In 2005, Mark and Jay Duplass were a pair of unknown filmmakers at SXSW showing their first feature, “The Puffy Chair,” which had a budget so tight it was more twine than shoestring. In 2015, it was a different story. Hot on the heels of their critically acclaimed HBO show “Togetherness” and a four-movie Netflix deal inked at Sundance, the brothers returned to Austin ascendant. Mark even delivered a keynote, imploring aspiring directors to grab their buddies and make $3 films.
It’s been a long decade for the brothers, though. “The Puffy Chair” won the Audience Award at SXSW and opened the door for them to write, direct, produce or star in indie gems like “Cyrus,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “The Skeleton Twins.” That said, none of their projects have involved blockbusters, big bucks or private jets. The movies weren’t produced on the weekends anymore, and the budgets had ballooned a bit, but it was still a struggle in many ways — some professional, some personal.
During their whirlwind trip to SXSW, I was able to corral Mark and Jay (right after another Netflix deal was announced, this one for the Duplass brothers production “6 Years”) to discuss their success, the idea of “success,” the joy of doughnuts, and how important their relationship is to navigating show business. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.
It seems like everything’s coming up Duplass these days.
Mark: Not everything’s coming up Duplass. The trades make things look cool, but…
Jay: In my world, everything’s coming up Duplass. But it mostly has to do with my children. They’re getting up at 5:45 in the morning…
Mark: Yeah, pulling on your legs. “Daddy get up.” And also, let’s be clear. A really hard question to answer. You say, “Yeah!” Then you’re that guy who thinks, “The world is mine!”
See, it was a test to find out where you were on that spectrum.
Mark: Well, now you know. We feel really uncomfortable with our impending power. Congratulations.
Jay: With great power comes great exhaustion.
At least you guys are able to realize that you do have impending power.
Mark: Yeah, I think in certain environments in our little tiny corner of the sandbox. We’re making independent films and lower-budgeted television shows. We’re a relative force in that tiny part of the universe.
But a much bigger force than you were even three years ago, though.
Jay: Yeah, we didn’t have as much going on. Ten years ago, we had nothing going on. Literally nothing. We were just wandering around, trying to make something that didn’t suck. So this is, relatively speaking, a very fast rise.
A decade ago, were you still doing music, Mark, or had you gotten out of that?
Mark: We were pretty much squarely in the film business. Ten years ago today, we were here with “The Puffy Chair,” our first feature film. At that point, we’d had two short films that were running around festivals. It really started to cement around that point. We were like, “Oh, we might actually be able to make a living out of this.”
Jay: It wasn’t until “The Puffy Chair” showed at Sundance and South by Southwest that we were like, “Oh, we can actually commodify the weird art that we’re making. And people might pay us for it.” Then people were calling our phone numbers and asking, “Do you want to come to Hollywood to make movies?”
That has to be a weird feeling to have, going from nothing to careers immediately.
Mark: I’ll say that’s a really fantastic moment — where you realize you don’t have to do your day jobs anymore and you think you’re gonna be able to sustain yourself with your art. That is a truly exciting place. But then it gets a little scary, too. You kind of realize, “Well, I’ve been looking forward to this place my whole life; the place where I can sustain myself with my art.” Right? And then you start to think, “Oh my god, how am I gonna be able to keep doing this?” So there are pressures on both sides, for sure.
Jay: I went through a huge depression after “The Puffy Chair” finished with [South by Southwest], because we achieved...we didn’t expect to be at the Oscars. To have a feature film in Sundance and South by Southwest in the same year was more than we ever thought we’d ever be able to accomplish.
Mark: That was the dream.
Jay: And when we got it and I didn’t get happy all of a sudden, I had this existential crisis where I had to realize that I was kind of weirdly sublimating that the reason I was struggling so hard is because I wasn’t getting what I wanted. That wasn’t the case at all. Once I got the things, the same old problems came back. I had to start dealing with that stuff, too.
Mark: And you were like, “Oh, I’m just an intrinsically depressed person. This is not gonna go away with success. OK.”
Jay: So how do I do a film career and figure out how to be happy?
So what did you settle on?
Mark: We’re still working on that.
Oh I know, but at a certain point you don’t necessarily achieve “happiness,” but you say, “Oh, maybe this is the path!”
Mark: You achieve busyness, which is really good. That keeps you from thinking about it too much. Now we’re in this place where we both have two kids, we’re married, and we both have these busy careers. So you do stay afloat purely by the current of life that you’re in. It keeps you bobbing along. Every now and then, we’re thinking, “Yeah, we’re doing great!” Then you meet some people who have what we call “the bliss gene,” which are those people who just wake up happy in the morning. I think I would give up everything just to have a day like this person lives.
Jay: We’ve gotta have a massive film and television career to like approach happiness…
Mark: And this guy wakes up and he’s just whoppin’ ass. Just having the greatest time.
That’s fair. But you guys do have a film and television career, because you’re not happy. Partially because of that anyway.
Mark: Oh no, 100 percent. Yes.
I was going to go with more like 25 percent, then the rest was you guys wanting to express yourselves.
Mark: Yes. Just unhappy. Although, you put a couple of doughnuts in front of us and you’re gonna see two very happy guys for about three and a half minutes. Extreme joy.
It takes you that long to eat a doughnut?!?
Mark and Jay: No no no.
Mark: It takes about 12 seconds to eat one.
Jay: The doughnut goes in, then you get three and a half minutes of bliss.
Aha. For me, it’s the eating. Then instantly after that, “That was a mistake.”
Jay: (laughing) You walk away from the doughnut like it was crime scene.
Mark: (laughing) With years of therapy, we’ve been able to extend that doughnut joy from the 12 seconds of eating to another three minutes before the shame.
