By MELENA RYZIK
Let this be a lesson to budding filmmakers everywhere: if you make low-budget, scruffy comedies with a distinct point-of-view long enough, you will eventually attract … other people who like low-budget scruffy comedies with a distinct point-of-view. At least that’s what happened to the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, the Austin, Tex.-based auteurs of the mumblecore genre (“The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead”). They hit Sundance with their first mainstream film, “Cyrus,” developed for and distributed by Fox Searchlight, this year. The feature, their first to crack 90 minutes (“only because our credits are like five minutes long,” Jay said) was largely improvised; it stars John C. Reilly and Marissa Tomei as a couple whose relationship is threatened by her adult son, Jonah Hill, in the title role. The Bagger liked it and so did many others at Sundance; it won unofficial best-of polls and even had some watchers talking Oscars – pretty heady stuff for a couple of dudes who made their Sundance entrée with what they called their “$3 movie” and cast their parents in the follow-up. The Bagger spoke with them in the plasticized courtyard of a hotel in Park City.
Q: How is Sundance different for you this year?
Mark: We don’t have to sell our movie this year and it’s a lot less stressful. So our only real concern coming in was, are our friends and our existing fans going to like what we did with a lot of money as much as they liked what we did with a little money.
Q: When you say a lot of money, how much are you talking about?
Mark: I don’t think we can say, but the least amount of money a studio can make a movie for. Everyone else in the studio world says cheap, really low budget, but for our it us it was hundreds of times the budget we’d worked with before, thousands of times the budget of what we worked with before.
Q: So how did that affect your filmmaking, aside from the names involved?
Mark: We were maybe even overly careful about maintaining our process, because it’s been me and Jay and four or five other crew members for our other movies. The actors have always outnumbered the crew members, and that puts just an inherent importance on them. We didn’t want to walk onto the set where 80 people are dabbing on them and pulling at their clothes and so we had to basically establish that we’re going to treat every scene as if it’s a nude scene. This is a closed set. Only Jay and I and the other camera operators and a boom op are allowed on set. Everybody else was outside. And then as soon as we start the scene, no make-up touch-ups, no prop touch-ups. Nothing. We’re going to shoot and let our actors finish out.
Q: What did your actors think about that?
Mark: In theory, at the front of the movie, it was YES, that sounds so fun, let’s explore, everybody loves it. Then they get on set and they realize, oh, even though the Duplass brothers’ movies look like we’re all just smoking pot and hanging around, it’s actually an emotionally excruciating process. When you’re improvising and throwing away the dialogue and the script it’s a constant state of exploration, which sometimes is all pistons firing, lighting is striking, it’s beautiful, and sometimes we’re swimming in the sea of infinite possibility and it feels like no one knows what we’re doing. And that state of confusion yields great results but it doesn’t feel good a lot. So it wasn’t all fun but it was very rewarding.
Q: How did this film fit into your other work?
Jay: When we were making this film, a week into it, we were like, man, I don’t even know what this is going to look like or feel like, because the set was so big. And you know, John C. Reilly had this, like, giant head – I was almost awestruck by holding the camera in front of him sometimes. The whole, the tactile experience of making this film felt so utterly different than what we did. Then we watched the dailies and were like, oh yeah, that’s our stuff.
Mark: It’s one of our movies with some famous people in it.
Q: Did you ever have a trailer on a movie before for yourselves?
Mark: No. Oh my God, no.
Jay: We didn’t have a place to sit. I mean it was literally like Mark and I would be sitting in an ally behind a dumpster figuring things out.
Mark: For “Baghead” we rented a house in the woods. We lived in the house. We shot in the house.
Jay: We got bedbugs in the house.
Q: How are you going to stop yourselves from becoming all Hollywood?
Mark: There’s two of us, you know, so we’re never really operating alone. If someone starts to douchinate, I think the other person is going to be pretty quick to call it, and our wives tend to be good with us as well. I gotta say, though, walking around Sundance the last couple days, getting the press we’ve gotten on Cyrus,” the compliments, I didn’t realize it was happening but yesterday, someone wanted to take a picture with me because I was on “The League” and his friend said, I saw your movie, and I was like, oh what’d you think? And he said, I thought it was O.K. And it shocked me so much, and I had my feelings hurt so much. And I was walking away, I was like, that’s because my head has swelled in the last 48 hours, like, immensely. So, checks and balances.
Jay: I’ll take a picture with anybody. And I’ll be naked too.