Mark Duplass on His New HBO show, Having Two Films at Sundance and the Reaganomics of the Film Industry

Mark Duplass Headshot - P 2012
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Mark Duplass Headshot - P 2012

The "Cyrus" co-director discusses mentoring young indie filmmakers at Sundance and why he and his brother made the move to HBO.

Mark Duplass is keeping very busy. He can be seen on TV starring in FX's The League, guesting on Fox's The Mindy Project, and come 2014 he'll star in HBO's Togetherness. Togetherness also marks he and his brother Jay Duplass' first attempt at writing and directing a television series after a decade of making indie film staples like The Puffy Chair, Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home.

Duplass also has been producing low-budget films in an effort to shepherd young filmmakers through the often bumpy road of indie filmmaking. Two of those films, The One I Love and Skeleton Twins, will be premiering this week at Sundance. He spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about embracing his role as mentor, making the transition to TV, the Reaganomics of movie distribution and why Bill Hader is about to blow up.

How did you get involved with The Skeleton Twins?

I made a film with the filmmaker, Craig Johnson, called True Adolescents about six years ago, and we became really close friends, so when he and Mark Heyman wrote this script, they brought it to me as an executive producer. I saw in it exactly what I saw in Cyrus, which is there are some comedic elements to the film, but at its heart this film, in many ways, is a drama. Jay and I have always loved this idea of taking comedians and giving them more semidramatic roles and breaking them out that way. It's something we experienced with Jonah Hill in Cyrus and Jason Segel and Ed Helms in Jeff, Who Lives at Home, so we started this discussion of who could we put in this movie that we think has great dramatic potential. Kristen [Wiig] was an obvious choice because she'd already dipped her toe in the water with some more dramatic work by then, but Bill [Hader] was the real surprise for us. And to me he is the most exciting element of this film -- watching this guy, who did these ridiculous impressions for the last 10 years, do something so incredibly heartfelt and genuine and very real. I think people are going to be really pleasantly surprised by what he can do.

I feel like people don't know what to expect from him post-SNL. Is he going to make films, write, act?

He doesn't know, either. You ask him, and he's like, "I don't know." And that's part of what's great about him. I think what you'll see with this film is the sky's the limit and he's going to break out in a major way.

THR did a profile on The One I Love filmmaker Charlie McDowell and he talked about how instrumental you were in getting the film made, both as a mentor and producer. I'm wondering though, at what point did you both decide that you should star in it as well?

It was always something I was going to act in. Just to be frank about it, the way I've produced a couple of films, Safety Not Guaranteed being an example, is I'll work with a first-time director like Colin Trevorrow and I'll be in the film, so whatever gaps they might have in experience, I'm always there. It's this nice little mentor-mentee relationship. Certain people need more, certain people need less. I'll say my relationship with Charlie was the most spiritually fulfilling, and we became the closest friends out of it. He reminds me very much of what Jay and I were like when we made The Puffy Chair. He's a really sensitive director, he's not that gum-chewing baseball-cap-wearing director that yells things out. He's a really sweet kid.

What was interesting about this process is it started out with me as more of a mentor, but it was like that cheesy dynamic with Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi, where by the end I was learning more from Charlie.

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Is that something that happens for you, both acting and helping these up-and-coming directors, that it recharges your battery and gets you excited about making your own films?

Dude, that's what it's all about it. Half of it is, "I want to make a cool movie." I feel comfortable in the independent film space -- it's where I grew up -- but an enormous part of it is when I can go make a movie like The One I Love and have a true creative collaboration with Mel [Eslyn], our great creative producer, Charlie, and Lizzy [Elisabeth Moss] -- who is going to be a filmmaker, by the way; she has a phenomenal filmmaker brain. I call them "buy-back-your-soul points," and it gives me infinitely more fortitude to go back and do a bigger project.

Did you and Jay have a mentor coming up?

I've thought about it, and we did not have a creative mentor. And part of that is -- I don't want to say our own fault, but Jay and I were a team already, so we were never really open to anyone else creatively, so to speak. We found our way fumbling through things because we were so into each other.

