Let’s take a moment to think about how awesome the Duplass brothers are. Not only have these guys become the kings of indie film, they’ve recently announced a four-picture deal with Netflix, and also produced a handful of exciting Sundance films. To top it off, they have an awesome show on HBO, which airs its season finale tonight at 9:30 PM EST. Togetherness is sort of like Girls for married people. But it should also be said that anyone who hasn’t said, “I do” or changed a diaper can relate to the show. It’s raw, hilarious and also incredibly awkward, delving into emotional territories not often seen on TV.
Togetherness focuses on Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) as they enter into that post-baby, pre-sleep filled nights phase of their marriage. They’re trying to re-charge their sexual chemistry while also exploring their own identifies and desires. Meanwhile, Michelle’s wild sister Tina (Amanda Peet) has come to town from Texas, jobless and single. She befriends Brett’s best bud Alex (Steve Zissis) and they, too, begin to discover how to start over when you’re over thirty.
Paste caught up with Jay and Mark Duplass to talk about creating their new series. They both serve as directors, writers and producers, but emphasize how collaborative their process is, Zissis being the third writer on their team. The brothers also opened up about choosing this particularly uncomfortable stage in marriage for the show’s center and the challenges of portraying something personally inspired. As Jay puts it, it’s that phase when you ask yourself, “Who the fuck am I? and you look at your spouse, and you’re like, Who the fuck are you?.”
Paste: You guys are both married with kids, so watching Togetherness, it’s clear that it’s coming from a personal place. How did you take that inspiration and form the idea for the show?
Jay Duplass: The premise really came from private conversations that Mark and I have about the desperate, funny shit that we’re doing. It also included Steve Zissis, our best buddy from high school, who’s pushing 40, and getting chubby and bald, and not having success in his acting career or romantically. We were laughing about all that stuff and each of us were secretly feeling jealous of the others’ situation; Steve having so much freedom, and for Steve, Mark and I having families and success, which has its own trappings. It felt like a TV show that would go on forever and ever.
Paste: How did HBO become involved?
JD: As far as HBO, we’ve talked to them, even since Puffy Chair, trying to find the right thing. Mark and I have been extremely picky about dipping our toes in that water, just because running a television show tends to take over your whole life. We needed the idea to be perfect and this idea, honestly, was the perfect one.
Paste: How much freedom did you have working with HBO? Were there things you had to fight for?
Mark Duplass: HBO has been the dream partnership of our whole careers. We make a lot of independent projects where there’s no real boss to deal with. In terms of having a boss, they’re the best boss we’ve had. Not only are they giving us creative freedom, they’re giving us guidance in creating that long form television content that Jay and I haven’t done before. We’re more filmmakers. They were not only hands off, [but] when we needed them, they were hands on in the right way.
Paste: What specifically have you learned from them in terms of long-form television?
MD: It’s very simple stuff, it’s about getting good at it—getting more experience with it. When you have a 90-minute narrative, you spend a lot of your time setting up your characters and a lot of your time closing out characters. When you have a long form TV show you can keep more balls in the air and you don’t have to tie up your loose ends as much because they keep going. It’s a form more truly reflective of how real life is. That got us really excited. It was about bringing our storytelling rhythms into a place that did not need to close everything up so quickly, and throwing it up in the air and letting it sit.
Paste:I love this awkward marital stage Brett and Michelle are in. Why choose the post-baby trauma phase to explore?
JD: There’s a very specific thing that happens when your last baby starts sleeping which is usually around one year, which is where Brett and Michelle are. You wake up from this, like, stupor of being sleep deprived. When you’re babies aren’t sleeping you’re kind of half a human being. For Brett and Michelle, they’ve been in that state for 6 years. When you wake up from that space, you’ve been sublimating all your own personal needs and your relationship needs to keep babies alive! That’s what it feels like when your baby’s like coughing in the middle of the night or choking. There’s a very real life and death feeling about it and the torture of sleep deprivation. You kind of wake up and you’re like, Who the fuck am I? And you look at your spouse, and you’re like Who the fuck are you? You have to re-figure everything out. That can be a very dangerous moment. It isn’t something people have reckoned with. And you’re not really allowed to complain about it! When you have two beautiful children and a job in America, you’re doing pretty damn well. It’s a really tough moment for a lot of people, and we were interested in exploring that.
