Mark Duplass may be the hardest working guy in indie filmmaking. This summer, he acts in four films, including one he wrote and directed with his brother and collaborator Jay Duplass, as well as costars on the ensemble comedy The League. While promoting his latest film, Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister, Duplass sheds some light on his filmmaking process, how he improvises new characters, and working with Shelton, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt.
Rachel Heine: So how does it feel being in every movie this year?
MD: I’m in every movie. I don’t feel like I’m in every movie… I think maybe in this room it might be, but not in all rooms. So [in] the world of people who care about independent film, I’ll take it.
RH: You and Lynn Shelton worked together on Humpday. What is it about that partnership that brought you back to Your Sister’s Sister?
MD: I think that there’s this weird alchemy. You never know why you fit with certain people. But if I had to define it, I would say Lynn is a very open director and she’s very open to collaborating. She’s not threatened by having an actor who creatively contributes. And likewise, Lynn and I share such similar sensibilities of love of our characters and particularly, love of flawed characters that we’re never at odds about [what] we want to see happen in the films. It just kind of works.
I think she’s a fantastic filmmaker, [and] she’s a really great student of the human condition. Most importantly, she just loves her characters and she loves screwed up people and she loves rooting for them. And you’ll be in a dinner conversation with Lynn and she’ll be talking to someone that says, you know, oh my God, I’ve broken up with my last five boyfriends and then I slept with the ex-boyfriend while I was dating the new one. And while someone else is appalled, Lynn is laughing hysterically and totally in love with this person, you know? And that quality is just very unique.
RH: How has she evolved as a director since Humpday?
MD: I think the visual development is the biggest thing. You know, Lynn – in particular, with this film – said I want to try and get some poetry and some visual elegance into this film. And so by setting it on this island and getting all those nice wide shots and incorporating the score, I think she expanded the film from just close-ups and interpersonal dynamics into something just a little more visual.
RH: Speaking of the film -- the end of Your Sister’s Sister is left up in the air. Did you decide early on that you wanted to have that particular ending, or did that develop as you went along?
MD: Well, we shot multiple versions of the end of the film and we also shot some different tags. It’s kind of my belief that when you’re making a film in twelve days – or honestly, if you’re making any film – that having different options for your ending can only help you when you come to test the film. This was the one that, surprisingly, people responded to the most, but we had lots of ways we could’ve done it.
RH: Without giving anything away, your character receives some life-changing news during the course of the film. The look on your face is priceless. Where did you go to create Jack’s character and personality?
MD: In terms of what I brought to the character and what I thought I could bring, there was just this sense of what would a normal person do in this situation. And I try to make Jack feel like a guy that’s kind of fucked up but feels a little bit like everybody else, you know? So him reacting to all these crazy things that happen to the movie is not dissimilar from how I would’ve reacted.
RH: Even though technically you serve as an actor and producer on the movie, your fingerprints are all over Your Sister’s Sister. Can you tell us a little bit about getting involved with the project?
MD: Well, I brought the concept of the film to Lynn. It was a concept of a movie my brother and I had, and the concept was a guy is down on his luck and he’s lost his brother and he’s best friends with this girl. She sends him to her family vacation getaway to have him get his life together. When he gets there, he meets her mother and a bunch of weird sh*t happens. And [Shelton] was like, great, but let’s make it a sister because I have some casting ideas that could work. So I said great. And so… we built a movie together. The film was shot from a treatment so there’s no traditional script and all the dialogue is improvised.
RH: Why did you decide to have Lynn Shelton write and direct this rather than take the idea for you and Jay [Duplass]?
MD: Well, I mean honestly, I have about probably like a hundred different movie ideas. Not all of them are any good. Jay and I are not going to make all of them. I thought this movie should be dramatic but also funny, and I don’t think Jay and I would’ve derived that much comedy from a dead brother movie.
