HitFix Interview: Mark Duplass talks 'The League' and 'Cyrus'
Busy writer-director-star discusses fantasy football, his FX comedy and 'Cyrus
Actors do TV shows for many different reasons, but Mark Duplass gave me a rather unique explanation when we spoke.
"'The League' is me going off and having sex with a beautiful, gorgeous woman who expects nothing of me other than smiles and fun," Duplass explains.
The first thing you have to know is that he's not being literal. Duplass is, in fact, married to Katie Aselton, his co-star in the FX fantasy football comedy.
However, with "The League," Duplass is a hired gun, just one part of the expert ensemble assembled by creator Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer. Granted that "The League," with its heavy emphasis on improvisation, puts more pressure on its stars than most shows, but it's still a relatively low commitment compared to Duplass' other job.
Along with brother Jay, Duplass has been writer, director, producer and occasionally star of a run of independent-minded dramedies including "The Puffy Chair," "Baghead," "Cyrus" and the upcoming "Jeff Who Lives at Home," festival-friendly features that have gradually increased in budget without losing their DIY charm and rhythms.
With "The League" returning for its second season on Thursday (Sept. 16), HitFix caught up with Duplass to discuss his Other Woman and more.
Click through for the full interview...
HitFix: It feels as if the show is really clicking from the opening episodes of the second season. Did it feel like there was a new comfort level at this point?
Mark Duplass: It's funny. We definitely talked about, on the first day of shooting, for us, on the actors side, it felt like we had never left. It was a year later, but we felt like we were just doing it yesterday. I think that speaks to the comfort level. Also, we've become a lot closer friends in the off-season. We know each other's rhythms and ways probably a lot better now than we did when we were just starting the first season. There's a lot of thing contributing to that. Also, Jackie and Jeff know how to write for us now. They know what to give us, what we do well. So the whole thing's just growing from a lot of different angles.
HitFix: When the show started, how well did you know the guys?
MD: Not at all. We dropped down into our first scene and we'd all spent like an hour or two together.
HitFix: As you say, the Jackie and Jeff have had the chance to learn to write for your voice. What do you think they've learned about your voice that maybe they didn't have in the beginning?
MD: Pete's an interesting character, because he's kind of unflappable. He doesn't put in a lot of effort and he does really well in the league, but something we'll discover for him this season is that after he goes through his divorce, we discovered something that I can bring to this character, which is that he seems unflappable, but there's a definite fallibility there and I've sort of made my career either as an actor or as a writer-director, on the foibles and the sort of loveable losers of the world, so I think you're going to see a little bit more this season of Pete's buttons and that's going to take him from being so calm, cool and collected and into a little bit of a s***storm.
HitFix: Was Pete too confident last year for you to feel comfortable with him?
MD: No, I was comfortable with it, perfectly. I think it's just situationally we've found good pickles to put him in. So he's still very much the same guy, it's just that we've found a lot of good places to stick him in that make him more uncomfortable.
HitFix: Do these guys actually have room to grow as people on this show, or is it really about keeping these types steady?
MD: We talk about that a lot, actually, because it is a situational show and Ruxin is Ruxin in a lot of ways and Pete is Pete in a lot of ways and that's true for all of the characters. But it's been interesting for my character, having the divorce finalized in the first season and now trying to go back into the dating pool and seeing what that's like to be single. So while his life situation is that quote-unquote that he's "dating," there is a little bit of growth there in terms of "Where do I fit in here?" But the essence of "The League," in general, is kind of the relationship between these guys and those dynamics, while they expand and have their little changes, they're pretty set in stone.
HitFix: So you enjoy the situational aspect and you wouldn't want things to become, I dunno, more serialized with the characters?
MD: I don't think so. For me and my personal taste for what this show is, it seems like we're going to have a nice, long life in the way that we make this show. The show is made on a budget. In a lot of ways, it's kinda like the independent film version of television. We don't ask for a s***-ton of money and because of that, they like us and they keep us going. The more things get serialized, I think that's towards it becoming finite. As much as I love shows like "Friday Night Lights," it had to end, on some level. The more situational we can stay with this thing, I think we're going to have a longer life.
HitFix: You come from an ultra low-budget film world. Relatively speaking, how high or low frills is "The League" compared to one of your movies?
