The first real question I have for you guys is, and I know it sounds simple, but why did you decide to do TV now? What made you make the leap from film?
Mark: It really wasn’t a conscious decision, per say, to move from film to television. It sort of started with the genesis of this story. We wanted to make a more deeply personal project. Just as “The Puffy Chair” was very personal to us in our 20s, “Togetherness” is the same way for us in our 30s. Once we started hatching the story it just got big, and it felt like something that could keep going and something that we didn’t want to define to the 90-minute form. We had this long-standing friendship with HBO, and we were thinking about doing a show with them, but we were nervous that it might suck up our whole lives. But they were like, “Come do eight episodes with us. It’ll take you half a year and you can do what you want. We’ll support you and we’ll give you lots of money to do it and we’ll put billboards all over town for you.” And it turned out to be true, which is rare. We’re very happy we have made the move.
What is it about this concept specifically that made you feel you needed the extra time?
Jay: Mostly just that we are similar to these characters or in a similar life place. We created it in our late 30s, and we have young children and we’re getting our asses handed to us when it comes to balancing parenthood and following our own dreams and being good spouses and good friends. Everyone around us is that situation, too, including those who did not have families or hadn’t gotten traction. But everyone seemed to be getting a little desperate, so all the material kept flooding in. All these funny stories of a grown man being brought to his knees by a 12-pound infant, just day after day after day. And in the typical way that me and Mark do, we kept sharing these stories and cringing about them and giggling about them quite a bit. We felt like it was the kind of story that just went on and on and on, and we also felt there were a lot of subtle things to communicate here in the long form of serial television storytelling. We felt it was the right way to do it.
The basic concept for “Togetherness” doesn’t make for the easiest elevator pitch. How did you sell it to HBO, and is that the same way you’d sell it to your target audience?
Mark: It is a very difficult show to pitch. It would be something like, “It’s a show about a bunch of sensitive people and the sensitive feelings they have while acting sensitively towards each other.” [laughs] I think we lucked out because we’ve made a couple movies now and people know who we are, so actors like to work with us because they know how obsessed with performance we are and how we give them a lot of respect and creative freedom. HBO was a fan of our work, too. They said something the other night that was interesting, and that was that it had been a while since they had an adult comedy on the network that was grounded and had heart and it felt very real. While it’s not the flashiest thing in the world to talk about in the elevator, that’s part of what we love about it.
Mark, did you always want to play Brett? Obviously Steve [Zissis] was a big part of it, but how did it all come together?
Jay: Well, obviously Mark and I are family guys, and we know a lot about the pains of raising your family and trying to make thing good while getting your ass kicked by babies. We went to high school with Steve. He was the president of our school. He was all those things — a great athlete and very popular. Everyone thought he’d be Tom Hanks or the President of the United States, or both, and we’ve watched him struggle for 20 years and audition and lose confidence in himself and really question what he’s doing. He’s never really gotten his big break, and we’ve always felt that part of our life’s mission is to create a platform for him, so that was a given. We feel so proud to sort of present him to the world, and people are now saying exactly what we wanted them to say, things like, “Who is this guy and where has he been? Why don’t we know about him?”
That was for Steve, and for the girls [Amanda Peet and Melanie Lynskey] we did a lot of auditioning, actually. It was really important for me and Mark that we’d be able to read with people in a room, which is sometimes not really a popular thing among established or “famous” actors or actresses, but the chemistry is absolutely critical to the show. When both Melanie and Amanda came in and read it with us, we knew within a minute they were perfect. Not only are they great actors, but they also have such a great sense of humor and they’re nice people. They’re amazing and really open-minded, and they’re great improvisers. Mark and I have challenged ourselves to write the female roles as prominent as the male roles, which is something that is super important to us and the show. We are guys, and we really rely on Melanie and Amanda to take ownership of their characters and guide them home.
Do you have an example that you can give of something either actress did that you ended up using?
Mark: What’s interesting about our process is that it’s very instinctual. There’s not a whole lot of intellectual discussion. We write full, traditional scripts, but the actors are encouraged to own their roles, so while the plot of our stories never change, the words they use or how they go about dealing with characters is always up to them to deviate from the script if they want to. What normally happens is that it won’t be, “Oh, I don’t know about this.” In the moment, they’ll use their instincts to shift and say something that feels either essentially female or essentially just their character, so it crosses not only gender lines but personality lines as well. It’s that type of trust and character ownership that, if we’re doing our jobs right, gives it that sense of naturalism and hopefully creates more organic chemistry among the characters.
Traditionally television is made at a much quicker speed. You don’t necessarily have the same amount of time on set to play around with things. Have you noticed any differences in the transition from television to film, or have you kept running things like you always have?