RH: You, your brother, Lynn Shelton, and all the writer/directors that are part of the ‘mumblecore’ scene are notorious for making low-budget films mostly on your own. How do you go about getting these passion projects financed?
MD: Different movies are hard and different movies are easy. For instance, I just raised money for one of my best friends to direct his first movie that is about a demon that lives inside of someone’s a** and comes out and terrorizes people. It’s very funny and very dark and very hard to raise money for because that’s an expensive, weird movie. For a movie like Your Sister’s Sister, that is a cheaply made movie with two very big movie stars in it and you have people beating down your door to be the investors of the film because they know it’ll make money. In the event of a movie like Black Rock, which I wrote and produced for my wife to direct, which stars her and Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell, that was a movie that we knew would do really well. We paid for the whole thing because we wanted the ownership. So it all depends on the project, you know, where you want to assume the risk.
RH: You’ve said that most of the film was improvised from a rough sketch rather than a full script. Was Rosemarie DeWitt’s character Hannah always meant to be gay, or did that evolve as you went through the writing process?
MD: No, as we discussed the movie, we always liked the idea that Hannah would be gay. I think when you watch the first scene between me and Hannah in the film, there’s something really fun about this “safe flirtation” that can happen between a man and a woman when one of them is gay. Because you get to kind of say whatever you want, because sex is off the table and it creates a really interesting dynamic.
RH: Now, you’re a veteran of improve. Most of your projects and performances have involved improv in some way. Emily Blunt has had a little bit of experience, but Rosemarie DeWitt came in blind. How do you bring someone like that into this type of filmmaking?
MD: I mean, honestly, I would love to take the credit for having curated her performance or let her into it. She was – and I’m not just saying this for press purposes – she was good instantly. She was a fan of Humpday. We talked to her ahead of time about the process. She was ready to come in and improvise, ready to fall on her face, try things that didn’t work.
Our first scene that we shot together was that first all-night scene where we’re drinking. She was just great instantly and I believe that a lot of people can do this kind of work. As long as one person in the scene has the narrative in mind – and that’s usually me, making sure we’re on track, you know – then really, all that’s required is listen really well to your partner and be open to wherever it’s going to go and make sure you know the various story points you’re trying to hit. And then if you’re a good actor and you like weird, f***ed up people, you’ll be great.
RH: Besides improv-ing, did you rehearse a little bit and then shoot it?
MD: No, there was no rehearsal period. I believe in not rehearsing for improvised films just because that element of surprise only comes once and if you get it in the rehearsal, you’ll lose it. You know, there’s a fantastic moment in the film where Rosemarie reminds Emily of a very embarrassing incident from her youth. Emily didn’t know that was coming, you know, and Rose made that up on her own. You can see the reaction on her face, it’s very genuine. I believe that can’t be performed. And what if that had happened in rehearsal? You’d miss it.
RH: That same scene – backing up a little bit – when you’re kind of messing around with Emily talking about all the previous boyfriends, we learn more about her father. Your character goes on a hilarious tirade about guy skinny jeans – was that at all taken from your life, or just plain improv?
MD: My motivation in that scene was to draw a parallel between Emily and her father as regards to dating and to charm Rose and have her laugh at me and find me funny before we drop the bomb on her about what we did to the pancakes. You know, that’s the structure of how these things work. So how I chose to say that was up to me, you know, and I just started going on this skinny jeans rant. I used to play in indie rock bands and I was that dude… I just find them really funny. I laugh at myself when I look at pictures of myself.
RH: Do you plan out your scenes in your head, or just go with whatever comes to you as you’re filming?
MD: Sometimes I do a little preparation. For the big emotional scenes, I do. In Humpday, I tell this story about a video store clerk and my strange relationship with him. I prepared that ahead of time. [In] Your Sister’s Sister, when I come back to see the girls after we’ve had kind of a big confrontation, that’s something I prepared ahead of time. But sometimes we just kind of wing [it] and that can be just as good.
