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Why the Duplass Brothers Went HBO with Comedy Series ‘Togetherness’

Why the Duplass Brothers Went HBO with Comedy Series 'Togetherness'

Writer-director-producer-actor Mark Duplass has an unusual career plan, to say the least. As far as he’s concerned, he gets more pleasure and satisfaction out of collaborating as a writer-producer-actor on various micro-budget projects than he does getting funding from the studios for bigger-budgeted projects. With time, he has become more militant about this. Duplass can afford to be, thanks to his hit TV series “The League.” 
A workaholic to rival Steven Soderbergh, Duplass writes and directs movies with his brother Jay (“The Puffy Chair,” “Baghead,” “Cyrus”), writes and acts with director Lynn Shelton (“Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister”) and Colin Trevorrow (“Safety Not Guaranteed”), produces with his wife, actress Katie Aselton, and other up-and-coming directors (“Black Rock,” “Creep”) and sometimes functions as an actor-for-hire on such films as “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Darling Companion” and “Tammy.”
Arguably, he and his brother Jay’s semi-autobiographical micro-budget “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” shot with a bunch of actor pals at their parent’s house in New Orleans, was a funnier comedy than studio project “Jeff Who Lives At Home.” And Duplass thoroughly enjoyed producing and starring in POV video horror flick “Creep,” the first installment in a new Jason Blum franchise. (Video with Mark and Jay Duplass here, Mark Duplass and Jason Blum here.)

Now he and Jay are hitting cable television with their new eight-episode seriesTogetherness,” created with old pal, actor Steve Zissis, which will debut on January 11. Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey play a Los Angeles couple heading toward 40 trying to rekindle their marriage, burdened by caring for young children. When his best pal (Zissis) and her beloved sister (Amanda Peet) move in, tensions ensue.  

Series regulars include writer-director-producer Mark Duplass (“The League,” “The Mindy Project”) as Brett Pierson, a straitlaced sound designer trying to rediscover himself as he nears his 40s; Melanie Lynskey (“Heavenly Creatures,” “Two and a Half Men”) as Michelle Pierson, eager to rekindle her passion for romance and life; Amanda Peet (“The Way, Way Back,” “The Good Wife”) as Tina Morris, desperate to get her bouncy-castle business off the ground while looking for a husband; and Steve Zissis (“Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Baghead”) as struggling actor Alex Pappas, who nearly leaves town but is convinced by Brett to give his career one last try.

Guest stars include Peter Gallagher (“The O.C.”) as Larry, a movie producer; John Ortiz (HBO’s “Luck”) as David, a divorced dad campaigning for a charter school; and Mary Steenburgen (“Joan of Arcadia”) as Linda, a free spirit who takes an interest in helping Brett come out of his shell.

TOGETHERNESS is created by Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass & Steve Zissis; executive produced by Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass; co-executive producer, Stephanie Langhoff; consulting producers, Amanda Lasher, Caroline Williams and Steve Zissis; line producer, Aida Rodger.
Some highlights from my recent  interview with Duplass (on the occasion of his August release “The One I Love”) and a discussion of “Togetherness” are below:
Anne Thompson: I read somewhere that you are of Cajun extraction. Is that true? Did you grow up in New Orleans?
Mark Duplass: I’ve got a little Cajun in me. I grew up in New Orleans — the suburbs my whole life. Watched a lot of HBO.
How did you and your brother Jay get started making movies in the first place?
Well, my dad bought one of those VHS cameras that goes directly into the VCR in the mid-80s, when we were little kids. We just started shooting stupid little films together. I think we remade “The Blob” with our beanbag coming down the stairs, in a stop-motion kind of way; it was pretty cool. We just kept going, and we struggled quite a bit to find what our voice might be. We were making serious dramas, and that wasn’t good for us. Somewhere in our mid-20s, we kind of found what we liked and went from there.
I know people misuse the word “improvisation,” so you tell me. It’s evolved over time, and I don’t think anybody is quite as good at it as you are.
Yeah, improvisation is traditionally used, in my world and the comedy world–you have those people who say, “improvisation means, ‘I’m going on a joke run.’” Right? I’m going to try to make some jokes for the movie. So, if you’re in a Judd Apatow movie, you have the script, and they say, “Let’s improv one.” And then you start riffing. In regards to “The One I Love,” the improvisation we used is quite different, because the script we used for this movie is highly detailed, highly plotted — it’s a 50-page outline. Every scene is carefully detailed: the plot movements of A, B, C, D, and what the characters are doing.
But there’s no dialogue written, so every piece of dialogue in the film is improvised. But you’re not “riffing” and trying to find something. You’re just being as organic as you can with your motivations and the trajectory of the scene, and using surprises so the person opposite you in the scene will not be lazy and rest on their heels, so it can feel, hopefully, a little bit more spontaneous than if it were rehearsed.
I call you a multi-tasker: how do you find time to do all these things? Does it feed you in a good way, or do you overextend yourself?
I totally overextend myself; I have to figure that out so I don’t have a heart attack sometime soon. But I sleep eight hours a night; I’m not that kind of a crazy person. But I’m a very collaborative collaborator, and I’m very good at delegating. I only pick people to work with that I think are nice and sweet and I’m going to have fun with. Sometimes it doesn’t go so well, but in the case of a movie like [“The One I Love”, with Charlie [McDowell] — who’s 29, who’s hungry, who’s smart — he was ready to do this. So, when we start together, he’s tight to my chest, and soon as he starts to get it, you start letting the rope out. It’s like your kids almost: letting it out, letting it out, letting it out. By the time we were on day three of shooting, I was just an actor on his movie. I way backed off.
But, to your question of how that feeds me… I’m 37, I have two young kids, I’m married, I’m kind of a homebody, and when I work with young filmmakers, they bring me things almost as often as I bring things to them. I can show them things about how to exist in the industry, and I can show them how to get attention with a movie — either by being in it or fostering it. But they’re juicing me up with all this new, inspired energy, so it’s mutually beneficial.
Like a lot of people in the industry, you’ve moved into television. I imagine much of your support for these more experimental things comes from “The League,” but now you’re doing your own show with Jay — a bigger show, called “Togetherness,” about couples. How did that happen?
HBO courted Jay and I for a while, saying, “You should really come make a show with us. You can do what you want here; this is a perfect place to make a show about inter-relationship dynamics and what you guys do.” We said, “We just don’t want to be stuck in TV. It seems like it takes forever, and we want to make movies.” They said, “Look, come make an eight-episode season with us. It’s like making a movie. I promise you: I know the shitty studio notes you get when you go to these other places. We will not do that to you. We will support you and let you make the show you want to make. You can count on us.”
So we were kind of like, “Well, that actually sounds pretty good.” And they were so true to their word. I thought I was going to be a career Miramax, Focus Features, Fox Searchlight type of filmmaker, but the reality is, those movies are not making as much money, so they’re clamping down on fear as to how they can be made and how they can make money. It really thwarts your ability to make the movie you want to make. In my opinion. HBO has a subscription service, and people come to it because they’re going to watch “Game of Thrones”; you’re this other cool thing that adds value. They’re so open to what you can make, and they just said, “We’d like to make a show about couples in their ‘30s.” We built this thing and literally got to do whatever we wanted. It’s been amazing.
You have Melanie Lynskey. Who else?
So it’s myself and Melanie Lynskey. We play a married couple, and then it’s my longtime collaborator, Steve Zissis, who I went to high school with. He was in “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” he’s in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” he’s in “Baghead.” And then Amanda Peet, who’s also in the show. That’s going to air in January. It’ll air with “Girls.” We’re just finishing that up right now.

But to your point about being on TV and being in “The League”: I loved John Cassavetes growing up. I thought, “This guy’s incredible. He’s making movies with his friends, he’s exploring, and he’s acting in the studio system to pay for it, which is the coolest thing.” I can’t get the studio-system jobs, but I can be on TV and make a shit-ton of money there, and then I’m self-funding five movies this year, and my financial advisors hate me and think I’m crazy. But they work and prove responsible, because I’ve never lost money on a movie. I just love doing it.

What other the projects are you working on now?
“The One I Love.” “Creep,” which I just finished and sold — also to Radius — we’re going to do a trilogy of those movies. I’m going to make two more towards the end of year. This is the time when you start submitting your movies to Toronto and Sundance, so I have five others that I’m producing and working on, and I have two television shows I’m making independently. I’m very interested in taking the model of independent film directly into television, which it’s time for. Rather than just go out and say, “Hey, here’s my script and pilot,” and then they just cancel you — because that’s what they do — I’m trying to cut through all that and just say, “Here is a season of a television show. If you like it, you have to buy this and buy one more.” So I can guarantee being on the air.
So you’ll pay for that in advance, then shoot it. Wow. Netflix might give you the money?
Yeah. They might, but…I know it sounds crazy, but I’d rather gamble on myself. The money I have to make by owning myself and the control I have over the content is worthwhile to me, rather than getting an upfront price tag, having our salaries be low, and we feel like we should be grateful because… I don’t want to do that any more.
In an ideal world you would be moving up in the movie business, but you’re still working at a micro-budget level. Is there an opportunity for you to grow and make a living?
I’ll be perfectly honest with you: the way I work on a micro-budget makes me more money and makes me more creatively satisfied than if I was doing movies at a 4-to-$7-million level. It sounds crazy, but I now have the connections in the industry so that I can borrow cameras and I can borrow locations. Everybody comes to work for [a small flat rate] per day — whether you’re a PA or a director, whoever you are. It’s all Communism. But you get points, and everybody’s an owner in the movie.
Which movies follow this model?
Quite a few of them. “Creep.” “The One I Love.” “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Baghead,” “Pentathlon” — the list goes on and on. I take money from my TV shows and I do everything. What I do is, I don’t hog 80% of the profits like a studio would, because everybody’s doing the work, so I share a huge chunk of the movie with my cast and crew — anywhere from 50 to 80% of it, depending on how complex it is. We take that movie, we sell it, and I make sure the distributors get a piece of it, because I don’t beat up my distributors. If it’s going to be profitable, you owe me some of that. When you break down the finances… when you go from a $5 million movie, you make $30,000, maybe, and you get no points. But when I make these little movies and we sell them, people walk away with windfalls. You’d be surprised.
Something like “Black Rock” was a movie that we made for [a tiny budget and sold for much more than that]; I shared that with all my cast and crew; Katie and I put up all the money; and we still see dividends that come in profit. That’s more than you would make on those kinds of movies, but we put up no salary at the front. We risk the movie, we risk our efforts, but that’s how you get cool stuff made. I’m willing to have some errors, too. I haven’t lost money yet, but I’m sure I will at some point.

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