Jay Duplass | Brotherly Love


prof duplass_75When introducing writer/director Jay Duplass it’s hard to not start with something along the lines of, “Are you ready to get jealous?”


prof duplass_brothersJay Duplass, along with his writing partner/directing partner/sometimes star/little brother Mark, has lived about as charmed a life as any American independent filmmaker in recent memory: Their microbudgeted debut feature, 2005’s The Puffy Chair, was a Sundance sensation, acquired by Roadside Attractions for theatrical release, and in the U.S. box office alone grossed more than 10 times its budget. From there, they were able to keep studio deals, success and, eventually, stars coming, with 2008’s Baghead, 2010’s Cyrus, and now this year’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home (this ignoring side projects in short films and documentaries), all the while maintaining some semblance of artistic independence when making their films. On top of this, Jay’s good looking (he turns 40 next year but looks 10 years younger), and is still easy to talk after a day’s worth of interviews with journalists of all stripes. (To my knowledge, I was the last person of the day to interview him when he was in town last November to promote Jeff, Who Lives at Home at the St. Louis International Film Festival, and I know he had been doing interviews literally for hours before I ever got to him.)

Wary of being the hundred thousandth person to ask him some inane question that he gets everywhere he goes, I decided right off the bat to ask if there were any questions he was tired of fielding. “The one that I’m tired of is, ‘How do you possibly make a movie with your brother?’” he said. “But I understand why people ask it; most people hate their siblings.” Of the two Duplass brothers, Mark is probably marginally better known to most people, as he is sort of the face of the brothers. Aside from Jay’s films, he has acted in some other movies people have seen, like Greenberg or Humpday or the forthcoming Lawrence Kasdan picture Darling Companion. And while the two of them write their screenplays and direct together, Jay’s always firmly planted in the director’s chair, and never really in front of the camera.

While Mark’s star is on the rise as an actor, stars are beginning to flock to the directing team on the strengths of his previous movies. It’s not hard to notice that, in their last two films (Cyrus and Jeff), the brothers have worked with a total of two Oscar-winning actresses (Susan Sarandon and Marisa Tomei) and two Oscar-nominated actors (John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, the latter having been nominated since working with them). Aside from that, Jeff’s two leads (brothers in the film—surprise, surprise) are played by two of Hollywood’s most in-demand young male comedians, Jason Segel and Ed Helms.

How does Jay, with what appears to be limited means and atypical scripts, land names like these? “They’re surprisingly coming to us. We’ve been in a really lucky position where, even before Cyrus—our first studio movie—famous people would call us and say, ‘Hey, I’m this famous guy. I don’t know what you’re doing on set, but I like it and I want to do it, and if you would like to put me in a movie, I will sleep on your couch.’ And we say, ‘We will do that!’” (Remember what I was saying about getting jealous?)

prof duplass_jeff-250It probably helps that Jay and Mark are becoming increasingly known for encouraging actors to improvise on the set. In fact, Jay freely admits that most of the best lines in Jeff were written on the spot by his actors rather than by Mark and him at the scriptwriting stage. In response to a question about Gandhi and hand jobs—which would make no sense repeated here if the reader has not seen the film—he said, “Those are lines of dialogue that were written by brilliant comedians in the moment, and then you steal it by saying that you wrote it in your script.” (Oddly, I wrote this question before I started to worry that all of my inquiries would be duplicates of those other journalists had been asking all day.)

Given that Duplass’s films are very personal, how important are stars to his productions, anyway? “Stars are important for a couple of reasons. One is, with [Jeff], we needed millions of dollars to make the movie, because there are some things that happen that require millions of dollars. So, you need movie stars to fuel that because, ultimately, even if you have a really good movie that doesn’t have stars in it, it’s probably not going to make a lot of money in the movie theater.”

Aside from the people he has supporting the film in front of the camera, there are an increasing number of big names behind the camera, as well; for one, Jason Reitman served as producer on Jeff. “He made the whole movie possible,” Duplass said of Reitman. “He read the script, loved it, and wanted to help us make it. And he was very honest and forthcoming in saying that, ‘You have a very special, weird, wonderful little movie that could get its balls stomped on by Hollywood in half a second. This movie needs to be made with a significant amount of money, but with that money is going to come some opinions that could potentially ruin what would make this movie great.’ He’s been very outspoken fans of ours since even The Puffy Chair, and honestly has done a lot of great publicity for us. With this movie, he said he was going to do it and then he did it; he really helped shepherd the process and helped us create the movie that we wanted to make.”

When he appeared at SLIFF last year, Jay was here with not only Jeff but also a 40-minute documentary called “Kevin” that he directed solo and trecently popped up on the newest issue of the DVD magazine Wholphin. (He has called “Kevin” a “schlong”: too short to be released as a feature, too long to be released as a short.) Should we take this to mean that there might be a fork into nonfiction films in his career path? “I love documentaries, and they’re probably the biggest influence on our narrative work,” he responded, “but, you know, documentary filmmakers are broke. It’s a very vulnerable place to be, creatively and financially.”

This trait in his fiction films is one of the Duplass brothers’ most recognizable touches as directors. (Elsewhere in the conversation, Jay said, “That sense of reality and real life is what I try to create on our narrative sets, and I shoot it like a documentary filmmaker would.”). It’s my best guess that that’s the reason why stars and audiences alike are becoming more and more keen on their style of filmmaking. If the Duplass brothers keep it up, they shouldn’t have anything to worry about in terms of being vulnerable, whether creatively or financially. | Pete Timmermann

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