For a man who has yet to turn 40, Mark Duplass has lived many lives. The multi-multi-hyphenate came up as a mumblecore auteur alongside his brother Jay and still occupies a variety of roles: He acts in both indies and mainstream films while writing, directing, and producing extensively. But as his career has come into focus, Duplass has also begun to more precisely articulate and expand his distinct aesthetic, a process you can see clearly in his most recent effort, the charmingly intimate Blue Jay, which he wrote, produced, and starred in with Sarah Paulson. With Blue Jay now on VOD and in select theaters, Vulture caught up with Duplass to discuss the state of his ever-shifting career and the many, many projects he’s working on right now.
So you came up with the idea for Blue Jay, but you didn’t direct it. Tell me about when it first came to you, and then why you sought out a different director.
There’s a little bit of a precedent with me coming up with movies in my head that I want to make, but that I don’t want for me or Jay to direct. I did that with Your Sister’s Sister, I brought in Lynn Shelton, and I did that with The One I Love, I brought in Charlie [McDowell] and Justin [Lader]. I feel like my particular skill set — being an actor who can guard the story and improvise and move scenes around, and being an overall producer who can set up the movies and protect them and not bring in a bunch of shitty money that’s going to tank the movie and bring in terrible voices — is what I am really best at. I can direct stuff, but I honestly feel like finding a younger director at this point who’s more hungry than I am, more excited by the prospect of getting to direct their first narrative with us.
How did Blue Jay director Alex Lehmann get involved?
Finding directors who are visually very astute and very instinctual is really important to me. I’m not that great visually, and Alex is the perfect choice for this because he’s a documentary filmmaker. In Blue Jay, there’s no blocking, there’s no real script, these human beings are going to try to have genuine moments on camera, he doesn’t know where they’re going to happen, and then he needs to decide, in the moment, where to put the camera so he can capture it. And that is hard.
Sarah said that your three producers — Syd Fleischmann, Mel Eslyn, and Xan Aranda — were very involved in conceptualizing the movie.
Totally. I made a two-page outline, and then we brought in the producers and Alex, and we’d have these little talk sessions where we’d see what we liked about the story. We would all bring little pieces from our own lives into the story and say, This is what I’m dealing with. Three out of the six of us in that room had taken antidepressants. We were like, Whoa, we’re fifty-fifty in here. Things like that would find their way into the story. And when Amanda talks about dogs, there’s nothing like [Sarah’s] face when she talks about animals and the way she loves them, and so I was like, “Okay! I’m writing you an animal scene in this.” A lot of this movie is chasing those things.
Speaking of Sarah, she’s incredible in the movie. I think people are really seeing her in Blue Jay in this way that the culture at large does not see her. The culture at large sees her the way she is in the FX shows, which are also really good but …
Different. What do you see in actors that makes you think they would be good at working this way? Because it’s a different way of working.
They have to really want to do it, because it is not as fun as it looks, in my opinion. It’s pretty torturous, and you’re mentally exhausted because you’re on your toes constantly. I usually have a good instinct of whether they will be good at it. A lot of that is predicated on them being students of the human condition, people who see the world in a similar way that I do. When I met Sarah, immediately, within 30 seconds we were making jokes about the darkness in all the people at that party around us and how it made us feel sad, but then we were giggling about it at the same time. And I was like, “Oh, she’s one of my tribe,” and you know that immediately when you meet someone like that.
You’re getting pretty deep into what’s been a very productive career.
I have a body of work now, which is weird as shit to say at 39 years old.
Yeah, and you have this interesting situation that, weirdly, a lot of older filmmakers generally have, which is that you’ve made so many films.
The question is real: What’s next, and what do I do?
When you set out to make a movie like Blue Jay, or the other films you’re working on right now, what are you chasing?
