SXSW Interview: Jay and Mark Duplass, 'Cyrus'


Jay and Mark Duplass

I have to disclose a personal bias with filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass. They grew up in a nearby neighborhood to ours in Metairie (a suburb of New Orleans), and went to the same high school as my brothers (Jesuit High School, New Orleans). They remember one of my brothers' cross-country feats fondly. Our mommas sometimes run into one another over at the Economical (or maybe the Rouse's). It was surreal to find out that "those Duplass boys" had moved to Austin too, and made a movie that was playing SXSW the first year I went to the festival, 2005.

Five years later, Jay and Mark Duplass brought their Fox Searchlight-produced film Cyrus to Sundance and then here to Austin for SXSW, where the movie screened on a Saturday night at the Paramount to a full house. I met up with them at the Four Seasons downtown the next day for a brief interview. Things have definitely changed since 2005 -- and not just that they no longer live in Austin. Cyrus will be released this summer and stars John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill. Read my review for more details.

I've omitted all the "how's your mom'n'em?" chitchat from the following interview ... we had 10 minutes and if we'd caught up on family stuff, we would have had no time whatsoever to talk about Cyrus and their next project. As it is, the interview is a little topsy-turvy, and seems to start abruptly because I assume you all don't want to hear about my brother's cross-country successes. I'm still floored that the Duplasses are about to shoot in a film in the neighborhood where I grew up -- that anyone would want to film in such a generically suburban area is amazing to me -- and can't wait to see how it turns out. (I wish I'd asked if their parents would be in this one, as they were in The Puffy Chair.)

Jay Duplass: You know, we're in New Orleans now, making a movie.

Jette: Really? You're ahead of me, because one of my questions was going to be, would you ever shoot in a movie in New Orleans.

Jay: We're making a movie called Jeff Who Lives at Home, and it's set in in the suburbs of Baton Rouge. We're shooting it in "new" Metairie, our stomping grounds. A lot of Veterans, and Bonnabel, and Clearview and Transcontinental [note: those are all street names] --

Jette: That's right where I grew up, between Clearview and Transcontinental. That's my parents' house.

Jay: We went down there a couple of weeks ago, and we're going to start shooting there in April. It's awesome.

Jette: Is this the film where you're working with Jason Reitman?

Jay: Yes, Jason Reitman's producing, and Jason Segal, Ed Helms and Judy Greer are the three main cast members.  It's a "brothers" movie, and we're psyched.

Jette: I tried to teach Jason Reitman to say "Where y'at?" last year but I don't think it worked.

Jay: Yeah, he's gonna come down and visit pretty soon, so we might want to work on that again.

Jette: Had I known what would happen with the Saints, I would have taught him, "Who Dat?"

Mark Duplass: My daughter can say "Who Dat?" now.

[New Orleans Saints talk omitted]

Jette: Okay, I need to ask movie questions, or they're going to come in here and kick me out.

Your characters in Cyrus are a little older than the ones in your other films. Was that intentional, did it just happen that way?

Jay: We were just trying to create a realistic relationship movie like we always do. And we thought the key to this character -- well, first of all, Marisa's character Molly needed to be old enough to have a grown son who was living with her. But more importantly, the lead character -- we thought it was really important that he was in his early to mid 40s. We were building this thing where it was his last chance before he decided maybe he didn't want to do it anymore. So we felt like it was the right pocket to do it in, it was a little more tragic that way and a little more funny that way.

Mark: It was basically just motivated by story.

Jette: So what was the process on this film? Which of you did what, during production?

Mark: It changed up a little bit this time, because we actually had monitors where we could see what was happening. So Jay still stayed on the camera, because we wanted to keep that same camera work, and we had another cameraman in the room and a boom operator. But it was just those three guys in the room and I would be back on the monitors, Jay and I had little earpieces where we could talk to each other back and forth. And then we'd just kind of conference in between takes.

We each tend to take one actor in the scene and direct them separately and plant little secrets in their heads so the other person doesn't know what's going on, and then that's what we do if the scene's working really well. If it's not working as well because we're improvising, sometimes I'll come out from behind the monitors and Jay and I will toss out dialogue ideas to them in the middle of the takes and we'll talk to them. It all depends on the scene.

Jette: Did you run into any difficulties with the studio, with the way that you guys shoot?

Mark: They were absolutely perfect, we love Fox Searchlight.

