Mark and Jay Duplass recognize the irony of their setting. Sitting in a massive conference room in a Manhattan hotel, the brothers provide a strikingly informal contrast to the lavish decor. Shirts comfortably untucked, they toy around with a couple bruised apples and slovenly place their elbows on the table. It's a reasonable display of contentment. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the sibling filmmakers' low budget sophomore feature, "Baghead," landed a generous distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics (which opens the film theatrically in limited release Friday, July 25). The mini-major has flown them to New York from Los Angeles, where they currently reside, but the steeper budget hasn't changed their world view.
"We're always going to be desperate," says Jay. "We're always going to feel like we want things we can't have. If we get those things, we'll create new things."
Mark jumps in. They tend to finish each other's sentences. "Or, if we get those things," he says, "we'll be more afraid of losing them. We'll always be functioning with fear and desperation. That's our way." Acknowledging the surrounding luxuries, Jay suggests the duo should roll up to the next South by Southwest Film Festival -- where their careers really took off -- in limousines. "I think cigars are the way to go," adds Mark.
If the latest release indicates anything, their process hasn't failed them yet. The next logical step after the cult popularity of their hip road trip comedy "The Puffy Chair" was distributed to modest success by Roadside Attractions in 2005, the release of "Baghead" allows the Duplass brothers to broaden their audience without entirely severing their indie cred. It's an innocuous, disarmingly funny story about a couple wannabe filmmakers stealing away to the woods in the hopes of writing a movie. The eponymous knife-wielding killer might be roaming the woods. Or maybe it's just a mischievous member of the group wearing a grocery bag with holes poked in it. "If you're a gorehound, you're going to be disappointed," says Mark. "Unless you want to see your genre upended."
Both a witty, self-reflexive response to the modern horror film and a knowing satire of aspiring artists, "Baghead" resembles the aesthetics of the independent film tradition from which the Duplass brothers, now in their thirties, emerged over the last few years in Austin, Texas, where they started out making short films.
"I remember a certain time when just the fact that we could get a film into a festival was bringing loads of happiness into our lives," Jay recalls. Although SXSW brought them plenty of popularity, both "Baghead" and "The Puffy Chair" first gained visibility at Sundance. "If we could keep the budgets on these movies down, we could probably make a career out of selling them at Sundance," Mark says, "assuming they're decent films."
While recent complaints about the independent film marketplace keep firing up, the Duplass brothers beam about their Sony deal, which was reported as six figures. "They're so supportive," Mark says. "They didn't need to open in as many cities as they're opening it." Still, the brothers haven't become too giddy to forget their endgame. "We think it's hard to market this movie," Jay says. "We're confident people will like it once they get in the theater to see it, but four people go out to the woods to write the great American screenplay..."
Mark: "Who wants to see that?"
Despite their playful style, the Duplass brothers' have a smart, calculated career in the works. Since moving out to Los Angeles, they've set up several studio projects while continuing to churn out independent work. While waiting to figure out the details of the larger productions, they recently went to their native New Orleans to shoot another low budget movie, "The Do-Deca-Pentathlon." "These deals have essentially allowed us to make 'Baghead,'" says Mark.
Despite the social and formal associations that have tied them to the makeshift "Mumblecore" movement, they put a concerted effort into working outside of that reductive DIY paradigm. "We consider ourselves mainstream filmmakers," says Mark. "Our movies look kinda indie, but at their core, these are stories a lot of people can enjoy. I don't think we're challenging audiences in big ways, like some of these smaller movies do."
In the long run, the Duplass brothers hope to develop their screenwriting careers. "We would love to become institutional writers in the Hollywood system," says Mark. "Basically, John Sayles rules, and we would love to get close to what he's done." Their directorial ambition is a different story. "We're more leery of directing movies than writing them," says Mark. Jay adds, "You can escape writing a movie that doesn't turn out very well, but if you direct a movie that doesn't turn out very well..."
Mark again: "You're fucked."
For now, they hope to sustain the duality of their filmmaking. "The little movies we're making are like a whole different career," says Jay. "Basically, we're trying to make some money, and continue to make our movies along the way." He thinks a moment. "And have houses. And have babies."