Back in January 2005, Mark Duplass and his brother Jay Duplass debuted their first feature length film, “The Puffy Chair,” at the Sundance Film Festival. That fateful night in Park City would spark a career that has seen the duo flourish into two of the most influential names in American independent film. Writing and directing studio projects “Cyrus” (2010) and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” (2011) as well as executive producing the films of other budding filmmakers, the Duplass Brothers have become a staple at Sundance. Mark has also blossomed into a bona fide leading man in the indie world, starring in recent Sundance hits “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Adding to his ubiquity is a starring role in FX comedy “The League” and his upcoming HBO series “Togetherness,” which he created with his brother.
This year the filmmaker and actor is coming to Sundance with two new projects. After starring in Craig Johnson’s debut feature “True Adolescents” back in 2009, Duplass reunites with the director not as an actor but as executive producer for “The Skeleton Twins,” starring Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as siblings who try to figure out their lives after experiencing separate near-death experiences. He is an executive producer of director Charlie McDowell’s feature-length debut “The One I Love,” in which he also stars alongside “Mad Men” actress Elisabeth Moss as a married couple who find themselves caught in a unique dilemma (the details have been kept under wraps in the film’s press so far). Indiewire spoke to Duplass about his history at the festival stretching back to “The Puffy Chair” and what he’s anticipating about this year.
It was almost a decade ago that you and your brother Jay brought “The Puffy Chair” to Sundance. How do you remember that experience and did it feel pivotal at the time?
Oh, it absolutely did. I remember us being in the theater and the lights were going down and literally within a minute of the movie we both sorta burst out crying [laughs]. It felt like a really long journey to get there. When you’re an independent filmmaker, or at least the way we were, that was the pinnacle of what you wanted to achieve, to get a feature film into Sundance. I remember all of it very vividly.
You and your brother have become staples at Sundance. Do you feel a special relationship to the festival?
I do, and I’m not just saying that because you asked it. I mean, we had our first short film there in 2003 and they were one of the only people who would program it. It was one of the ugliest and shittiest movies that would make Sundance. They saw something in it that not a lot of other people ever did and they helped support us and kind of curated our career. I really believe that I would not have my career were it not for Sundance. I owe them kind of everything. It’s not out of a sense of obligation that I go back; I feel most comfortable in an indie space and I feel very comfortable at Sundance so whenever they want to take one of my movies they are always the first place I want to go.
You’re a writer, director, producer and actor. What’s the hardest and which do you enjoy the most?
The hardest, most arduous of all for me is directing. You’re usually there the longest. The same could be said for producing, but Jay and I do more executive producing, which is not quite as arduous. Directing is certainly the most rewarding, too. It’s the difference between raising children and being a great uncle to children. Acting is like being an uncle: you show up on set, you play a little bit and then you walk away and the director has to take care of the kids. It’s a very different relationship and I love them both. They’re both very rewarding in their own way.
Let’s talk about the projects you have lined up at this upcoming Sundance. You star in and executive produced “The One I Love.” What attracted you to that film?
It was something that I curated for Charlie [Mcdowell, the director] who I met with and really liked. He actually reminded me a lot of me and Jay when we made “The Puffy Chair.” He was in a similar career space. I kind of brought him the concept of the movie and asked him if he wanted to flesh it out and make a whole feature out of it and he and his writing partner, Justin [Lader], did. So we kind of built it organically together.
This is Charlie Mcdowell’s feature length debut. Did he ever ask you for pointers on set?
There was never any direct “Hey, help me out,” but we definitely established something of a mentor/mentee relationship throughout the process. As we made our way through prep and through filming, it was more and more of me loosening the reins and Charlie taking control of the movie. By the time we were done shooting, it was very wholly his movie. It was a very rewarding process, we became very close not only as friends but creatively and it was a big collaboration. A lot what you see on screen were ideas that came from Justin Lader, our creative producer Mel Eslyn and from Lizzy Moss. It was this really fantastic filmmaking branch, so we were improvising some and shucking and jiving as we went along. It was a big, healthy collaboration.
What was it like to work with Elizabeth Moss?
She is incredible. She and I have very different approaches to performance, which gelled perfectly together. I have a bit of a filmmaker brain. When I am finished with a take, I’m thinking “OK, I should do the next one a little bit differently so the editor has this option and has this one.” Lizzy is just like an animal, she lives it and is it. I’m very close with our sound designer Sean O’Malley, and he shared with me something really amazing. One of our takes with Lizzy, he had a microphone on her chest and he had to move it because, while her heart was beating perfectly normal, when Charlie yelled “Action,” it changed. She and I were having a very intense moment and her heartrate just shot up double, just thumping, thumping, thumping. She was ruining the audio with her thumping heartbeat. I don’t know anybody who embodies their character, who lives them that way. She’s a gem.
You and your brother Jay are also executive producing another film at the festival, “Skeleton Twins,” directed by Craig Johnson. You starred in his first film, “True Adolescents.” How was this experience different?
It was totally different this time. I’m not in “Skeleton Twins,” which is a big difference. I’m in a much different stage in my career than I was when I did “True Adolescents.” When he brought me this script, I was lucky enough to be in a place where I could be helpful not just creatively but also as far as bringing a cast together and finding money for the movie. These are things that Jay and I can do now that we couldn’t six years ago. I’m very close with Craig personally, we’re good friends. I know that he knows how to make a movie, so I didn’t have to worry about shepherding him the whole way; all I had to do was bring in the attention the project needed. He showed us the first edit of the movie and we helped him get it into shape. It was a really healthy partnership.
Both “The One I Love” and ‘The Skeleton Twins” are about people who need to take a break and regroup from their lives. Is that a coincidence?
Yeah, I think it is a bit of a coincidence, although I’ll say that the space Jay and I have been interested in predominantly are relationship-oriented movies, be they romantic dramas or romantic comedies or things like that. The thing that’s unique about “The Skeleton Twins” is that you’re going to see a star-making turn from Bill Hader, similar to when Jonah Hill came on to “Cyrus” before anyone knew he could do the dramatic stuff so well. Bill breaks out here in what he can do as a dramatic performer; that, to me, makes the movie special. What makes “The One I Love” stand out is that, on the surface, it’s a relationship dramedy that I’m used to making, but there is a pretty significant plot twist early on that sends it into totally uncharted territory. It’s a big departure and really exciting.
Any other films at the festival you’re dying to see?
There’s a ton I want to see! Most of the big movies that I know will get bought I don’t see at Sundance because I know I’ll have a chance to see them later on when they come out in theaters and VOD. There’s a bunch of great, great little documentaries, world cinema and frontier movies that I’m trying to focus on while I’m at the festival because I won’t get to see them if they don’t score distribution.
When can we expected to see you and Jay’s new HBO series “Togetherness”?
Good question. We’re gonna start shooting over the next couple months. We’re doing an 8-episode first season, and they’ll put it on the schedule whenever we feel like it’s right.