February 24, 2016

by Mitch Ziems

Image © Daniel Bergeron

The world of film has changed.

Blockbusters are dominating cinemas around the world, while television has established itself as the leader of original content. Sure, filmmaking has never been more accessible, but what does that mean if you don’t have millions of dollars to work with? Should emerging writers, producers, and directors start looking elsewhere for somewhere to make their mark?

Brothers Mark and Jay Duplass stand as examples of why the answer to that is a resounding ‘no!’. Over little more than a decade, they have established themselves as indie juggernauts, sacrificing big budgets in the name of engaging content.

The brothers have always tried to be true to themselves. While their friends were busy watching Star Wars, Mark and Jay would sit in front of HBO and watch dramas like Kramer Vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice. “Why do we need a lightsaber when we have this wealth of early 40s adult divorce malaise coming through the TV on HBO?” Mark joked, in an interview with NPR.

So when the pair started making their own films by emulating the styles of directors like The Coen Brothers, it didn’t go so well. Their first major attempt, Vince Del Rio, cost $65,000 to produce. It was crap. They sunk into depression, unsure of what to do next. Mark went out to purchase a new tape for their camera, and returned to find Jay struggling to record a new voice message for his answering machine.

“That’s great. It’s us” said Duplass, and they soon started rolling.

The resulting short film, This is John, premiered at Sundance. It runs for seven minutes, features a surprising number of plot holes, and has terrible audio (Duplass claims it remains the worst audio in a Sundance-screened film ever). What the short does have, however, is character, and heart: the two founding qualities of their careers.

In 2005, they released their first feature film, a road movie called The Puffy Chair. It was produced for $15,000, and went on to become the very first acquisition of Red Envelope Entertainment, the now-defunct distribution wing of Netflix. The Puffy Chair was one of the first films branded as part of the mumblecore sub-genre of low budget indies, featuring a heavy focus on organic dialogue rather than heavily scripted lines. Though the approach did not sit well with everyone, particularly critics, the brothers garnered a lot of attention. The naturalistic style of the movie entranced audiences, and resonated with them on an intensely personal level. The characters felt real, their words felt real. It was like Mark and Jay were describing aspects of each filmgoer’s private lives on the cinema screen. People wanted more.

Even as the duo went on to work with established actors like John C. Reilly in Cyrus and Susan Sarandon in Jeff, Who Lives at Home, their style remained intact, and they soon had a strong cult following. Their agents told them the cavalry was coming with offers for productions with budgets in the tens of millions. But as Mark said in his 2015 SXSW keynote address to emerging movie makers: “Who gives a fuck about the cavalry? You are the cavalry”.

It had never been more true. Three years after The Puffy Chair, DSLR manufacturers started releasing cameras with video capability, and digital capture and editing was becoming the norm. The process of filmmaking was unprecedentedly accessible, and the Duplass Brother’s body of work gave many aspiring directors the inspiration they needed to step out and create.

Over the following decade, the brothers balanced acting rolls on shows like The League and The Mindy Project while continuing to make independent films on a sliver of the budgets they would have required in the hands of more traditionally-inclined directors. To date, none of these productions have lost money, thanks to the brother’s thrifty intellect and embrace of video on demand services. It is a feat that very few people in the entertainment industry can attest to achieving.

As they found more success, Mark and Jay began reaching out to fellow artists in support. While Mark and his wife, Katie Aselton, were away shooting, they allowed friends to stay at their house, rent-free, while working on projects of their own. They’ve also been collaborating as producers on films that might otherwise not receive funding. These include Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine (which was shot entirely on iPhone), and Patrick Brice’s The Overnight.

Most recently, the pair have been working on their HBO series Togetherness, and Jay has taken one of his first major roles in front of the camera as part of Amazon Studio’s Transparent.

Sure, cinema isn’t what it used to be, but the world of film is much more than that. Mark and Jay Duplass have found a way to create the films they want to make without having to resort to billion dollar sequels or reboots in between. In doing so, they have paved the way for the new generation of moving markers, and ensured that the craft will live on as more than spectacle and effect. And we can’t wait to see what they do next.

You can watch Mark Duplass’s SXSW keynote address in the video below.

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