The Pros and Cons of Making It As Brothers

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If you’re at all familiar with the work of Mark and Jay Duplass — from their endearingly imperfect debut feature The Puffy Chair to their beloved yet prematurely canceled HBO dramedy Togetherness — then you know it makes perfect sense that Duplass Brothers Productions is not located inside a shiny Hollywood skyscraper. Their 22-year-old company is headquartered in a three-story, 1880s-era Victorian home in L.A.’s (far) east-side neighborhood of Highland Park.

That it’s only been two years since the Duplass brothers settled into a proper company headquarters — for years they worked out of their respective east-side homes — speaks volumes about their preference to exist on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s a tumultuous journey the Louisiana natives say they were finally ready to share via their first book, Like Brothers, out May 8. Equal parts touching memoir and rallying cry, the book is a candid and often unapologetically emotional survival guide for aspiring artists. In late March, Mark, 41, and Jay, 44, sat down with Vulture on the third floor of their offices — where the guitars and video-game consoles are housed — to discuss why they were initially afraid to write a book, the suffocation they felt playing into the image of “impenetrable, perfect brothers,” why exactly they turned down a Marvel project, and the daily relationship maintenance that allows them to work together without going nuts.

You were approached by an editor at Random House to write this book. What worried and excited you about this opportunity?
Mark Duplass: We’d never had a desire to write a book. Also, agents don’t want you to do it. [Laughs.] You make very little money and it takes a very long time. Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling both said, “I’m glad I did it, but it almost killed me.” Also, when Jay and I finish a script, we’re comfortable sending it out in a B-plus phase. The bones are in place, some of the dialogue could be better, and we’ll fix it on set. But scripts are just a third of a piece of art; a book is a complete piece of art. That was a little terrifying.

How long did the writing process take?
Mark: God, I think it was like a year? We didn’t start for a while because we were in the middle of season two of Togetherness. But they were nice enough to give us a large amount of time to deliver it. Then, in the middle of writing the book, we lost Togetherness and started to ask ourselves for the first time: Is personal space from each other okay now?

Jay: Can we finally be seen as individuals when people haven’t really wanted us to be our own people?

Had you felt stifled by the industry’s desire to market you as a team?
Jay: Oh, yeah. When we made The Puffy Chair, people thought we were in our early twenties and it was the first thing we’d ever made — that we woke up, took a crap, and The Puffy Chair came out. I was in my early thirties and Mark was in his late twenties, and yet they thought we slept in bunk beds together. And to be honest, we did nothing to dispel that myth.

Mark: We were both already married, too. The brother thing was wonderful at the beginning, but it became a slippery slope. We had to play into this image of the impenetrable, perfect brothers because that’s who people fell in love with. Then we realized the downsides of that, the suffocation.

Jay: We actually had a two-hour conversation about this before you got here. We’re still trying to understand what’s going on.

Mark: And now it’s more than just us to think about: our company, our group of collaborators, our parents, Jay’s wife and kids, and my wife and kids.

Speaking of your parents, the book explains just how crucial their support — both financial and emotional — was to your early work, and how conflicted that help made you feel.
Mark: The artist’s journey is normally, “My parents didn’t understand me, so I had figure out what to do on my own!” Our situation was the opposite. We felt…

Jay: Guilty.

Mark: They were like, “Let us take care of you and support you while you pursue your dreams.”

Jay: “Ew yuck, Mom.”

Mark: “I need to be a man, get away from me!” But it was so critical for us, and it’s why we’ve embraced mentorship of younger filmmakers. We 100 percent have survivor’s guilt.

Jay: But even as privileged as we were, we still had to invent filmmaking our way. And then, luckily, we got into Sundance.

Mark: If we’d come around later, The Puffy Chair wouldn’t have gotten into Sundance. I love that movie, but it does not get into Sundance now. It’s not good enough, honestly.

Jay: We pretty much failed continuously for ten years before that. People ask me all the time, “What makes you guys different as filmmakers?” And I’m like, “We’re super desperate.” That’s the worst and best thing about us.

Mark: There’s also this myth about us like, “They have a laid-back style and just stumble into wonderful things!” The book is a little bit about dispelling that. I believe we are, on a bad day, B-minus filmmakers, and on a good day, B-plus filmmakers. But are not the Coen brothers. We do not have that.