MD: That's a good question. Obviously it's much more more high frills that something like "The Puffy Chair" or "Baghead," but compared to "Cyrus" or "Jeff Who Lives At Home," the sets feel pretty similar in terms of the spirit of the people. Nobody's really there to get rich, but everybody's making a living and doing well. You know? That middle class zone? For some reason, the food is just infinitely better on "The League." I can't figure that one out yet. I've never really been able to nail that. The one thing that I would say is a little bit different is that we move a lot faster on "The League" than we do on my movies. The camera crew on "The League" is like this highly specialized task force unit on how to make scenes look good when you only have 40 minutes to shoot. We shoot an episode every three to three-and-half days, so that's a lot. On my sets, we have a little bit bigger camera team, we take a little bit more time with it, but otherwise the spirt is very similar.
HitFix: What are the advantages and disadvantages of making a TV show that fast?
MD: We realized this season that this is a very specific thing that we do. It's unscripted television, but it also has enough of a storyline and a narrative that you actually have to make sure that you're driving plot as well. What ends up really happening is that yes, we work without a script, but the script ends up coming together right there in the middle of the scene. So you have to be really really on-it and it's f***ing exhausting. It's not just coming up with jokes. You're coming up with hopefully something funny that relates to your character and also drives the narrative forward, so your brain is like tick-tick-tick-tick-tick and meanwhile you're in the middle of a scene. So what's great about that is that when the moment happens and and you get it and it's an exciting, invigorating process. The negative is just the exhaustion factor of it. But I think that for the feel of the show, the off-the-cuff sense of it, the irreverence, it's the right way to do this show. I don't think the show would be better, honestly, if we took more time with it, writing some of those lines. That being said, I think if we took less time, we might not be able to get done what we need to get done. I, actually, even though it's stressful and tiring, think it's a good way to do it.
HitFix: Could you talk me through the exact mechanics of how you balance that absence of script, but also that need to impose a narrative on it?
MD: We'll have, say, one of those bar scenes with the five of us there. We'll be setting up the storylines for the show. We'll know that, for example, there are three storylines going on, say one with Ruxin and one with Andre, and we'll know what those are and we'll have a general idea of who is going to take what elements of that story. But we'll start off with a take that's usually a giant piece of garbage and then Jeff and Jackie come in and help us refine it and then what ends up happening is that usually somewhere around take three, or maybe four, it all comes together. It's cool, because it comes together in that moment and you've got it on film, as opposed to maybe rehearsing it and then going, "Ooops. I kind of wish we were shooting that." It will mostly be the order of how things happen. A lot of it's on the actors to find ways to organically segue from one element of the story into the other. Then usually someone will come up with something completely out of left field a joke or an insight into the character that will shift the scene a little bit. So it's this little bandying back and forth between the actors' take on the scene and Jeff and Jackie's take on the scene and it's kind of like arts and craft. You just throw stuff in there and then all of a sudden, it just happens.
HitFix: You guys all come to the show with different comedic and acting backgrounds. How does do those backgrounds gel within this process? And does it gel better now than it did when you first started?
MD: It works so well now. I thought it worked well last season, but it's really good now. A lot of it goes into who gets what material. Because a lot of times a joke comes up and we're like, "Who should have this?" As actors, we all have certain strengths. I feel like I'm very good at moving the narrative forward, playing the straight man and then having the occasional zinger here and there. Nick Kroll, nobody can deliver a ridiculous joke like Nick Kroll and make it seem organic, so whenever something scathing or outlandish comes up, we know. Even if Paul Scheer comes up with the joke, all eyes go to Nick, it's like "That's a Ruxin joke." And we just shuffle it over. Lajoie as Taco, he's a great exposition tool for us, because he's kinda the village idiot, so he can ask questions about what's happening and he can also make a joke out of it. Paul has a very good writer brain. He always has good ideas for all of us. It's just a very nice flow to it. Nobody's gobbling up all of the jokes so they can look best on the show. It's kind of that creative Communism thing.
HitFix: You mentioned Paul's writer's hat, but on your films, you wear or co-wear all of the hats. What does it feel like for you to only wear the one main hat?
