SALON TALKS

How filmmakers the Duplass Brothers got some space in their "insane and beautiful co-dependence"

Mark Duplass stops by Salon's studio — without Jay — to talk about being "ex-soulmates, but still intimate" now

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published May 11, 2018 6:00PM (EDT)

Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass (AP/Chris Pizzello)

Mark and Jay Duplass — first recognized in the film industry for their talents on a smaller scale creating, directing, producing, writing and acting in independent films — are now the force behind much bigger projects like Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” and “Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist.”

The duo’s new memoir, “Like Brothers,” explores the pitfalls and advantages of collaborating closely with friends and family, which they’ve been doing for 40 years ever since they started toying around with a 1980s video camera together in the New Orleans suburb where they grew up.


Originally created as a guide for young, aspiring filmmakers, the book is actually much more than that — it’s a lesson in how to run a family business, how to resolve disagreements and how to learn to let your creative partner go a bit and pursue individual work.

Mark Duplass sat down in Salon's studio recently to talk about the book and their film and TV work, how he and his brother have evolved as a duo since their early 20s and where they go from here.

With your brother Jay Duplass, you wrote this book called "Like Brothers," which is about your creative partnership, but he’s not here right now.

No.

What’s up with that?

Well, he’s dead.

That’s not true.

It’s okay. No, Jay is still alive, everybody. I think the fact that Jay is not here is a good jumping-off point for what this book is about, because I think that . . . we grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans with no connections to any industry, no real understanding that movies were made by people. Once we decided we wanted to make movies, I think what happened is we linked arms and we started climbing that mountain together. We developed quite an insane and beautiful co-dependence and it worked for us for many years. Honestly, the level of soulmates that we were, through our teens and our 20s is . . . it was some of the happiest and the most incredible times of my life.

Then we had to get married and have children, just to create some space inside of that co-dependence, which was the trickiest part of our relationship and something that we’re still dealing with today.

The essence of this book is really about learning how to be soulmates with space, and occasionally come to a Salon interview without your older brother and not have a panic attack while you’re there.

Is that working right now; is it OK?

I’ve got a lot of Klonopin pumping through my system right now.

Excellent, good, good.

I’m doing all right.

That’s good. Those of you who know Mark and Jay's work, the Duplass Brothers' work, whether it’s in film or TV, the book is probably going to speak to you. I say this with love, Mark, but it works very similar to some of your other craft, in the sense that you guys are simultaneously taking your creative work very seriously and making fun of yourselves at the same time, right?

Yes, that’s fair.

You're risking becoming ridiculous in the eyes of the audience.

Not really risking. I think we are. I think we’re saying that that’s OK too. I appreciate you being gentle about it. We haven’t spoken in awhile, but let’s call it what it is.

No, it’s ridiculous the way that we love each other, the way that we go head-to-head at times, the way that we want to be each other’s everything and can’t. I think some people look at it [like] oh, that’s really so sweet, the way that these brothers are, and some people say, do North American dudes really speak to each other with that much therapy-speak?

The answer for us is yes, for whatever reason. I don’t know why. I think that when we started writing this book we asked ourselves that question that we ask ourselves before we embark on anything right now, which is, “All of you have 500 movies and TV shows in your Netflix queue and a 100 books you want to read, so why the hell should we make this thing, what’s going to be useful about it?” I think the one thing we came up with, at least for us, was that nobody that we know of has as much experience with long-term collaboration.

Jay and I have been doing this for 40 years. I mean we have just been side-by-side forever. We have been through everything you can imagine. At the end of the day I think that, for us, offering something that is at once the real beauty of having each other, in those tough moments, then the real stifling nature of not finding time to individuate, and how that has been really rough on us in a lot of ways -- it felt like something unique we could serve up.

Salon Talks with Mark Duplass

Watch our full conversation:

I think that’s all right on. One of the things about this book that struck me as I was reading it was that I knew it would be funny. You guys are usually pretty funny. Most of the time intentionally.

Most of the time. If you’ve seen some of our earlier movies they’re actually our funniest films; we’re just not prepared to have people laugh at them, which is a problem.

No, you guys are funny. I wasn’t really expecting to have been reading it and being like, “Oh, that’s really pretty good advice,” but some of the stuff that you talk about when you talk about the difficulties of collaborating with somebody, especially somebody you know really well, and how you get past that -- I thought it was very useful, probably, in a lot of different contexts.