Jay: We definitely move faster than we do on a traditional film shoot. But Mark and I have come from absolutely no budget, DIY filmmaking, so we’ve been in situations where we have to go into a restaurant that is fully functioning as a restaurant and get the scene in only two hours. The quick pace of television is a luxury to us. We’re also pretty adaptable. We go with the limits that we get, and in a lot of ways the quicker pace of TV gives you a nice momentum. You don’t get caught up in things too much. We’ve adapted to it pretty well, I think.
Have you mapped out the series past Season 1? Do you know how long you want to do this?
Mark: Yeah, we talked a lot about that. The potential heartbreak with television is that you can get overly excited and map things out for six seasons and then get canceled after one. Then you’re like, “Ah shit!” We feel that we left Season 1 in a very good place, so should our hearts get broken we’ll always be proud of the eight episodes we made. But we’re very hopeful that we’ll get to continue and the story is ideally built to go on much longer.
A lot of the movies you’ve made feature characters you just want to hang out with — they’re so human and real that they seem they could live on forever. Has this made you want to go back and revisit anything you’ve done before?
Jay: We haven’t thought retroactively about that, but what you’re talking about very specifically is something we’ve talked about a lot. What we are obsessed with is communicating in the form of human interaction. For instance, the moment you realize your marriage may very well end, it’s probably not something that’s normalized by a big fight down by the river with perfect lighting. It’s probably your spouse doesn’t make you a cup of coffee that morning and you have this feeling. That kind of epic smallness is what we’re obsessed with. The idea with long form storytelling that our audience could eventually get to know these characters so well that they could begin to read the subtle cues of the way we really experience our lives, that concept is so powerful and profound and exciting to us. It’s that coupled with the sense that TV is an open universe.
It’s no mystery that our aesthetic is a documentary aesthetic. We’re trying to create a sense of vérité, where you forget that you’re watching something that is scripted and where the drama is heightened just by this sense of reality you experience. The stakes are high just like a documentary because it feels real. The idea of an open universe is very, very different in form from a narrative where you’re always thinking about how you’re going to pay everything off. You don’t do that in TV. You have to open and close plots, but the emotional lines and arcs of your characters are endless. There’s very little artifice that you have to create in the craft of writing television. The emotional evolution continues to get more and more complex, and that is something we’re becoming more and more obsessed with every day. Right now we’re so obsessed with this world and living in it, and we’re just so blown away by how well this form is suited to who we are and what we’re here to do.
Jay, between this and “Transparent,” you’re going to have two critical hits on TV over the course of six months. I don’t know how the schedules lined up, but was there any bleed through between the two? There’s this human connection to the two shows that feels like they could be a part of the same universe.
Jay: Yeah. Jill [Soloway] and I have joked about doing a “Happy Days”/”Laverne and Shirley” crossover episode at some point. Mark and I have actually been working on this show for three years. We shot our first season before we shot “Transparent,” which was just shoot and release. Amazon is doing binge watching and they move really quickly, while HBO is more methodical about how they shoot and when they release. There wasn’t any bleed over really. I don’t even act that much, but I met Jill and I was trying to help her cast that role of Josh because she was having a hard time with it, and it was really scary for her to be holding up her whole show because she couldn’t find this brother who was so critical to the family. After we had talked for 30 minutes, she wanted me to play the brother, and I was just like, “What are you talking about? I have my own show that I’m about to shoot.”
But we understand each other so well. Jill is probably as close to Mark and me in terms of the concept of creating a world that is very real and being extremely careful about writing but allowing improvisation. The tone of her stuff is so similar to ours, which is why she probably thought it would be a natural fit for me to play Josh. I don’t think there’s been any bleed back and forth, just the general mutual appreciation over what both of us are doing.
Mark, on an unrelated note, many of us at Indiewire want to know more about the Sundance project you have coming up called “Animals,” the animated series. Could you talk about your role with that, and the idea about presenting at Sundance and what you hope to get out of that experience?
Mark: I found these two young guys [Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano] who reminded me of a sort of young Trey and Matt from “South Park,” and they had made these amazing animated videos. At the same time, Jay and I have always been interested in taking the model of independent film and applying it to television, where you just make a bunch of TV and take it out and sell it afterwards. So we went ahead and did this and fostered these guys through an entire season of television, and we’re going to take a couple episodes to Sundance this year and talk a lot about this wonderful migration of independent filmmakers to television and how that could be supported by sort of making an independent television industry. We’re going to use that show to try and break through that strange ceiling. We’ll either look really smart or really stupid in the next coming weeks.
“Animals.” premieres at Sundance Monday, January 26 followed by a conversation with Mark Duplass, Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano. “Togetherness” airs Sundays at 9:30pm on HBO.