Mark and Jay Duplass talk about the state of indie cinema and making 'Cyrus' for a studio
The final interview I did for "Cyrus" at the Sundance Film Festival was with writer/directors Jay and Mark Duplass. I've liked their work for a while now, but I've never seen one of their films on the right schedule to actually have an interview with them. They're Austin boys, which practically makes us family at this point, and we've talked via e-mail a little earlier this year, so by the time the publicist introduced us, both Mark and Jay already seemed familiar. They asked me as I was sitting down how my Sundance had gone overall:
Drew: I scheduled a little smarter so I’m not seeing everything. But I’m processing what I’m seeing as opposed to... because you get into those six movie days and, man, I don’t know what I’m watching anymore, so I can’t do that. I can’t do that to the movies.
Mark: What is your limit? What can you do well?
Drew: Three movies and a couple of interviews during the day and then I feel like that’s huge. So, gentlemen, we had these made up for Hitfix. These are the official HitFix mints that we’re giving out.
Jay: Awesome. All day, every day, we're talking to people right now. This is awesome. Sweet.
Drew: I’ve had a few people beg off saying no, no, I’m straight. It’s okay. I’m not handing out pharmaceuticals.
Mark: These are... this is awesome. Thank you. That’s bad-ass. Kind of important when you’re doing interviews all day.
Drew: Yeah, well, thank you for sitting down with me, guys.
Mark: Of course.
Drew: This was one where, coming into the festival, you always cross your fingers for certain things you see on the schedule. For you guys, it feels like you’ve gone through every version of the Sundance experience. You’ve gone as complete underdogs and unknowns with the shorts and you came up with a feature that had some expectations and you’re still kind of small and this time you’re walking in with Fox Searchlight behind you, which is a different position entirely being in the festival. I still feel like this is as personal a film as I’ve seen here this week, in terms of how it’s made, in terms of the size of it. It is still a really intimate experience.
Drew: I know that a lot of your process came out of the limitations of working on a very low budget at first. Now that you are having more resources offered to you, how important is it to maintain the process that you guys have developed as a working team, and how hard is it to keep it the size and the scale that it is?
Jay: It’s critically important and it’s really hard to maintain.
Mark: Yeah, it’s really hard, you know? We had to be… but we were aware of that going in. We were really frightened of making a bad movie. We always are, you know? And we were really frightened of maintaining us throughout the studio process. So there were a lot of pre-conversations that Jay and I would have, which is basically like, "Okay, we’re going to have to be checking and balancing each other throughout this entire process, making sure we’re keeping the most important things intact," and for that it was really like we were the coach of a new football team of freshmen and had to, like, teach everybody the process on some level, you know? And we weren’t used to that because we share the same brain. We had four crew members on our previous movies. They got us. We could just jump on a set and start rolling and everyone was in line. We’re like, “Wait a minute. We have to tell everybody here specifically what we’re doing.” And we kept everything intact. It was...
Jay: Our hiring process was really a big part of it and it was grueling, but we interviewed probably 10 to 15 people for every job. I mean, that interview process was not…
Mark: Basically, it was the no-dicks-allowed process.
Jay: Yeah, I mean it wasn’t just a meet-and-greet. It was like explaining exactly how we work. We had to get really good at articulating... I mean, you guys helped us by telling us what we do, you know?
Mark: We glean it, yeah.
Jay: We glean it from your articles.
Mark: We could just say, "Read this article."
Jay: "This is what we do. This is why it’s special, or so we’ve been told, and this is why we have to keep doing it this way." And honestly, the interesting part was is that not a lot of people got it. And so when someone gets it, it clicks. And there’s that spark and you know that that person is going to be in it. With that being said, on-set and we haven’t really said this yet, we got an A.D., an assistant director, which we’ve never had before and her name is Cas Donavan, and she was genuinely in love with all of our movies previously. She totally got it.
Mark: She’d been on big sets.
Jay: She wanted it as much as we did, to protect that element. And she had come out of retirement to work with us basically.
Jay: So a lot of times, all day you’re getting bombarded by fifty people who are asking you questions and like Mark said, if you answer all those questions and if you give each person the time that they want, which is our nature because we’re like good Catholics, you’ll have nothing left for your actors, for your story, for yourself. So Cas really kind of took the lead from us and like really communicated a lot of that to our crew. But it was a very big process, you know, transitioning throughout. I mean, like every day was challenging.
