How the Duplass Brothers Changed Hollywood by Refusing to Change at All
Mark, left, and Jay Duplass now have free rein to do what they want — but then again, they never really had to stop doing what they want.
Photo by Ryan Orange
It's an irresistibly warm weekday in late January, and Jay and Mark Duplass are in their office at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood preparing to write the third season of their HBO series, Togetherness. I note the timing because it happens to be Sundance week, and they're here rather than there (I note the weather because, goddamn, we're lucky) — and it's the rare year they don't have a pony to show. Last year, Sean S. Baker's iPhone-filmed, Hollywood-set dramedy Tangerine, which the Duplasses executive produced, was one of the festival's most talked-about films. They also executive produced Melissa Rauch's The Bronze, another 2015 Sundance selection.
And all of 11 years ago, their first full-length feature, the low-budget relationship drama–slash–road-trip comedy The Puffy Chair, was among the festival's breakout hits, winning the Audience Choice Award and making their mutual inclusion in conversations about young filmmakers-to-watch almost instantaneous. They were among a handful of auteurs whose work was being lumped together to constitute what was called the "mumblecore" movement. Major record labels were fixating on all things indie rock, and major film studios were fixating on quiet, quirky dramas being made for $15,000 rather than $15 million.
After the 2005 fest, Mark and his now-wife, director-actress Katie Aselton, packed up and moved from New York to L.A.; Jay headed West that December. With the benefit of hindsight, it's safe to say these were good decisions.
Jay and Mark sit side by side on a throw pillow–strewn sofa in their office and indulge questions about their childhood in the suburbs of New Orleans, Jay's unexpected foray into the role of Josh on the massive Amazon hit Transparent, their recent four-picture production deal with Netflix and, of course, Togetherness, which has become the centerpiece of their storytelling empire even though they didn't think they wanted to do TV in the first place. They're remarkably relaxed for guys with an immense amount on their collective plate. When I suggest that they don't seem particularly overwhelmed, they correct me in unison: "We're overwhelmed."
Then, about an hour into the conversation, Mark has something of a revelation about where they've found themselves in their careers.
"We haven't even really talked about this," he says, "but there's a little bit of a shift going on in our world, both of us, and I don't know what it is, but it seems to be — and this will probably just change in another month — it seems like in the last couple of months maybe we've come over a little hump. ... We have a lot of exciting things we want to do and we're still running and gunning for it, but, like, the stress levels have come down a little bit, and there's a little bit more of a feeling like, let's keep making tons of stuff because it's great — but we kind of don't have to do anything we really don't want to do at this point."
It's a rambling and inadvertent but sort of perfect way to describe what it means to "make it" in the industry. They now have free rein to do what they want the way they want — but then again, they never really had to stop doing things the way they wanted to.
The Duplass brothers have spent the past decade-and-change fostering low-budget features — their own and others' — and building a community of collaborators they admire and trust, from directors to producers to assistants. They entered the industry with what they call a "wolfpack" mentality and have never broken from it. There's an old saw that success changes people — nowhere could this be more applicable than in Hollywood — but they're living proof that a devout DIY ethos dies hard.
Photo by Ryan Orange
At this point, it's pretty boring to call Jay and Mark nice guys. Aside from how "nice" is just about the lamest, most toothless way you can describe a fellow human being, it's been written about them more times than anyone probably cares to count, used as the nugget of an argument about why the writing-directing-producing-acting duo's meteoric rise is unique in Hollywood, a place where gross opportunism is rewarded and "scruples" is a newfangled disease that results in painful urination and a scaly rash.
But the thing is, they are nice guys. They co-created Togetherness with their high school friend Steve Zissis because they felt "the world needed to receive him," says Mark, who describes Zissis as "one of the most inspired, talented individuals on the planet." At the time Zissis was finding acting work here and there, commercials and whatnot, but was still waiting tables at Ulysses Voyage, a Greek restaurant at the Grove. His friends' insistence that he have a platform befitting his talents has been a boon. "I am so grateful, so thankful," Zissis says. "I feel so lucky. When an actor that has been struggling for so long makes the transition into being an actor full-time, it is the most amazing feeling. It's just sort of like a 3,000-pound weight gets lifted from you, and you're able to mostly focus on just being an artist, which is an amazing, blessed luxury I have."