It doesn’t have to be you're making a movie, people who started a business together, whatever. The way guys resolve difficulties, resolve disagreements. I love that stuff. Talk about that a little bit.

It’s interesting. We really didn’t plan on that being as much a part of the book. I think when we started approaching this book we thought, “This is going to be really good for young aspiring filmmakers. We can show them how we came from nothing.” And then we thought, “Maybe it will just expand beyond filmmakers too, anyone in a start-up mentality.” But because we are who we are and we can’t help talking about our feelings, their developments almost sort of . . . I don’t want to say [it's a] "self-help book," but a little bit of a how-to guide of intense collaboration. How to validate the feelings of the person you’re working with, how to stand up for yourself enough, but also give enough so that you can move the ship forward.

And it was actually really interesting, the more we talked about it, and we realized something. I think one of the keys to our successful collaboration is that when I’m in an argument with Jay it doesn’t look like any other argument I’ve ever been in. It is usually us trying to navigate a situation. I can tell that Jay has 50 percent of his focus on what his own interests are, but he equally has 50 percent on my own interests and he wants me to win too. It’s been really interesting.

Crazy enough, we’ve had people kind of talk to us how it’s a lot like a marriage in a lot of ways. People who don’t have a tight sibling relationship, they’ve looked at this book and said, “Oh, I think that this is how you make all those relationships work to a certain degree.”

How did your relationship with Jay affect when the two of you started to have romantic relationships [and] serious girlfriends?

It was awful. Honestly, I mean I feel horrible for the girls we dated in high school and college who —

Do you need to make some phone calls to make amends?

Yes, we’re working on it; we’re going to send them a signed copy of the book. Because I think what happened is we didn’t know. We were emotionally immature. The things that Jay and I would share were just downright betrayals of the trust we had with other people that we were in intimate relationships with. We didn’t understand that that was not healthy. We didn’t understand being each other’s everything, almost like twins, was not going to be sustainable through romantic relationships. Through becoming husband, fathers, all those things. Ultimately, those early relationships of ours were unsuccessful, and even our friendships, they only got so far, because the sense that everybody has around us was, “Well, you’re only going to get so far with Mark or Jay because they have each other.”

And that kind of sucks in some regards, for not only those [with whom] we’re trying to develop other intimate relationships, but for us.

When did you start to notice that it was emotionally limiting for you?

It was more in our 20s, once we started to grow up a little bit and then really meeting the women that we were eventually were going to marry and realizing, “Oh shit, this is not going to work, the way we are, we're going to have to create space.” Then it begs the question, which Jay and I talk about all the time, it’s like, “How do we become ex-soulmates yet still be intimate?”

We were talking about this on the plane on the way over here. We were once each other’s everything. I mean we would write songs during the day, we would make a little movie at night, and we would go out at two in the morning and run three miles together, we would cook breakfast in the morning. Our parents were just kind of like, “Who are these two? Where did this come from?

And to learn how to make space in that and yet still be intimate is a lot like . . . not that it sounds productive, but it’s like trying to be an alcoholic who only wants to have two drinks. And you have to relearn that. It’s very difficult in our partnership and it’s something that requires a lot of care, and there have been a lot of tears.

I don’t know. I think that you and I have talked a lot over the years and in interviews, we do 15 minutes or 20 minutes. We always end up over-glorifying our bond. [Jay and I] always end up giving the sense that it’s easier than it is, and that’s what part of this book was, is the long overdue answer to the question, “How do you guys work together without killing each other?” An hour-long interview has not been enough. I think 320 pages are still not enough, but we’re scratching it.

One of the things that's interesting to me about your career is the way that your brother and you have stayed on parallel courses but also moved apart. You’ve done so many things together — TV shows and movies. Over the years you have started to branch [out], because both of you have acting careers now, which are almost totally different, right?

Yes, they’re wildly different.

How did that work out?

I started acting in things first. I had it great for awhile: I was the male in a 1930s Southern marriage where I had my wife waiting for me at home and I had affairs whenever I wanted, and nobody gave me shit about it. Then Jay went off and did —

That’s a metaphor, right?

That’s a metaphor. Then when Jay went to do "Transparent" I really found myself kind of threatened by a lot of the connections he was developing with everyone on the "Transparent" set and how much he loved it and, “I was so happy for you, don’t leave me, because I love you too. Have fun but not too much fun.” It’s literally those kinds of feelings we have and they’re crazy.

