Filmmaker brothers Mark and Jay Duplass have been making movies for two decades, when premieres took place in their parents' living room. Over the past five years, their films have broken out considerably, playing to appreciative audiences at film festivals from Sundance to Berlin. The brothers create intriguing projects from unlikely materials: a used piece of furniture, an answering machine, even a brown paper grocery bag.
Their first feature, the festival circuit hit "The Puffy Chair," captures the awkward, frustration-fueled relationship between two young adult brothers on a road trip to pick up a lounger that one bought on eBay for their dad's birthday. Their new film "Baghead" is a lively low-budget feature combining the naturalism of a character drama and the artifice of a slasher-in-the-woods chiller. Four competitive, passive-aggressive but likable actors in a remote cabin kick around ideas for a film project while a mysterious man with a bag hiding his features stalks them.
Almost all their actors are their friends. "Our trust in them and their trust in us allows us to go a little deeper and even mine the personal events in their lives," said Jay, who handles the camera on the bare-bones shoots while Mark manages the boom mike. "We talk about the cringe-worthy things that we've done and then laugh about them afterwards. That's what happens to our audiences. They're so mortified, but then they see themselves in it and they can only laugh. There's something liberating about it."
The brothers are at the vanguard of a mini-movement of young filmmakers favoring digital handheld cameras, naturalistic acting and intimate portraits of relationships. The new genre has been dubbed "mumblecore," a name the brothers grudgingly accept because it helps define and attract attention to their work. The brothers have become friends with other stalwarts of the genre, sharing equipment and advice, and acting in one another's movies.
The highly improvisational, keep-it-simple aesthetic is crucial to their films' success, Mark said.
"It's really, really difficult to make a movie that has any sort of truth in it, any real human interaction and behavior in it with the studio model of a big crew and budget. Jay and I came out of film school in our 20s trying to make movies in that kind of environment, where you spend 90 percent of your time and energy managing the technical aspects of the film, and then you realize, 'Oh, I forgot, we have to get good acting and story in here. And you come up with what we like to call the Hamburger Without the Meat."
After flipping a few meatless burgers ("we've never shown them to anyone because they're terrible," Jay said), the brothers found themselves sitting glumly on Jay's couch, watching all their favorite art movies, wondering why they were unable to tap into any of that inspiration. They decided to make a movie that day, no excuses. They ad-libbed a short about a guy's frustrating attempts to record the perfect message on his answering machine, a task that had recently put Jay on edge. Mark acted the part; Jay shot the 20-minute scene in one take, and they edited it down to eight minutes. The short cost $3 and got them into the Sundance Film Festival.
"We flip-flopped that equation of 90 percent of your time devoted to technical and 10 percent to story and acting," Mark said. "We don't have a lot of money and resources to make that glossy, beautiful film. But the things that are free are good story and good acting. So we can actually put our energies there so it doesn't cost anything, and get something that is genuine."
The brothers, who share directing and writing duties, always expected to be partners. "We could talk about it for hours, but the basic idea is, two heads are better than one," Mark said. "It must have been really fun and less stressful for all the Fleetwood Mac-ers to go off and make their solo albums, but none of them was as successful as when they were together." There's no formal division of labor, Jay said, adding "the one who woke up in a good mood that morning usually leads the charge."
Now studios are offering them the opportunity to spend more money on a glossy film, but they fear that would put them back to where they were in their mid-20s and rob their films of the sense of intimacy they prize.
"In some weird way, reality TV is the public's need for something that is spontaneous and you don't know what's going to happen," Jay said. "That's what's exciting to us. When we're on set we don't know what's going to happen, and our audiences are on that same boat, too. That's something we want to maintain even if we do start directing within the studio system."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186