The Duplass Brothers, at this point, have become so well-defined as creators and performers by over a decade of prolific work they need very little introduction. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything new to say, especially when it comes to Season 2 of "Togetherness," the HBO series that gets more intimate and intriguing, year after year.
The indie film icons sat down with Indiewire to dig into their love of the montage, explain why they like directing as a team effort and the nuances of the writing process that continue all the way through editing. Also, they promise Season 3 will have dragons and sing excerpts from "Team America: World Police." An edited transcript follows.
So, just congrats on everything. I’ve seen the full second season, but I’m going to try to avoid talking about spoilers. Thus, to start off in general terms, where did the general focus for Season 2 come from?
MARK: Even when we were making the pilot, we had a good sense of where Season 2 was going to go. Like, as this show became a reality for us a couple years ago, we kind of had a sense of what Season 1 and Season 2 were going to be. And, I think if you look at the main difference between what happened in Season 1, which for us was, you know, situating these characters in their specific little world on the East side of L.A., getting to know them very well, getting to know the nature of their interpersonal dynamics, playing a little more of sort of like the quiet and internal conflict that was going on between them, Season 2 was a little bit more about lighting that fuse and letting things kind of ignite a little bit for everybody.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but did you have a Season 2 pick-up before Season 1 launched?
MARK: I don’t remember.
JAY: No, we… Well, HBO has a pretty standard policy that they don’t really green light until your first episode airs…
MARK: But we had written the second season.
JAY: But we had written the second season.
JAY: We were eyeing for that.
MARK: We were hoping it would happen.
JAY: We felt their confidence in us and also, you know, because Mark and I in the first two seasons pretty much wrote and directed every single episode, we wanted to get ahead of things. We don’t work in the traditional TV format where we’re like writing concurrently to shooting. Like, we really view it as a large feature film.
I heard that you guys chose to split up the season a little bit more, directing-wise?
MARK: Mmm, yeah. Well, I think what we did a little bit of this year as opposed to, you know, what happened in years past is, like, Jay and I are always together and we’re always functioning as a team. But, one thing we’ve learned is that when one person is a little more forward and what we call "in the shit," it’s almost better if one person stays back a little bit and starts to watch. Because when we’re both in the shit, we lose perspective. And so, like, if I’m a little bit in the shit on one episode per se, and I’ll be like running things all around, then Jay can be watching and he can be, like, "Okay, this is really great, and this is what we decided, but you missed this and you missed this and you missed this," and that little bit of separation between us provides a little bit of objectivity that saves us some headaches.
Now, when you say "in the shit," that doesn’t have anything to do with your acting work on top of it?
JAY: No, it’s just that the nature of being a director is being incredibly overwhelmed with getting the shots right, dealing with the locations, and then there’s a two-year-old in the scene, and all that stuff — you know, there’s a lot of kids in scenes…
MARK: I mean, it really has a lot to do with who is actually physically doing a lot of talking. And we’ve just noticed that as we’ve evolved we’re still making all the decisions from this, like, "cave."
MARK: We work in this cave, and we speak to each other sort of subconsciously and with like, weird cues and tangential brother speak, but it really comes down to if you are the person who is moving amongst the actors and talking to people more, the other one can have a little more time to really watch.
JAY: Yeah, it’s about perspective.
MARK: And take in things without, yeah… So, it’s about perspective.
I mean, honestly, hearing you describe it, I’m shocked more directors don’t work in pairs. That seems really valuable.
MARK: They do. Most directors do. There’s usually some form of this, sometimes it literally comes down to you both show up in the morning and one of you is like, "I’m a little tired and overwhelmed today, so I might need you to just be a little step ahead of me and speak with more confidence because I’m not quite there." So, there’s quite a bit of that in other teams.
But, so then that’s probably more of a director/producer relationship?
JAY: She’s asking you why people don’t direct in teams more as opposed to solo.
MARK: Oh, sorry. I mean, yeah. We feel that, I mean, even doing it as a team it’s very overwhelming for us.
JAY: So hard. We wonder how directors do it on their own.
MARK: To your point, which I think is right, a lot of solo directors have a really strong creative producer with them. Jay and I have less of a need for that because we have each other.
