Mark Duplass Shares How He Made Films with Limited Resources

November 4, 2016

“If you really want to be in the business of being an actor, the days of thinking only as an actor are probably over. The most frustrated actors I know are the ones that are waiting for someone to give them the gig. You must make the gig….And the tools to make stuff now are available to everybody. You could make a movie on your phone. And people do.” —Jason Alexander

Duplass Brothers Productions is an independent film and television company founded by Mark Duplass and his brother Jay. Together they write, direct, produce and act in their projects. Known for creating movies on limited budgets, their work comes to life with a strong emphasis on improvisation and collaboration. And it especially digs deeply into what people attempt to hide from others, namely their vulnerabilities, insecurities, fears as well as moments of joy associated with what’s often considered to be small events. As a team, they don’t allow skimpy resources to stop them from creating projects that they’re passionate about.

Originally inspired to be like the Coen brothers, they followed the “rules” that seemed to be laid clearly before them; that is, work hard, go to film school, and learn all the required and practical production skills. “And we got so obsessed with the propriety of everything,” Mark recalls, that they neglected to tend to the most important part of filmmaking: “the meat.”

Years passed, and although the brothers felt the conviction that they indeed had “something to offer,” they weren’t really yet achieving their creative goals. In this Off Camera interview, Mark describes how one day he spontaneously told his brother, “Forget all the **** we learned in film school–forget it all. Like Mom and Dad’s video camera, I’m going to get a tape, and I’m coming back.” By the time Mark returned, Jay had given some thought as to what subject matter might work. Jay described a time when he nearly had an identity crisis while struggling to record an outgoing greeting on his answering machine. The brothers went with the idea–just the two of them–right then, and improvised as they worked. Mark describes the process of making the seven-minute short film This Is John by saying:

“This felt like us when we were little following our instincts. All communication was nonverbal–very Neanderthal-like. And we edited it down, and it was our first movie that got into Sundance. And that has set the tone for everything we’re doing today, which is–as much as possible–to trust that weird little voice that’s inside of us…And the more I do that, the better off I am generally.”

Their subsequent work includes The Puffy Chair which also screened in Sundance and attracted the attention of major studios; the comedy-drama film Jeff, Who Lives at Home; they co-created HBO’s series Togetherness; and the duo recently finished the comedy romance about two ex-high school sweethearts who cross paths 20 years later in the film Blue Jay which will be released on Netflix this coming December.

Mark firmly believes in allowing actors to go off script in the quest of capturing an authentic emotional moment. “If you’re locked to the words on the script, as good as those scripted words are, if you didn’t have the time to rehearse them correctly or if the perceived dynamic between the actors is different from what the writer imagined, and you’re not allowed to stray from that, you’re going to have a stilted scene,” he insists.

Here is the short This Is John–the film that had such an impact on their careers. Mark and John’s work serves as both a reminder and an inspiration that it’s indeed possible to produce quality work with limited resources.