Jay: We have each other to help one another slow down on the doughnut.
You know, that’s true in a serious way, too. Not everyone in this business has someone they’ve known their entire lives. I know you were joking about slowing each other down with the doughnut joy, but I imagine that it keeps you both from shooting yourselves or something while trying to make movies.
Mark: Yeah, and in particular, I would say that when you get opportunities — and Jay and I are really starting to get opportunities in the business — if you’re just by yourself, you have a greater chance of making an instinctual huge mistake if you don’t have a system of checks and balances around you. So Jay and I, before we make any moves, we’re always checking in with each other. It helps a ton to safeguard against doing something really dumb.
Jay: Plus, just directing a movie or creating a show is almost impossible. It’s too much for one person. That’s why directors go crazy. That’s why they get crazy later in life. People are like, “What happened to him?” “Yeah, he directed movies, you idiot!” That’s too much for one person to do, and for us to share it together is very helpful.
Mark: Nobody should be working 18 hours a day for a whole year or any period of time.
That is true.
Mark: Wait, are we retiring right now? Is that what’s happening?
Jay: Yeah, we’re retiring. It’s over. We’re gonna go live in Terrence Malick’s house now.
Mark: That guy’s got a shit ton of doughnuts. I’m gonna say that Terrence Malick’s favorite movie from the ‘80s is “Wildcats.” If I had to pick it, I’m gonna say it’s “Wildcats.”
Mark: A couple of reasons. The tub scene with Goldie Hawn. I think he just loves that scene. It’s an instinct I have about him. I also think Terrence Malick really likes it when the whole cast of the movie is singing a rap song over the closing credits.
Jay: You know what? I think in his older age, he may have settled on “Overboard,” because it’s really the deeper love story.
Mark: It’s a sensitive film about a man who brainwashes a woman into becoming his slave and taking care of his children, then she falls in love with him.
That sounds like a Terrence Malick movie, though.
Jay: He could remake “Overboard,” and it would be the darkest movie that’s ever been released.
Mark: Actually, when you watch “Overboard” now, there’s nothing darker. The only thing darker than “Overboard” is “Micki & Maude,” the bigamy comedy from 1984.
Jay: What about “Revenge of the Nerds,” where no one dealt with the fact that [Robert Carradine’s Louis Skolnick] was impersonating a jock who was…
Mark: You mean the comedic date rape scene? She realizes she was date raped and she looks at him and says, “You were wonderful.” This film was made by men in the ‘80s, very clearly.
Jay: Yes, the filmmakers validate it.
That’s one of those movies like “Overboard.” When you think about the actual premise, it’s two guys who were probably on the autism spectrum trying to deal with life in a world that’s set against them who were…
Jay: And championing misogynist ideals.
Exactly. So that’s a terrifying movie, unless you actually see it.
Jay: These plots are like German art films.
Mark: Dadaist 32-minute black-and-white films from 1938.
You guys are making me reconsider all cinema from the 1980s. I say "cinema" as if “Overboard” deserves that designation.
Jay: (laughing) We could probably indict the entire American public for the viewership and the box office that “Overboard” generated.
Mark: Let’s just call it an oeuvre while we’re at it. And we haven’t even talked about “Revenge of the Nerds 2” yet, but that’s for next time.
You guys were talking about how it feels now that you’re getting opportunities, there’s a little bit more responsibility on your shoulders. I’m curious how it feels as family men. When you started this, it was a very different endeavor in that you didn’t have other people you had to feed.
Mark: Yeah, it’s a weird thing to be perfectly honest, because it’s often the case that you become successful right at a time when you are having your family. It’s not uncommon. This should be the time when Jay and I are flying all over the world, producing as many movies as we possibly can because we do have the power to brand a movie and get it made. We want to do that for all of our friends and everyone, and we want to act in everything we can. But now’s the time when we need to be home with our kids. We don’t want to miss out on those years. Every day, Jay and I are in each other's offices trying to decide how we’re gonna spend our time. Half of our conversations are like, “Should I go do this movie? It’s gonna be two and a half weeks in Oregon. Should I stay home? That’s when my daughter’s big day at school is gonna be.” It’s exciting, but it is kind of frustrating, too, because we feel we’ve been invited to the buffet that we’ve been trying to get at for years. Then when we show up, our stomachs are already three-quarters full, but we want to eat the shit out of everything.
Jay: A lot of Alaskan crab out there, and I’m at home eating oatmeal and scrambled eggs that I’m making myself.
Mark: It’s a challenge.
That’s seems like another thing that’s nice about working together. I imagine that if you were working with someone else who wasn’t your brother, it would be, “Well, of course you go shoot that!”
Jay: I’ve never thought about it, but you’re right. We totally get each other and where we’re at in life and respect each other's needs. And our needs are similar, so that’s super-helpful. At the same time, we are doing a lot of things and the way that we’ve basically maintained doing it is that we just don’t have a social life. We’ve just cut out “social life” entirely. We’re bad friends. We do not hang out with our friends as much as we should. We hang out with our kids and our wives and our parents. Then we make movies and we make TV shows, and that’s pretty much all we do. For us, it’s not hard to accept that compromise. In a weird way, it’s not hard to give up the socializing, because you’re on set and interacting with 100 people — a lot of those are our friends anyway. I don’t know about you, but for me the really hard part is just the lack of time to myself. That’s the only thing.
Mark: (emphatically) Yeah. Reading a book. Taking a walk.
Jay: Yeah, just taking a bath. You don’t get to take a bath.
Mark: Jay hasn’t taken a shower in seven years. He smells!
Jay: It’s possible that I might have 17,000 layers of deodorant in my body right now.
Mark: Jay doesn’t even have a beard. It’s just dirt.
Jay: Yeah, it’s a fungus!