The truth of the matter is that level of individuation where we can be exactly who we want to be in that moment not in front of each other, because I know Jay so well. If he wants to step out and be a little different at a party he can’t do that around me because he knows I’m looking at him thinking, “Bullshit, that’s not you.” I can’t do that in front of him. Every now and then it’s good for us to be away from each other in that regard, but it’s strange. When I show up to a party by myself the first question I get is, "How’s it going; where’s Jay?” He gets the same thing.

Of course, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We love our togetherness, but the separateness has been nice.

Yes, it must have been a little surprising to see him in an acting role, which kind of had been your thing. Did you have that moment where you had to be like, “Oh, he’s actually good.”

There’s so many moments. There’s the petty moment of like, “That’s my zone bro,” and like, “Don’t get up in my stuff because I’m the actor. I want the attention.”

I really didn’t have a problem accepting him as an actor because I figured he would be good at it.

I think a lot of the real challenge for me, again, was watching Jay for the first time be truly happy in a creative relationship that had nothing to do with me.

And was that in "Transparent?" 

That was in "Transparent."

I was always the guy, when we show up to parties together, people would — inevitably, their eyes would kind of turn towards me a little bit.

Because they’d seen you in movies?

Because they’d seen me in "The League" and they wanted to talk about "The League." Then we would go to a party and everybody wants to talk to Jay about "Transparent," and also the levels of conversation they wanted to have about "Transparent" are so much more beautiful and interesting than they would have had about "The League." It’s kind of like, “Eh, eh.”

I think once we just learn to accept that we’re kind of petty about this shit sometimes, and like, “It’s OK can we talk about it?” That kind of helps us transcend and keep it on the level.

I believe you and I met on the sidewalk in Austin outside a South By Southwest screening of "The Puffy Chair," all the way back to official — 

1914.

Right before "Birth of a Nation" came out.

I was thinking about the funky DIY scene of that period. I wonder how much of that shaped how you guys ran your career later? Because one of the things that’s really striking about you guys is you’ve devoted a lot of your careers to nurturing other people’s work. You have produced or otherwise helped out with things that you did not direct, that were not your artistic projects, right?

Definitely.

Has that always been an important part of this?

No, not at all. Honestly, it happened completely serendipitously. We were the first people in our group of friends to start making money, honestly. Our friends started coming to us and saying, “Can I have $5,000 to finish my movie?” And we were like, “Of course,” because we had survival skills. Then we would do what we normally do, which is we would watch their cuts and we would help them get into Sundance. Someone looked us and was like, “Oh, you guys are producers now,” and we’re like, “Really?”

Then it started to feel really good and really right, and not just from an altruistic perspective of, “If we can help these people we should,” but selfishly speaking, I’m 41 now and Jay’s 45. If you look at the Way Brothers [who made] the "Wild, Wild Country" series for us, they’re collectively 12 years younger than us. Being around them and feeling the energy of who they are and the way they remind us of ourselves at that time and their level of inspiration and how hard they work, it kind of juices us back up and keeps us young.

As we have created space for ourselves in our duo of collaboration, it has allowed for us to collaborate with people like Sean Baker on "Tangerine," and really expand the scope in the kinds of stories we can tell. So it’s not all stories about male intimacy, which is the first five movies we made.

That does seem to be true. I was thinking specifically of "Tangerine," because I don’t think it’s unfair to say that’s not really a movie you guys could have made, right?

I don’t think so. We’re not experts at that, that’s not what we do well.

And it was famously shot on the iPhone. It was a combination of a really amazing story with amazing characters and many technological breakthroughs.

Yes, and to your point, it came from the ethic of "The Puffy Chair." Sean Baker, who made that movie, had made three wonderful indie films before that, but he couldn’t get the money to make ["Tangerine"]. And so, having made the money we have made off of things like "The League," Shawn came to us and said, “I have this idea,” and we just said, “OK, we’ll just cut him a $100,000 check and let him go.”

Honestly, we watched two cuts of the movie and helped advise on a couple of things and helped with some sales. That movie is Sean Baker. Just using our platform, we protected him and gave him full creative control. The more I can do that at this moment . . . we’re leaning way into that, and that feels really good right now.

