit theaters March 2.