The Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay, had spent years in Austin pursuing their dream of becoming feature-film makers. But all they had to show for it were some shorts they weren't very happy with and a film-editing business where they worked on other aspiring auteurs' inadequate films. So they decided to take one last shot at the big time — one involving a telephone-answering machine, a cheap camera, and a budget of about $3. The result: the seven-minute "This Is John" (2003), in which a guy, played by Mark, tries with increasing frustration to record the greeting for his message machine.
Success was not immediate, but it was forthcoming. Their first feature, The Puffy Chair (2005), also starring Mark, told a simple story of disappointment, fading relationships, family bonds, and furniture restoration. Funny and touching, it played festivals and garnered attention. Baghead (2008), a parody of horror filmmaking that was also a hilariously acute character study, caught the eye of Hollywood. And now they're releasing Cyrus, a genuine studio production that stars Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, and John C. Reilly in a very un-Hollywood comedy about the romantic triangle of a guy, a girl, and, at least platonically, the girl's 20-year-old son.
But let's get back to the film that started it all.
So would you say that "This Is John" was a turning point in your career?
Mark: It really was the turning point. It almost sounds like one of those press stories that's made up. But it was literally that day that changed everything for us. And it really broke down the semantics of filmmaking as it pertained to me and Jay in the most simple, obvious way possible — which was that all we had to focus on was a story and acting, because that's all we had that day. It was just Jay on a camera and me acting, and we were able to get something decent. We were just writing things that we personally knew, and we were in a unique position to show the comedy and the drama that people wanted to see. We've basically been able to maintain that ethic to this day.
Jay: That one experience, and that one movie, has all the critical elements that the press talks about when they talk about us. It's all in there. The actor comes first. The camera comes to the actor, as opposed to the actor being forced to come to the camera. The situation is comedic, but the actor plays it straight and dramatically, and we derive the comedy from that, as opposed to the actor trying to bring comedy to it.
Mark: We allowed it to unfold and allow the scene to fall apart or come off the tracks. And we shot digitally, and we shot long takes. It was originally a 20-minute take that we edited down to seven minutes.
Jay: The only thing that's shifted now with Cyrus, in the studio, is there are recognizable faces in our movie, and we're using a higher-resolution camera.What sort of movies were you making before that?
Mark: Coen Brothers knockoff films. All kinds of knockoff films. I mean, we did go to film school in the early '90s at the University of Texas. Everybody wanted to be the Coen Brothers at that point — it was just prior to Pulp Fiction, and then it shifted to Quentin Tarantino.
So you said, "Hey, we're brothers too. . . "
Mark: Yeah, exactly, "We can do this."
Jay andMark (in near unison): "It's just that easy."