I think I spent a lot of years quote-unquote trying to build an empire, and I’m always chasing my creative bliss — that’s why I pay for most of my movies myself, and make them small so I can do it. I spent a lot of years making movies that I knew I could make good, because I have a bit of a fear of failure. I spent a lot of time in my 20s making bad stuff, and it hurt so bad that I’m like, now that I’m here, I don’t want to take any crazy risks and fuck up again. But that has started to shift in the last couple of years. Blue Jay for me represents a big shift, and was a big leap of faith on my part, to basically say, this melancholic, nostalgic side of my personality — what if I unplugged that and just let my Nicholas Sparks fly? I really wanted to do this, and I was scared that I’d be rejected for it, but my gut was telling me to just go for it: Do it cheaply, do it quietly, so if we make a huge mistake, we can tuck it away and it doesn’t have to be a big embarrassment. That allowed me the confidence to take that step.
In a lot of ways, Blue Jay has less in common with most of the indie movies coming out right now and more with a Douglas Sirk movie, or these older melodramas.
That’s the form of it. Really, when we were making this movie, what I was thinking was, “Okay, what is the tide of independent film right now, what is my ecosystem?” My ecosystem is like Swiss Army Man and The Lobster and independent films screaming for attention with their oddly plotted high-conceptness. I’m guilty of that too, by the way; I’ve made some of those movies. But my core was like, I don’t want to do that — I want to play against that tide and I want to go 180-degrees opposite. I want to make something quiet and very patient. Strip everything away: two characters, two colors. I’ve said this before, but it’s a little bit what Miles Davis did with Kind of Blue in the jazz scene in the late ’50s, where it was like, I can’t get any louder and crazier than John Coltrane. What I can do is just get quiet again.
So shooting in black and white was part of that?
It was. My core was like, this movie should be in black and white, and my brain was like, you’re an idiot, the most pretentious move you can do is to make a black-and-white movie in 2016, the press are going to skewer you, and this is not a smart move. But my core was like, no, you want it to be black and white, allow yourself to do it this one time.
Out of curiosity, could you list all the things you’re working on right now?
I’m working on Room 104 for HBO. I’m writing a book with my brother that is about the history of our collaboration. It’s a little bit overdue, we’re a little bit in trouble. We are in the process of producing our next three Netflix movies, one of which has been shot and we’re submitting around, one of which just wrapped, and one of which is going into production next week. We’re in the process of building out another slate of movies that I can’t really talk about right now. I have two docuseries that we’re working on that I’m really excited about — they haven’t been announced yet, so I can’t give titles, but I’ve been circling documentaries for years as a source of inspiration, and it honestly is the thing that most informs my narrative filmmaking process. Alex Lehmann and I, the director of Blue Jay, have a secret documentary project that we’re in process on.
All of this shit sounds like, Oh my God, how are you doing all of this, but I have really smart filmmakers at the head of all of these, and I’m trying to move more into an executive position in my life. I think I’m a good director, but I don’t think I’m the greatest director in the world; I think I’m a good actor, but I don’t think I’m the greatest actor in the world; I think I’m a good writer, but I’m not the greatest writer in the world. There’s a couple of things that only a few people can do, and Blue Jay is an example of that. To know how to build this movie in a way that, even if we shat the bed, we wouldn’t lose money and we’d do well with it — I know how to do that as a producer. I know how to write a script that can be shot in seven days and doesn’t suffer from that. I know as an actor how to guide that narrative from within the scenes. That alchemy of those things is what I’m trying to lean into more, and if I’m being honest, what I’m uniquely qualified to do.
Are there any of those things that you find yourself most wanting to dive into more?
Writing this book has really opened up a new side of me. Probably because the learning curve was very steep, I was very not good at it when we started. I have this fantasy that I will maybe write something in the narrative-fiction realm at some point. And Jay and I are moving a little bit away from directing right now, because, quite frankly, we can write and produce and act and shepherd a young director, and it takes us a lot less time, and we can do a lot more. I have two young kids, and when you’re a writer and a producer, you can kind of live 9-to-5. With Room 104, I’ve got a great group of people. I show up at 9 a.m. after I drop my kids off at school, just in time for the first shot, and I check it out, and it’s going really well, and I have one of my ace directors in the hole, I’m like, we’re good — I can go away then go pick up my kids from school. That’s where I’m at right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.