Mark Duplass on His High-Stakes 'Zero Dark Thirty' Secret and Future Plans

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

The very busy multihyphenate talks with THR about his role in Kathryn Bigelow's military thriller and his plans for his next set of films.

Just as the CIA research required to write and prepare Zero Dark Thirty was shrouded in secrecy, so was the film's production.

"I signed a nondisclosure agreement," Mark Duplass, who appears in the film as an intelligence agent, told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday night at the Gotham Film Awards. "I pretty much agreed to have my testicles shorn and cut off if I said anything, so I was quiet for a long time."

Fitting for a movie that deals with torture. 

The film tells the story of the CIA's decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, is director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Iraq war drama Hurt Locker. Unlike that film, Zero Dark Thirty, which features Jessica Chastain leading a strong ensemble cast, boasts a relatively large budget and grand scope, as it takes place across the Middle East, and involved talks with high level Defense Department officials.

Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

For Duplass, it would seem to have been a major change of pace; he has become one of the leading lights of indie film, having written and directed five films in the past seven years, including this spring's Jeff Who Lives at Home, a small-time story about two wandering brothers that starred Jason Segel and Ed Helms.

"The cool thing about Kathryn is that she shoots very similarly to how Jay and I shoot," he said; Jay is his brother and co-director. "There’s lots of cameras all around, it’s a very documentary-type feel, but it just so happens that the sets you’re on are gargantuan, so it was nice."

In addition to his directing, Duplass has a busy acting career, starring in such films as time-traveling comedy Safety Not Guaranteed and domestic dramedy Your Sister's Sister, both of which were nominated for awards Monday (Sister won best ensemble cast; it co-starred Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt). Seven years ago, when his first shoestring budget film The Puffy Chair debuted and wowed Sundance, Duplass was an emerging indie wunderkind; at Monday's show, he was one of the biggest names in the crowd. And though he seems to be on top, he says the industry is cyclical.

STORY: Duplass Brothers Eschew Convention and Make Their Own Direction

"I think indie film is a cosine wave at best," Duplass said, algebraic proficiency on display. "It goes up and down. Some people complain now that there’s not enough money for independent film, but my perspective is we have the cameras and technology to make movies more cheaply than anyone has ever had. I literally had an argument with Steven Soderbergh -- well, not an argument, but a discussion about it -- where he was like, ‘I’m so glad I’m not you because there’s so many to compete with.’ He was like, ‘I used to be able to make a decent movie and anyone would buy it,’ but I look at him and I’m like, ‘I’m glad I wasn’t you growing up, because you had to shoot on film and everything cost half a million dollars. Now I can go and make a movie with Emily Blunt for under $100,000. It’s really exciting.'"

Part of his approach is taking advantage of the growing video-on-demand market; the Duplass' film The Do-Deca Pentathlon, which was produced in 2008, was finally released this summer on cable systems. With filmmakers' profit margins higher and more eyeballs available for on-demand downloads than limited theater releases, he says he's all in when it comes to future VOD releases.

"I’m ready to beat that stump," he offered. "I’m in mostly because I have two small children and I don’t get to the movie theater, so I watch on VOD. And you know what? I think that the kind of movies that I’m making, if you have above a 36-inch television in your home, it’s almost as good as being in the theater, honestly. My movies are feelings movies. I want to see The Avengers in the movie theater, but you can see Your Sister’s Sister at home, it’s going to be fine."

Though he insists that he gets eight hours of sleep a night, Duplass is still plenty busy. He's working on a reboot of the 1978 Alan Alda-Ellen Burstyn romantic comedy film Same Time, Next Year, is penning an adaptation of the book Mule for Hangover director Todd Phillips and, as he teases, "my brother and I are working on a secret project that will be announced probably in the next month or so."