The definition of independent film has blurred quite a bit over the past two decades. Once upon a time, a few thousand dollars and a spool of 8-mm film were all it took to craft a minimalist work of art. Today, each of the major film studios sports its own indie imprint featuring million-dollar pictures with A-list casts. Not many folks know more about this evolution than wunderkind directors Jay and Mark Duplass.
Their 2005 debut The Puffy Chair was shot on a $15,000 budget and featured a cast comprised exclusively of family friends. What the film lacked in star power and polish it innovated in engrossing narration and intimacy, snagging the Audience Award at 2005’s Sundance Festival. The debut also solidified the Duplass Brothers as pioneers in the mumblecore movement, a directorial approach that prioritizes improvisation and spontaneity to capture reality at its rawest.
It came with an appropriate amount of surprise when Mark and Jay announced Cyrus, an inflated production featuring Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei that hits theaters Friday. But whereas cynics might expect the duo to compromise their singular vision for mainstream exposure, the Duplass’ latest retains the unique verite flavor found in all of their work. Paste sat down with the friendly duo to chat about their improv sweet tooth, their big studio shift and Reilly’s sexy ad libs.
Paste: Starting on a basic level, you’re both big proponents of improvisation despite working from a full script. How did you discover this technique?
Jay Duplass: In our twenties we were trying to imitate other filmmakers like the Cohen Brothers and we were very successful at doing that. We went through several crises of identity. We were just trying to find a way to tell a story and not be terrible at making movies. We basically lucked into this process of kind of creating a moment and then filming it as a documentary filmmaker would. And from that point on the style sort of set itself. We’re obsessed with realism and verite and all fingers were pointing in one direction, basically. We never really looked back once we started making films we felt had some value.
Paste: Is it ever an issue that an actor’s approach could potentially dilute your own vision?
Mark Duplass: We haven’t experienced that at all because we keep a pretty intimate set, and for one reason or another the actors that we’ve used so far have come to us because they want to do what it is that we are doing. When you look at a movie like The Puffy Chair, Baghead or Cyrus, it’s pretty specific and people seem to be pretty aware of what we’re doing, so it’s rare that they have a misconception about what that process will be.
And I think in the case of Jonah, John and Marisa, they had seen The Puffy Chair and we sat down and explained to them, “Look, there’s going to be a full script here and this narrative thread is where we’re headed, but the little nuances and the ways that you achieve these goals that we’ve set out for you, those things are variable and fluid. We encourage you to do whatever it is that makes your character feel the most genuine and the most real. And if that happens to be the words on the page, use them. And if that happens to be a variation of that stuff, give us that too. Our only rule is, if it doesn’t feel real, don’t do it.”
Paste: For Cyrus, what percentage would you say is scripted and what is improvised?
Mark: I would say that the whole movie is improvised, but if you look at the original script you might not feel that it is very different from what actually showed up on screen.
Jay: I guess you could say the whole movie has an improvised element in each scene. The narrative thread, the essence of the scene and how things play out are all the same, it’s just that the words change, the orders change. It’s surprising how when you let things go, they kind of come home sometimes.
Paste: It’s ironic that you went from Baghead, a movie about actors toiling in obscurity, and now you’re working with an A-list cast.
Mark and Jay: [laughs] Yeah.
Paste: Before you were working with smaller distributors and now you’re working with Fox and Paramount. How did that move occur?
Jay: I guess the first answer would be, for us, it didn’t happen overnight at all. Just because right after we showed The Puffy Chair at Sundance in early 2005, we started having meetings with everyone in Hollywood and got a lot of offers actually to make much bigger movies then Cyrus, but we never felt that any of those movies were quite right for us. You know, we have those specific sensibilities. We’re only realizing this after the fact, because you read a lot of stuff and you realize, “Hey! We know two or three people who can make this movie a lot better than we could.” And we couldn’t really stomach venturing into something that we didn’t feel we were the perfect people to make that movie.
It took us a while to get to the point where we could develop a movie in the studio system and get it to the place where we still felt like this is our movie and we’re making it with our type of people and we feel positioned to do what we do best. And to at least, if we failed, it would be our own fault and not the fault of some sort of arrangement or set up regarding the movie.
Paste: Were there any compromises that had to be made when making with a bigger distributor?
Mark: On a macro scale, all of these studios are there to make the kinds of movies that we’ve been making and they’ve been incredibly supportive. That said, I think there was a learning curve on the part of the studios and also on the part of me and Jay. On our part we’ve been so insular for so long, working with our family and friends, that there’s been no need to clearly communicate what you’re doing.
It’s not a big deal when you’re paying $15,000, but when you’re paying millions of dollars people like to know what’s going on. We had to get good at verbalizing our ethic to people and explaining it to them. Explaining why we’re doing what we do. For instance, why do you shoot this movie in chronological order? That’s really expensive. And we had to really explain that to them.
Also, on the part of the studios, there’s a bit of a learning curve for them to understand how to read our dailies, for instance. And you’re getting a lot of improvised tapes. You’re getting four to five hours of dailies a day, you know? And so there had to be some implicit trust on their part that we knew what we were doing. We kind of felt each other out and everything worked out great in the end, but there was a definitely a growth process for both of us.