Paste:I’m from Texas too, and all my friends have gotten married, so I related to Tina immensely. How did you begin to mold such a unique character? Is she based on someone ya’ll know?
JD: Tina is definitely not really based on anyone specific that we know, but she was, in many ways, the most realized in our heads of the characters going in. She’s one of the most dynamic characters on the show in a lot of ways. We were really excited about this brash Texas girl who’s gotten by on her looks her whole life, and is realizing, “This isn’t going to last forever, so how am I going to handle that?” She’s the moral center of the show in a strange way. There’s something really great about being single in your late 30s and feeling like, “Okay I’m getting close to half-way through here, what’s this gonna be?” She’s at this dipping point. She possesses the most potential for greatness, and the most potential for disaster. It’s inside of one character, and that’s really exciting to us.
Paste: Yes, I do feel like with this show you’re exposing that inner female dialogue.
JD: A big challenge for Mark and me that we set up for ourselves with this show was to write the female characters as strong as the male characters. We were just making stuff about ourselves early on. Once we started tapping into this really deeply honest, desperate stuff we were doing, people started responding immensely. We’ve both been married for almost 10 years and our wives both have sisters. My wife in particular is from Texas and has twin sisters. We’re very privy now to the interworking of what’s going on, and amazed and shocked about all of the things that come with really knowing the depths of people. That’s really exciting for us. We’ve finally gotten to place in our careers and lives where we felt like we could tell these stories truthfully and accurately. We get a lot of help from our wives and our female friends, specifically from Melanie and Amanda. We let them have the last say in terms of the truthfulness of the character.
Paste:How involved are Amanda and Melanie on set, given all your collaborators? Is it more like your Mumblecore days?
Jay: Well it’s tricky, because we don’t particularly subscribe to Mumblecore-ism. For Mark and me, even though we’re considered ‘co-godfathers’ of the Mumblecore movement, we’ve been making stuff since Mark was born and I was three-years-old. In our filmmaking, we don’t feel like we ever particular referenced anything concurrent with what we were doing. In terms of our process, yeah, we’ve always worked this way. We’ve always taken the feedback of all of our actors or anybody who’s on set who feels like something isn’t quite right, or not truthful. For TV we have to move a little bit faster, but we still use the same open communistic filmmaking style. When people know that Mark and I are rocking and rolling, and we know exactly what we’re up to and we’re executing things quickly, which happens a lot on this show, they tend to go with it unless they feel like something is false.
Paste: How do you guys choose your projects and maintain that freedom and your artistic integrity?
Jay: We sort of home grow everything. We don’t read someone else’s script, or go out for directing jobs or vie for jobs that [exist] because that’s just inherently you coming into someone else’s space and having to obey the parameters of what they set up. Start things on your own. It’s a combination of following our inspiration, but also being pragmatic about what can be made.
I think it’s very important to write within your limits, that’s really the key to staying creatively happy in my opinion. If you’re an unknown filmmaker, don’t write a 100 million dollar space opera as your first movie! You’re going to make your life tortuous trying to make it. Write a $1,000 movie that can be shot on an iPhone in an interesting way. You’re in control of what is possible for you to create. If you’re doing that, then you’re only limit is your own creativity, which is a limit Jay and I battle with every day. The last thing you want to be doing is fighting other monsters when you’re supposed to deal with yourself. I don’t want to be a dream crusher—write the big one, but also write the little one. Write something you can make and then you’ll naturally be in control of it, because it’s all yours.
The Togetherness finale airs tonight March 8, at 9:30 PM EST.