The truth is, though, our dad was a major force in us becoming artists. When I was 22 and Jay was 25, he basically came to us, because we were editing this shitty TV show for a church and trying to make a living and we weren't making enough art. He was like, "If you guys want to be filmmakers you can't be editing a TV show at church all day, so I'm going to give you $1,000 a month to pay your rent, live in a shitty place, but quit your day jobs and go make your stuff." And for two to three years I did that and that made me 100 percent the artist I am today. That's the best gift that anyone has ever given me, and I try to do that as much as possible for young filmmakers I believe in, whether it's helping them out financially, so they can make their mistakes and find their thing, or be there with them to lessen those mistakes so hopefully their art will have a life.

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How much of doing Togetherness is a product of you and your brother being excited by what you are seeing happen in TV right now, and how much of it is that the midbudget movies that you guys have done, like Cyrus and Jeff, seem to be disappearing?

How much of it is default versus genuine excitement, totally, it's a very valid question and a complex one to answer.

The honest truth of it is I never wanted to make an HBO show and Jay never did either, because we didn't want to be tied up. We didn't want to feel like nine months a year we were doing a piece of art, and also we didn't want to be tied to something where by season three you are creatively done, but everyone wants you to keep making it because it's a cash cow. So we always preferred the form of feature films. But then HBO sort of wooed us and showed us that you can make an 8-10 episode season and it's just going to be like making a big movie. It'll be like three months a year and you can go off and do your thing, so that was more appetizing to us.

In terms of death of, or what I call the Reaganomics of the film industry -- which is we have an upper class and a lower class, there is no longer a middle class left -- I think subconsciously is a part of it, to be honest. I personally believe if I made Cyrus today -- which was a $6 million movie and made $10 million -- I think today it would make more like $3 million because there are more movies out there, there's more competition. I don't want that pressure in my life right now of box-office performance hanging over my head to determine the merits of whether my film was a success or not. That, frankly, annoys the shit out of me and has driven me to a place where I like making smaller movies, like Safety Not Guaranteed, which when that movie made $5 million at the box office and $10 million through DVD and VOD, the $15 million cume of that movie was a massive success, because it was made for a million dollars. And then, likewise, if you are at a place like HBO, if they like your material and people are watching it, there's no box office. It's the way, in my opinion, that art should be appreciated.

What has been a nice surprise for us is how much we've enjoyed the long form of storytelling. We didn't really anticipate that taking these characters and having 240 minutes in our first season to tell their stories would allow us to do more of what we like, which is minutia-orientated relationship studies -- the epically small things that are happening between couples and friends that we find hilarious, beautiful and heartbreaking. When you have that much time to explore those things I can dig that much deeper. So in some ways we're more suited for [TV], which has been a nice surprise.

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Has there been something freeing writing in the 30-minute episode format?

It's challenging, I'll be honest with you, Jay and I got our asses handed to us a little bit by our friends who know TV and by some of the really smart executives at HBO as we started planning out the season. They were like, "OK, you can do a lot more of this, and a lot more of this," and we were like, "Oh, shit." So our minds got blown open a little bit and we needed a little help structuring the first season in the right way, but then once we got the hang of it, it was so great because the extra time to explore the characters is immensely freeing.

This structuring help you're receiving, obviously you have HBO execs, but you don't have a writing staff, right?

No, we don't have a writing staff, but we bring in a couple of writers once every week or two to read our scripts and to consult with us on where we can go and what we've missed. We find that people that have been involved in the TV world -- they just know things that Jay and I don't know yet. How audiences watch TV, how to [work out] certain plotlines, what you can rely on your audiences to remember from previous episodes and what you have tee up. There's a lot of nuts and bolts that Jay and I are getting our schooling in, so it's been fun.

I miss your Netflix recommendations on Twitter, so I have ask: What's been your favorite films of 2013?

It might have been a 2012 film, but How to Survive a Plague might be one of the most exciting documentaries I've ever seen and I recommend it highly to everyone.

And again, not necessarily a 2013 movie, but I found The Staircase. It's a Sundance docuseries. I bring it up because they released it online at the end of this year, but they made it in the 2000s. It is an eight-part documentary series about a man and his wife, who ends up on the bottom of the stairs dead. The question is did he do it or did she fall. The twists and turns that happen are beyond anything you could imagine even in a David Lynch film. It is the best longform documentary I've ever seen. Everybody I've shown it to, they all call me at 3 in the morning: "I started it at 7 p.m. and couldn't stop."