Your Sister’s Sister’s Mark Duplass on the Secret of His Productivity: ‘I’m a F—ing Maniac’

Mark DuplassI tried to figure out a way to write the intro to this Mark Duplass Q&A without immediately mentioning the one thing everyone always immediately mentions about Mark Duplass, I really did. But since Mark was nice enough to sit down at an L.A. coffee shop to promote his new movie, Your Sister’s Sister, while his wife was super, totally pregnant — like next-phone-call-rush-to-the-hospital pregnant — it’d seem weird not to mention that one thing: Duplass, the writer/director/actor/producer/slightly derelict husband, who frequently collaborates with his brother Jay, is an extremely adept multitasker. For Sister, a reteam with Lynn Shelton, who directed him in 2009’s extreme-bromance Humpday, Duplass mostly worked in front of the camera — although he did come up with the idea for the movie and co-improvised much of its dialogue. He co-stars alongside Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt as three screwed-up people — two half-sisters and their shaggy-charm pal — working out the particulars of an accidental, unorthodox love triangle. In theaters June 15, it’s the latest addition to Duplass’s impressive collection of quiet, calculatedly uneven, happy-cry indies.

Considering your wife’s imminent birth-giving, have you adjusted your schedule accordingly?
I took a couple of writing jobs so I could be home. I can’t talk about the films we’re working on now because they’re not announced, but they’re on the bigger side of things. That’s something that me and Jay started to do, work as writers within the system and take that money and go make weird independent films with it.

Had you been getting those Hollywood writer offers for a while?
You know, what’s weird is I thought it would be easier for us to get that good stuff than it was. But we found that most people didn’t want us, at least for a little while, unless we promised to direct it. And the rule in Hollywood when you’re a writer-director is you’re supposed to lie and say, “Yeah, I’ll direct it!” And then just don’t direct it! And I was like, “That’s really fucking sweaty. We’re not doing that.” So that kept us out of the game for a while. But I think something clicked once [the Duplass Brothers’ 2010 movie] Cyrus came out. It was like, “Oh, OK, that’s like a big movie with movie stars and it works.”

How does that work, when you’re picking writing projects that other people have originated?
There’s a bit of a middle school dating scene going. If you engage on big projects, there are these things called “derbies” where it’s like five or six writers, or 20 to 30, all competing to get one project. We just don’t do that, ’cause you spend all this time working on it and then you don’t get the job. We just take the things from people who know us and say, “Hey, you wanna do this?”

Have you and Jay been working together since you were kids?
Very much so. Jay’s four years older, so a lot of it was really Jay in the lead and me tagging along. He was always good about that, about letting me hang out. I got to listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust at 8 years old, you know? And then Jay went off to college when I was 14 and everything changed. He got really homesick and insecure and kind of freaked out, and I started to see him not be strong, and I was like, “I guess I’m gonna do it now!” And since then I’ve become the older brother in the relationship. I mean, we both know it. It’s our longstanding joke that I’m the bull and he’s the brakes.

So you’re more the …
I’m a fucking maniac! I’m just a maniac. I know it. I know it. I could go to therapy and try and fix it, but it makes me productive and I enjoy it, so I just go with it. Jay would rather make one movie every two years that we direct together and then garden and run and get centered. And I just feel desperately compelled to work. Down to the core of my being. I have no idea why.

Do you have one epic project in mind that you think will maybe finally fulfill that urge?
I thought that was what [the Duplass Brothers’ first feature, 2005’s] The Puffy Chair was gonna be. I always call it recalibrating the mountain. That was my first big mountain: do a feature film that connects with people. Get into Sundance, sell it, get it into theaters. Climbed the top of that mountain. Was like, “Yes, now I can be happy!” And then got immediately depressed. And then said, what’s the next mountain?! Now it’s like, “Can we hit the international box office numbers that make sure that I now have the capability of financing my movies through foreign money completely?!” Weird shit that doesn’t mean anything.

The truth is, looking at my career now from a thousand feet above, it’s more than I ever hoped it could be. It’s multifaceted with the writing component to make money, the acting component to creatively fulfill me, the writing-directing thing which is hard but is really where my soul goes. And then producing all these little movies so I can feel that we’re staying vital by still making microbudget films. It’s gonna sound so cocky, but I loved the way Roger Corman led his life: fostering really smart 24-year-old kids who he believed in. I can find an awesome kid who’s like “Hey, The Puffy Chair is my favorite movie,” and I’m like, “Great, here’s $15,000, go make a movie.” And we can make that in a day now writing scripts. And, yeah, there’s an altruism to it, but it’s also like [fake lame guy voice] “What’s the cool music these days, guys? [Laughs.] Who’s this Bohn Aiver?”