Obviously, he went from strength to strength, having moved on to "The Florida Project" after that, which is  — does he still take your calls, is that still going to work?

He doesn’t know who I am anymore, but it’s OK. Have you read that book "The Giving Tree?" It was about me and Sean Baker. That’s fine.

It's not dark, that’s not the right word, but there are some moments of sadness in [your] book, though, right?

Yes, I think that’s fair. I hear you kind of struggling to describe it a little bit.

What’s the word?

I think it’s fair because I don’t have the word. There’s a melancholy to it, because I think that when we . . . if I’m being totally honest, when we started to write this book I really thought that we were going to make a treatise or a manifesto on the truly glorious nature of our collaboration. In the middle of writing this book HBO canceled "Togetherness" on us and kind of broke our hearts and made us question for the first time, “Well shit, do we have to stay together the whole step of the way? What would it be like if we got a little bit of space?” And we started opening that up, and that’s when some of the glory of the space started to hit us, but also some of the heartbreak of that.

I think what you feel in this book is this yes, it is a wonderful testament to two brothers who are able to come from nowhere through their unique bond, but at the same time that time is over now and we’ve had to learn how to let that go and become something new that allows individual space. There is some heartbreak there in the middle of that glorification.

Honestly, I think that’s one of the things that kind of saves the book from the moments where it could feel like it could be too sunshiney. I think this has often been true in your creative work. That you guys feel the moment when it’s necessary to go for something deeper, or you try to.

I like that.

You might not a hundred percent get there, nobody does.

I’ll take that. That makes me feel good.

Two really important questions before we close. There is a working list in here of your 10 favorite movies. I’m not going to give too much of it away because I want readers of the book to work out what is exasperating, or wonderful, or both, about your list. Which one of you is the president of the Kenneth Lonergan Fan Club, though?

Jay is 100 percent the president of that club. I am a willing VP. I am right there. It is Jay’s deep love of "Margaret." That really makes him —

That’s such a striking movie to be on that list.

It is.

Because a lot of the others are really famous and popular films.

I know, and no one saw "Margaret." It’s one of the great tragedies.

It was an attempt to make the great post-9/11 New York movie and nobody saw it.

Nobody saw it. That was at a time when you made a good movie everyone saw it. Now with everything you can make great movies and no one sees them and no one cares because this is where we’re at. Jay is definitely the president there and then the intense love of the maybe more obscure documentaries tends to come a little bit more from my side.

Did that impulse drive you guys towards the project with "Wild, Wild Country," which is amazing?

Absolutely, we have been fans of documentaries for years.

We’ve been scared to make them because we know that they often take seven to 10 years and destroy you, and if you’re successful as a documentarian it means you’ve only lost a little bit of money.

The good news is that our good friend Josh Bron, who we wrote about in this book, he’s kind of the king of documentary sales. He knew that we were fans of the Way Brothers' first movie "The Batter Bastards of Baseball," which, if you like "Wild, Wild Country" watch it, it’s on Netflix. He brought the project to us and it was such a perfect marriage, because when we made our movie "Jeff Who Lives at Home" we hadn’t really made that much studio stuff. Jason Reitman was coming off of "Juno." He just swooped down and protected us with his power and gave us full creative control. We will never forget that. We can now, to a certain degree, do that for other filmmakers.

That’s incredible, that’s amazing.

I’m not going to take credit for "Wild, Wild Country." It's so good because it’s those boys who made that movie. We just put our arms around them and said, “Come move into our office. We will protect you financially, creatively and give you the scope to do what you do. If you fall on the sword and fail it’s your own fault.” And they didn’t.

Tell us a little bit in closing about -- for Mark, for Jay, for the Duplass Brothers -- what are you guys working on right now, separately or together?

We have a documentary series called "Evil Genius" that’s coming out on Friday, May 11 — really excited about it. It’s about the famous pizza bombings scenario in Erie in 2003 where a guy walked into bank with a collar bomb around his neck and a cane gun, and he claimed that he had been set up for it. We finally get to tell that story, which is really exciting. We have a four-movie deal with Netflix where we make a bunch of original films. I just shot one as a two-hander with me and Ray Romano, who I have been in love with for years.

That sounds fascinating.

That’s another deep dive into male intimacy, which is something we know about. And we’ve got a new season of "Room 104" that we’re working on, getting ready for the fall.

 


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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