In about a week, organizers will unveil the list of some 120 new feature films that will screen at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. While the January festival will usher in a fresh new crop of American indie films hoping to secure distribution, a handful of worthy features from Sundance '05 are still trying to find an audience. Probably the best of the bunch is The Duplass Brothers' "The Puffy Chair," a no-budget indie that played during the second half of Sundance this year, picking up steam when it screened two months later at SXSW in Austin. Following a few filmmaking false starts in the late 90s and then a trio of recent popular short films, "The Puffy Chair" has jumpstarted Jay and Mark Duplass' careers, even though it still lacks distribution.
More than three years ago in Austin, frustrated that they hadn't yet made a good film, the Duplass' decided to buckle down and make a make a short. The two had directed a feature with a group of friends in the mid-90s and also tried to make a couple of other feature films, but were unhappy with the results. Sitting in their apartment in 2002, one day they decided to make a film about a guy (played by Mark) who is trying to perfect the personal greeting on his answering machine, shooting one twenty minute take that they cut down to about eight minutes. The brothers call "This Is John" their "$3 movie" -- they submitted it to Sundance, it got in and shortly after their first screening in 2003 a William Morris agent called them. Since then, they've taken another short ("Scrapple") to Sundance in '04, had a third short ("The Intervention") in Berlin where it won two top awards, and debuted "The Puffy Chair" at Sundance in January.
In "The Puffy Chair," Mark Duplass stars as a failed rocker turned booking agent who is determined to drive across the country to deliver his dad's birthday gift -- a big purple Lazy Boy recliner he bought on Ebay.com. His girlfriend, and then his brother, join him for a road trip filled with dramatic and comedic incidents that spark a turning point in his relationship. In a conversation with indieWIRE back in September, Mark Duplass described the film as the story of "a couple and how hard it is to stay together when you are in this age bracket," with brother Jay adding during the chat, "Shit we know about!" And Mark quickly interjecting, while laughing, "Yeah, the problems of the privileged, upper middle, white class!"
The idea behind "The Puffy Chair" was to make a movie with what The Duplass Brothers call "big scenes." Mark Duplass explained, "Our goal with this was it would be great if we made a movie that works, but if not, we'll have strung together some really great moments and we'll hopefully have a movie that has some promise to it." Jay Duplass reiterated that at the time they decided, "Let's just do what we've been doing, in feature form. Let's not try to make a big ass, complex movie with subplots, lets make something nice and linear that is basically like 12 really good shorts in a row." As production continued on the five-figure feature last year they gained confidence, re-shot a few scenes and finished it in time for Sundance. After a screening the finished film for a few friends, someone recommended the movie to Cinetic Media and the company began repping the film for sale before Sundance. However, even though audiences have connected with the film and its sharp depiction of modern relationships for the characters, buyers have been cautious.
"The Puffy Chair" is the sort of indie film that would have been quickly snapped up at Sundance ten years ago, but today without stars and an obvious marketing hook, buyers seem wary. But the film has certainly found a growing number of fans both in the business and among its festival audiences. Even more importantly for The Duplass Brothers, the movie marked the moment that a pair of filmmakers finally found their voice after a few false starts.
"There was something that clicked with us," explained Mark, sitting next to his brother Jay during the conversation with indieWIRE in September at the Woodstock Film Festival in New York. The brothers decided to stop trying to make the sorts of movies they thought they were "supposed to make" to instead create films that were more personal and in keeping with their own sensibilities. The directors abandoned any attempt at arty or esoteric work in favor of films that relied on their strengths: humor, performances, and perceptive writing.
"Not until 'The Puffy Chair' came out did we have a very good example of who we are as filmmakers," explained Mark Duplass, "And now that that it is out, we are aligning with people who really get us."
The Duplass' have a trio of movies they are writing now, as well as a TV show idea they are pursuing. In the meantime, they are hoping to balance their own films with work they'll do in Hollywood. "I don't think we'd be able to make a movie in the system," explained Mark Duplass, "We'll just keep making them on our own until it becomes credible enough to get real financing." Jay Duplass added, "That way we can do exactly what we want."
Over the weekend via email, Mark Duplass said that they are nearing a distribution deal as they finish up their fest travel, having just screened at events in Chicago, Cardiff, and now Thessaloniki. "We feel lucky that we don't have to get a big theatrical deal to make our money back," said Jay Duplass, explaining that a pending cable TV and DVD deal will cover their costs. But they are also committed to trying to secure a limited theatrical release of the film next year. "The Puffy Chair" received best of the fest honors in Edinburgh this summer and won the best feature award at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Alabama this Fall.
"I never dreamed I'd get a feature film in Sundance," explained Jay Duplass, "It doesn't make you happy, its doesn't fix up your whole life. We're still just two guys trying to make a good movie and trying to put something on screen that we think is funny.