You certainly get a lot of stuff done. Got any efficiency tips?
I believe in getting to what you perceive is 95 percent. I believe that it takes you, say, 20 hours to get it to 95 percent and 40 hours to get it from 95 to a 100. Pass that off to a friend and say, “Help me out, help me out.” It’s the diminishing returns aspect. Know when you’re inspired, know when you’re striking hot. And when you’re not, don’t be an asshole and try to tell everyone that you have it.

How much do you sleep?
Eight hours a night, every night. And I get 30 minutes of exercise every day, I spend time with my family. I just really have an intense nine-to-five period. And I trust that if I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, I should give it an hour or two. I will sacrifice sleep when that happens. I feel like I’m in my prime right now and the ideas keep coming and I don’t want to be 42 and feel like, “What happened, how did I lose that?” And so I think I’m consciously trying to find ways to safeguard that.

After The Puffy Chair, did you start envisioning what a perfect career might look like?
At some point I started looking at Cassavates and John Sayles as guys who had what I wanted. Sayles is a guy who writes on big movies. He’s in this club that make a few $100,000 a week work on movies, it’s crazy. So he settles himself with money there, and then goes and makes his weird movies, and doesn’t have to adulterate them in any form. And then the Cassavates model was the family community of filmmaking — the spaghetti dinners at his house on Sunday night with all his buddies. And the coolest thing in the world would be if I could get to the point as an actor where my face would mean enough and I could put who I want in my own movies. And then you become your own studio to a certain extent. I realized quickly that actors are a currency. The fact that movie stars wanna work with me and Jay are why we get our movies made. That’s it. That’s the only reason.

It feels like you’ve figured out a way to work in the studio system without getting burned.
It’s a little niche. It’s a little corner of a sandbox where I’m protected. Like, some people might look at me and say, “That dude looks a lot at money considering he’s an independent filmmaker.” But the money portion feeds the art. Cyrus: gonna make this movie for $6 million, the DVD is gonna be worth this much, the VOD is gonna be worth this much, the TV is gonna be worth this much. I don’t have to make any money in the theaters for Searchlight to make a profit. So I’m safe; they’re gonna leave me alone to make this movie. The more money gets involved, the more you have to be aware of the commercial element. [In jokey whiney voice.] “Fuck you! This is my vision! And I hope my vision aligns with all four quadrants!” I’m a little more liberal with the acting front [regarding big productions]. There’s less pressure. I would be much more open to just, like, going and taking a role in Mission Impossible. I wanna run fast!

Do you ever have to check your ego for this system to work? Like, “You know, I wouldn’t mind if a billion people saw this next one … “
Not like a billion people to see it, but … you know, Jason Reitman was a producer on [the Duplass Brothers’ 2011 movie] Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and he made Juno, which made $300 million or whatever and got nominated for the awards, and there are small parts where I look at him and I say [in jokey pathetic voice] “I want that too. That’d be really cool.” I would like to have a windfall to a certain degree. But when I was talking to Jason about it — it’s like, a lot of pressure after you do that. And it sucks for him, but his next movie [Young Adult] did great in the theaters: It made $20 million worldwide for a $10 million movie. But everybody looks at it and thinks it’s a bomb. I haven’t reached any level of height from which I can bomb.

The plot of Your Sister’s Sister was your idea, right?
I had this idea that I knew me and Jay would never make because it had a dead brother in it, basically. So I brought it to Lynn and literally within like two conversations we set a shoot date. But I have a bunch of movie ideas that usually come out of this kind of situation. We’ll be hanging out and talking and I’ll see a young black kid escorting an old white lady across the street and into his orange Camaro and hear fucking Snoop Dogg blasting and see her smiling, and the whole movie comes into my head. I look at life and I see trailers everywhere. And I think it’s because my brother and I are, at our core, we’re writers more than anything else. We were born and bred on HBO and we just sat in front of that fucking TV and we got bombed with all of the great late-’70s cinema, ’cause that’s why they were licensing early on, in ’83, ’84. It drilled it into my DNA, that classic storytelling.