MD: It is very clearly the sensation of vacation. It sounds like a joke, but I am there to serve the show and occasionally some of that writer or director-y stuff comes in, but Jeff and Jackie are very capable of what they're doing. They're better at doing this type of comedy, this kind of fast-paced, punched up, really joke-driven organic comedy than I am. My stuff is a little more character-dramedy based, so I'm not necessarily the authority on how to write-direct this show, by any means. So for me, it's the only thing in my life where I do mostly just one thing. I just function as an actor there. I show up on set and they dress me and they feed me and I'm making a whole new group of friends and I'm creative and loose and then I go home. It's hard to explain, but it's like my little creative affair. My writing-directing career is my marriage and it's so rewarding and wonderful, but complex and it requires so much work. And "The League" is me going off and having sex with a beautiful, gorgeous woman who expects nothing of me other than smiles and fun. And thank God it's not illegal!
HitFix: Had you been actively looking for that sort of creative relationship outside of your marriage?
MD: I've always always had it with my acting. I had it when I did "Humpday." I had it when I did "Hannah Takes the Stairs" and "Greenberg." But I didn't realize how much I would enjoy it, I guess. It's rounded out my life in a very good way. I love the movies that Jay and I write and direct. He and I would be the first people to tell you that as casual as they appear, we destroy ourselves trying to make them look that way. So this is just a very nice thing.
HitFix: Does doing this give you new approaches for when you and Jay go out to make that next movie?
MD: It does. I actually learn a lot from Jeff and Jackie and the style of the show. I've definitely learned some things about which scenes should be improvised and which scenes shouldn't. And Jay and I are learning more and more that not every scene should be improvised in the same way and that's helped us move, not only more quickly, but just to get better stuff. Sometimes things as little as -- not to give away too much -- but there's a scene in an elevator coming up in this season. And I've always been like, "God, I'm never gonna write a scene in an elevator. How the f*** do you shoot in an elevator?" And I learned how to do it! Because Jackie and Jeff, they figured out a really cool way to do it and I'll borrow a lot of stuff for my movies later on. It's cool, because I get to be a little bit of an understudy for the ways that they make things and steal things here and there.
HitFix: As a lark, can you see yourself wanting to move up from understudying to direct an episode of "The League"? Or are you totally happy where you are?
MD: I'm totally happy where I am and, to be honest, it's hard for me to imagine anyone else directing the show. It moves so quickly. Jeff and Jackie are such a great team together. They're so fast. When I'm directing a scene in one of my own movies and I hear the actors do their thing, Jay and I come in and we know exactly what to do with it. We know exactly how to make those emotional turns. I see Jeff in that exact same role with this show. He comes in and it's just like, "Boom. Switch. Move this over. Cover that part. Here we go." And I'm just like, "Yeah. He's right." They know what they're doing and they're gonna be on-set anyway, so I see no reason why they wouldn't keep doing them all.
HitFix: Now for some reason, I don't know the answer to this and I haven't heard it or read it anywhere else. Do you play fantasy football? Do any of you play fantasy football?
MD: OK, so here's your scoop: We all play now. We're in a league together, which is fun. That gives us lots of good material. Here's who's good: Steve [Rannazzisi] is amazing. Steve has been doing this for years. I actually went to him early on, Nick and I were more like fans from the '80s and '90s and we weren't as up on the 2000s and the lists of players, so Nick and I were totally hitting up Steve like, "We understand this and how it works, but we're just delinquent on the last 10 years and what's been going on, basically." He filled us in on all of that. Paul and Katie and Jon were pretty clueless at first and, interestingly enough, Katie and Paul last year when they started, they just got way into it. Too into it, honestly. Paul went off for his wedding and they left their phones at home on the honeymoon, but the one thing he was allowed to do was check his lineup. It was some bizarre life-immitating-art stuff. And as far as we understand, Jon Lajoie and his relationship to fantasy football *is* Taco and his relationship with fantasy football. We sent out the e-mail to sign up this year and he's still the one who hasn't responded yet.
HitFix: That's got to be an insane challenge, doing improvised dialogue about fantasy football without, at least initially, know the players and how they fit into the game?
MD: It's the great challenge. I remember that when I was doing "Humpday," all I did all day long was think about relationships and emotions and people, so my bank was full. I just got to draw on it naturally. For this show, we have to fill our banks with stuff and then learn how to access it quickly. We're getting better and better at it as the days go by, but there's also the added challenge that we're shooting the show earlier than the actual season happens, but we're trying to air it during the season, so we're making guesses on the way we think that things will go, but we'll shoot multiple versions talking about this team in the playoffs or this other team in the players and hopefully as the season develops, we try and edit it and make it match up as best we can.
