Interview: 'Baghead' directors the Duplass Brothers
Wed, 23 Jul 2008 11:23:57
Mark Duplass Videos
Mark and Jay Duplass are intimately familiar with the nuances of film fest-ing, if ever such a verb existed. As The Puffy Chair struck a chord with the independent film community, they traversed a terrain of Q&As, parties, and encountered many members of what Mark jokingly refers to as the "Desperate Directors Club," a group which they do not exclude themselves from. Their personal experiences and observations made while navigating the festival circuit informed their latest feature, Baghead, a genre-bending picture that explores the want to "make it," knotty romantic relationships, and the ridiculous, but nonetheless terrifying, scares that seeing a Baghead accoutered man engenders. Just as funny and earnest as the movies they make, the brothers speak with subtle, admirable confidence about their approach to filmmaking, which is collaborative and dismantles the "director as God" credo. During our time together, they talked about the supportive qualities of the mumblecore community, being endeared to their characters, and how they would make the transition to mainstream cinema.
Despite the fact that Baghead is about actors and filmmakers and some things that you picked up on during the festival circuit, I connected to it as a young person who knows the feeling of really wanting to make something happen in my own life. What did you pull from in your career or your personal experience?
Mark: Our whole life. The desire to make something decent, to make something pertinent, to make something that people will think is good and validate our experience.
Jay: First it started out as making the greatest piece of art ever, then failing miserably over and over again.
Mark: I just want to make something watchable!
Jay: I just want to make something that people will connect with.
Do you pull from your own foibles, especially because this is largely a relationship movie? It’s not a horror movie.
Jay: Yeah, that’s how we see it.
Mark: In our last movies we pulled stuff from our own lives, from the lives of our friends.
Jay: And the scenarios within this movie we pulled from stories that we’ve heard. Almost every scene that we make is based on something that actually happened at some point and time. When Mark and I are privately hanging out and talking, that’s what gets us really excited, talking about how tragic [a] person is. Then we’ll start giggling about it, like, “Oh, God [laughs].” Cringe, giggle, cringe, giggle. Underneath it all we really love that person and are so glad that they’re there. The more pathetic, the better sometimes.
There’s a tenderness you have for your characters. Even when they’re doing these things that people might see as pathetic, like, “Oh, they’re trying to get into a party,” there’s still something really relatable about that.
Jay: I’m glad you feel that way, because that the way we want it.
Mark: We really don’t want to be putting these people up there and just throwing rocks at them, making fun of them. We love these people. There’s a lot of heart in the moves that the desperate actors and desperate filmmakers of the world are making, the uphill, rough struggle that they’re going through. While it’s pathetic and hilarious, it’s kind of tragic and sweet.
What about the festival circuit experience formed some of the opinions [in the film]?
Jay: It is observation. Desperate actors are the pinnacle of looking at someone and perceiv[ing] on the surface just how desperate they are. They want their success, and most importantly, [there’s] the fact that they’re never, ever going to get it. You look at actors in L.A. and you’re like, “You’re all walking face first into giant flames of failure. You all pretty much know it and you’re doing it anyway.” There’s something beautiful about it. It’s their dream, so they’re just going to burn themselves up trying to make their dreams come true. It’s incredibly inspiring to watch that happen, and really funny. We like both sides of it.
You kind of belong to a smaller [filmmaking] community yourselves.
Mark: Desperate Directors Club.
Jay: We’re in that club. We’re in that community. We’re by no means immune or innocent in that.
Mark: We’re still desperately trying.
Jay: The first scene in our movie is us making fun of ourselves doing Q&As, basically.
Do you feel like in the state of Hollywood now—and I asked Greta [Gerwig] the same thing—that it’s necessary to reclaim the process like you guys have, where [filmmaking can be] just a crew of five or six people going out on the weekends saying, “Let’s go make a movie!”
Jay: It’s financially necessary to reclaim the process [laughs]. For us, we’re just going to follow whatever methodology we think allows us to make the best possible movie that we can make at that given point and time. Right now it means having just a small cast and crew that we can collaborate with and keep it really small and keep it…
Mark: Special for us.
