Jay and Mark Duplass’ steady professional climb just hit another peak. Their first two features, The Puffy Chair and Baghead, won enough critical praise and independent film fans to get a green light for their first studio feature, Cyrus. The aforementioned peak comes this weekend as the film kicks off its national rollout in New York. It is a fitting sign of their upward mobility then, that Cyrus’ executive producers are a pair of blockbuster sibling filmmakers; Ridley and Tony Scott (Gladiator and Top Gun, respectively).
The Duplasses tracked their career path for Collider during a busy breakfast-time interview at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel. Hit the jump for the full audio and transcript, including their transition to life with a film studio, the guilty pleasure of having a Google alert for yourself and why Jonah Hill was like their mascot, onset.
The Duplass Brothers can trace some of their success back to another director’s milestone in July of 1990. That month, Richard Linklater’s Slacker began a self-financed run at the Dobie Theater in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. Buzz built over three months before a national run the following year. As a long list of independent filmmakers had done before him (Roger Corman, Melvin Van Peebles, Robert Downey Sr, John Cassavetes, John Waters, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, to name a few), Linklater found his voice and, in turn, gave hope to a generation of aspiring directors that they could do the same. Jay and Mark Duplass were among those under the influence.
The brothers relocated from New Orleans to Austin to study and produce films with micro-budgets. After their short films found a home on the festival circuit, the Duplasses’ real mark came at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival with their feature debut, The Puffy Chair.
Their latest effort, Cyrus, is their biggest film to date, given that Fox Searchlight Pictures (which has won multiple Oscars at each of the past four ceremonies with films like Slumdog Millionaire, Crazy Heart and Little Miss Sunshine) produced the film.
The film centers on John (Oscar nominee John C. Reilly), a film editor who’s down on his luck and still emotionally attached to his soon-to-be remarried ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener). John’s prospects look up when he meets the beautiful and ebullient Molly (Oscar winner Marisa Tomei). Everything takes a turn when her 21 year-old son/housemate Cyrus (Jonah Hill) enters with severe emotional possession issues and becomes an unexpected saboteur of John’s attempts at Molly’s heart. Critics have responded very positively to the film.
The professional fortunes of Jay (the darker haired brother sporting a beard) and Mark (younger by 3 & ½ years) may be on the way up, but they’re still very unpretentious and friendly. Since they had been giving interviews about Cyrus since its January premiere at Sundance, our discussion started with the press tour.
Click here for the full audio or read the transcription below:
Collider: You’ve been answering questions about this film for six months. So, what’s the worst question you’ve been asked about the film?
Jay Duplass: The worst question really comes from the attitude of the asker and it usually comes in the form of (mocking a bored interviewer) “What was your inspiration for the film?” It’s like –
JD: Yeah, exactly. Because first of all, an interview is only as good as both parties are willing to give to the interview and that includes the interviewer. So, when they give you nothing and they just expect you to regurgitate something that is not only online in 40 different forms (Mark laughs), but is in the press notes in front of them…
JD: We appreciate when people are here, you know, asking us questions (because) they want to help us and they want to help movies like this get out into the world. And–
MD: Sometimes they do.
JD: Sometimes, they do. But yeah…
MD: Uninspired would be the word that, you know, is tough for us to deal with and that goes for interviews and goes into our movies and everything. You know?
That was my first question, so… (Mark laughs)
No, it’s funny because I watched (their 2003 Sundance short film entry) This Is John. It’s a guy who’s (recording) an (outgoing) answering machine message. (It) should seemingly be effortless and yet, there’s all this blood, sweat and tears and he ends up crying on the floor by the end of it. And I was wondering how similar to filmmaking you think that that film is. Especially your films, which come off as so naturalistic and so –
MD: Off the cuff.
Yeah. That there’s so much more that goes into it behind the scenes.
MD: You’re an astute young man.
JD: Yes, you are and we appreciate that.
MD: We appreciate that.
MD: You validate our pain, my friend.
JD: You do! You do! (Mark laughs) Because normally what we get is, “Boy, it just must have been such a great time to have, make that movie with those guys. They’re so funny. It must’ve been great, right?”
MD: Yeah, I think that—
Yet (as in This Is John), you end up on the floor with a glass of wine.
JD: Yeah, exactly. (Echoing that frustration) Aaaah!
MD: I think it is fair that people assume that we’re out smoking pot and having fun with our friends. It does kind of look like that sometimes. You know? But, as all good thrift store shoppers know, it takes a lot of great care to make your look that disheveled (Laughs) and–
JD: (Laughs) That’s right.
MD: — and extra money and time and blood, sweat and tears. So, you know, I think This Is John was, it’s interesting you say that, ‘cause that was the first movie we ever made that we thought was decent. And that came out of pure—
JD: Life pain.
MD: — desperation and we were trying so hard to make a good movie for so long and we felt so far away from it and when that moment kind of happened with This Is John, we didn’t plan any of that. It was very spontaneous and very instinctual and it definitely came out of where we were at in our lives at that point. You know, we didn’t plan that that was going to be our model of filmmaking, but we’ve used that model a lot. Let’s improvise, let’s take stock of where the actors are personally in their lives and let’s let them bring things to the character that they might be passionate about in the moment or sensitive to that could give us a great performance, you know?
