One dull afternoon in 2003, Jay and Mark Duplass, two brothers from suburban New Orleans, bought a videotape at their corner 7-Eleven, and made a seven-minute short called This Is John. It featured Mark, dressed in a borrowed suit, trying and failing to record a cool outgoing message for his answering machine. Jay shot it on their parents' video camera. Total cost: $3 (the price of the tape).
Cut to today: The Duplass's third feature as co-writer-directors, Cyrus, opens in select cities on Friday. It boasts a trio of stars (Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly), a real plot (Reilly loves Tomei, but her son Hill gets in the way), a whopping (for them) $7-million budget, and major studio support (Fox Searchlight). It's a whip-smart, acutely observed, riveting character drama in which all three actors do some of their best work, and it has reviewers panting with praise.
Now the brothers are living the dream of every do-it-yourself filmmaker who's ever watched a Richard Linklater film and thought, "I should be doing that." But they're also living the dilemma: How do you keep 'em down on the farm, once they've seen the corporate jet?
First, a bit more history: The brothers sent This Is John to the Sundance Film Festival "on a lark;" it caused a stir and landed them a William Morris agent. Their first feature, The Puffy Chair (2005), played at that year's South-by-Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., where they met a handful of writer-directors who'd showed up with similar-feeling films - largely because Panasonic had put out the AG DVX 100 the year before. "It was a $3,000 video camera that shot at the film frame rate, with warm colours that made it feel like film," Mark said. "Suddenly you could make a great-looking movie for $1,000."
Those filmmakers - including Andrew Bujalski ( Funny Ha Ha), Aaron Katz ( Dance Party, USA), and Joe Swanberg ( Kissing on the Mouth) - formed a loose group that became known as Mumblecore, kind of the organic, locally sourced diet of the film world. It's all about low-tech, homemade pictures starring your friends, shot on their sofas. Dialogue is often improvised, production design consists of screwing slightly brighter bulbs into whatever lights are there, and the most explosive plot twist is someone getting his feelings hurt.
The Mumblecorps started churning out films, often swapping actors. Some got small distribution deals, others released direct to DVD or sold their work via websites. "Andrew [Bujalski]always hated the term Mumblecore," Jay Duplass remembered. "He said, 'This will end one day, and a few of us are going to go down with it.' Mark and I were like, 'He's smart.'" Beat. "'But who cares? Let's keep going!'" With Cyrus, the Duplass's have broken out of the herd, and their next feature, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon, should only add to their lead.
Over dinner at a Toronto hotel restaurant, the brothers seemed like the sweetest, most humble guys you could ever meet. Jay, 37, is slighter, darker, more prone to wry jokes. Mark, 34, is an affable emcee type given to earnest pronouncements such as, "As soon as stress enters our process, our acute attention to the minutia of interpersonal dynamics is the first thing that goes."
They're both married, both fathers of 2-year-old girls born nine months apart, and live near one another in a friendly neighbourhood on the east side of Los Angeles. They shot Jeff, Who Lives at Home in New Orleans, so they could hang at their parents' house for three months, "and the grandparents could babysit," Mark said. They finish each other's sentences, and greeted everything our waiter brought with great enthusiasm.
They were touchingly sincere about their commitment to "communicate the subtlest version of a scene that still works for the audience" (Jay); their desire to find a balance between sticking to their indie roots, yet "inviting more people in than just the 15 cities in America that love scrappy digital video and no stars"(Mark); and their terror of making a bad movie.
"If we shoot a scene and we know it's not special - ," Jay started.
"It kills us," Mark finished.
"We drive home together and talk about it and sit in bed together and talk about it," Jay said, "and bang out ideas until we come up with something."
"And then we reshoot it the next day," Mark finished. "Every time."
The brothers enjoyed a fairly posh upbringing, attending a private Catholic prep school whose graduates were more likely to become investment bankers than filmmakers. But from their earliest childhoods, they loved movies - especially relationship stories such as Kramer vs. Kramer, Annie Hall and Tootsie. "We were seven years old, everyone else was watching Star Wars, and we were watching [Alan Alda's] The Four Seasons," Jay said.
After their second feature, the horror comedy Baghead (2008), studio execs and producers started courting the brothers. "Our first two years in Hollywood, we must have turned down 20 jobs," Jay said. "We'd say, 'This is not what we do, it's not what we're great at.' It was heartbreaking to do it over and over when we weren't making any money yet, but the willingness to say no, to show our integrity, eventually got us respect."
For Cyrus and Jeff, they fought to hang onto the accidental, documentary feel that is their hallmark. They shot 90 per cent of the scenes in sequence (a luxury), brought a few of their Mumblecore actors along (albeit in tiny roles), and encouraged their leads to experiment. "The core of us as filmmakers is, we've always had these private conversations about our most horrible, embarrassing moments, the kind that make you make strange noises in the shower when you think about them," Mark said.
"That's what our movies are about. That's what we have to offer," Jay said.
"We celebrate the odd humanity of people," Mark said. "It's the only thing we know how to do."
They joke about selling out, but only for a minute: "We're already making six figures making these movies. That's huge!" Mark said.
"It's insane to us!" Jay added. "We know that other world is out there. We can see what selling out is. When you're on a film set, there's so much pressure, it's so easy to say, 'That's good enough.'"
"All you have to do is pull back your Herculean effort to make it artistic," Mark said. "It's tempting sometimes."
But not tempting enough. "If we stick to who we are," Jay said, "at least we know if we lose it with Hollywood, we can always hang out in the parking lot of the premiere of Pink Panther Five or something, and lure away the disappointed actors: 'Psst, we're doing something real edgy over here.'"
"I've got a hoodie for you," Mark chimed in. "'Let's go indie!'"