What kind of roles interest you as an actor?
I think there is this kind of likable buffoonery thing that people tap into with me. I do a lot of un-self-aware dumb shit, but try to saddle it in a place where you can understand where I’m coming from. I like those characters — people that you find yourself rooting for against all of your intellectual instincts. The perfect example of that is Mark Borchardt from American Movie. He’s a drunk, an illegitimate father to three kids, terrible dad, not the greatest friend in the world, thinks he’s really smart and maybe isn’t that smart. But he’s my hero. Because he’s going for the American dream, like fucking Rocky.

You and Jay are known for this loose, improv directorial style. Did you have growing pains along the way developing that?
One hundred percent. Honestly, we lucked into “our style,” and it stemmed from how we made movies when were little kids. Jay knew how to work the camera and I didn’t, so he shot and I acted. We had gone through film school, we ran an editing business, we made money doing that, we took $50,000 to make a feature film in 2001, and it was terrible. We lost all the money, never finished it. It depressed the living shit out of us. And then one day we shot this $3 short film in our kitchen, the way we did when were little kids. No lighting, no boom ops, dead pixels in the camera, the whole thing. And it was the first movie that clicked, and it got into Sundance and it won all these awards. And so we were in our mid-twenties with years of struggling behind us.

It took us a long time because we over-intellectualized the process. And when I meet young filmmakers, all I hear is a bunch of intellectual bullshit about what they should or shouldn’t be doing. “Oh, how do I use, like, new media to get my art out there?,” and I’m like, “Wait a minute, what’s your art?” And then they show it to me and I’m like, “You shouldn’t be using any media to put any of this out there!” Once you make a good movie, you put it on the sidewalk and somebody will find it. ‘Cause there are no good movies out there.

What was the first movie you and Jay worked on as kids?
We made a narrative film about me, when I was 7, as a homeowner, of course. Who was also into karate. And then a burglar came in. I remember, the first shot we curated, we had this idea the burglar would come in smoking a cigarette and I’d kick the cigarette out of his hand. But crafting that — we didn’t quite understand the subtleties of cinema, you know? So the burglar comes in and we were worried I was gonna kick him in the face, so he walks into the kitchen with the cigarette, like, eight miles in front of his face.

That’s awesome. Would you ever release that stuff?
We don’t have it anymore. We lost it. I would kill to have it. I’ve heard that watching the early Coen Brothers, you can see the seed of their genius in there. But with our stuff it’s like total crap. It’s nothing worthwhile at all.

What was high school like for you guys?
We grew up in a suburb of New Orleans, we went to Catholic schools. Everybody from our high school went and got rich — doctors and lawyers and business degrees and stuff. [Filmmaking] felt like a hobby to us for a long time. We were runners. We were big Steve Prefontaine dorks. Jay was a great cross country runner, I was a track runner, and we were very serious about it for a while. And I remember I quit the track team my senior year and I was supposed to be a captain and the coach called me a pussy, basically because I told him I needed to pursue my art. [Laughs.] I look back at that and I’m like, “Yeah, I would have called me a pussy too.”

Have you had any bad luck with actors who couldn’t adjust to your style?
We haven’t bombed out yet on any actors. We have these very adult parental meetings with people where we say, “I know this looks fun, I know this looks like we’re smoking pot and shooting shit, but it’s fucking hard work.” Jay and I believe in the power of “I don’t know.” We believe bad movies get made when directors get forced in a position to say, “We got it, let’s move on.” Becaue that’s what everybody wants you to say. “Can we move on? Can we move on?” And we will torture everybody. Some of the actors, the executives, a lot of the crew members, definitely during the process are just like, “Do these guys know what the fuck they’re doing?” We’ll just shut down shooting for two hours while we go walk and rewrite the scene, and everyone is like, “What the fuck is going on?” It always pays off at the end of the day when you see the movie in the editing room.

Along with the improv, the other thing you’re known for is depictions of sibling relationships. Do you and Jay just find that endlessly interesting?
It is, although I think we’ve mined a lot of that, and some of the stuff coming up is not as brothers-focused. But people’s faces, and the desperate things they do while they climb their own personal mountains, I’m always obsessed with, perennially, and I don’t know if that’s ever gonna change. Except for the fact that I would love to run fast in the next Mission Impossible.

Filed Under: Mark Duplass

Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad