Local Boys Do Well - Filmmakers - Duplass Brothers

From today's TP:

Local filmmaking siblings take indie sensibilities to studio system

by Mike Scott

Fade up, Metairie Playground. Daytime.

Two teenage boys are using a video camera to shoot a low-tech movie starring a handful of their friends. There is laughter and general goofing off, and at least a little thought going into it all.

Flash-forward 15 years. Interior, nondescript L.A. office.

The boys, now in their late 30s, are signing a movie deal. Movie deals, actually -- plural -- with Sony Pictures Classics, with Universal Pictures, with Fox Searchlight studios (the arty arm of 20th Century Fox).

But this is no movie. This is really happening. The boys are Metairie natives Jay and Mark Duplass, and for all their perceived slackerly laid-backness, these lords of the indie world's so-called "mumblecore" movement would appear to be on the brink of something big.

Their second feature film, "Baghead," opened here Friday, at the Canal Place Cinema, where it will reside at least through Thursday. (Perhaps longer, depending on audience response.) It comes on the heels of their 2005 festival-circuit sensation "The Puffy Chair," and it hits theaters as the Duplasses get to work on those three recently-inked development deals with Sony, Universal and Fox, as well as a TV deal with NBC.

The Jesuit High School grads (Mark: class of 1995; Jay: '91) are reluctant poster boys for the easy-going, low-fi mumblecore movement, a term that emerged in the early 2000s to describe the work of a group of young filmmakers who favor raw, made-on-a-shoestring movies with a general do-it-yourself vibe.

"I think the key elements are a lot of improvised dialogue and an importance on performance over plot, shot on digital video -- just an overall feeling of naturalism," Mark Duplass said. "But Jay and I feel like we have one foot in and one foot out of the movement in that we do share those sensibilities and the aesthetics, but we do tend to like more traditional story structure, and we do like to work with plot and genre."

"Baghead," for example, has a definite plot structure -- the story of young people on a weekend retreat who are tormented by a mysterious figure with a bag over his head -- but the improvisational aspects still shine through.

"We keep the scene structure tight," Mark said, "but how the actors want to say the lines and how they want to go about getting their specific goals for the scene, it's up to them. We've just found that in doing so, you get naturally individualistic characters -- they separate their voices from each other -- and you just get much better stuff than Jay or I could dream up in the bedroom with a pen in our hands."

It's also a daring exercise. If a filmmaker's actors are feeling uninspired on a particular day, it shows.

"And that does happen," Jay said. "Sometimes we have to re-shoot scenes, (but) sometimes we just use the fact that they're feeling a little 'blah' and we let one of the other actors call it out in the scene and make it part of what's happening.

"Our whole ethic of filmmaking is, don't try to force anything into a preconceived box. Just accept what's happening that day and go with the natural energy of that and you can't mess up, because you're just being honest with what's really happening."

You're also giving your actors -- and your entire crew, in fact -- a personal, creative investment in the success of a film, resulting in what the Duplasses describe as a satisfying collaborative on-set energy.

They stick to that tack in their next film, "The Do-Deca Pentathlon," which they shot locally over four weeks in April. It will include some of their usual suspects, such as fellow Jesuit grad Steve Zissis, one of the stars of "Baghead."

"It's about two brothers who compete in their own private 25-event Olympics that no one else is allowed to view or compete in," Jay said, chuckling. "It's our brand of comedy with a dark, sort of tragic undertone."

"It's actually based on two brothers who grew up near us in New Orleans," Mark added.

The Duplasses are aiming to have it ready in time for January's Sundance Film Festival. After that they plan to shoot a film called "Jeff, Who Lives at His Mom's" in Baton Rouge. It's a studio-backed film, based on a script the Duplasses wrote; "Juno" and "Thank You for Smoking" director Jason Reitman will produce.

"That's about all we can say at this point without waking up with a horse's head in our bed," Mark said.

Because the brothers' filmmaking approach is so counter to the my-way-or-the-highway outlook of some of Hollywood's famously control-freak directors, it'll be interesting to see what effect the big studio experience will have on the way they make movies.

"It's possible it might get a little bit cleaner," Jay Duplass said. "We might have more people around, so it's not me and Mark running around and trying to capture things desperately. But as far as the ethic of having the actors do their thing and us following them sort of as a documentary crew, I think that will always remain. So in terms of the way the public will see it, it will look and feel very similar.

"One basic thing we're planing on doing is to use the same filmmaking approach, just use famous people and put them inside of that."

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