Besides being good dudes, Mark and Jay are also unrepentant workhorses. "We deal with depression and workaholism, and we're ruthlessly efficient with ourselves, which means that we're a bit ruthless with ourselves," Jay says. He's wearing workout clothes, as if he's just come from the gym.
Raised in the New Orleans suburb Old Metairie, the Duplasses started picking up their family's video camera and making movies when they were kids, with Jay as cameraman and Mark as his subject. They're quick to explain that it was basically crap — nothing they made ever amounted to anything of interest or promise. They weren't Spielbergs or Coens, prodigies with the innate knowledge of what it means to compose a shot. "It was what your nieces and nephews are making, what any kids are making," Mark says. What they claim was more influential was their free-range upbringing and their ability to, as they put it, "curate" their own entertainment. They started watching adult dramas and R-rated movies on HBO, movies like Sophie's Choice, Kramer vs. Kramer and Tootsie.
Both Jay and Mark moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where Jay graduated with an MFA in film. Then they headed to New York, which is where they were living when they made The Puffy Chair. The movies they watched obsessively as kids permanently shaped their tastes. Once they'd begun to take filmmaking seriously — low-budget filmmaking, in particular — they consciously wove their DIY frugality with their affinity for mature, realistic human drama.
"We're like the Roger Cormans of adult drama," Jay jokes.
When we spoke, the second season of Togetherness wasn't due to premiere for nearly a month, so any work they were doing on season three was technically ahead of schedule. But their eagerness to get started on the next chapter of the show is clearly rooted in enthusiasm for the project more than a pathological need to keep their noses to the grindstone. Season one ended with a cliffhanger, so back in January they couldn't really talk about season two in advance of the premiere without giving too much away — they were still like a couple of kids reveling in a secret no one else can know.
"We've had this experience where people will come up to us even, and they'll be like, 'Oh my God, you gotta tell us what happens,'?" Mark says. "And we're like, 'Do you really want to know?' And as soon as we start to talk about it they're like, 'Don't say anything!'?"
Jay adds, "Mark and I are secretly high-fiving because, yeah, everything is about this cliffhanger. Everything is about this cliffhanger."
Melanie Lynskey and Mark Duplass in HBO's Togetherness, which has become the centerpiece of the Duplass brothers' storytelling empire.
The ensemble comedy revolves around Brett and Michelle, a married couple rapidly approaching 40, two young kids in tow, and their less "grown-up" counterparts: Brett's childhood best friend Alex, an actor, and Michelle's sister Tina, who hasn't quite figured out what she is yet. Mark plays Brett alongside Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet is Tina, and Mark and Jay's real-life childhood friend Zissis is Alex. At the end of season one, Michelle's emotional affair with a colleague is about to cross the line into full-fledged infidelity; a blissfully unaware Brett is about to surprise her at the Sacramento hotel where she and the colleague are away on business. Like any good cliffhanger, especially in a somewhat quiet adult drama, the audience has to be pretty invested in the characters for it to feel consequential. In a way it was a cliffhanger for the guys, too — would people care?
To say Togetherness is a show about midlife crises makes "midlife" sound too static. On the show, it's like any other stage in life — it flows, it changes, and its next incarnation is waiting, fists clenched, to knock you back into a punch-drunk stupor and leave you questioning what it is you thought you and the people closest to you wanted all along. It's a show about turning points at every turn. Jay is 43 and Mark is 39. And, by no coincidence whatsoever, each is married with two kids.
Originally, after a long courtship with HBO — a "dalliance," Mark calls it — they'd pitched Alexander the Great, a show that would focus exclusively on Zissis' character. HBO brass ultimately suggested the show might be better with four equal protagonists, and "that's when things shifted," Jay says.