Mark: I think in the end, we feel like we were able to get what we wanted and maintain the intimacy and maintain the focus on the actors. It's just that what used to take us eight hours took us twelve to fourteen this time because we had to really include Fox Searchlight in there. Let them know what we were doing because understandably they get nervous when they get four hours of improvised dailies, some of which are out of focus, you know?
Drew: See, the post process of this is where I’m most intrigued by what you guys do. And I think it’s something that, because a lot of people don’t understand post in general, it’s something that you might not ever realize that that’s really kind of where you guys make your movie.
Jay: It is, yeah.
Drew: But when I heard you say it took nine months to edit, it makes perfect sense. Because then you have everything you could possibly need and much, much, much, much more.
Jay: Right. Got about five movies in there.
Drew: And it’s about the taste in refining. And it really stands true to what these guys were building.
Mark: It’s the re-writing. It’s the re-writing.
Drew: Were there things that saddened you to kill because it just didn’t fit the film you were making?
Mark: Absolutely. There’s always the killing of the baby as we go along. We never… certain scenes were edited certain ways and we loved them empirically as scenes, but when we put them in the flow, they were either too long or too slow or too short, whatever. So, that’s always a part of the process, you know? But in general, like…
Drew: And you’ve been working with your editor Jay [Deuby ]since the beginning… since the shorts?
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. It’s him. I mean, he’s a monster. Like what he does and what he goes through is unreal, because we’re constantly pushing the envelope and the way we describe it is like we want to tell the story in the most subtle way that it’s still communicating the story. So while we’re testing the movie, we’re constantly backing off, backing off, backing off and then when we hit the point where we don’t know what’s going on anymore, then we bring it back up and we get it right there. But doing that is excruciating. Like it really is, you know? And he handles the brunt of a lot of that. He’s got such great taste.
Drew: I was saying to Jonah that I’m really moved by the scene on the stairs at the end. And it’s a beautiful moment and you really, I believe, that Cyrus wants his mother to be happy. That’s why he makes the gesture. I also believe in my heart as he’s driving over to the house that he’s going to kill and eat John.
Jay & Mark: (laughter)
Drew: The fascinating thing about Cyrus is that you can be terrified of him even in his most sincere moments. Where did Cyrus come from? Is there... because I’ve met guys who were too pampered, whose parents did so much for them that you actually expected them to follow them to the bathroom and wipe the ass. And those guys always have those weird personality imbalances that come out in the strangest and most anti-social ways. So have you met Cyrus or is there more than one Cyrus that you kind of started from? Or did it start in the other direction? Did it start from the love story and then become what’s the most insane obstacle?
Mark: I think the seed of it is Jay and I love the loveable losers. We always have. We love those characters, you know? And when we cast... like with John for instance, we knew John was going to be doing some questionable things against this kid. So we wanted to cast John C. Reilly because everybody loves John C. Reilly. So you ride with him a little bit more, you know? And again, with Cyrus, when we cast Jonah, a lot of that darkness came from Jonah because… and if you watch, like everyone’s going to be saying now “Oh, I’ve seen you do 'Superbad,' and now this is such an different role.” Part of the thing is go back and watch “Superbad”. It’s funny. It’s interesting. There’s a darkness going on.
Drew: Oh, totally. Seth has that obsessive/compulsive thing with the penis drawings and there’s a lot…
Mark: Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff going on in there, and so a lot of that... that danger, that explosive element... really came from what Jonah was bringing to the role, you know? And again, it afforded us that ability to be just that much more subtle with it because Jonah didn’t have to… it didn’t have to be "Step Brothers." You didn’t have to get physical with John. Like all you had to do is throw out a couple of those key words and give him that 40-yard stare and it’s like, "What the hell is going on here?"
Drew: Yeah. And it’s the fact that you never really know if you’re getting Cyrus. You never know if you’re getting the real… because the real Cyrus may not know how to communicate at that level that we’d all say, okay, I recognize that as sincere and human.
Mark: Yes, yeah. Well, in general…
Jay: I think he thinks he’s being sincere and he’s not even sure. But we definitely like, in terms of that Cyrus archetype... I mean Mark and I have always been obsessed with and have been friends with tons of guys who are the caveman prototype. You know, they grew up in a very unique situation in which the typical rules of socialization don’t apply to them. And there’s a wild-card element to that that we have always been really excited about. I mean like probably an inordinate number of our really great friends over the years have been these types of guys. You know because…
Mark: We’re obsessed with purity. We’re obsessed with that.
Jay: It’s very pure and it’s very exciting and there’s danger involved in it, and you know, I mean it’s weird thinking about it now more than ever, but we’ve both have had lots of friends like that.
Drew: I’ve had a history with Fox over the years. I worked for them as a writer. I’ve gone through the process there and I did not always find Fox to be very welcoming in terms of the way they treat artists, but I just saw Robert Rodriguez signed his deal with them to distribute "Machete" and he just did "Predators" with them, and by all accounts Robert had a great experience in terms of them letting him work in Austin and have his own system. And now you guys with Fox Searchlight have had that experience. It seems like if you come in with a strong voice that you can protect, like there is room even at a studio like Fox to do that, but how much of that is a constant process of knowing you have to protect your voice?
Mark: We don’t know. We’ve only made the one studio movie. Our only experience is with Searchlight, you know? We had a great producer in Michael Costigan, who believed in us and was there to protect us, you know, but also Claudia Lewis and Nancy and Matthew Green was our executive. They genuinely loved our earlier movie, so they had an interest in making one of these movies, you know? So all things considered, it was pretty much about as good as it was going to get for two guys whose highest grossing film to date was $220,000 in the movie theatre. You know what I’m saying? I think that "Cyrus" will probably do well and I think that unfortunately for the studio…
Drew: Have you prepped the trailers or worked with the campaign…
Jay: We are very involved in cutting the trailers.
Mark: We were very involved with the poster, too. Yeah.
Jay: Things are coming into our photoshop, going back to their photoshop.
Drew: That’s the real key... when somebody comes into this theatre, you want them to have the experience that was sold. And like I think as long as they’re primed, they’ll absolutely enjoy the experience. The worst thing you could do is mislead an audience.
Mark: Yeah, well, that’s what we’re afraid of, yeah.
Jay: Anyone who comes to this movie expecting "Step Brothers" is going to be gravely disappointed. So it’s important that people know that this is a drama that is very funny.
Drew: Well, I think we’re seeing a seismic shift. I do think the industry… it’s almost at that moment it was when they made "Cleopatra" and "Star!" and then "Easy Rider" happened. So it seems like we’re at that seismic moment again, and it seems like this time, the "Easy Rider"s are happening quietly. Like it hasn’t been one movie necessarily, but we’re seeing things like "Paranormal Activity" or Fox Searchlight doing this with you guys, where there are chances being taken.
Jay: Oh, yeah.
Drew: Is there a sense of that among other film makers you’re speaking with that they’re starting to hear it as well? Or they’re starting to get…
Mark: It depends on the circle. The microsphere is still very much healthy, I think, in that like I can always get $20 grand and go make a movie. You know? Jay and I can now actually be helpful with that and stuff. But it’s that middle class thing where people are trying to get that $4 million movie made with foreign financing. Those guys are getting mauled right now.
Drew: I’ve been through it for the last year and a half and it’s a nightmare.
Jay: That’s just like a model that we think is... it’s not necessarily going away. It’s just... we just try to advise our friends and the film makers we know not to get involved in that. Or if they are involved in it, have something else in your back pocket that if that window goes away, you can shoot your $8,000 movie.
Mark: …and make something else and get your soul destroyed.
Drew: It has absolutely been… it’s worse than any studio experience I had because it’s supposed to be looser. It’s supposed to have more freedom or more room to bend and I find it’s far less. Like I can’t cast a black lead in my film because the international financiers won't let you. Really? It’s like a psychotic conversation.
Mark: That being said, Jay and I are very much now feeling like independent film needs to be a little nurtured and it’s not the time to take the money and run with studios. It’s the time to be smart. Let’s make this at the right budget level because we know it will probably make its money back. I think this film is a really great example of that. There’s a chance this movie could blow up and be a huge success if people tap into it. If that doesn’t happen, this was cheap enough that it’s going to make its money back on DVD and TV practically immediately. And then Searchlight didn’t go broke so they’ll be around next year to make our next movie. And they’re not going to resent us because we didn’t ask them for $30 million to make a movie that we couldn’t deliver on.
Drew: Wasn’t it the Woody Allen model that he figured out what his price point was and as long as he didn’t go over that, he could just make a movie a year and be happy?
Jay: What he had always going for him is that really famous people wanted to do his movies for any price.