RH: Do you draw from your own life in this film? Is there any part of you that lives in Jack?
MD: Good question. I don’t really think so. I think this film is almost more a wishful film for me because I’m like kind of a good Catholic boy, and I’ve been a serial monogamist my whole life. So being Jack and that level of buffoonery is very fun for me because I’m too conservative in some ways to do that stuff.
RH: Your next film, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, premieres at the Los Angeles Film Festival. So far you’ve been a festival darling with your films – do you still get excited when your projects are met with this sort of anticipation?
MD: I mean, the festivals have created our careers, to a large degree. We got started these little tiny movies on no budgets and they would get bought out of festivals and get good reviews out of festivals. That’s where we got our agents. I think DoDeca, in particular, represents the last truly micro budgeted film we made before we made Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home.
It’s really fun for me to kind of take a look at myself when I was making films, running around like idiots with my friends before we almost knew exactly what we were doing. It’s got a really nice scrappy quality to it that’s in the body of almost a big broad comedy. DoDeca could have been made with Will Ferrell as a fifty million dollar movie and you can see the bones of it, but I like that it was made cheaply. It’s got a nice quality.
RH: Will you keep making low budget films?
MD: Yeah, I think so. I think if I look at the careers of all my heroes, you watch them ebb and flow in popularity and in their ability to make movies in the studio system. I’m really lucky that I get to make movies like Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home with good budgets now. But I can easily foresee a day where they say no. And I like knowing that I can always go off and make them on my own. So I think we’ll always have those in our back pocket ready to go and honestly, sometimes movies are supposed to be made cheaply, you know? If you don’t need a lot of money, then don’t do it for a lot of money.
RH: What kind of independent films were you watching growing up and did you aspire to? And when did you first realize you wanted to make these kinds of movies?
MD: Growing up, we didn’t watch a lot of independent films like when I was very young. We watched a lot of adult dramas because that’s what was being programmed on HBO, you know? During the day in 1984 when I was growing up, it was Kramer vs. Kramer and then it was Annie Hall, and then it was Sophie’s Choice and it was Ordinary People. I was watching all these weird adult dramas as a seven-year-old and it influenced a lot of how I made movies just in terms of attention to personal or interpersonal dynamics.
But then it was really Richard Linklater, I think, when I saw him doing a Q&A for Slacker in the early nineties and I was still a teenager. I was like, this guy’s wearing jeans and a ratty t-shirt and sneakers and he looks like me. Is it possible that I could be a filmmaker? I don’t have to look like Truffaut to make a movie? And he felt like me and he kind of paved the way for me.
RH: Nowadays, a lot of major award-winning actors are doing small independent projects because they love the writing. When you write something, do you aim for specific actors or just let the chips fall where they may?
MD: You know, I think that the goal is to make each project for what it’s appropriate for. The goal with Your Sister’s Sister was to make a very small intimate film with some recognizable faces so that we could get it to a larger audience. And that was exciting to us. I think that with other movies, it’s exciting to make a big movie that maybe doesn’t have a lot of names and faces in them and anonymity can be important to movies. It all depends on the budget and the scope. I think it’s really important that you serve your creative spirit first more than trying to serve, you know, getting a movie star in your movie.
RH: Your TV series is a far cry from some of your dramatic films. What do you like about working on TV, and, specifically, a show like The League?
MD: The League is very light lifting. There’s very little emotional content to the show. It’s a big joke bag, you know, and so it’s mostly just fun. So that’s kind of like farting around with your friends, as opposed to work. We shoot it all in LA different places – downtown, Valley.
I would say that I’m on an ensemble show so I’m working three to four days out of the week but I also get a couple hours off every day in my trailer so I can do work emails and rewrites and producing calls and things like that. It’s kind of the greatest job ever. I mean, it’s the greatest mortgage payer that’s ever existed.
'Your Sister's Sister' stars Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie Dewitt, and is currently in wide release.