"I think it got way more personal for me and Mark ... where it's like, OK, we're going to do what we haven't done since we made The Puffy Chair and we were in our mid-20s. We're going to make a show about what it's like to be 40 years old or pushing 40 and to be married and have kids and to be trying to be a good mom or dad or husband or whatever it may be, and trying to also keep your dreams alive and how you feel like you're about to drown at every fucking second. So, I don't know, it was a weird, roundabout way for us to [get to] the deepest stuff that we have. We're mining all the material of our lives and that of our friends all around us, so essentially what it turned into was the couple who's married and seems like they have everything, but all they would like is just like an ounce of freedom. And the other couple [Tina and Alex] who has nothing but freedom, they would just kill to have any traction in a career or a romantic relationship."
The Duplass brothers' first full-length film, The Puffy Chair, was a breakout hit at the 2005 Sundance Festival.
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If the show resonates with any audience, that audience should be Angelenos. Filmed on location largely in Eagle Rock, the axes on which the plot turns are thoroughly L.A., from Michelle's newfound mission of launching a charter school (because the public schools stink and they can't afford private) to sound engineer Brett's run-in with a drug-addled, egomaniacal director. In the first episode of the first season, the family makes a pilgrimage from the northeast side to the beach, and it's treated as the rare event it really is.
The Duplasses' respective relocations to L.A. weren't premeditated, as Mark puts it. He and Aselton had come out to find agents and make a go of it as actors — both would go on to star on the FX sitcom The League — and they discovered that the weather was really nice and it made the most sense careerwise to be close to the action. They'd already begun creating a community of filmmakers in New York City as well as on the festival circuit — guys like fellow mumblecore auteurs Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski, who have continued to work from their respective home bases of Chicago and Austin — and had the typical 20-something-indie-filmmaker preconceptions and qualms about "selling out" and moving to L.A.
The brothers have a funny recollection of hearing Werner Herzog speak at Sundance the year The Puffy Chair premiered. "Herzog was coming to give a big keynote speech," Mark recalls, "and everyone was like, fuck, the king of indie, the ultimate fucking Mr. East Berlin himself, how cool. And he came in to a bunch of snobby, urban-hipster filmmakers and started talking about how L.A. is the greatest city in the world," citing the quality of the light and how appealingly weird downtown is. Besides informing the stories Mark and Jay tell, living in L.A. has taught them that working within a system is kind of OK if you're willing to figure out how to make it work for you.
"I love it here," Mark says. "Jay and I are kind of one foot inside the industry and one foot outside the industry. We are not the indie filmmakers — or the television directors or whatever you want to call us at this point — who are just like, fuck the man, let us find a way to make our thing. We're very much like, let's understand this ecosystem, find ways to work inside of it."
Jay spent the bulk of his career behind the camera and later became an actor. In his telling, he ran into Transparent creator and showrunner Jill Soloway at a party, and she brought up how difficult it had been to cast the Josh character. By the end of their conversation, she'd decided he was perfect for the part, even though, he says, he's absolutely nothing like the character, to whom Soloway has referred as "the roving male id."
Outside of work, Mark and Jay both focus on being husbands and dads. Mark's kids like train rides in Griffith Park; Jay's like the pirate park in Pasadena. Asked about favorite non–work-related activities, Jay says, "My favorite thing is to hang out with my kids' friends' parents, because it's the only way I get to hang out with people not in the film industry."
Jay Duplass is part of the cast of Amazon's Transparent — and says he's absolutely nothing like his character, Josh.
Early last month, a week and a half or so before Togetherness' season-two premiere, HBO set up the cast with a couple of suites on the 15th floor of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills for a press junket. Steve Zissis walked in for our sit-down looking sharp as hell in a black suit. Season two sees his character, Alex, making inroads as an actor on a cheesy if lucrative vampire show. When we pick up in season two, he's undergone a physical transformation, too. As Lara Zarum put it in an essay for the Weekly, perhaps indelicately, "It's wonderful to [watch as] Alex finally gets what he wants, and even better to watch Zissis make the balding sad sack of the first season feel positively sexy by the second." Not only does he look good, but he's also emerged as one of the most charismatic people currently on TV. Mark and Jay were on to something.