You were the guys in high school who had to study really, really hard to get Bs.
Jay: Our fucking asses off, yes.

Mark: We’ve also spent so much time in therapy — and self-governed sessions like we had today — that I think we were finally ready to talk about this stuff. But the book was a very steep learning curve for us. It felt like picking up a guitar for the first time.

Did this process of writing change the way you perceived past events? Were there any Rashomon-like conversations like, “No, that’s not how that happened. Here’s what happened.”
Mark: Our extrapolations have changed through the years. How Jay feels about something at age 44 as opposed to 34 is very different. With the premature death of Togetherness, there was a re-examination: “If we have space from each other, will that destroy what we have?”

What you’re describing sounds like a couple debating whether to have an open marriage. Is that how it felt?
Jay: Yeah. Can we have our affairs and still come back to each other? I’m always terrified that Mark’s going to make something good without me and leave me in the dust.

Mark: That will never go away — that one of us will be perceived as better or more valuable than the other. It’s fucking terrifying. As much as we have valued working so closely all these years, it’s created an unhealthy codependency. Now we’re trying to find some space to breathe.

Mark, were you jealous when Jay was cast in Transparent? Was there a sense of, “Wait, I’m the actor in this relationship?”
Mark: My gut reaction was, “This is the greatest thing in the world for us.” Before that, I’d been having the creative affairs. He’d been waiting for me to come back from sleeping with The League, and that was bad for us. So I was like, Great. This is going to even the playing field.

Jay: But I also told Mark, “I really don’t think I can do this. I’m not an actor.”

Mark: I’ll never forget the first party we walked into after Transparent premiered. People’s eyes lit up when they saw Jay. They wanted to talk to him. I hadn’t realized until then that people had probably been doing that to me previously, and making him feel like shit.

On top of that, Transparent had slightly more cultural value than a comedy about fantasy football.
Mark: Yeah, just a little more social impact. [Laughs.]

Jay: It was the first time people didn’t ask me, “Where’s your brother?” I finally felt, Oh, I’m actually not just half of a person after all.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Transparent, Jay. What can you tell us about the future of the show in the wake of Jeffrey Tambor’s firing over allegations of sexual harassment?
Jay: We’re just waiting. [Creator] Jill [Soloway] is in a really tough position. We’ve lost our main actor and now Jill has to figure out how to reinvent the show without the lead character. It’s been traumatic. Our family has imploded. Jill is trying to make good on the legacy of their family, make Amazon happy, and also honor the trans community. It’s a lot of pressure. But there is literally no other human being in this world more capable of pulling it off than Jill. So we’re just waiting to see what that looks like.

The book doesn’t mention the so-called mumblecore film movement, with which you were inextricably linked in the mid-to-late 2000s. Was that on purpose? Did you rail against being lumped into a movement that was dubbed by critics as “Slackavetes” and “Bedhead” filmmaking?
Mark: No, we didn’t do that on purpose. Actually, we hoped at the time that “Slackavetes” would catch on!

Jay: “Bedhead Cinema” is totally fair, too. I think we all got lumped together because we were around the same age and made movies — with the DVX camera — that looked similar, and could do so for $10,000.

Mark: Technology was the defining factor more than anything. We also traded equipment with each other. “Oh okay, you’ve got the data storage, we’ve got the camera.”

Jay: We also didn’t know many other filmmakers back then, so we naturally collaborated with people we met whom we liked. I mean, we got Greta Gerwig to be in Baghead. Ultimately, it wasn’t so much a movement but a filmmaking collective, as opposed to something …

Mark: Ideological.

Jay: Yes. It’s surreal now to think that Barry Jenkins won Oscars for Moonlight, and Greta is Oscar-nominated for Ladybird. And Lynn [Shelton] and Joe [Swanberg]…

Mark: We’re all still around.

Jay: And we all used to sleep together in the same hotel room. [Laughs.]

Mark, you tweeted in February, “Lately I am really content and happy. If I start to make irrelevant garbage for art I apologize in advance. But I am so happy to just be happy.” Are you afraid you won’t be able to make good art if you’re happy?
Mark: I’m not someone who feels that unless I am anxious or depressed, there will be no creative drive. My greatest desire in the world is that my desperation goes away, and I can be happy. That said, I’ve already lost that feeling I had in February. [Laughs.]

Jay: That was a long stretch for him.

