The Duplass Brothers Talk TV, 'Togetherness' and the Frustrating Road to Success (Q&A)
TV's busiest duo spend an evening with THR to discuss their indie road to HBO and why you're wrong to think of them as "sweet little stoners"
This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Jay and Mark Duplass are having an odd mainstream moment. The brothers, Sundance favorites since a short film they cobbled together in Austin, Texas, led to the breakthrough 2005 feature The Puffy Chair, have kept relatively low pop-culture profiles while building an indie film résumé that includes microbudget hits (The Do-Deca-Pentathlon) and studio specialty projects (Cyrus; Jeff, Who Lives at Home). After years of watching Mark, 38, pop up as an actor in studio films (Zero Dark Thirty) and on TV (FXX's The League), Jay, 41, stepped out from behind the camera in 2014 with a role on Amazon's Golden Globe-nominated Transparent. Now, on Jan. 11, they premiere a high-profile HBO comedy, Togetherness, which finds the New Orleans natives writing and directing each of the eight episodes — with Mark also starring — of a family dramedy inspired by their adult lives in Los Angeles. Both married (Mark to League co-star Katie Aselton) and each fathers of two, the duo is changing the film-first goals they've had since seeing the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona in 1987. "We thought we were going to be lifetime Focus Features, Fox Searchlight filmmakers," says Mark. "But this turn into TV, this is where we want to be."
You both started in L.A. pitching and doing rewrites for studio films. Why didn't any get made?
JAY DUPLASS The first year we were here, we thought, "Wow, people are really f—ing hungry for a smart comedy." We'd have these massive pitches. It would take us like 30 minutes to do our thing. They would inevitably sink terrified in their chairs and say, "Guys, that's an incredible movie that we would love to make, but …"
MARK DUPLASS "… we don't make those movies here."
JAY "That's not what the funding here is for. This is for a boner comedy." We just got the shit beat out of us for like a year. There were a couple times where one of us would say, "Let's do it," because we just wanted to make money. The other one would have to be like, "Back the f— off."
MARK So we just went and made another independent film, which is what we knew how to do. We had a couple bouts with studios, Cyrus at Fox Searchlight [$9.9 million box office worldwide in 2010] and Jeff, Who Lives at Home at Paramount [$4.4 million worldwide in 2012], which, relatively speaking for a studio experience, were pretty positive.
What type of concessions did you make with the studio films?
JAY There were no concessions, and that's the problem. When you don't concede, you fight all the time. You have to explain everything.
MARK We've been to therapy, and we like to listen to people and validate their thoughts and feelings. That can get you in a little bit of trouble in this town. If you're not screaming and yelling like an asshole, apparently you don't have conviction and vision. So we started yelling.
JAY We never really yelled. We had to yell like once or twice.
MARK I do a lot more yelling than you do. I try to keep Jay away from the yelling.
JAY Then something weird happened. We started to produce other people's movies, which was never part of our plan. These younger filmmakers, who reminded us of us when we made The Puffy Chair, we would bring them to Sundance. Everybody started talking about our brand. We're like, "What's a brand?"
MARK I always loved United Artists in the '70s. It is hard to find a partner who's going to give you money that is truly in line with what you want to be making. The only ones we've had that with in recent history is HBO. That's just straight up a company that is not afraid. They're flush with money. They believe in their filmmakers. Jay and I came up making independent films, so for us, we're dealing with a windfall of money — but we're probably still the cheapest show on HBO.
And the pressures are different on television.
MARK There's something really great about not dealing with the f—ing stress of box office. Cyrus and Jeff did fine, but there is always this hope that maybe it's going to break out and be Little Miss Sunshine. And then it doesn't kill.
JAY You feel like a failure because you made a movie that made money.
Showrunning has become one of the most romanticized gigs. Has anything changed for you since you picked up that hat?
JAY It's crazy for us already. We have not released our show yet, and the offers for us to showrun are …
MARK … off the charts.
From left: Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet, Mark Duplass and Steve Zissis star as the adults in the L.A.-set dramedy, which premieres Jan. 11 on HBO.
How would you fit that in with everything you do?
MARK We have three television shows, and we produce three or four movies a year. We're a little spread thin. And if we're making Togetherness, we're not directing a movie that year. As you grow, you figure out what you want versus what you thought you wanted for yourself. I want to be on set with Jay making our television show for HBO. I don't want to be on a $6 million independent film set where they're freaking out whether they're going to get their money back and they're beating the shit out of us all the time.
And you never thought about creating a show before this?
JAY No. We should have.
You're working on all parts of TV now: network, streaming and premium and basic cable. How are they different?
MARK Jay and I are fairly incompatible with the network model. The Mindy Project [on which both recur] is probably the best version of a network comedy. We go there, have a love fest and then we get to leave. [FX has] what I would call the lottery ticket approach. When we started [on The League,] I made $8,000 an episode, and the per-episode cost was like $400,000. They were like, "You're a dart. I'll throw it at the board and see if you stick." That's how you see who wins and who works their ass off. Our showrunners found their niche, and they f—ing made it work.
JAY It feels like 1970s filmmaking when you're making a show with Jill Soloway [Transparent].
MARK And not to malign [Amazon], but it's a lot like semi-uneducated money. They haven't been in the industry that long, right?
JAY Yeah, they're new, and they are doing what HBO is doing: betting on the filmmakers. Mark and I are cavemen who came up making movies with DVXs, but Jill came from TV. When you move to TV, you've got to be ready to roll. That's probably the one common denominator. But then there are times when Jill says, "We have all the time and money in the world." This is what Mark and I do, too. If we're having trouble finding something, we'll hang out until we get it.
MARK The dirty little secret of Jay and me is that people look at our stuff and feel like we are sweet little stoners trying to find emotional stuff. But we are f—ing terminators. We are ruthless when it comes down to getting what we want before we leave set — and not to the detriment of people's personal lives and well-being.
Pay cable also gives you a lot of freedom with content. I'm pretty sure I saw your penis in the second episode of Togetherness.
MARK Yeah, you did. I remember seeing it in the pan down that we thought we were going to use, and I thought, "I don't think [Michael] Fassbender's dick is that big. I think the camera adds weight." (Laughs.)
Are you two competitive at all?
MARK Only on a pingpong table. … Something happens to my body when I get on a pingpong table with Jay. I'm physically nervous and I tremble.
JAY I just got a new house that has a space for a pingpong table.
MARK I really don't want you to get one. I'm sure a therapist could have a field day with that. (Laughs.) We know what an outburst could do to this little empire that we've built together, so we're very respectful and careful with one another — almost, to a certain degree, like the president and the first lady at a press conference. Let's hold it together.
JAY The fact that our first breakthrough didn't happen individually helps. It was just Mark and me in our apartment in South Austin. I was pushing 30, and I was telling him, "I can't f—ing do this anymore. I can't put myself through this. I can't put Mom and Dad through this." We went to Catholic prep school, and our friends were rich with kids already.
MARK It was getting real scary. There was talk about grad school and Jay becoming a psychologist — which you would have been amazing at.
What was the breakthrough?
JAY It happened on this day I was trying to perfect a personal message on my answering machine. I did like 20 takes, and I had a nervous breakdown. "How the f— am I going be a filmmaker? I can't get my f—ing answering machine right." Mark immediately says, "That's it. Roll the f—ing camera." And he came in the door and we filmed this short, This Is John.
MARK It is the ugliest, worst-sounding film ever made.
JAY Ever made. It went to Sundance, and it changed everything. That's the moment that we realized that what we have to contribute is our own f—ing pathetic desperation.
MARK It can actually be funny with the right distance and perspective!