And leaping forward 7, 8 years now—
— To Cyrus.
How much did that (method) play into your casting? Seeing where people are in their lives and being able to play into that?
JD: I mean, that’s a big part of it is just, Mark and I using our instincts when we’re creating a script and creating a story idea. It, it started with just imagining John C. Reilly in this position and, you know, we knew him slightly, personally, and had watched him for years and years and were huge fans, but also, more specifically, we knew the way that we shoot, you know, the person who was playing that role is gonna come through, it’s gonna happen and you’ve got to be ready to receive that and every time we imagined John doing one of these things, everything got a little funnier and a little more emotional and a little bit more tragic and all the elements that we try to cull in our movies just kept expanding when we imagined him in it. So much so, that a few months into creating this story, we were like, I don’t think we can make this movie if John doesn’t do this movie. So, you know—
MD: Yeah and in terms of Jonah (Hill), there’s a side of Jonah that not a lot of people see which is a, is a dark side to him. He’s extremely intelligent. He’s a student of the human condition. You know, he’s one of these people you sit on a park bench with and you look at people and you can just party with him for hours talking about the strange little intricacies of people and that’s what Jay and I do. And that’s what our movies come out of, you know? And his desire to do something different with us, gung ho, you know, he’s like that freshman on the team who’s just ready to rock. I mean, it was really infectious on the movie. He really was the guy on the movie who was just like, you know, when times are hard and when it’s looking like this improvisation might not be leading us somewhere particularly great in the moment, like, he was a real believer. You know, he was, he was kind of like the mascot. You know?
Mmhmm. Now, you’re talking a lot about the collaboration on the film set, but also the collaboration that you’ve had in the past with the Zellner Brothers (David and Nathan who made the 2008 Sundance entry Goliath, and several short films that were festival standouts). Like David edited This Is John.
MD: Uh huh.
And you guys came up at a similar time, both pairs of brothers. How much did you feed into each other? Your own development, bouncing off those guys and other people in Austin (Texas)?
JD: I mean, I think Austin at large is probably the greater context of what you’re talking about. It was everything for us. I mean, you know, we, we grew up in New Orleans. It’s a very third world type city and you, you just never dream that you can actually be a filmmaker, you know, for a living. Like, you know, that’s just something that like, weird people do. We don’t know how you get there. We went to Austin for college. And, you know, we were highly influenced by Robert Rodriguez (who made El Mariachi on a shoestring budget) and Richard Linklater and (Linklater’s film) Slacker and filmmaking at that time was a totally (Do It Yourself) aesthetic. Even before digital filmmaking. It was very D.I.Y. in Austin and just doing things at no cost. It was just like, ok we have to buy film. We’re gonna buy film and then we’re gonna sneak onto University Of Texas campus and we’re gonna edit it. That’s been the ethic there forever and so, you know, along with all of our friends, we’ve always just worked together and it’s always been a quest to find our voices and to have something to say and have something to offer and we were really jealous of the Zellner Brothers early on because they had seemed to find their thing a lot earlier than us—
MD: Yeah, they knew themselves and were self-aware of what made them good much earlier than us.
JD: Yeah. I just think it took them a lot longer to cultivate a following because they’re so much weirder and more interesting than we are.
MD (Laughs) Yes.
JD: But it takes a while –
(Zellners’ 2005 Sundance Short Film about a film shoot-turned-shark attack) Flotsam/Jetsam, I mean, like, random…
JD: Yeah, it’s like…
MD: Beautiful, strange, awesome-
JD: I mean it’s, beautiful, weird, amazing moving pieces of art. I think in 20 years people will look back at them and they’ll be like, “They can do it all. They’re experimental, they’re narrative—
JD: — they’re aesthetic. And honestly, the great thing about Austin, too is, it’s so cheap to live there.
MD: Or it was at the time.
MD: Yeah, we used to edit a TV show for a church, like 15 hours a week and that was enough money for us to do our thing. It was a great place to come up securely and safely.
JD: I think the best thing about is, you know, what, it’s what we always tell young filmmakers is, making movies is incredibly hard and there’s this weird mythology created sometime around the early ‘90s that, you know, you wake up one day and you make a movie and you either have it or you don’t and Mark and I don’t believe that at all. We believe it’s a really complex form and in our case it took us 8-10 years before we made something that we really felt like we could take the tape in hand, hand it to someone and say, “This is us. This is something that we’re proud of” and, you know, it takes a long time to get to that point. So…
MD: At least for us it did.
JD: That climate in Austin totally allowed us to fail a lot and continue on.
You talked a lot about the influence of Richard Linklater (Dazed And Confused, Before Sunrise) on your work and the inspiration that he’s provided. Since The Puffy Chair came out and you guys have had that success and now you’re releasing a studio film for the first time (Cyrus). Have you had anybody come up to you, who’s had a film at Sundance that said that, it was- similarly with you and Linklater that they said The Puffy Chair was their inspiration? Have you had any–
MD: We haven’t had that extreme type of, s-, of, of stuff. Basically, no one worships us the way we worship Linklater. I mean, that’s just, you know, that’s just weird. But, we, we have, we’ve gotten, you know, those–
JD: (To Mark) I think he’s making me realize that it has happened. (Laughs)
MD: Of course, it has happened. Yeah, we have people come up and they, and—The Puffy Chair is used in film schools now as a model for how you can do it cheaply and still, you know, get, get it out there and–
JD: When it happens to you, though, it feels like a fluke.
JD: It feels like, well, you know, that was just a little weird.
MD: (imitating a skeptic) How did he? How did he figure that out?
JD: (Laughing) Yeah, that’s just a wei– Puffy Chair was a weird thing that happened in 2004 and 2005. They’re using it as an example, ‘cause it’s kind of a fluke, type thing. And then, you know, we’ll move on from there. But—
JD: — they still talk about it. (Laughs)
MD: It feels amazing.
JD: It feels pretty good.
MD: And I am not afraid to admit, though slightly ashamed that I Google myself and (Jay laughs) I see people writing things about us and I get really proud and happy.
You, you have yourself on Google Alerts?
MD: I have a Google alert for myself.
(Laughter) There’s nothing—Well, look, you know, it’s how you find out if somebody’s interested in your work, too—
MD: No, it’s pure vanity.
(Laughter) Ok, well then yes, I will grant you—
MD: I appreciate, uh, the help with the rationalization and justification, but let’s just call it what it is.
Yeah. Well, I’ve got a very large mirror in the back, if you want.
MD: (Jay & Mark laugh loudly) Yeah, exactly!
I saw you talking about the 30 minute walks (that they take on a production day to work out plot points or solve problems during shooting) and you said to the studio initially, “Ok, well, we’re gonna go on these 30 minute walks and kind of discover” because it’s part of your process and then they got nervous. How do you stay true to your own aesthetic, while also working within a studio system, in terms of your own process?
MD: I mean, the good news is that Fox Searchlight and that kind of studio generally wants to make these kinds of movies. So, whenever anything came up with us, in terms of growing pains, it was al- usually an issue about communication and Jay and I have worked so insularly for so long that we never had to really communicate what we were doing. We know each other. The former cast and crew of our movies were our family and friends and, you know, there are some very specifically different things in our movie that we find are alarming to studio people: five hours of dailies, if the scene’s not working, we’re gonna take a break. You know, handheld camera-work. Improvising the script. Those are things that legitimately would make anybody funding your movie—
JD: Camera sl–
MD: a little nervous.
JD: — walks across room (Mark laughs), turns around and shoots something else.
MD: And shoots something else, in the middle, in the middle of a take, you know.
MD: So, we don’t have an expectation that a studio should just lay down and so, it really was a question of Fox Searchlight coming to us enough to trust and understand that they hired us to make this movie. We’re gonna take care of it. Noone’s gonna be harder on this movie than we are and us coming a step to them and saying, “I know our process is specific. Let me take the time to explain this to you and really sit down and walk you through this and once we figured that out, everything was great.
Wrapping up, you’re working with Jason Reitman (the 4-time Oscar-nominee is producing their next film “Jeff Who Lives At Home” starring Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segel) Very indie for a while. Made a—
What have you learned from him as he was helping shepherd this next project along? And how far along is it?
MD: We, we just wrapped –
JD: We just started (post-production), yeah.
MD: — a couple of weeks ago, so we’re just getting into post. Jason (Reitman) was really, really great and respectful of us. He, you know, we make different kinds of movies. You know, and he loves what we do and he doesn’t pretend to know how to make what we do. And he was just, basically in a position to say, you guys make movies that are really critically praised and are amazing and the truth is none of our movies have really made any money. Jason Reitman’s movies have been very successful. (Reitman’s three feature-length directorial efforts Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up In The Air have worldwide grosses in excess of $430 million, combined) and he was willing to use that power to help protect us and say, “Look, these guys will make a movie and I will, you know, I’ll be there to, to prove that to you.” You know? He was in—I don’t want to say our bodyguard, but he was vouching for us, you know, in the money world and –
MD: It was incredibly, not only brave, but cool of him to do that for us.
JD: And, and not only that, but like, when you’re on set and you’re directing a movie and pretty much the hottest director in the world is in the next room, watching you direct, you would probably, normally be s—-ing your pants because you’re so nervous about it, but he has a way–
MD: Like, when is he gonna tag us out? (Laughs)
JD: (Laughing) Yeah, when is he gonna—Because obviously you can do this better than us, right? You know? And he was totally the opposite. I mean, just his attitude about it and his genuine respect for what we do and his curiosity, I mean, the guy is like—
MD: He’s a film fan.
JD: He’s a fan. I mean, he really is. He, he’s an appreciator and respects the differences and that kind of blew us away. I mean, it was really, it helped us be our best.
Cool. Well, congratulations on Cyrus and,–
MD: Thanks, man.
-and good luck as it goes out into theaters.
JD: Thanks dude. Awesome.
MD: Appreciate the interview, man.
Yeah, totally. Thanks.
MD: Good to see you, Ron. It was nice.