Mark: I had it for like three or four weeks. It was incredible.

To what did you owe that period of happiness, however brief?
Mark: Speaking candidly, and this is a little gross to talk about, but I did my taxes and for the first time felt, “Oh my God, if I live in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, and my kids go to private school, and we live relatively modestly, I can actually make it.”

Jay: You could ride this out.

Mark: It’s funny, we went to lunch with Rob Reiner about six months ago.

Jay: He took us out because he liked us and loved Togetherness. So crazy!

Mark: He said something I’ll never forget. “You bring your camera on set, get some actors, point it at them, they say some things, sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not.” I remember thinking, “That’s irresponsible! If you make a movie, you have to destroy yourself until that movie is good.”

Jay: So maybe …

Mark: If we surrendered a little …

Jay: Something bigger might come to us that doesn’t fit into our fucking knuckle-gripped way of doing things.

Speaking of that, the book also mentions the frustration you felt while making Cyrus for Fox Searchlight. The anecdote about executives weighing in on a certain set needing throw-pillows is particularly cringeworthy. Did that experience sour you on larger-scale productions?
Jay: I wouldn’t say it soured us, but we became more aware of how we thrive, which is doing more homemade-type things with people we trust, not having to articulate things 1,000 times and definitely not fussing over pillows.

That’s maybe more Nancy Meyers’s jam.
Jay: Yes, it’s Nancy Meyers’s jam, and all the power to her! There was a little bit of like, “Fuck the studios!” after Cyrus. But we work with HBO and Netflix now, and they’re not small organizations. I can see us making a studio movie again. It would just have to be on our terms.

Mark: We realized, too, that there is a certain budget zone where we can make things and a studio might look at us like a lottery ticket. There’s almost a halo effect like, “If the Duplass brothers are on it, it will at least be well reviewed.” If it blows up, awesome, but there’s less pressure.

Within what budget are you most comfortable working now? Five million?
Mark: Less than that. Studios say to us, “We’re paying pennies on the dollar for what we normally have to pay.” And we say, “We’re paying pennies on the pennies that you’re paying.” And then everybody’s happy.

Jay: Smaller budgets force you to figure out what the fuck your story’s about. Independent filmmaking burns off a lot of storytelling fat.

Mark: I think Cyrus has a lot of fat in it. It was a $7 million movie. If you’re going to make a movie with famous people, you don’t necessarily need to spend 7 million dollars. Make it for less than that, and you’ll be able to sell it and make a ton more than that, and everybody shares the profits.

But that only works if you get actors as great as John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill to say yes to working for much less than they’re used to making.
Mark: Yes, and we’re lucky that we’ve been around long enough now that our brand carries its own value.

So a veteran actor like Marisa might want to work with you to, say, detox from making a franchise movie?
Mark: 100 percent.

Jay: Those are the waters we are trolling.

Mark: Sad, rich people. [Laughs.]

Jay: They’ve fallen off their tentpole. We pick them up in our little rickshaw and give them some coconut milk.

I sense from reading the book that out of all your films, you’re proudest of Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Is that fair?
Jay: I love it so much.

Mark: Puffy Chair has a soft spot for me as our first love. But if someone said, “I want to get a sense of who you are and what you’re about,” I would point them to Jeff. People probably like Cyrus the most, but Jeff is closer to my heart.

Jay: And it wasn’t nearly as big as Cyrus.

Why do think that is?
Jay: It’s a weird movie, as Judd Apatow once told us. [Laughs.] He was like, “You guys made a movie about a spiritual quest where the lead is the guy who’d normally be fourth billing,” and we’re like, “Yeah, we did.”

Mark: Cyrus made $10 million and Fox Searchlight was like, “That would have made $20 million last year.” Then Jeff came out and made about $6 million, and everybody said the same thing.

Jay: And now we think, “Cyrus made $10 million? What a windfall!” [Laughs.]

Mark: After Jeff, we decided to take another swing at making middle-class art films. We’d drop the budgets and finance ourselves so that when the movies make money, we can share it with the crews, but also guarantee our creative control. That’s when we started making Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister

The Skeleton Twins, The Overnight.
Mark: Yeah. We exploded for a while. Our composer Julian Wass had been working on all our little movies for years for about $2,000, and back-end points. Then, on The Overnight, we saw a spike in the back-end payment and I was able to cut him a $50,000 check.

