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Mark Duplass on His New HBO Series and Why TV’s Become a Haven for Filmmakers: ‘Box office numbers are so ridiculous right now’

Mark Duplass on His New HBO Series and Why TV's Become a Haven for Filmmakers: 'Box office numbers are so ridiculous right now'

Mark Duplass isn’t the first person you’d expect to find at a giant comic book convention, but the “Cyrus” director was a big hit at New York Comic Con this past weekend. He was there for two different projects, posing for photos with enthusiastic fans and fielding interview questions between a panel for “The League,” the FX series on which he stars that’s currently in its fifth season, and an autograph-signing session in support of “Bad Milo!,” the Ken Marino horror-comedy he executive produced that’s now in theaters.

It’s quite a journey from the days of “The Puffy Chair” and debates over how appropriate the name “mumblecore” was for an indie film movement, but Duplass is as grounded in his approach to the industry as ever, even as he and his brother and filmmaker partner Jay prepare to head to HBO with their first TV project, a half-hour comedy called “Togetherness” that’s slated to start shooting early next year. Indiewire managed to grab a few minutes with Duplass on a very busy morning to talk about the new series and why he’s still interested in making movies in a fluctuating studio system.

You’re an executive producer on “Bad Milo!” How have you picked the films that you’ve done that for?

That’s a good question. A lot of it is who I’m friends with or I believe in. [“Bad Milo!” writer/director] Jake Vaughan I’ve known for 15 years. He’s been an editor on my movies. I love him. I believe in him. That’s part of it.

The other part is we’re the only people stupid enough to make a movie like that. When “Safety Not Guaranteed” came our way, that was a very hard movie to get made, and that is kind of the fun challenge — how can we get this movie made? Nobody else wants to make it. Let’s do it.

Having come up through the indie scene and being able to work on both sides, with the studio system, do you have that ability now to make those movies happen for people?

We do, we do. I can’t do it for 15 million dollars, but I can do it at a certain price point — and that’s really cool. I would have really loved if, when I was 25, someone was like, let me help you out. Also, I take pride in getting the movies made, too. We don’t make any money on any of these movies, at all, but they are just fun to do.

I was happy to see you and Jay get the HBO deal for “Togetherness” — to have fellow SXSW alum Lena Dunham have a show there and for you guys to have a show there is exciting. Do you feel that there is a particular sensibility with your films that can easily be brought to TV?

It’s hard to say. TV is so broad in what it offers, but I will say that the environment at HBO is particularly great right now and particularly great for the kind of stuff that we want to make: slower developing comedic dramas with odd plot points.

It used to be, in the late ’90s, that’s what you did at Fox Searchlight and Miramax, but those companies have to turn a theatrical profit now. They don’t have the latitude they used to have creatively. They can’t just throw something out and it will make money. So, it’s a bit of a cliché, but television is the place to do edgy material right now. If you asked me five years ago if I’d be running a show on HBO, I would have said “no way,” but it’s a very natural fit for where things are going.

It seems like a lot of those types of mid-budget movies are dropping away.

They sure are. The $6-to-10 million Focus-Searchlight movie is in trouble now, and that’s what I thought I was going to be making. That’s why I made “Cryus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” I will continue to make movies of all budget ranges, I’m sure, but I would just say, knowing that I’m going to make a piece of art at HBO and I don’t have to worry about whether it performs in the box office and we need to fucking lie about marketing it correctly so people will come and see it… That shit stresses me out and unfortunately places a weird value system on whether your movie is successful or not.

The box office numbers are so ridiculous right now. It’s crazy. You can look at a movie like “Safety not‪ ‬Guaranteed,” which made about $5 million domestically and be like “That was a huge hit!” because it was a little movie, but it’s like “Well… They spent some money advertising that movie and they tried to make it work.” So the profit margin isn’t that huge.

Then you look at a movie like “The Puffy Chair” which made like $250,000 in the theater. Huge profit! We spent no money marketing the movie, and through VOD and DVD and everything it became this huge cult hit. That’s to say the value system is so crazy with theatrical movies right now, there’s something exciting about being at HBO that erases all that.

There is always this place for the under-$2 million film, but there seems to be something exhausting about making those.

I have a different theory on that. There are certain budget levels that, yes, the under-$2 million movie — it’s a union movie, you shoot it in 20 days, you get your ass handed to you, you have to make sacrifices everywhere — those can be tough. But there are other ways to make those movies, and Jay and I have made a career of making really micro budgeted movies, off the grid.

And there are many ways to make movies much cheaper than that where you don’t have a big union crew and you’re not trying to squeeze it into the Hollywood model. The under-$2 million movie is less than the Searchlight model, but you’re still trying to be in that model. Then you can just blow all that shit out of the water, take out a piece of paper and be like, “$20 for gas, I’m going to borrow this camera.” And that is how we used to make movies and we’re starting to do that more now.

How did you decide to star in “Togetherness”? I know it wasn’t something that you were attached to act in, necessarily.

We always wanted to, but I am on “The League” right now so there’s contractual stuff, being on two shows and we weren’t sure if we could work it out. But everyone ended up getting along, and now I am able to do both.

That sounds like a crazy schedule — it’s an eight-episode season?

It’s an eight-episode season. “The League” is 13. I don’t run “The League,” I just act in it. But I’m also a maniac, and I know I am and I like it that way. I enjoy it. I have two things in my life right now: I have my family and I have my work, and I have no social life. I’m 36, I’m in that sprint of life where you’re just defining who you are, what we’re doing. A lot of my heroes — filmmakers, novelists, musicians — have that six-to-10 year period where they are fucking awesome and on fire and then they just start making a bunch of garbage. I kind of feel like I’m in my prime right now and I want to do it up before I start making garbage.

You and Jay are directing, writing and producing the show. That sounds just like a film, really.

It is. We’re going to write and direct every episode. You shoot eight episodes, it takes you 40 days. It’s not like a really long shoot. It’s like a big movie.

So the workload is not too bad.

Not like when we go guest star on “The Mindy Project.” Those guys are working on that show 10 and a half months out of the year. Totally different animals.

Has being on “The League” given you some sort of sense of an approach to making television that you’ll bring to “Togetherness”?

Honestly, no. “The League” is such a different animal. The way we shoot and the priorities of “The League” are vastly different than what I want for my show and how I approach my show.

The HBO show is going to feel much more like an extension of how we made a movie like “Cyrus.” We’re going to be sponsored by a lovely company that gives us money to make it. The budget levels are going to similar. I would say if anything, it’s a little easier to write the scripts. Writing a 30-page script doesn’t take one third the time that it takes to write a 90-page script. It takes about one tenth the time, because you’re threading less needles.

Can we expect any improv in this one?

Oh, yeah, for sure. It will be full scripts, like we always do, but even in the pilot we improvised half the shit in there.

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