Oh, of course. I feel like what’s so interesting about you guys getting to do Season 2 and then potentially more seasons is– Like, is this the longest you’ve lived with a set of characters?
MARK: For sure.
JAY: By far.
MARK: And, we talk about it all the time. And, there are negatives and positives to it. Like, you know, just like a marriage, where you’re like, "Well, this… you know, is the sex still as exciting as it was two years ago?" — we’ve been sleeping with these characters for two years, but we know them so intimately and we love them and we’ve put so much time and energy into them and that’s one of the big things we love, which is, like, no more exposition needed, you know? We get to get into the nitty-gritty and the minutiae of the way they relate now, and that’s really valuable. We just have to make sure we don’t repeat ourselves and we plot this thing so it doesn’t dead end too much, and so that’s the challenge really. It’s like, how do you keep those balls in the air and make it exciting still?
With Season 2, the world gets bigger, there are more characters, but I’m wondering if there is a "Togetherness" with a fifth or sixth series regular cast member?
JAY: Hadn’t thought about it.
Because the thing I noticed is that new characters come in a lot, but they have pretty finite exits.
MARK: Yeah, we have a pretty tight-knit quad of lead characters. I mean, we are certainly…
JAY: There’s barely enough time to write for all four of them in a half-hour format.
MARK: I know, we can barely fit them in. That is a big challenge. Treating four lead characters equally, within a 30-minute format, is definitely challenging.
JAY: We’ll get a dog or something.
MARK: One of the things that we’re getting really excited about specifically is that the little girl on our show, Abby Ryder Fortson who plays Sophie, is one of the best actors that we’ve ever been around. Each season that goes by, we’ve been able to rely on her a little bit more and more as, like, a fully-fledged character who is always going to be in the mix and so that’s something. But we’re open. I mean, that’s what’s great about TV is it’s an open universe and we don’t know what’s going to happen anymore. Like, we had the first two seasons pretty well plotted out, and we reached where we wanted to reach. And now, we’re in the writers’ room on Season 3 and we’re really open to whatever’s happening in our lives as per usual, but, also whatever the characters tell us that they want to do and need to do. They’re so well formed, not just as characters, but by these incredible actors who play them. They have very strong points of view and they have their strong suits and we’re just– It’s like we created a monster and now the monster is in charge.
So, you’re working on Season 3 even though HBO hasn’t given you the official green light yet?
JAY: Yeah, it’s that same process, where we start writing ahead of time and we hope that the show goes well and they’ll pick us up. But, you know, we’re going to get moving because we can’t make these shows just from the logistical standpoint in time to air each year unless we get ahead on the writing.
Sure. I mean, eight episodes in what? Three months?
MARK: You mean the shooting of it?
MARK: Yeah, it’s about that, yeah.
That’s pretty tight.
MARK: We’ve done things that are faster at times, but it’s definitely different when we direct all the episodes because it’s like we have to write them all, then shoot them all, then edit them all. So we have to just get ahead on those scripts basically.
Talking in general terms about Season 2, so much of it has to do with the charter school process. While it does get kicked off in Season 1, was it always part of the plan to make it a real cornerstone of this season?
MARK: Yeah, I think we always felt that that would be a big part of Season 2. It’s a huge part of our world, living on the East side of L.A. Everyone who’s a young parent is trying to figure out how they’re going to educate their kids. Specifically for this family and for a lot of people who live out in Eagle Rock, who don’t have a lot of money, they want great educations for their kids and the schools may or may not be there depending on which district they’re in. I mean, there are a lot better schools now than there used to be…
JAY: …but if you’re on the wrong street…
MARK: If you’re on the wrong street, you’re in the wrong school. And so that, mixed with Michelle’s [Melanie Lynskey] sort of innate desire to create community in Los Angeles, to be a part of something bigger than just the house that she lives in — which I think is a very specific Angelino thing where you live in this big city and everybody feels isolated, you know? So, those things really felt like a great vehicle.
JAY: And, we’re not smart enough to know that you shouldn’t write a charter school plotline because it means that you have to shoot with a lot of kids.