Jay: We all started making more money than we would have on union movies, and we didn’t have all the red tape or 40,000 conversations with a studio.

You also didn’t have to be tied up for nine months on one project.
Mark: Yes. There was a moment where Marvel was interested in us taking on one of their properties. It would have been a $150 to $180 million budget and about three years of our lives.

Jay: “We own you,” essentially.

Which Marvel property?
Jay: It would be impolite to say.

Mark: To be a little Sundance filmmaker tapped by Marvel felt incredible. But the amount of stuff we could make over those three years, the relationships we could forge with younger filmmakers …

Jay: We’d have to give that all up.

Were you also afraid of that Ryan Coogler-level pressure?
Mark: Yes. And Ryan was also carrying sociopolitical weight on his shoulders with Black Panther. Unbelievable. And my God, he’s only 31 years old.

Jay: The problem was, by the time Mark and I were making movies, we already had kids. We were changing diapers and making lunches, so we couldn’t be the concubine of a studio at this stage in our lives.

Of all your films, is there one that you’d re-cut if you could?
Jay: Oh, that’s a great question.

Mark: I recently rewatched Puffy Chair. It’s a little fat, but I wouldn’t recut it. It has this immature charm of a particular time and place.

Jay: It’s a chubby little teenage movie.

Mark: The way we shot Jeff, I do wonder if we’d taken off the zoom lenses and shot it a little more static — as opposed to so [much] indie-zooming all over the place — whether it could have reached more people. Every now and then, when I’m lying in bed at night, I do wonder that.

Jay: It maybe had too many shaggy elements.

Mark: Yeah. We made Togetherness less shaggy and I think that helped settle it down.

At the time, Togetherness felt like your most commercial project to date. Did it feel that way to you too?
Mark: Yeah. In many ways, Togetherness was the Marvel project we said we wouldn’t do, the thing that took up all of our time. It was cheap by HBO standards, but very expensive for us. And it was on Sunday night, which means if we didn’t perform exorbitantly, we were kicked out.

Jay: Togetherness was like a long-form novel, incredibly serialized, so there was a tremendous onus on us in terms of the writing and directing, and also Mark acting in it.

Fans were very disappointed by the show’s cancellation. Would you ever do a follow-up feature, like what David Milch is doing with Deadwood?
Mark: HBO talked to us about that, but we feel those are rarely good. Also, we are not David Milch. [Laughs.]

Wild Wild Country, which you executive produced, seems to be your most talked-about project after Togetherness. How were your roles on the Netflix documentary series different from your other producer efforts?
Mark: Executive producing means so many things for us now. For example, our friend Bryan Poyser was once making a movie called Lovers of Hate. It cost $17,000 and $5,000 of his funding …

Jay: Just dropped out. He said, “If I don’t get $5,000 tomorrow, I don’t make a movie.”

Mark: We’d just signed a blind script deal with Universal for around $200,000. So we said, “Okay, here’s five grand,” and helped him with his cut in post, too. That’s the small version of an EP credit. But sometimes exec producing is, “I’m going to take a chance on you. We will have your back.” For Wild Wild Country, I met Chapman and Maclain Way — who reminded me so much of ourselves at their ages — about three years ago to talk about the project. We felt it was going to go well, but they needed a lot of time to handcraft it. So we set them up in our office, gave them equipment for editing, and floated them all the money they needed. When we saw the first cut of Wild Wild Country, it was like, Wow. And we sold it to Netflix before Sundance. When you do these things right, even though it always means less money up front, if something hits — like Wild Wild Country, and even Animals on HBO — the creators make way more money down the line.

Jay: But I do remember a lot of people were like, “What the fuck are you doing working on Wild Wild Country?” [Laughs.]

Finally, and no offense, but I must admit I’ve grown weary of brother directing/producing teams. Coen, Hughes, Polish, Safdie, Russo, Duffer, Way — the list goes on. You’ve mentored so many aspiring filmmakers. Where are the sister teams?
Jay: Yeah, where are the fucking sister teams? We’re looking, we’re looking!

Mark: We’re actually talking about that now with our daughters. Of course they’re like, “Why would we become self-indulgent filmmakers when we could be teachers and actually do something good for the world?” [Laughs.]

Mark, Jay Duplass on the Pros/Cons of Making It As Brothers