Four clueless actors, a dream and a paper bag

Filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass and their cast talk about "Baghead," their delightful and totally unclassifiable indie-satire-horror breakout.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 25, 2008 11:44AM (EDT)

I want to persuade you to see "Baghead," but I don't want to overhype it, because in many ways it's a delicate construction best served as a surprise. I need to tell you something about what kind of movie "Baghead" is but without giving much away, because while it's composed of familiar elements, it's not quite like anything I've ever seen before. I definitely don't want to tell you that it's a low-budget indie film about middle-class white Americans wrestling with relationships (even though it is), because that's likely to send you to the dentist instead.

Maybe it'll work better if I tell you that the middle-class white Americans are struggling actors in Los Angeles -- "struggling" being a euphemism for hopeless, desperate and not all that bright -- whose brilliant idea to turn themselves into stars involves making a horror movie about a guy with a brown paper bag over his head. And that when they retreat to a cabin in the woods to set this brilliant idea on paper, the horror movie in some sense begins to come true. And that "Baghead" is a comedy, a horror movie and a romantic relationship drama, with the three elements interacting with each other instead of competing.

OK, that's more than enough hype. Maybe I should just stick to what I told writing and directing brothers Jay and Mark Duplass when I met them recently: "Baghead" is a kick in the pants. (That's a phrase that badly needs reviving.) It's the Duplass brothers' second feature after "The Puffy Chair," a micro-indie hit in 2006 that got lumped, fairly or not, with the so-called mumblecore movement. They handle their quartet of actors playing actors with wit, compassion and terrific finesse; as the brothers told me in our conversation, the target of their satire is not other wannabe-famous filmmakers but themselves and their friends.

Intriguingly, "Baghead" blends two pairs of actors from different worlds and uses the tensions between them to heighten the drama. Greta Gerwig, who plays the perennially sleepy and subtly manipulative Michelle, is a pixieish blonde who has emerged as a sort of micro-indie It Girl after three starring roles with ultra-low-budget auteur Joe Swanberg (in "LOL," "Hannah Takes the Stairs" and the forthcoming "Nights and Weekends"). Steve Zissis, who plays Michelle's lovelorn suitor Chad, plays the lead role in Azazel Jacobs' Sundance-acclaimed indie "Momma's Man," and will be in the next Duplass film (apparently called "The Do-Deca-Pentathlon").

Opposite them you've got Ross Partridge, a devilishly handsome 40-year-old with "Elvis hair" (as Chad observes in the film), playing Matt, the roguish, irresponsible alpha male in the foursome. Partridge's career includes a recurring role on "As the World Turns," guest shots on "CSI" and "NYPD Blue," and the role of "Businessman No. 3" in "Prom Night." Matt's on-again, off-again girlfriend Catherine is played by Elise Muller, a studiously perfect Hollywood blonde who has appeared in "Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy," "Vampire Lesbian Kickboxers" and 13 episodes of "Canoga Park," whatever that is. All the acting is terrific, but Muller's layered, gradually revealing performance may be the biggest surprise.

Gerwig and Partridge joined Jay and Mark Duplass at their New York hotel for a conversation about "Baghead." (Listen to the interview here.)

There's definitely a spoof element to this film, which has to do with the way certain kinds of independent films are created. I wonder how the semi-improvised method we see in the film is similar or is not similar to the way you guys actually created "Baghead."

Jay Duplass: We definitely do a lot of improvisation. Maybe less so than other movies. We work from a pretty detailed script, but the main goal is just to let the actors rip from there. Jay and I firmly believe -- and it has been proven to us over and over again -- that the more we let our actors run free, the better they make us look as writers. We've been doing that for the last few years and wanted to continue that style with "Baghead."

There's a narrative switch that happens partway through the movie. It's one of those movies that take a left turn on the viewer. Is that something you knew already, going in? Or did that come up while you were making the film?

Our structures and our plots are pretty well-defined before we go in, and we do actually write a full script. We do improvise within the scenes. We mostly work from objectives with our actors -- like, they know what it is that they have to accomplish in the scene, and they can use the dialogue from the script if they want to. But if they don't want to -- actually, we pretty much make them not use the dialogue from the script. We pretty much force them not to do that.

Mark Duplass: But the turn you're talking about in the movie is probably pretty specific to the viewing experience you had. We've watched it play to quite a few different audiences, and the combination of scary and funny in the movie is an interesting thing, because they're not two disparate elements. It's not like we have some scares and then we do some butt jokes over there. They're the same thing. And on any given day, some of the experiences you have in this movie -- because the villain is just a person with a grocery bag over their head, it can be funny or it can be scary. If you watch it during the day with your friends, it's going to be funny. We had a near-midnight screening at Sundance, and it was amazing how terrifying it was for people. We don't have a lot of control over how we want people to experience the movie. We don't care if you're laughing or screaming, we just hope that you're not bored.

Turning to Greta Gerwig and Ross Partridge, who appear in the film, you guys of course are playing actors, which I would think would be easy in some ways and hard in some ways. What specific challenges come up in trying to play someone who has the same profession that you actually have?

Ross Partridge: Probably getting away from yourself, creating something different as far as the character is concerned. Mark and Jay were very adamant about bringing yourself to the role. Of course you show up and you want to create a character and add certain things. The pitfall of that is creating character types as opposed to real people. Eventually they stripped us away of certain things. You're conscious of the fact that you're playing a desperate actor and that's -- I've been there before.

