Now open in theaters is The Lazarus Effect. The film follows a team of scientific researchers attempting to extend life in dying patients. When one of the team members (Olivia Wilde) is killed tragically during an experiment, the rest of the group does the unthinkable and brings her back to from the dead. As in all Frankenstein-inspired stories, the act of playing god bears punishing consequences, and the woman who comes back is not the woman they knew. Directed by David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), the film also stars Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Donald Glover and Sarah Bolger.
I recently sat down for an exclusive interview with Mark Duplass. We talked about why The Lazarus Effect interested him, his respect for Jason Blum, working with an ensemble of such powerhouse creative talents, and trying to bring some humanity to a “straight ahead” horror film. He also talked about working with HBO on Togetherness, and his new four-picture Netflix deal.
You’re a busy guy. You do a ton of work. You act, write, produce – what made The Lazarus Effect something that was worth your time?
MARK DUPLASS: Good Question. I really like Jason Blum a lot. We’re friends, and while we make wildly disparate films, we share a philosophy about low-budget filmmaking, about taking chances on young filmmaking, taking risks and obliterating our salary so we can make something cheaply and if it wins everyone wins big. I love that. I’d done a little movie with him called Creep that comes out this year and we were like “Let’s do a big one. Let’s do one where we can make a straight ahead horror movie and hopefully you can bring what it is you do to it.” And when we found this script I was like, “Ok, this is kind of up my alley”, because it’s a straight ahead, kick ass, 80-minute bullet of a horror movie. It takes place in one location, which I really, really like.
And the director happens to be a documentary food director. So we had this chance to make something that’s still a slick straight ahead horror movie, but has a humanity to it because of our director. When he came to me I was like, “Let me try and help you build out a cast of people more from my world, the comedy world.” Olivia, who I knew because of Drinking Buddies, and Donald who I knew socially. Our goal here will be to make a movie that is not like some of the movies I’ve made that can only go out on 20 to 30 screens because they’re so specialized, that’s big and appeals to everybody. But while I’m there I’m just going to everything I can to make it feel as natural, and make these characters feel as normal, as possible. So with Frank it’s like, “Alright, Frank should have bad hair and shitty sweaters, and when he’s running around he’s not going to look like an action hero, he’s going to look like a scientist. And when he talks, and he makes jokes with his wife, they’re actually not going to be inherently funny. They’re going to be kind of dorky and sweet and normal. That’s what these people should feel like.” Once I knew I had the support of Jason and David to do that I was like, “OK, I think I can add something to this movie.”
You guys did put together a really cool ensemble for this. Talk a little bit about your experience on set. I think you guys had 23 days to shoot.
DUPLASS: Yeah, man, I think it was around twenty honestly, I can’t remember. It was great. A cast like this on a 20-day movie is normally, from my world, is normally like Safety Not Guaranteed or something like that. You don’t often see this type of cast in a horror movie, so that’s part of what made it special. We all had our eye on the ball, trying to create chemistry and trying to create naturalism together to the best of our ability, while still not blowing out the needs of what the horror movie needed. You do have to say some of those shitty horror movie lines every now and then to push the movie forward, but we tried to do that in the way that had the most integrity we could. We would change them and improvise, so that was great. I was friends with Olivia a little bit, so it was – normally horror movies, I haven’t been on a lot of them, but they’re not known for casts really getting a long and chilling out and chumming up.
You and Donald are constantly creating, Olivia’s a producer, what was it like with so many creative powerhouses on set, particularly with a first-time feature director?
DUPLASS: Really good, and very respectful. Just to cut to the chase, David was very honest about the fact that he had directed documentaries but didn’t have a lot of experience directing actors, so we all took a lot of ownership over our roles. That being said, he wasn’t a pushover. He was there to govern what the movie needed, but when we wanted to resay things, when we wanted to try new things, he was open for it. I believe in giving the director what he wants, but also making them give you what you want, and David wasn’t someone that I had to force into it. So for instance, when you see me giving a speech with a lot of technical jargon, I will give him the super efficient, clean takes that he needs and then I say “I’m going to do one now that is purposefully messed up and improvise-y and has a lot of “like” and “um”, and makes it feel like a human, and lets see what that does.” A lot of that stuff actually ended up in the movie, which I was really psyched about. It wasn’t like you had a bunch of cooks in the kitchen, it was basically like we were all experienced actors guarding our characters, trying to make sure they felt somewhat real. And David was like, “Great, let’s try that.”
So I’m about an episode behind, but I am in love with Togetherness.
I’m in love with it, and I’m so excited you guys are getting to do a second season.
DUPLASS: Yeah, we’re in it right now.
DUPLASS: I’m away from my offices – I’m in trouble right now for being here.
How is it to think of a story like that in terms of a second season? Because I don’t feel like it’s a narrative that lends itself to the “sequel” style.
DUPLASS: Well, wait ’til you see the whole thing. You’ll see. It heats up a little bit at the end. I love it. It’s probably been the best creative experience of my life. Just being able to make exactly what I want with my brother and a lot of my best friend and to have a place like HBO that not only lets you do that, but supports you and puts up billboards in support of it, and really puts it out there for you. That’s not something I get a lot in the independent film world where everybody’s pinching pennies and nervous about whether it’s going to make money or not. HBO’s just like, “We love it. Fuck it. Let’s put it out there.” That’s rare.
Yeah, a lot of your work has really thrived by word of mouth so I could see how that would be an asset for you.
DUPLASS: Exactly, it’s nice.
You guys also have a really exciting deal with Netflix now, so where are you guys on that? Have you started pre-production on anything?
DUPLASS: We’re going to produce four movies for those guys in the next couple years. We’ve got a lot of stuff that’s already in the pipeline. We had three movies and a TV show at Sundance this year, so a lot of it is meant to service things we’re already doing. But I really believe in constantly trying to find and support new ways of watching independent art, because the old ways are not working as well. Going to the theater, spending tons of money, people are losing money doing that. I’m really interested in my kinds of movies being seen as many people as possible on a TV of that size. That is totally cool with me and there are companies like Netflix and HBO who are really well funded, ready to support that in a way that’s never been supported before. So I have an opportunity now to make exactly the kinds of movies I want like The One I Love and Your Sister’s Sister, but now everybody can get paid really well and we can, rather than release them in four cities where a handful of indie film enthusiasts can see them, we can go out internationally through Netflix, extremely well supported with ad dollars and millions of people will see them within the first week. So that’s win/win for me.
Props on The One I Love, by the way. That’s a neat movie.
DUPLASS: Thanks, man.
When you have this volume of production, this many projects going on, how the hell do you keep your head straight?
DUPLASS: I go to therapy once a week, that helps a lot. I have a really supportive family. I have two little kids, I’m married, I live close to my parents, my brother and his wife. I don’t socialize a lot. I work and I have my kids, basically. I’m just, I would say, with all false modesty aside, I’m ruthlessly efficient with my time. If anybody normally has a 45 minute conference call about something, I’m 15 minutes late and then I’m out 15 minutes before everybody else, and I cut to the key information and I move on. I learned that from my dad and guys like Jason Blum, who know how to do that.