After four films in six years, directing siblings Mark and Jay Duplass are slowly but steadily inching their way towards the mainstream – and simultaneously making the mainstream come to them. Their first two films, “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead,” were completely independent, although “Baghead” secured distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, and then last year’s dramedy, “Cyrus” was funded and distributed by Fox Searchlight. In each subsequent film, they’ve attracted bigger and bigger talent, and in their next film, “Jeff Who Lives At Home,” no less than Jason Segel and Ed Helms play brothers who band together to track down Helms’ character’s wife.
The Playlist sat down with Jay Duplass at the 2011 Savannah Film Festival, where he previewed the film for attendees and received the Cinevation Award, which recognizes “inspiration and innovation in cinema.” In between a deluge of interviews and placing his lunch order, Duplass talked at length about his and his brother’s migration from the arthouse to the multiplex, and discussed how studios have seemed to not only just accept their style, but absorbed its influence and begun to employ it in films made by other ambitious young directors who are willing to work with a smaller budget in order to tell their stories.
Despite its studio backing, “Jeff Who Lives At Home” is still a long way off from its official release date of March 2, 2012. Nevertheless, Duplass indicates that this slow unveiling of the film feels more comfortable to him than a nonstop media blitz, not the least of which because it more closely resembles the trajectories of their past films. “This movie actually was produced by Paramount Pictures, so I luckily did not have to shop it, but I’ve done plenty of shopping of films,” Duplass explained. “This is a special little movie that has Jason Segel and Ed Helms in it, but it’s definitely not the kind of movie that people would probably normally expect from like a Segel-Helms joint venture, you know what I mean? It’s definitely more of a festival movie, so Paramount felt that even though it was produced at the studio, it was the right tone and the right type of film to take to festivals.”
After the film screened earlier in the year at other festivals across the country, Duplass indicated that the process of introducing it piecemeal – not to mention talking to press about it – isn’t just more familiar, it’s more familiar for himself and his brother. “We were totally comfortable on the festival circuit – that’s where we kind of came up – and the festivals are really loving it and people are loving it,” he observed. “It’s a relationship movie that has a lot of emotional content, but it’s also got some comedy too, so it’s like a fun festival film. So it’s been a nice ride, and just between us, it’s been really nice to go to festivals and enjoy the showing of the film in addition to doing press at the same time, as opposed to just going from hotel to hotel doing a press tour all year long. That’s pretty tough.”
It’s easy to look at the increased cachet of their films’ casts and suggest they’ve been actively seeking movie stars and mainstream attention. But Duplass said that many or most of the big-name performers who have worked on their films thus far actually sought them out. “I don’t know what it is, but movie stars have gravitated towards us,” he said. “Sometimes they will seek us out at parties and say, ‘Dude, I saw that little movie that you made – I don’t know what the hell you’re doing over there, but I want to do it. I want to be in it, and I’ll come sleep on your sofa.’ I mean, for ‘Cyrus,’ both Jonah and John C. Reilly had seen ‘Puffy Chair,’ and we were getting little droppings from people who were friends with them saying, like, ‘John keeps talking about ‘The Puffy Chair’,’ or ‘Jonah is passing out copies of ‘The Puffy Chair’ to people in the industry’ – like he’s basically your publicist right now.”
Duplass suggested that one of the reasons they’ve been attracting these actors is because they challenge them in ways that their more traditional studio films do not. “I think they can sense that something special is going on on our sets in regard to the actors,” he said. “We are doing improvisation and we are not controlling things to a great extent. And then we say to them, ‘Look, you’re going to have real moments; you’re going to do the whole scene and we’re going to improvise this stuff based on a script. You’re going to have a lot of freedom, and there’s going to be a lot of fear and courage involved at the same time.’ And that seems to be what really ignites them and excites them about what it is that they do.”
Meanwhile, Duplass said that they have struggled a little bit to adapt their low-fi, shaggy style to the demands of the studio system, in some cases because they are making films with too few people and too little money. “That was harder, and it mainly came from the fact that Mark and I were making films with our friends,” he revealed. “I mean, the whole cast and crew on ‘Puffy Chair,’ I swear to God, was seven people. ‘Baghead’ was about ten.” He described their style as largely observational, employing naturalistic settings and camerawork to capture honest interactions. “The most categorical difference from us and other movies is that we bring the filmmaking apparatus to a real moment that’s happening, say, in a bedroom. We do not set up the lights and the cameras and then tell the actors to come to marks and come to us, we maybe set up a couple of lights in key places that I think they might go to, but basically we set them loose in a room and I come to them as a documentary filmmaker.”
Discussing their low-budget approach, Duplass continued, “When we made Cyrus in 2009 for six and a half million dollars, even Fox Searchlight was shocked that a movie could be made at a studio for that price. And now, studios are making movies for a lot cheaper than that; Searchlight is making movies cheaper, Paramount with their horror thing is doing something. So people are getting into it, and Mark and I are just Catholic school boys that have been taught to be responsible and only make something for what it absolutely must cost. So we’re just happy that studios want to make what we’re doing, and want to pay us, because now we have health insurance and we didn’t for 15 years.”
He said that balance between integrity, independence and larger production and distribution has required them to be vigilant about choosing their collaborators. “Pretty much everyone who wanted to work with us was doing it because they wanted us to get the types of performances and the types of moments we’d been getting on our smaller stuff. They just wanted it at higher resolution and with better lighting, and with slightly more stable camerawork – which, I’m not sure we’ve given them that,” he said, laughing. “But it has been a long-winded process, and I think the hardest thing for me has been it used to be a caveman-grunting kind of process for me and Mark, making movies, pushing lights around and just kind of winking at each other, and now things have to be intellectualized a lot and explained a lot. And that can be tough, but when you need ten million dollars to make a movie, you’re pretty happy to do it.”
“Jeff Who Lives At Home” is being released nationwide on March 2, 2012.