Greta Gerwig: It was really liberating to play an actor who is desperate, because it was sort of a purging process for me. On some level, if you're not successful it's somewhat humiliating to say you're an actor anyway, even if you're not the kind of people that these people are. It was really helpful for me to play a girl who wanted to be an actor and was trying to make it happen. Because for so much of my life, it's hard to take a stand and say, "One of the things I do, I'm an actor. If that makes me lame, I'm lame! What do you want from me? I'm a pathetic person." It was nice to be able to be that person and be proud of it. We're all desperate, every one of us. Don't pretend you're not.

R.P.: I don't think people think you're lame, they just say, "Oh, that's really, really great. So what do you do for money?"

As you say, this movie will play differently to different audiences. One of the things that's made people in the film industry respond to it is that level of insider satire. You've got these people who are so desperate to become successful in the business that they're going to write their own independent film, without any apparent artistic motivation or talent or intelligence.

J.D.: Very low skill set.

Isn't the reason why that's funny because it's true? That we know there are independent films that get made for that reason?

J.D.: Yeah. We are those people. That process is what Mark and I did for the first 10 years of our career, and we failed miserably.

M.D.: People get competitive. I would love to be just, like, a pure artist. But I think Jay and I fall into that trap all the time. I remember very specifically being at Sundance in 2004 with our second short film and feeling like, "That feature filmmaker over there, that guy, he gets to talk to all the cool producers. He got free jeans." And Jay and I are like, "We want free jeans."

J.D.: No, it's more like my wife wants free jeans. So we need to make a feature so we can get into the lounge where they give you free jeans. And, like, Uggs. It's wild. What we're saying is, we come from a place of integrity. [Laughter.]

You're not making fun of somebody completely different from you.

M.D.: We're directly making fun of ourselves. But the way we like to do it is not pure satire. We love those people in "Baghead." We love those characters, the purity of them. We love the way they're going for this acting goal. They're never going to achieve it. Everybody knows it. They know it. And yet they just keep walkin' into the wall, bloody nose. Walkin' into the wall, lose an ear. They keep doing it. And what's more heroic than that? It's stupid, but it's beautiful. It's really funny, and then it gets really cringeworthy after a while.

Ross and Greta, did you have to be honest about the parts of yourselves that were like those people?

R.P. and G.G.: Yep.

R.P.: What a downer of a question. You hope to bring in the good parts of your desperation. And all the bad stuff, too, I guess.

G.G.: Particularly with Michelle and the way she manipulates men, or just plays with them because they're there. It's something that's so true about people. If you feel like you're failing in some way, you're not being successful in whatever you're doing and you're a kind of pretty girl, you might exert your will on some guys because it's the only place that you can get that kind of satisfaction in your life. And I completely sympathize with that, and it's unfortunate. And I think any woman worth her salt knows how to deflect a suitor.

Yeah, that scene where Michelle is rejecting Chad is really painful. I don't know, maybe I've been too close to that guy at certain times, but I was really feeling for him. He's clearly desperately in love with her and she's not interested. That moment between the two of you feels so real.

Good. I really did break Steve's heart. That's why he's not here right now.

Did you guys rehearse a lot, or was it the kind of thing where you went in with an idea and did relatively few takes?

J.D.: We definitely never rehearsed because these guys are awesome. I'd say one-third of what we used in the movie is a first take. Part of what we love to do is create situations where anything can happen and it's unpredictable and you're not safe. If we rehearsed, we'd probably lose some of that.

M.D.: Plus we're lazy. We like to sleep late. But there's definitely something to that first-take thing. Since we don't use traditional blocking, the whole set is lit. The actors know they can go anywhere and do anything. Not only does it give you freedom as an actor, it keeps you on your toes. Someone could do something to you that you're not prepared for. And that sense of "We don't know what's going to happen next" is very palpable, at least to us. That's kind of one of the big feelings we're going for.

For a film made on this scale to get picked up for national distribution by Sony is pretty amazing, frankly. That's a huge deal.

J.D.: Huge. We spent the last 10 years being convinced that it's not the way they always described it in film school. Everyone wanted to have the Soderbergh/Linklater model where you make a film, you bring it to Sundance, it premieres, there's a bidding war, you sell it, and you get happy. We spent the last 10 years convinced that that doesn't happen anymore, and it happened. Except for the happy part. We're trying to work on that one. All the stories about the late-night, CIA-style, buyer and seller subterfuge that happens at Sundance is true. We got to experience some amazing, amazing things in the two nights it took to sell our movie. Driving to condos in the back alley and someone picking up your print in the parking lot and driving it to Los Angeles in the middle of the night so someone else could see it. It was cool.

And now you're going to make "Batman"-level money, of course.

We're going to change the title to "Batman: The Darker Knight." And who cares what people get when they get in there? It's all about the tickets.

"Baghead" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas. Opens Aug. 1 in Boston, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; Aug. 8 in Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Seattle; Aug. 15 in Denver, Miami, Palm Springs, Calif., Sacramento, Calif., Santa Barbara, Calif., and Washington; Aug. 22 in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Honolulu, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Raleigh, N.C., and St. Louis; and Aug. 29 in Albany, N.Y., Albuquerque, N.M., Baltimore, Boulder, Colo., Buffalo, N.Y., Charlotte, N.C., Eugene, Ore., Indianapolis, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Memphis, Monterey, Calif., Nashville, New Orleans, Reno, Nev., Richmond, Va., Salt Lake City, San Luis Obispo, Calif., Santa Cruz, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., Des Moines, Iowa, and San Antonio, Texas, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Horror Movies Satire