Hustling His Way To The Top
Part of a new generation of DIY all-rounders, Mark Duplass and his brother Jay have singlehandedly found a way to revolutionise the Hollywood system. Starting out with a short film they made for just three dollars which snuck its way into Sundance. They've been working diligently for over twenty years creating a fiercely independent sometimes eccentric body of work.
Mark’s approach represents a perfect mixture of innovation, resourcefulness and being creative at a time when Hollywood is going through deeply troubling changes.
His bread and butter is built on making critically acclaimed endearing films and TV shows for a fraction of the cost that other people make.
Works like the endearing indie Netflix hit BlueJay, their first major studio foray Cyrus, and their unique TV ventures Togetherness and Wild Wild Country are all bound up by similar themes, exploring what makes us flawed humans with a dash of their own brotherly in humour.
These productions are far from superhero-sized projects, in fact, Mark relishes in having to turn down the responsibility of producing films for Marvel.
It’s not about the money, it has never been, as Mark tells us, his own story is about weathering several personal storms in his own life, coming out the other side stronger and clearer about the future he and his brother share. He is after all just a ‘T-shirt and jeans’ kind of guy hustling to get by just like the rest of us.
Mark and Jay Duplass [Image: Brent Humphreys]
Let’s start with the easiest of subjects Donald Trump. On the Mark Rubin show early in 2017, you said, electing Trump will be one of the best things because we’ll learn from that mistake. And I’m wondering how you assess that now considering who he has become and what he’s done to your country?
Sure, I was trying to look towards something potentially good coming from something that seemed at the time to be pretty bad. And what we have now discovered I think is potentially scary in a long-reaching way no matter what side of the spectrum you’re on.
There are extremists on both sides who like to yell and be angry and mobilise, but that is not what my strength is. I’m looking for connections and understanding, and I’m looking for places where we can agree and build bridges.
My fear is if you don’t like what’s happening you can mobilise your side and vote out what’s happening because you have won by 51 per cent. You can make the other side angry in the next four years, and then they’ll vote you out, and we’ll go back and forth.
But I take some criticism for that, and I understand that criticism because I’m a white male in North America and I’m in a place where I can afford to be kind. Not everybody else has that privilege right now.
"I’m a white male in North America and I’m in a place where I can afford to be kind. Not everybody else has that privilege right now."
On dealing with a highly political climate
Let’s talk about your work; I think the work you create with your brother percolates at a certain level which strikes a delicate balance between sentimental, intelligent, endearing and real – there’s a lot of human elements to it. I feel like any number of my friends could be in those movies.
I think what I get out of your work is that we’re all flawed, and we’re all just trying to do the best we can. I think that’s beautiful in this day and age, particularly in this tough and volatile time.
Yeah, I mean I think that’s a sweet and smart assessment, and I honestly don’t think about my work from an intellectual standpoint because I find that if I do, I tend to make bad work.
But all of that stuff resonates with me that you’re saying, In particular, the greatest formalistic influence I have as a filmmaker is from watching documentaries.
When I write a film, we’re always aspiring to attain the feeling you get when you’re watching a documentary, which is:“oh my God this is a real person and experiencing something where anything could happen right now”. The unpredictability of that is what makes me excited as a viewer. So, I try to take the principles from documentary into narrative filmmaking, for sure.
Regarding larger, overreaching themes that we try to put into our work, I have found that the more I listen to the quiet Neanderthal voice inside my stomach who is not very eloquent and not very philosophical, and I follow that voice, I tend to make better art.
But your work together is indicative of a type of philosophy you have. ‘The One I Love’, ‘Togetherness’ & ‘Blue Jay’ all great work, but flaws are really important to you Mark, aren’t they?
Yes, in the sense that I think that if you are going to represent people realistically, you have to include those because we are all inherently flawed beings.
But more than that, I’m interested in and endeared by a lot of those, flaws, or quirks, or you could call them emotional blind spots.
That’s why I go to therapy regularly. I’m trying to figure out what I’m missing, how can I be a better husband, father, brother, friend, all those things. I prefer that the people in my movies are not quite there and you have to watch them discover their strengths, that’s fun for me.
When I’m building characters for our movies, I’m looking for people who have big dreams but who are quite emotionally ignorant in some ways about how to achieve them.
I get the feeling that maybe you’re a bit too hard on yourself in a way? Because you’ve worked so hard, and you mentioned that you were in therapy, but there are things that you could probably step back a bit from?
Well, I think that it’s a complicated question but if you look at Jay and me and the trajectory of our career, I think that part of the reason why we’re so close is that we came from the suburbs of New Orleans with no connections to the film industry. And we felt like this was going to be an extremely difficult career path to choose and if we were going to do it we were going to have to, quite frankly, make innumerable sacrifices and work our asses off to get there.
So that made us put our heads down and do whatever was required to push that boulder up the mountain. When we did that, from our teens, through our twenties and deep into our thirties, and during that point in time we were extremely hard on ourselves.
We would hammer every piece of art that we were making within an inch of its life to make it the best that it could be by testing on each other and testing it on our friends and reshooting and rewriting. And we suffered personally through that.
It brought us a tremendous amount of success and more success than I ever honestly imagined you could ever get.
I don’t regret that because we revved that engine and it got us here, but now we’re at a time in our lives where we’re starting to say, OK, that was emotionally, spiritually and physically a little damaging, we drove at 150 miles an hour off a mountain for 20 years straight.
Let’s see what it feels like if we pull our foot off the gas a little bit, see what it feels like to not take a breath of air that smells exactly like the other one and see what that does.
I suspect one of the hardest experiences you can go through is in not knowing how to help your sibling. I wonder if you’ve had those experiences where you have to accept your brother is one of you but also realise and accept that he’s his own person?
I think what is unique about our partnership is that we were so symbiotic. We had each other’s interests in mind every step of the way.
One of the main reasons we wrote the book is because everyone who gets to know us well is mystified by how close we have been and the way we relate to each other. I remember during a creative “argument” about where something should go in a piece of work someone looked at us and they said, “each of you is arguing 50% for your own side, but you’re also arguing 50% for the interests of your brother, and I’ve never seen anything like that”.
What I will say is I have had the experience of myself being in a place where I was in a tough spot in my early 20s, I was a musician predominantly at the time, and I was lost as to what to do.
And my dad at the time I remember was like “oh my God my son is having this hard time, and I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know how to fix him or save him”. And what he did which was the greatest thing in the world was he didn’t put himself on top of me, he got right next to me, sat with me in my confusion with me, and he never left.
Ultimately, I learned how to transcend into my self, which was not perfect, but I found my way. So, I not only got the autonomy and confidence that I could do it myself, but I had a companion with me the whole way.
So that was a huge life lesson for me and something I’ve taken to my kids as well. If you’re confused and you don’t know how to fix someone, sit right next to them and be right there with them and do not leave.
"If you’re confused and you don’t know how to fix someone, sit right next to them and be right there with them and do not leave."
On getting through hard times
So we’re at a really interesting stage in the media landscape and creative sector. So much change is happening. As someone who has been operating in the industry for 20 years, what do you think the biggest mistruth is about the film industry is right now?
I wouldn’t call this a lie, but one of the major errors in thinking is that the movie business is dying and it’s harder than ever to make personal films because people only want superhero movies, right? And that is true to a certain degree; the big superhero movies work at the box office and in theatres.
But my opinion, it’s the greatest time to be an independent filmmaker because the technology has democratised everything. It is so cheap to use your smartphone or your iPad, and you can go out and make a movie for literally no money that can win the academy award due to the technology that is available to you.
When I hear independent filmmakers complaining about not being able to get their movie made for the money they want, or they can’t get it seen on big cinema screens, all I can think to myself is, who promised you that? And what made you think that you deserve that as a person who is following his dreams trying to tell stories?
The fact that we have services like Netflix and Amazon that stream these things for us and get them around the world, even if you’re only making a little bit of money because you’re telling a small, personal story.
Did you have an idea today, like a creative idea?
I mean I live like that, to be honest with you. When I wake up in the morning, there’s all this stuff which is going on in my dreams that come to me. Right now, I’m thinking about ‘Room 104’ episodes that I’m writing, I’m thinking about a new book idea that I have that I’m working on in my brain. I’m thinking about a new television show idea, so they’re always percolating and circling for me.
But I’m also at a phase in my life where – it’s hard to explain this but – I have an unprecedented, for me at least, access to make things. Like if I pick up the phone and call two people with an idea, I’m going to get the money to make it.
And that is really really dangerous because A) you can make shitty art that way because you don’t have anybody standing in your way to check and balance you and B) it will drown your life with projects and I won’t have any time to spend with my children, my wife, or to read or to exercise.
Mark Duplass & Sarah Paulson in BlueJay, 2016
Photo credit: Alex Lehmann
But I’m curious your films haven’t made a ton of money and you’ve said you are happy with that because you’ve turned down Marvel films and you don’t want that weight on your shoulders.
So when you say you pick up the phone and you can get something done, in what construct is that?
It’s a great question. The answer is a little complicated, but the most reductive version of that answer is, I make things at a price which is a fraction of the cost of what everybody else makes things for. So no matter what happens they will make their money back, even if I make a stinker.
That makes me the best bet in town for people. And the truth is, if the bottom falls out and everybody starts saying, there’s too much content out there, we’re only going to pay 15 cents on the dollar now for movies and TV shows, I’m going to say, “Great, well I’ve been doing it all along, I’ll make a little bit less but I’m still alive”. So, my model is a little bit bubble proof in that regard.
"It’s the greatest time to be an independent filmmaker because the technology has democratised everything."
Working his way through Hollywood
In a way, it’s like you’re giving a middle finger to the Hollywood industry. You operate inside and outside of the system it but what makes me even more intrigued by what you do is that you still have the time to create these beautiful characters and insightful work, but you’re still like the guy on the corner of the street who just undercuts everyone by changing the business model, and it works.
Yes, it works. The thing that is different from Jay and me and our company than most people I think is that, once you have made 40 movies as we have, most people get tired of being the person on the street corner hustling wanting more money.
And we don’t see it that way, and I think that inherently I am happier strapping it. I’m happier when it’s a 20-person crew as opposed to a 100-person crew. That energy keeps me young and inspires me, I genuinely am a T-shirt and jeans person, that’s how I am.
Feature image: Victoria Will
Like Brothers is out now through Penguin