“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.”
Judy Greer, the actress who plays Pat’s wife and who has one of the trickiest scenes in the film—a fight born of a seething unhappiness—found the directors’ willingness to allow her to improvise generous. “It was one of the most collaborative experiences I’ve ever had—and yet they were extremely decisive. They gave you freedom to do what you wanted to do, but they were very clear. It didn’t feel like a free-for-all.” “They want to make a movie with cool, fun, nice, respectful people,” said Ms. Greer, “like when they made movies with their best friends. They liked that vibe.” Ms. Greer said that while shooting—during which she was commuting from Jeff’s New Orleans set to Hawaii, where she was filming The Descendants—she didn’t see the brothers much off-set. “Mark and Jay were in town with their families, staying at their parents’ house.”
“It’s common for siblings to have that weird, Siamese sense of humor, where they get stuff no one else gets,” said Mark. “You look at your parents as museum curators on some level. You are both taking in the same content, same movies, making the same family jokes—you’re curated in the same household.” The pair watched HBO as grade schoolers: “At 10 on any given Sunday morning, I’m 5 and Jay’s 8 and we’re watching Kramer vs. Kramer. We kind of for whatever reason watched these adult dramas that got us focused on relationships at an early age.”
And yet the pair’s films focus on brothers who are very different from one another—there’s at first little sense in Jeff Who Lives at Home that the loopy Jeff and the staid Pat can have come from the same curators. Said Mark: “It’s not easy to pinpoint [that] one of us is Jeff and one of us is Pat, but Jay and I have both of [the character’s] in our personalities. Our parents are very different people, and they created a personal conflict in me and Jay—in our DNA, there’s a guy like Pat who’s trying to put his head down and get through life without thinking about it too much, because if you think about it too much, you might just start crying, and there’s a guy like Jeff in us who wants to take things slow and believes there’s a greater spiritual force out there guiding us.
“But they’re both indicative of Jay’s and my questions about happiness, and how difficult it is to be happy. I don’t know why that is.”
It would seem as though the brothers have little to be unhappy about—they’ve made it to the big time without sacrificing their style. The studio backing has made them the world’s ambassadors of mumblecore. But they don’t believe in the genre’s existence.
“Mark and I were just making movies,” said Jay. “Like, we were just coming out of a cave and making movies. It was nice in 2005 when you’re making a $15,000 movie and The New York Times writes it up and you’re the creator of a movement—but we didn’t create anything other than a movie.”
The quest for happiness continues, then, as the Duplasses seek to define who they are with more movies rather than by digging into genre. “There’s never going to be one ideal set,” said Mark. “It’s going to be looking at a group of years and a group of movies and making sure we do lots of things, because the grass-is-greener mentality always sets in. When we were doing The Puffy Chair, we were like, ‘God, we need more resources,’ and then when we were making Jeff Who Lives at Home and we were like, ‘God, we wish we were doing what we did on The Puffy Chair.’” These days the brothers are developing two projects, Mark said, “one of which is me and Jay and a huge movie star and a crew of about four people. And one of which is a 100-person crew and a bigger-budget movie.”
Ry Russo-Young, a filmmaker who acted with Mark in 2007 in director Joe Swanberg’s seminal mumblecore film Hannah Takes the Stairs, has faith in the Duplasses’ abilities. “Mark is really funny as a dude and he has a confidence that makes you at ease in a sense and a playfulness that makes the world seem like a jungle gym and you want to play on it. He’s so relaxed!” She recalled getting ice cream with Mark and the rest of the cast, who lived together in a Chicago house during filming. Was it possible, we asked her, for a so-called mumblecore director simply to make the films he or she wanted to make, without getting stigmatized by genre? “I want to think it’s possible!” she said.
In dismissing the mumblecore label, Mark said he and Jay are just making movies they’d want to watch. “We’re trying to make something that gets us off—makes us giggle, makes us laugh, makes us cry.”
After stints in Austin and Brooklyn, Los Angeles is a big change. “For me, it is hard to be in a town where you’re constantly—when you go to your kid’s friend’s birthday party, it’s an industry event,” said Mark. “I’m gardening, right now, when I’m talking to you guys. If you just let L.A. have its way with you but you cultivate your experience, it can be amazing.”
Said Jay: “We realize we have it made and we get to do what we love to do, but it never ends. We wake up in the morning and ask, ‘Are we doing what we’re supposed to do?’ It’s the same as it always was. It’s a little less angsty because we have some money now, so that takes a little pressure off.”