As a writer/director team, Jay and Mark Duplass create smart, witty, relationship driven films for audiences that want to laugh, cry, grimace and applaud – all at the same time. They start by writing a tight script, building a unique, powerful structure, and then they do the unexpected. They give their actors complete artistic freedom to evolve each scene into something fresh and inspiring.
“We have a shaggy control,” says the Duplass brothers, Jay & Mark, about their organic approach to filmmaking.
The result… movie magic.
“For us, it is really important to give our actors the freedom to say the lines in a way they want to say them because it gives a natural performance,” says Mark Duplass. “Jay and I believe it is really important to create a structured narrative. But, those tiny, minute nuances that happen between characters are based on a natural chemistry. If you try to control that too much, you can miss out on the magic. And if you over rehearse, it could look fake. “
“The best thing we can get from our actors is to not control them too much. All of our actors are great storytellers. We go with their instincts, in terms of specific, deep rooted things that they want to try or off the wall things they want to try.”
“We want our actors to create the most organic and inspired version of what already exists in the script. What you hope for, in improv, is to find something more fresh, something that inspires people. It is about getting something different than expected.”
The actors evolve the story and then the Duplass brothers “manage the tone more in editing.”
“We want our actors to have an openness, an ability to do several different types of things on a day, so that we have options when editing,” the Duplass brothers say. “We may go more sincere, go in a new direction. Someone who is generous enough to let us go in a different direction, when editing, is important to us.”
For their latest project, Cyrus, the Duplass brothers tell a story about a traditional love triangle, thrown off kilter a little.
“What inspired us to do this movie was the love triangle, working in a classic genre, but doing it our way. We look for that perfect mysterious balance between what is funny and tragic, what pulls on the strings of your emotions and keeps people on their toes, because that is what we want to experience when we go to the movies.”
“We are obsessed with relationships,” the brothers share. “We watch people at airports and film festivals and talk to people about their lives. “
In casting Cyrus, they handpicked their artistic ensemble: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei.
“We wrote the movie for John and knew we had to get in the room with him as soon as possible because it started to get more and more specific and he was the perfect guy for the role. We met with him for tacos on the east side of LA and luckily he was into it. At that point, it was about finding a kid who could go head-to-head with John, in a good way, and Jonah was our first choice.”
In casting Jonah, “It was less about his body of work and more about who he is as a person and how he understands us and the kind of movies we make,” says the Duplass brothers. ” We thought he was capable of a lot more and we were both interested in exploring subtler, deeper, darker sides of him that he was capable of and willing to explore.”
“Marisa followed in the same way. We wanted to find people who were strong and passionate and interesting.”
Of course, the Duplass brothers did not begin their filmmaking careers with known actors. Their ground-breaking indie, The Puffy Chair, featured local actors and lower budgets (yet still whipped up that movie magic stardust!)
“The key difference in casting with movie stars is – we wrote Puffy Chair for our friends and knew we could get them,” the Duplass brothers say. “But we created Cyrus for John Reilly and there was anxiety in whether he would to the movie, if we could get him.”
In looking for actors, “We want people who are open to, and interested in, the improvisation process. And we want people who are nice. It is very important to keep a healthy environment going and to have people who see the world as we do because we focus on human behavior. We see tragedy and comedy in the same elements and are interested in finding people who want to explore that with us. ”
In this exploration of behavior, relationships and working with major movie stars, the Duplass found it most surprising, “how quickly you slip into a groove.”
“When we first took the meeting with John, Jonah, and Marisa we were intimidated,” the brothers say. “But then we realized they are just normal people, like us, and we were just trying to make art together.”
Though, Mark admits that, “at first, Jay and I were convinced that, creatively, it may never get as good as working with our friends. That working with movie stars wouldn’t reach that same level.”
“But we were pleasantly surprised,” he shares.” Movie stars are movies stars for a reason. We were blown away, not only by their craft, we were blown away from them as people. We just wanted to be around them. Movie stars take a lot of chances and a lot of risks. They are just as scared as everyone else but they put themselves on the line. It was a good collaborative process.”
Once Jay and Mark Duplass capture their organic story, “the nuancing of the comedy / drama blend comes in editorial.”
“We have lots of options, ways to make a scene look comedic or dramatic by what we put before or after it. We have a nine month editorial process minimum. We test the movie on audiences to see what is working. It is a pretty painstaking process but worth it.”
Also worth it, their unique style of camera work.
“The nature of our camera work is a functional thing for us,” the brothers say. “We do not use specific blocking. We want to give our actors the freedom to move where they want to without having to direct them to a specific spot. Our philosophy is, ‘don’t tell an actor to come to the camera’ because we won’t get the spontaneous response we are looking for. We bring the camera to the actors, it creates that sense of electricity that we like.”
Audiences agree, they also like this sense of electricity, evident by the continuous spark in Jay and Mark’s careers. Let’s hope this organic brilliance, this dynamic duo, continue to surprise us for many years!
CYRUS premiered in select markets on Friday, June 18.
Jay and Mark Duplass will next direct their original script “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” produced by Jason Reitman.