Mark: At scale.
Jay: For any price and I mean honestly, like, we’re… I don’t want to jinx it but we’re kind of getting to a point where people really like the performances in our movies and they want to be… they want to have that experience and they want to be put through the pipeline that Mark and I…
Mark: They’ll come slumming with us basically.
Jay: They’ll slum it with us because they know that on the back end of it, they’re going to do something unique and they’re going do something different than they’ve ever done before.
Drew: I think we have a really healthy sort of tribe of actors working right now who seem like they are willing to go big and small just based on work and based on who they’re working with.
Jay: Everyone on this film did it.
Mark: I hope it increases into a larger tribe. But I do agree with you. There’s a slew of people who are down for that.
Drew: And I see them at screenings of these things because I can see that they’re watching and say, "Oh, okay, great. It worked." And it’s an interesting time and I think that you guys are in the perfect place to enjoy the marketing end of studio support but still have the freedom to work the way you have. So the sci-fi thing you're doing with Jason Reitman... was that something that you brought to him or something that he came to you with?
Mark: It’s a script that we wrote, that we brought to Jason because he’s been… he’s the next level above us in terms of, like, he brings an indie sensibility to the mainstream and we liked not only the branding of him and his name but also he has such strong relationships in the indie-wood sphere, and he really like loves our movies and he kind of, even though he’s younger than us, obviously has so much more experience. He wants to foster us through and be kind of like "Here’s how you do it." He’s willing to be our protector through that and so we’re happy to have that.
Drew: How has the Sundance experience changed for you this year? Is it any different or do you simply at this point feel like…
Jay: Oh, yeah, totally different. I mean, the main element is we’re not selling a movie. When you’re selling a movie, Sundance is incredibly stressful. Or at least it is when you’re me and Mark because we’re just worried the entire time. And let’s face it, if you don’t sell your movie or at least make major headway into selling your movie the week of Sundance, you’re probably not going to sell your movie. And we’re painfully aware of that at all times and so we’re trying to do everything that we can do to maximize that happening. So it’s an incredible amount of stress. We’ve been busier than ever in a different way with press, and with events and stuff like that. But it’s not… it’s totally enjoyable because we’re here solely in a capacity of celebration of what we’ve done.
Drew: There you go.
Jay: So, I mean, it’s an enormous difference.
Drew: You can do that now and you can have Fox Searchlight be involved and it can still be this. There’s no surrender. I hear we may be seeing this one at SXSW this year. I think that's always been a really amazing festival and I think it has been growing even more over the past years. I think Janet Pierson is an amazing get for the festival.
Mark: Yeah, we love her.
Drew: And if you guys come this year, I’ll be there as well.
Jay: We’re hoping to be there.
Mark: We’ll be there if we’re not shooting another movie.
Drew: That’s awesome. And it feels like the Austin scene has not produced one kind of film maker, which I really… so often with regional things you get one type of voice or whatever.
Mark: I never thought about it that way
Drew: Austin has produced a wide-range of voices. It hasn’t been any one thing.
Jay: And amazingly, they’re all being done at the under-$100,000 level. So it’s like, you know, it’s hard to find a lot of different voices under $100,000, but Austin is doing it.
Drew: This was shot in L.A., right?
Jay: Yeah, east side of L.A.
Drew: Would you guys still shoot in Austin if the right thing…
Mark: Oh, absolutely. We would prefer to be at camp. That’s how we like to make movies. You go away, you make a movie, and then you come home because when you’re there, it’s only one thing and you know the camaraderie is greater. When you make a movie at home in L.A., you know everyone wants to be home by their kids at night, and so it feels more like a job and less like a special camp project, you know? So we always try to get our films on location.
Drew: Excellent. Well, listen, guys have a rest of the festival and I can’t wait to talk to you again. I think it’s April they’re talking about for a release?
Mark: Something like that. Potentially, yeah.
Drew: And I hope next time around to talk to Marisa, because I cannot overstate how important I think she is in the film.
Jay: That’s great. Incredible.
Drew: The work she does, she just destroys me. There’s like four places in the movie where she just kills me.
Mark: Good. And obviously if you need anything else, just let us know.
If you haven't seen it yet, check out the trailer for "Cyrus":
Thanks to the army of publicists who were working Sundance and "Cyrus" this year for putting me together with the Duplass boys, Jonah, and John C. Reilly.
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