Zissis and Mark were friends in high school, but he didn't really become acquainted with Jay, who's three years older, until they were all living in Austin for college and Jay came to see him in a play. Zissis co-starred alongside Mark in one of the brothers' early failed films — he describes a quirky, convoluted story about an astronaut involved in a love triangle — and eventually starred in their second feature, 2008's wonderfully weird Baghead, which I suppose you'd call a horror movie, although it sort of defies classification. Zissis moved to L.A. after that and waited tables while he and Jay worked on their television concept in their spare time.
"Jay and I were hanging out a lot, and then we developed the pilot for what was called Alexander the Great, which was the initial pilot for this show. Mark got involved, and then HBO gave us some notes and some direction ... and that's what became Togetherness," Zissis says.
"It was wild. I mean, I would come home after waiting tables at night, Jay was on the graveyard shift with his newborn boy, Sam, and we would stay on the phone until the wee hours of the morning brainstorming and plotting the show. I'd be in all black, stinky, fried cheese–smelling waiter's clothes."
Zissis describes his professional relationship with the guys as "symbiotic," which is exactly the kind of relationship they've always fostered with their collaborators. The Duplass brothers don't want to be bosses or benefactors. They just want to make shit and help other people do the same.
In the process — and sort of "by accident," Jay says — they became producers.
They trace this particular aspect of their career trajectory back to three elements. The first was that, in the early days on the festival circuit, they'd buy equipment — cameras, drives, stuff like that — and lend it out to other filmmakers as they needed it. The second element was that they'd worked as editors and earned a reputation for "fixing people's broken shit." The third element: They started making — and loaning — money. "It was small at first," Jay says of the loans. "Like the first one, one of our friends was like, 'I need $5,000 by tomorrow or I don't make the movie.' And Mark and I had had a good writing job, and we were like, '$2,500 apiece to save his fucking year?' I mean, that's a whole year. All this work's gonna go away if we don't."
In the past couple years, they've produced at least nine films and a couple of TV shows. Their most recent project as producers — and probably the most interesting — is Animals, an animated series about New York City's world-weary bestial denizens. The show originated as a short by Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese, who were prepared to take the traditional route and shop their concept around to networks. Then Mark and Jay stepped in with a different idea: Make the show first, then find a network for it. Basically, make it the way that indie movies are made. They thought it was the only possible way the show would preserve its creative integrity.
The Duplass brothers produced animated series Animals, about New York City's world-weary bestial denizens.
"The one thing Mark and I had to offer was, we're going to let you do your thing, and you're going to achieve your vision," Jay says. "We don't know what the sale price will be, but you're going to say what you came to say."
The Duplasses handled the financing for a 10-episode season and enlisted their celebrity friends to do the voice acting — and Luciano and Matarese were indoctrinated in the Duplass way. "It would've been easier to just pitch it to sell it to someone, wipe our hands of it, not put in the nights and weekends we spent doing it the independent route," Matarese says. "But we had to. Really having our hands in the pot, being on top of all the design — you kind of just do it." The show was picked up by HBO and premiered Feb. 5. Luciano and Matarese are in Burbank working on season two.
The Duplass brothers recently were approached with what sounds like an unlikely opportunity for a couple of guys who've built a career making movies about relationships, aging and feelings. One of the big comic book-superhero franchise films had lost its director, and the studio wanted Jay and Mark to step in. They declined but also weren't totally surprised that they'd been asked.
"Right now, studios are really liking younger, auteur directors who would be happy to have a shot at a big franchise that they can maybe muscle around a little bit," Mark says. "And then that person lends a little bit of cool to it, because they just popped up out of Sundance."
"There's another element to it," Jay says. "We're nice. Actors like us, and they want to work with us. ... And we come in very under budget."
Besides acknowledging their mutual reluctance to become a studio's "concubines" for the sake of an enormous paycheck, the brothers also realized that the careers they've created are exactly the careers they desire. "When we were in our early 30s, we were like, 'Someone's gonna pay us to do something one day?'?" Jay recalls. "And then one day you realize, 'Oh, we're already doing all the things we want to do.'
"We're not making that level of money [of directing a blockbuster franchise]," he continues. "But we don't need that level of money because we lived like starving artists for 15 frickin' years. It's like, we don't need things. We just like to make things."
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