Jay: Yeah, it makes it magical.
Mark: It’s not necessarily more desirable for us to go out with a big crew. We prefer the small crew. It’s more comfortable like that right now.
There’s a lot of crossing over of roles, as with someone like Greta, who’s an actress but she’s also co-directed now, she’s a writer. What are your roles as directors on set?
Mark: It changes every day. Jay and I are, I guess, technically running the show, but we get a ton of input from not only from our cast, but also our crew members. A lot of our crew members are filmmakers as well. Everyone on set is not just a this or a that. Everyone is doing three or four different things. In terms of the specific roles for me and Jay, they change on a day to day basis. Who is communicating really well today? Who has really good energy? Who is maybe more inspired by this scene than the other one? There’ll be a yin and a yang of who’s leading the charge between us. Then there [are] times when he or I will connect with a certain actor or person more than the other one, so I’ll deal with this person or he’ll deal with that person.
Are there ever occasions when creative tensions arise, and how do you resolve that since you’re leading the charge?
Jay: We just feel like making a movie is so goddamn hard. In general, we’re working together trying to make the best movie. Movies are quagmires. For better or for worse, when we’re on set, we’re constantly rethinking the movie. We’re constantly redesigning, rethinking the movie, trying to figure out how to make it better. That’s a world, for us, of infinite possibilities. When a new idea comes up, we talk about it and it’s generally agreed upon whether it’s better or whether it’s not better, and what the repercussions of that idea are.
I think in a different filmmaking scenario, we don’t really function where we’re trying to exact a perfect vision and make the script come alive. We’re not doing that. We’ve got this script, we’ve got these people, it’s windy today—what’s the best thing we can get right now? We have this open-ended vision of what could happen, and that’s how we see things. What could happen here? As opposed to, “This is not happening the way that I wanted it to happen!” We’re pretty much aware that the way we want it to happen is probably not as good as what could happen.
Mark: It’s probably over once it hits the page.
Is that part of what you like about working with untrained actors?
Mark: Well, a lot of these actors are trained. They’re professional actors.
Jay: It is what we like about working with actors who are very comfortable with improvising.
Mark: And who are open with themselves, as well, and their own personal experiences.
Jay: Willing to take big risks and working with objectives as opposed to specific dialogue. People who are just willing to let it rip.
With some of the success that you’ve had, you’re probably getting some offers to move in a direction with material that is a little bit more structured. What elements of the filmmaking that you know now do you feel like you’ll retain?
Jay: Hopefully all of them, but realistically, that’s something that we’re going to explore with the first studio movie that we make.
Mark: And the studio movies which we’ll make are not us directing a studio script. It’s us saying, “We want to make this movie,” and selling our script to them, and setting up there like that. So already it’s a good step toward them supporting our vision and what we want to do. There will definitely have to be some pretty intense communication and discussions about why we feel our movies work well and why intimacy on set is important, and why there can’t be screaming ADs and studio execs breathing down people’s necks, and…
Jay: Zooming golf carts.
Mark: We can’t have people having three hour arguments about wardrobe. Let’s keep focused on the story and what’s important. So those are things we’ll have to watch out for.
How do you feel belong to [the mumblecore] community has informed your work?
Jay: For us, we’ve been making movies this way for four or five years now.
Mark: The genesis kind of happened before we started meeting people.
Jay: The watershed was an accident for us. It just kind of happened.
Mark: And then we, all of a sudden, two years later, met people at South by Southwest and were like, “Hey, you’ve been making some similar stuff.”
Jay: I think it really was a product of the technology more than anything.
Mark: It’s what helps us find actors like Greta, who are comfortable doing the things that we do. Some of those guys have come out to crew our movies. It’s functioned as a support network for sure. Most importantly, [we made a] group of friends on the film festival circuit. With The Puffy Chair, we toured so heavily with it for a year, all those guys became our friends. We hung out with them more than our friends at home.
The Baghead scared the shit out of me. I was afraid, and the next moment, there were tears [of laughter].
Jay: Awesome! That’s the ideal thing—terrified and then laughing at yourself.