Jette: You know, I'm asking that question, and thinking, why ask that? You're not going to say if the studio sucks.

Jay: It was great, actually. It was a good collaboration. The toughest part for me and Mark was, we had to learn to articulate our vision to other people. When we were making films with our own hands and it was basically me and Mark powering the whole thing, it was a totally telepathic process.

Mark: When I need to tell Jay, we need to zoom into her because something great's about to happen, this is what I do. [secret gesture I cannot possibly describe] And he knows.

Mark: And also we're shooting a lot of improvisation, cameras are moving around, and we had to explain, here's what the dailies look like, here's what the scenes will look like. It was a growth process for us but Searchlight wants to make these kinds of movies, that's what they're in business for, and they're the only company that's financially successful at making these kinds of movies.

Jette: Do you think you'll work with them again?

Jay: We'll definitely work with them again. We have a great relationship with those guys.

Mark: They're kind of the best company to put these little movies out. They really know how to take care of them. They have little widgets and secrets about how they market things, they won't talk about it, but they've got a science to getting them out.

Jette: You've made a lot of movies that focus on relationships. Is there another genre that you'd like to work in?

Mark: Oh, yeah.

Jay: Oh yeah. We love all the genres. I mean, Jeff Who Lives at Home -- it's a story about this guy Jeff who at 30 is still living in his mom's basement, and his favorite movie is Signs, and he's waiting for the universe to present his destiny. And when he heads out in the world one day on a seemingly banal errand, he ends up meeting up with his brother, who he has a terrible relationship with, and the two of them stumble into this epic adventure in the suburbs and strip malls of Baton Rouge. So while it is a relationship movie about brothers at its core, there's something about the structure and the spine of the movie that's almost like a quest movie, that "sword in the stone" type movie.

Mark: It's our version -- I don't think anyone would perceive it as a quest movie, but somewhere buried deep underneath it really is about a guy who's trying to find his destiny.

Jette: Like the Holy Grail, but in Metairie. The Metry Holy Grail.

Jay: Exactly. And The Big Lebowski did that so well, it's a thinly disguised detective story, a very untraditional story. We like that.

Mark: The unlikeliest of detectives.

Jay: We like that feel.

Jette: So I noticed a few Austin filmmakers and crew -- or former Austinites -- working on Cyrus, like Jacob Vaughan [the film's assistant editor]. Is there anyone else I missed?

Jay: Oh yeah, a ton of people. We drew from a lot of Austin crew, some Friday Night Lights crew. Tod Campbell is the second [camera] operator to me, and he and I have developed this sort of telepathic communication that we're all kind of involved in.

Mark: Jas Shelton, our cinematographer --

Jay: Jas Shelton is from here. Jay Deuby, our editor -- that's a relationship we developed when we lived here, he's one of our best friends.

Mark: Donis [Rhoden] was our key grip, he's kind of like a staple here. Mark Manthey, our gaffer, he's from here.

Jette: I saw Steve Zissis's [actor in Baghead] name in the credits. But I didn't see him, where is he in Cyrus?

Jay: He unfortunately got cut, but there's still his face in the film when John is moving out of his apartment and  moving into Marisa's house.

Jay: We're always going to work with Steve. He's got a really good role in Jeff Who Lives at Home, so you're going to see more of him.

Jette: And he's from the New Orleans area, too, isn't he? He went to Jesuit too?

Mark: Yes, he did. President of the Student Council, right between me and Jay.

Jette: So do you think you'll shoot in Austin again?

Mark: Absolutely we'll shoot in Austin again. We were talking the other day about trying to find the right movie and the right fit --

Jay: Because we want to live here for three months.

Mark: And we've got to find an excuse. And we're like, "Do we want to do spring or fall? What's got the best benefit?"

Jay: Cause you know it ain't gonna be summer.

Mark: Spring's got the pollen thing, but those rains are so beautiful. And fall, man, fall's pretty good too.

Jette: While you're here, what are some of the things you really look forward to?

Mark and Jay together: Polvo's.

Jay: Iron Works.

Mark: Iron Works. Town Lake.

Jay: Lady Bird Lake.

Mark: I know it's Lady Bird Lake now, but ... it's Town Lake, people.

Jay: And I think we have to get to the Alamo, and just soak in what is the greatest movie theater chain of all time.

Cyrus will start opening in theaters on July 9, 2010 (although that may not be its Austin release date).

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