HitFix: I definitely felt like these first couple episodes felt smoother and more connected, fantasy-wise than much of last season.
MD: I think we're getting better at it and I think we're also learning how to do it and what things will generally apply. Last season, we used some very specific things and they had to be cut because they didn't match up. So now we're using things that can be general knowledge-applied to whatever transpires in the season.
HitFix: So obviously this show could, on some levels, be about anything that guys get obsessed over. It doesn't need to be fantasy football. But do you think that there are aspects of it that *do* end up being fantasy football specific?
MD: That's a tough question because on one hand, there's the answer of, "Yes, it has to be fantasy football, because Jeff and Jackie know it intimately and they've been playing in leagues forever and it does come top-down from them." So it's their specific love and knowledge of fantasy football that makes the show what it is. But in a global sense, I think the thing that really works with fantasy football is that it's a broad subject that a lot of people, they either understand it and are obsessed with it, or they don't understand it and they think that all of those other people are morons. So I like that aspect of it, the curiosity that people have about it, that sort of grown-up Dungeons & Dragons feel to it that's just this side of absurd. That helps a lot with the audiences connecting to it. Some people really get these guys and other people look at them and go, "What is wrong with them?" And on a macro perspective, it's a nice little metaphor for the disillusioned 30-year-old in America right now who is just like: Life is fine. There's nothing so wrong with it that makes them want to eject themselves completely from their lives -- i.e. get a divorce, quit their jobs, blah blah blah -- but they're not totally fulfilled and there's something about this little game and this little way of becoming victorious, I mean the numbers of people who play the game speak for themselves. It's just something that people feel like they need. Luckily for us, it's a very tragically comedic thing to explore.
HitFix: Excellent. Since we're talking, I want to ask quickly about "Cyrus." What did you think of the way it was rolled out this summer? I saw it at Sundance and thought it was this perfectly accessible mainstream comedy and then it was sort of treated as something more quirky and esoteric.
MD: In all honesty, we would have liked to see the movie go out a little further and a little more aggressively, but that being said, I'm half in agreement with you. I don't think "Cyrus" is a totally easy, mainstream comedy like, say, "The Other Guys," that could have gone out and pleased everyone, but I do think it could have reached a lot more people than it did. But I know Fox Searchlight and I respect their decision and there was a certain point with this movie where they said, "Well, we didn't spend a lot of money on it and we didn't spend a lot of money promoting it and we're already in profit. We could spend a s***-ton of money taking it into the suburbs..." I think they could have taken it out wider, but I think they were worried, honestly, that if they did, they might lose money on it. And their perspective is, "Let's take a profit here and not go crazy." Because the independent film business is risky now and maybe that's how Searchlight has become what they've become. They know when to stop and when to go. As a filmmaker and, quite frankly, my ego might have liked it to go a little further, but we're all happy with the result.
HitFix: I just imagine it's the kind of movie a bunch of people are going to discover on DVD and go, "Oh. I could have seen this in theaters. It wasn't so scary."
MD: Yeah, I think that is going to happen. And the DVD push is coming and Searchlight is saving some money to run a nice Academy campaign for us. All that stuff is very good. It's hard to say, man. Could it have worked bigger? Maybe. But then there's another part of me that's like, "Everybody's going to see it on DVD anyway, so whether they see it in theaters or on DVD, who gives a s***?" It'll be fine.
HitFix: And this was your first experience having this kind of back-and-forth with a studio.
MD: It was. For whatever it's worth, I've always believed in being conservative, so I don't disagree with Fox Searchlight. When we took out "The Puffy Chair," we all agreed, "We're not spending more than $100,000 on this movie." We spend $72,000 promoting it. It made $250,000 in the theaters. So we actually posted a profit theatrically. I believe in being fiscally responsible with with independent film. So there's a part of me that's like, "Great! The weekend this movie comes out on DVD, we're in profit for 'Cyrus.'" So I like that. But maybe it could have been a lot bigger.
HitFix: Hey, profit means people will want to work with you again.
MD: Exactly. I think that there's something to that. Maybe we would have lost money if we'd try to go bigger. There are a lot movies that have made a lot more box office than "Cyrus" has that are still in the hole because they spent too much trying to get it out there.
"The League" returns to FX on Thursday, Sept. 16.