“You and I can get started and Jay will join us,” Mark Duplass told The Observer, so we began the interview. “You’ll realize we share the same brain anyway.”
The Louisiana-born Messrs. Duplass, who now live in Los Angeles, direct films together; they are perhaps the most prominent Americans who fit that description since Joel and Ethan Coen. With the Coens, the Duplasses share a finely honed quirkiness and an ability to create worlds that seem hermetically sealed. Their first feature, 2005’s The Puffy Chair, has a glacial pace—very little happens as a pair of brothers (one played by Mark) go to pick up an upholstered armchair for their father. There is little dialogue, and yet comedy and unexpectedly moving drama are wrung out of long silences and stares and the sense of a rich, unelaborated history. The film’s presence at the 2005 South by Southwest festival alongside similarly inexpensive, slackerish works heralded the arrival of the “mumblecore” genre.
The pair’s new film, Jeff Who Lives at Home, released March 16, lacks some of The Puffy Chair’s mumbliness. It’s less willing, if slightly, to force the viewer to connect dots independently; there’s a bit more exposition. But it continues where The Puffy Chair left off, telling the story of two brothers, Pat, a workaday fellow (played by Ed Helms), and Jeff, a vaguely mystic stoner (Jason Segel), and creating from the brothers’ relationship a diegetic world that seems two or three degrees removed from our own. The story is a picaresque of sorts, piling incident upon incident over the course of the birthday of their mother (Susan Sarandon). Filial piety—or lack thereof—is an important theme.
The most significant difference between Jeff Who Lives at Home and The Puffy Chair—the difference from which all the other differences stem—is in its provenance. The Duplass brothers’ newest film comes with the support of Paramount, through the studio’s Vantage shingle. It follows on their commercial breakthrough film, 2010’s Cyrus, which Fox Searchlight produced for a reported $7 million, making a small profit on its nearly $10 million worldwide gross. This may seem like small potatoes, but few of their cohort get the distribution the Duplass brothers do, or can woo stars like Mr. Helms, Mr. Segel, and Ms. Sarandon or, for Cyrus, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill.
“Cyrus is the first movie we did that had money and name stars, and we were scared as shit,” said Mark, at 35 the younger of the two—Jay is 38—and the one who acts in projects as disparate as The Puffy Chair and FX’s fantasy-sports comedy The League. “We were scared, a) that we wouldn’t do a good job with it, and b) that the studio system and the whole crew and all the voices were gonna fuck up our movie. We were so scared that we almost overprepared ourselves for how different it was going to be.”
The major difference in working with a studio for the first time, said Mark, was the degree to which the pair needed to loop people in on a process that for them had always been unspoken. The exposition in The Puffy Chair isn’t the only thing the pair leave unsaid. “That nonverbal, brother communication that Jay and I used [to] barrel through those early, fiercely independent films like The Puffy Chair—that stuff needed to be verbal and be expressed to 100 people. In order to do that you can start to kill the magic of the movie. That’s something we’re starting to learn.”
Jay described the set of Jeff Who Lives at Home as a battle to retain the brothers’ autonomy amid a flurry of studio notes: “If you’re talking about throw pillows for thirty minutes, you’re not talking about something else,” he said. “Time is limited. You’re fighting for sleep, you’re trying to keep your eye on the ball.” Mark jumped in. “When the scenes aren’t working, we have to say, ‘Everybody’s going to hate us but we have to walk around the block and rewrite this scene and reconfigure this scene.’ And that’s easy to do when it’s eight of your friends as the crew, but it’s harder to do when the studio wants you to complete your day and all the crew members want to go home and complete their day, and you just have to make really sure you don’t get too into people-pleasing.”
Mark continued: “And you have to focus on the fact that ultimately, when it comes out, they’ll be happy.” Ms. Sarandon agreed to star in the film after the Duplasses reached out to her. “It was very pleasant,” she told The Observer. “They completely flattered me, and I responded to that.” The brothers, she said, are collaborative and trusting. “They talk to you—we didn’t really have major rehearsal for sure, but we talked about it, and if you have something you want changed, you’d talk to them a couple days before.
“We kind of figured out the blocking together,” she said. “They use two cameras and Jay operates one, and once you get what you’ve agreed upon, they just tell you to start improvising.”