MARK: Yeah, so we just fucked ourselves.
JAY: Which we’ve figured out since then.
It feels like you managed to keep it pretty limited.
MARK: We’ve shot with babies and kids and it was tough. It’s not easy. It looks tangential, but it is not.
Is Season 3 set in a community college with very, very attractive 18-year-olds?
MARK: Very attractive and desperate 20-year-old actors that will do whatever you say, whenever you say.
But in Season 3, in genuine seriousness, how do you hope the show evolves? Like, what kind of angle do you want to see it develop?
MARK: Yeah, I mean we talk a lot about how we knew a lot about where Season 1 and 2 were going to go and now we’re heading a little bit into– We ran out of our map and now it’s open to what we want it to be, so there are a lot of discussions about, like, what do we want to do with these characters? And the positives of that, for us, are obviously that we’ve had the show grow and breathe with our own desires and things that we’re dealing with. And the negatives of that are, you know, there’s a lot more pressure now that we have a show that’s on the air and people like these characters. So we want to make sure we serve it up correctly for people and what they want to see, you know? We were in our writers’ room last night for Season 3 and, you know, it’s still very much like a feeling of, "This could be whatever we want it to be." So what exactly do we want? We don’t really know that yet.
I mean, it’s not like, say, "Game of Thrones," where you know you have a lot of dragons to fit into the mix at some point.
MARK: We’re definitely going to have dragons. We know that.
Okay. That’s good. How big is the writing staff?
JAY: We have a unique writers’ room of like, six people. It’s Mark and me, it’s Steve [Zissis], it’s Jay Deuby who’s our long time editor/collaborator/producer, and two seasoned female TV writers: Cara DiPaolo and Ali Waller. And, we just have a unique process where Mark and me, we tend to write fast. We do come from a cave. Essentially, we hold our writers’ room as like a group that retains all the ideas that we’ve come up with along the way, we don’t need it to–
MARK: It’s not nine-to-five every day. We go in for a couple hours a week.
JAY: No, yeah. It’s usually once a week that we meet, and it’s basically just like really smart people and friends who read our stuff instantaneously when we write it. They get paid to read it immediately and…
MARK: Make it better.
JAY: Make it better.
MARK: Jay and I like the vomit draft. We like to barf it up and put it in the room and let people improve it and help us build story ideas and it works really, really well.
JAY: It’s like a brain trust to help Mark and I do what it is that we do, which is basically make a lot of things from a very subconscious place. So, it’s like a support group for us to… because it is very overwhelming to make a whole season of television, even if it’s only eight episodes. It is a full-time job for us year-round. So, it’s a lot to carry, so having that group is incredible.
It’s so interesting that you have an editor in there. What does he add to the process? Beyond just being like a trusted consigliere?
MARK: That’s a very big part of it. Jay Deuby knows us incredibly well. He tends to be a little bit more rational and less excitable than us, so Jay and I can get a little, like, heated and head down a road that may not be good for the show and he’s kind of like, "Guys, come on, like, keep it together." And he’s also very good at ferreting out the kinds of scenes that we normally cut. So, he’s just like, "I know you think you like this right now, but remember that in Season 1, remember this in Season 2? It’s going to end up on the floor. Don’t write that." He’s really good with that stuff.
JAY: He’s also funny as fuck.
MARK: His joke ideas are great.
JAY: He’s one of the funniest people we’ve ever met and he also loves our show genuinely. He’s been married for like 20 years, and it’s just one of his favorite pieces of art and so he’s, like, the "keeper" with us of this brain trust of what this show is, was and will become.
Along the lines of the editing, something I know has always been kind of a big part of your work is montages, which really stuck out for me in Season 2 because they carry so much story and so much emotion. What excites you about a montage?
MARK: [singing a la "Team America: World Police"] You made a montage.
Aside from the fact that there’s an awesome song.
JAY: Yeah, yeah.
MARK: We love the montage.
