“The cavalry isn’t coming.”
With those words, actor-director-producer Mark Duplass launched into a rousing keynote at the SXSW Film Festival on Sunday. Currently writing a second season of HBO’s “Togetherness” with his brother Jay, Mark continues to act in a wide variety of projects, while he and his brother produce several movies a year and recently signed a four-picture deal with Netflix.
A decade ago, their feature-length debut “The Puffy Chair” became a sleeper hit on the festival circuit, which led the pair to Los Angeles, direct two studio projects (“Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) and continue building momentum. These days, both brothers also act on television (Mark on “The League” and Jay on “Transparent”). The Duplass brothers’ brand has never been stronger — but it hasn’t always been that way.
Despite all their success, Mark told the crowd that their origin story had more than a few rough patches.
“I was living in Austin in shitty apartments around town,” he said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m inspired, I’m excited, I want to be a filmmaker. I have no connections. Everyone says pick up a camera and do it, but how am I going to get there? What can you do when you’re absolutely nowhere?’ ”
Over the course of his half-hour presentation, he shared this improvised eight-point plan based on his experiences. (Backstage, Duplass told Indiewire that he assembled his speech on scraps of paper at his hotel shortly beforehand.)
1. The $3 Short Film
Technology is so cheap. There’s no excuse for not making short films on the weekend with your friends. We had a film we shot on an iPhone at Sundance this year that sold to Magnolia [“Tangerine,” directed by Sean Baker]. Our first film starred me. It was called “Vince Del Rio.” We spent $65,000 on this movie and it was a steaming pile of dog diarrhea. We almost gave up making movies. [Jay] was depressed. I was slightly less depressed. All we had was our parents’ video camera, which had a dead pixel in the middle of it. I said, “I’m gonna get a tape.” Twenty minutes later, Jay said he couldn’t get his answering machine message right and recorded it a hundred times. I said, “That’s great. It’s us.” So we shot one 20-minute improvised take. We edited it down to seven minutes. Our friend David Zellner said, “You should just submit this around to festivals.”
That three-dollar movie was our first to get into Sundance. It changed everything for us. We realized that it doesn’t matter what your movie looks like. I recommend making one of these every weekend with your smartest group of friends. They don’t have to be film people, just charismatic. It should be one scene, five minutes, and ideally comedic, because those program well at festivals. Your first ones are going to suck. Probably. They’ll be like a little nugget you can show your friends. Then you hone in on that little giggle. Somewhere you’re going to discover you have something unique to offer.
2. Make a Feature For Under $1,000
At the risk of saying you should make a self-indulgent film for your first movie, you should absolutely make a self-indulgent film for your first movie. This is going to be the start of your career. The whole time you’re going around this festival, there’s a small chance an agent is going to sign you. They’re going to say the cavalry is coming. It’s probably not. But you’re going to be writing a feature script the whole time that can be made for less than $1,000.
You’re going to spend a year making this movie with available material. You can ask everyone who can support you what they can lend you. When my brother Jay and I made “The Puffy Chair,” we had my apartment in Brooklyn. I had a van. There was a furniture store going out of business in Maine where we got two chairs. That was perfect because I needed to burn one of them in the movie. We knew we wouldn’t have to wait to make this — we could make it at a cheap price. So you’re going to go out with a group of five to eight people. You’re going to buy lights and extension cords… and they have a 30-day return policy. So you’re going to make your movie for free. And there are places… where you can buy cameras and return them — or shoot it on your iPhone. If you have an agent at this point, they’ll say, “Don’t do this.” If you listen to them, you won’t get your movie. Go make this movie on your own.
3. Show Your Movie to Movie Stars
There are movie stars at these film festivals. Every film festival has three to five movie stars that come because of the sponsors. You’re going to get your movie in front of them. Tell your agent to send your $5,000 movie to every actor in the agency. You want to build your movie with them. A lot of those stars are going to be like, “Fuck that, this dude doesn’t know what he’s doing.” But one of them will respond. Let’s call him Randy Hercules. He was on a bad CBS show and he’s super-depressed. You’ll say, “Randy, I saw your show, and I think you’re better than this.” You’re going to say, “I want to build a role for you, Randy.” And he’s going to fall in love with you. He will follow you to the end of the earth.
4. Make Another Cheap Movie
Now you are going to do the unthinkable — you’re going to make another $1,000 movie, but this one has Randy Hercules in it. Even if you make a stinker, you’ll make at least $50,000 on it. Randy will make 20%. You can go to him and ask him to give it to the rest of the crew. And he’ll do it. You might go to Sundance and sell it for a million dollars. Probably won’t happen. That’s OK. Now you have a movie that has extreme value on VOD because it has Randy Hercules in it.
5. Embrace VOD
God bless VOD. Please do not reject VOD. Don’t blow all your money on a theater that’s going to lose money. Let someone put it out on VOD and you’ll make at least $5,000 because Randy Hercules is in it. More importantly, the industry is starting to notice you. Now your agent will say, “The cavalry is really coming.”
6. Move to TV
As the death of the middle class of film continues, it has moved to TV. If you made a good movie with Randy Hercules, you’ll sell a pitch. You might get to make that show. Probably not. But you could probably make some episodes independently and license them back to these companies at a quarter of the price. So you’re going to take out Randy and his friend, Dingleberry Jones. Make two episodes and outline the rest. I guarantee you can sell the show to a place that wants content from a vetted, cool filmmaker like yourself.
7. Produce Your Friends’ Work
All your friends are going to say, “I have an idea, I want to make my first film with Randy Hercules.” Then you can throw a thousand dollars at them and say, “Go for it. If you shit the bed, it’s a write-off.” But take 80% of it and share it with your crew.
8. Accept the Hard Facts
So now you’re at this weird crossroads in your life — making money, not rich, sustaining your friends. Your agent will call you: “This time, the cavalry is fucking beating down your door.” And she’s right. You’re gonna look at your career and say, “I’m a little tired, because I’ve had to self-generate every project. It would be really amazing not to work that hard.”
This is the really hard truth: Still, when I’m at this place that I am at, the cavalry is not coming. It sucks. But this is where the good news starts to come in. You realize, “I made two micro-budget features, critically acclaimed short films, and licensed a TV show. How is it possible that the cavalry is not coming?”
Here’s the good news: Who gives the fuck about the cavalry? You are the cavalry. You have a group of friends that needs your support. As they get more successful and you make a shitty movie, they will lift you up. This will equalize you. You have a bevy of work behind you and not one of those are you embarrassed to show your children later on. Most importantly, you’re now in a corner of the sandbox that is completely your own. No one can stop you from doing exactly what you want to do. If you can accept that the cavalry won’t come, and if you can be the cavalry, it gives you a chance to be happy.