EXCLUSIVE: Inside the Mind of Mark Duplass and How He Plays Hollywood by His Own Rules
By John Boone
Photo: Getty Images
Mark Duplass isn't so different from the movies he makes. Sitting on a couch on the back patio of Cinefamily's Silent Movie Theatre during the L.A. premiere of his latest film, Blue Jay, he blends in. Dressed in jeans and a white button-down, his hair pushed to the side, sporting a day's worth of scruff, he could easily be any one of the hipsters or movie buffs milling about. Spend a little time talking with him, though, and you're sure to find him relatable -- the things he says between sips of beer smart, witty and often beautiful. "I'm not being ignored," he jokes with ET at one point, that affable grin spreading widely across his face. "It's a wonderful thing."
And those are exactly the films he makes. "The current tide of independent films is a little loud and a little noisy and a little, like, How can I make the most high-concept thing to get noticed in this sea of indie movies?" Duplass explains. "I wanted to play directly against that and see if a very simple story could still be relevant and reach people."
Duplass should know a thing or two about indie films. On the cusp of turning 40, he has already produced almost as many projects as years he's been alive. The multihyphenate writer, director, actor and producer founded Duplass Brothers Productions in 1996 with his brother, Jay Duplass, and the two burst onto the scene with 2005's mumblecore staple, The Puffy Chair.
Ten years later, the brothers have created something of an indie empire, producing Oscar-buzzworthy films like Tangerine, brokering a multipicture deal with Netflix and creating the short-lived HBO comedy Togetherness, with a new HBO anthology series, Room 104, on the way. Duplass' latest release is Blue Jay, co-starring recent Emmy winner Sarah Paulson, which is now available on demand. He wrote, produced and stars in the project, one of the select few that is not a formal collaboration with his brother. ("We call them our affair projects," he says with an impish smile. "It's great for me to go out and join spirits and souls with someone else, and it keeps me and Jay healthy when I come back home.")
"I'm definitely at the place in my career where I'm very aware that I can't just have yes men. Because if I do, I'm going to start walking into sh**ty, sh**ty movies," Duplass says. "Blue Jay very much had the chance, in my opinion, to be that kind of movie. This little black-and-white movie with two people could be lyrical and poetic and moving and sweet and subtle, or it could be f**king boring."
Describing the plot of Blue Jay feels overly simplistic: It's about a man, Jim, who runs into his high school sweetheart, Amanda, at the grocery store two decades later and the two end up spending a heartbreaking, occasionally hilarious day together. But it is so much more than that, and poses a similar challenge to Duplass when he attempts to explain the idea he had in the middle of the night that inspired the movie.
"It was more of a feeling," he muses. "It's linked to when you see someone you knew in your past and sometimes your first instinct is to pretend like you didn't see them. I still do that, and now I question myself. I was like, 'Why the f**k am I doing this?’ Like, I'm really successful. I’ve got sh*t to brag about! I'm doing really well for the average high school person I run into. I should be like, 'Look at me, I'm on TV!'"
He laughs before growing meditative again. "Still, I have weird shame and embarrassment that I'm not who I was back then," he says, cocking his head as if to ask, Do you understand? "I was a very romantic kid in high school. When I look at how I was back then, I was so confident that I knew everything, and I didn't know sh*t about love or relationships. It's so funny to look at him and make fun of him, and then immediately after that, I miss him and I want him back. I want pieces of him in my life, and I don't know how to get it. I'm happier now than I was then, but I'm highly aware that that person is gone. But when you come across someone who knew you then, you have a chance to maybe be that way with them."
It could seem like a given that Duplass would take on the role of Jim, but he doesn't always cast himself in the roles that he writes. "All false humility aside, I think that if your narrative is not perfectly structured yet, there are very few people better than me who can write while they're improvising and steer a story forward while still being inside of a character," he explains matter-of-factly.
"That being said, there's about a hundred other male actors out there who can inhabit and be real in a role 10 times better than I can do it and who can give the ocean in their eyes,” he offers. "When I look at Oscar Isaac and he is looking back, there's just this thing that happens to me. And I don't have that!"
To play Amanda, Duplass called upon Paulson, whom he knew socially through his Togetherness co-star Amanda Peet. "When Mark called me, I thought, 'Well, this is the scariest thing I could ever contemplate doing,'" Paulson recalls. "I called Amanda and she said, 'If they're asking, you should do it. There's just nobody else you should do that with, especially your first time.'"
The two met for "therapy sessions" to infuse their personal stories into the movie, which was conceived as an almost fully improvised project and then shot in one week in the real community of Blue Jay, California.
"This was less about us exacting a very preconceived vision that we knew would be a great movie and more of, What if we just go out like little kids a little blindly and we chase this thing together?” Duplass explains. “I was a little nervous to ask for black and white and talk about it, because I didn't want to come across as pretentious. Like, 'You made an indie film in black and white? C'mon, dude.' You're asking to be skewered by the critics."
"At the same time, it was part and parcel with the ethic of the movie," he continues. "Which is: We're not going to make this movie with our heads. We're going with our guts."
Duplass' gut is name-checked a number of times throughout the conversation. It's what led him to start mentoring Blue Jay director Alex Lehmann, whom he first met while acting on FX's The League, before serving as a producer on the fledgling director’s documentary, Asperger's Are Us. Duplass, however, likes to think of it as more of a partnership.
"I've made a ton of these little movies and we're both getting something very specific from each other. What I get, in my opinion, is so much bigger than what I give," Duplass says, before joking: "That sounds like a Verve song or something."
In essence, Duplass is at a place in his career where he can greenlight movies and maintain full creative control, which allows him to pull up talent that would otherwise be considered too green. In return, he gets someone who has a strong work ethic and will "work their ass off" at a level he's no longer able to dedicate to just one project. "I do have a little survivor's guilt. I beat my head against the wall for 10 years trying to make something and I didn't know what I was doing," he says. "It was really emotionally painful for me and my brother to go through, and I wish someone had been like, 'Hey, dude, It's OK. Come with me and I'll show you this or that.' That would have been really nice."
As for Lehmann, who is perched on a nearby table, listening to the conversation, he adds: "The mentorship that someone like Mark brings is they see things that you want to do, that you're afraid to do. He would say, 'Go with your gut.' Stuff that as a first-time filmmaker, I probably would definitely overthink and question, but he'd say, "You're excited about this..."
"Do it," Duplass chimes in. "Go get it."
It's a philosophy Duplass subscribed to at the start of his own career -- going and getting it -- and one he sticks by even now, despite having had enough success in the indie world that he could easily transition to bigger-budget studio projects. That just doesn't interest him.
"Quite honestly, when you make a movie or a TV show with a lot of money, it becomes a commodity that needs to be serviced. And I love watching those movies! I go all the time!" he exclaims. "But you have to be responsible and you have to make that money back. I'm in that zone right now where I don't have a desire to feel the fiscal and audience responsibility of making a Marvel movie. It's not your movie. You're servicing this bigger thing."
That bigger thing for Duplass is expanding his reach onscreen. While he does have an idea of what a Marvel movie by Mark Duplass would look like -- an estranged superhero team who "like, go to a bar together and talk about it for 80 minutes, in their outfits" -- he is instead focusing on recruiting up-and-coming directors to work on his expanding slate of films, as well as Room 104. (He promises the new series “is a lot more fun and off the rails than maybe Togetherness was. This thing is more bananas.")
After Togetherness was canceled -- "taken away from me," as Duplass puts it -- he learned a harsh lesson, which he says is "why you make movies on your own." In the same vein as Blue Jay, Room 104 and the animated series Animals., which also airs on HBO, are both made independently. "I've just learned that I need to be in control of my destiny, particularly if you're going to fall in love,' Duplass says. "I really got my heart broken over Togetherness."
"I started to realize, on accident, that I could have full creative control and make the movies exactly how I wanted to make them if I paid for them myself,” Duplass reflects on the architecture of his career. “I went to Sundance. I made an indie movie. I was like, 'Oh, this is just a halfway house to Hollywood.' So I went to L.A. and then I made a couple of studio movies and I was like, "Ehhh, I don't really like this,' And it's not a stepping-stone. People do ask me sometimes, 'What's next?' I'm just like, 'This is it! This is as good as it's going to get.'"