JAY: We are almost embarrassed by montages because people joke about them, but we have come to embrace them repeatedly because, like you said– Well, first of all, there’s a lot of, like, personal conflict that happens in our show and so sometimes you just need to listen to music, so you can have some space and, like, get some perspective
MARK: It’s a dramatic break for a lot of people. We test them on audiences so we can see them start to, like, click out. And then we’re like, "This is a good place." Also, from an efficiency perspective, telling four equal leads’ story in the course of only 28 minutes allows us to be kind of efficient with the storytelling and stuff like that. But, I think your earlier point is the biggest part of it. It carries a big emotional punch in less than minute for a lot of things. And, it allows people to kind of catch up on hopefully some of the subtler things we’ve been dropping. You show that look and the music behind it and it lets people kind of, like, coalesce all that stuff and we’re like, "Oh." We never used them really in our earlier work that much, but the more we start to use them, we realize how powerful they are and we’re not afraid of them anymore.
JAY: Yeah, and they also… It’s like a subconscious way to connect our characters as they– Because our characters are often departing from each other and exploring their own lives, they are flirting with their own dreams, but it’s always in relation to the other characters, and the best way to show that is in a montage.
MARK: [singing again] In a montage, everything fades out of a montage.
As actors within a montage, what is it like to hit those pages and play those moments?
MARK: Well, I’ll be honest with you, sometimes you don’t know you’re playing a moment that’s going to be in a montage. Sometimes it’s a scene that didn’t work out the way you hoped it would be and ends up in a montage.
JAY: Sometimes a montage turns into a scene, or a "scenelet" if you will.
MARK: Yes, a scenelet, yeah. We always joke now like, you know, the more experienced we get making stuff, we’re like, "Never leave set without a shot of each of our lead characters driving in the car looking happy, looking moderately blank and looking sad." Because we know we’re going to need these things.
JAY: And then you realize that it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they’re just driving and then depending on what just happened, the audience will decide how they feel and the song will also determine how they feel.
It sounds like a lot of the show is found in the editing room.
MARK: A lot of it is found in the editing room and part of that is due to some of the improvisational tactics we employ on set. Part of it is that the shot goes a little bit long and they end up coming down to fit time.
JAY: And we kind of do this thing where we view each season kind of as a big, long movie, you know? And so we screen all the episodes in one sitting for people before we lock them and then we watch what’s tracking and what’s not so we’re like, "Oh, you know what? That Michelle plot point is playing a little too subtle, let’s dial it up here, but we really hit them over the head with this Brett plot point, let’s dial that down." And, it’s really nice to have a guy like Jay Deuby with us from the writing, through the shooting, through the whole process and we just kind of try to slowly dial it in, you know, we’re big fans of documentaries and that’s where we take most of our inspiration from and that’s a similar process where you kind of craft it a little bit and post.
So for you two, Jay, I know you’re still working on "Transparent," but for you, Mark, with "The League" over, is there slightly less pressure looking at Season 3?
MARK: It’s not so much less pressure, it’s less work, which is really exciting to me. I’m just personally looking forward to being able to spend a little more time doing different things, so that’s really great. Jay and I are writing a book this year which is really fun and so yeah, I am very excited to spend less crazy 12-hour days on set. Those were taxing times.
So, how much time do you think you’ll spend on set this year?
MARK: Oh, on "Togetherness" we’re there every day all day for sure, but, at least, I don’t have to go right into "The League" afterward, which I’ve been doing for the last two years, so…
JAY: I will spend six months of this year on set, and it’s a lot. I mean, it’s just a tremendously… Especially with "Togetherness," where we’re writing and directing, I don’t know how Mark does it with the acting on top of it. Because acting, there are a lot of breaks and there’s a lot of days in the week where you just don’t even have to show up to work. But, "Togetherness," I mean it really is a lot and, you know? It is only three months, but it is 12 hours a day and, you know, if your kid gets sick, if you get sick, it’s like…
MARK: You gotta show up.
JAY: You still gotta show up and you know that whatever you do is going to be shown on national television and people have high expectations because you’re on HBO. So it really demands everything that you have to give. And, Mark and I are, you know, we’re good little Catholic school boys and we…
MARK: We don’t want to disappoint you.
JAY: We don’t want to disappoint anybody, yeah.
"Togetherness" Season 2 airs Sundays on HBO.