Written by Denis Faye
Every now and then, an “indie darling” gets to take a crack at Hollywood while still maintaining integrity. Case in point, Jay and Mark Duplass. When their feature debut, The Puffy Chair, caught the eye of producer Michael Costigan at Sundance, they suddenly found themselves with a studio-level budget for their next film. Yet, by some miracle, they were also allowed to maintain their eclectic, off-the-cuff style.
Of course, there were some changes. Studio-level money meant studio-level actors. Combining that with a largely improvised script also meant the need for talented, studio-level actors. The resulting film, Cyrus, features John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, and Catherine Keener in a romantic comedy about a man struggling to win the love of his life while battling her overbearing, 21-year-old son.
Fortunately, working with that talent didn’t have too much of an impact on the brothers’ process. “The only change was that when you first meet them, you’re, like, ‘Holy shit, John C. Reilly is in my backyard,’” explains Mark.
“But then 20 minutes later, you’re down to brass tacks,” adds Jay. “They’re just like us – obsessed with human beings and all the funny, weird things they do.”
Jay and Mark talked recently with The Writers Guild of America, West Web site about their eccentric process, why it’s important to listen to your creative instincts, and the importance of a solid brotherly bond. A warning to any readers out there with more traditionally dysfunctional familial relationships: The way these two guys get along is really gonna piss you off.
Given how much you improvise, how important is the script to your process?
Photo: © 2010 Fox Searchlight
Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, and John C. Reilly in Cyrus.
Mark Duplass: Well, a lot of filmmakers who use improv don’t necessarily use a script, but we actually do write an entire script, and it’s pretty critical to our process because, despite the fact that our films come off as pretty off-the-cuff and we do employ improvisation, we’re absolutely obsessed with plot and the specificity of plotting and story and the progression of story. We feel like it’s just as critical as any script that would belong to any other filmmaking process.
When do you ask actors to follow the lines on the page and when do you just let actor feel through it on their own?
Mark Duplass: I think that it’s important to understand that there’s not a separation of church and state when we’re “following script” and when we’re improvising. Every scene is improvised, but every scene is also following the details of the script in that their motivations for the scene never change, what they’re trying to accomplish never changes. The place in which the scene needs to end so the next scene can play out as it should never changes. The dialogue and the nature of how they manage each other and the interpersonal dynamics are the variable element. The form and the structure are always very tightly structured.
What’s your writing process?
Mark Duplass: It’s a combination of the two of us storying together, creating the nuts and bolts of the script, the 40- to 60-some odd scenes that are going to happen, written on note cards by us, that happens orally between Jay and myself. Then, once those note cards exist, I take them and then I very quickly vomit out the first draft in 2 or 3 days. It’s a mess in terms of dialogue, voice and whatnot, but it’s usually structurally almost perfect. You’ll find that when you write a script in 2 or 3 days, your body tells you how it needs to be paced and not your brain. So that’s all an instinctual process, then once we have it on paper, we start to work separately. I’ll give Jay that draft. He will edit it, fix it up, send it to me, I’ll fix it up, send it to him. We’ll ping pong it. That’s more the brain part of the process.
And you work separately at that point?
Jay Duplass: Yeah, we trade it back and forth because it’s really easy to get tired of the process of just redoing and redoing. And one of the things that turns out to be really refreshing for us is that when the script comes back to you, it’s not something you’ve written. It’s something someone else has written so that there’s something new about it and it’s a little easier to look at it more objectively, as opposed to writing over something you’ve created before.
And what happens if you just can’t agree on something?
Mark Duplass: I’d say that 90 percent of the time we agree. This is true for shooting, writing, editing, everything. It comes from a shared vision, and you’d be surprised how obvious the right move is. And that’s not just me and Jay. It’s me, Jay and our producers, our editors and everything.
And when we do disagree, it’s usually the result of one of us being grumpy and not emotionally in the right place. So the rule is whoever is more passionate and whoever is in a better life place tends to win, and that becomes evident after about 20 seconds, and I’m not exaggerating. So we’re all pretty conflict-free. We’re all checking our egos at the door and doing whatever it takes to make the movie better.
You guys are the only brothers in the history of mankind with an attitude like that.
Jay Duplass: Oh, no. There are a lot of sibling directing teams, and I think it’s that way for a lot of them. It’s an enormous task to make a movie and to make a good movie feels almost impossible. To share that process with somebody who has your back and has the same sensibilities as you, there’s something to it.
You’re pretty innovative in your filmmaking, but how about your approach to structure? Are you believers in three acts, a midpoint and all that?
Mark Duplass: I wouldn’t say we think about the three act structure, but we are big believers that there are genres and story devices and standard plots for a reason, and we like to employ those and use those for our advantage. We don’t intellectually talk about them, but when you’re film fans like we are, and you’ve seen certain movies 25 times, your body begins to intrinsically understand a story structure that’s pleasing, and understand setting up a conflict that needs to be resolved, and taking your character from low points to high points. We’re not out to innovate plot and genre and structure. We’re out to employ the standard structures, but put in new and interesting pieces and finesse them in a way that makes it original.
Jay Duplass: Writing and storytelling in general for us have a constant methodology and process that we live with. Mark was saying how we tell the story to each other orally as we’re building it. And when you’re telling a story to someone orally, it’s not an intellectualized process. Mark will be telling the story to me, and he sees what’s going on with me, and he can tell whether I’m bored to tears or I’m riveted by what he’s saying. And as that’s happening, he’ll start to modify the story because he’s trying to manage me. And as we go out and start telling our friends about the story, or our wives, or people who we collaborate with, the story will continue to change. So, for us, it’s always a living, breathing thing. We try to keep it in that realm because we haven’t had a lot of luck with locking down with a typewriter and making a thing that is only happening inside our own brains.
You refer to it as “body,” but could you say “heart” or “instinct”?
Mark Duplass: Instinct is very, very important, and we believe in it through every part of the process. In the editing room, we tend to get a little more brainy because we have empirical things in front of us that we can test and get feedback on. But when it’s time to create and get that stuff down, we believe in the gut.
Jay Duplass: There’s a lot of thinking and a lot of work that has to be driven by thinking, but ultimately, we’re very careful about curating our viewing experience. We’ll never edit all day and watch a cut at the end of the day. We know enough about ourselves to know there’s no way we can be objective. Mark and I try really hard to create space, create a viewing opportunity where we come in and watch the movie and let it hit us. We literally just respond as viewers. We’ll say, “I wanted to see this. I know we don’t have that footage, but this is what I wanted to see,” and then we’ll start talking about that and seeing how we can create that feeling. For us, it’s always a process of discovery.
You have to stay true to your ancient caveman storyteller with what you want to see.
There’s a lot of opportunity for situational comedy in Cyrus, but the comedy primarily comes from character. Is that intentional?
Jay Duplass: We really believe that the comedy we love comes from character and story. If you try to externalize your comedy, that is not the kind of movie we want to make. We like watching those movies, but that’s not what we feel we’re good at making. In our minds, comedy comes from drama. Comedy comes from character, and in particular, really flawed characters who are trying to do some pretty questionable things in the movie, but ultimately, they’re human and we love them.