Can mumblecore go shiny?
That’s the question as Mark and Jay Duplass launch their first studio film, “Cyrus,” on June 18.
With Fox Searchlight behind the comedy and a cast that includes Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei, “Cyrus” is making the Duplass brothers the poster boys for do-it-yourself filmmakers looking for a shot at Hollywood careers.
It’s a long way from the early days, when the Duplasses traded favors and equipment with other DIY directors (collectively dubbed “mumblecore” — a nickname they haven’t been able to shake since the 2005 SXSW film fest).
Searchlight production prexy Claudia Lewis sensed a distinct voice in the Duplasses’ admittedly scrappy early pics. “Their particular brand of comedy — rueful, self-deprecating, character-based and rooted in very real situations — felt universal. All we had to do was provide them with the tools to make it ‘shinier’ so they could find a larger audience,” she says.
Mary Parent, then head of production at Universal, was also an early champion, though they were never able to find a project that worked. Instead, people approached the brothers with “broken movies,” hoping they could rewrite and direct troubled projects that already had movie stars attached.
“We always thought our life in Hollywood would be like John Sayles’. We’d get writing jobs and then raise money to make movies,” Jay says. “Instead, we started learning about people who live in Hollywood for six or seven years who get paid to develop projects but don’t make movies.”
So, in the time-honored guerrilla filmmaking manner, they took matters into their own hands, writing “Baghead” (which uses a thin horror premise to explore the tensions between a quartet of aspiring Hollywood types) and shooting it themselves for less than $50,000. They did the same thing with “Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” which is still awaiting release. In effect, the Duplasses’ DIY roots empowered them to finance their own low-budget features whenever studio work (or the lack thereof) made them restless — not that they’re finding much downtime post-“Cyrus.”
The brothers are shooting the man-child opus “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” in New Orleans for Paramount (starring Jason Segel and Ed Helms), with singles-at-the-wedding dramedy “Table 19” lined up next with producer Shawn Levy for Searchlight. Even Mark’s acting career is growing, in roles such as Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” and Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.”
The brothers insist they’ve found a way to make their sensibility work within the system, despite working with budgets considerably bigger than their early five-figure features.
In “Cyrus,” they spin a character-based comedy about a budding relationship between two single-again adults (Reilly and Tomei) complicated by the woman’s codependent son (Hill).
“We got money to hire some famous people,” jokes Jay, who was also able to upgrade to a Red camera. “We didn’t have to cook, we didn’t burn ourselves on the Home Depot lights when nailing them to a tree.”
But the biggest change was seeing their core team balloon from 10 people to nearly 70. While union rules dictated the size of the crew, the Duplass brothers relied on first A.D. Cas Donovan to help them navigate the pitfalls of a larger production.
“Our strategy was to treat every scene like it’s a nude scene,” says Mark, explaining how they set up a big video village away from the cameras where most of the crew could wait and watch during filming so as to preserve the intimate and uncrowded dynamic on set for the cast. “That way, when we yell ‘cut,’ it’s not like we’re flying in 50 people to touch up their hair and makeup.”
As Hill told auds at the Sundance premiere of “Cyrus,” years earlier (before “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” made him a star), the actor had stalked the brothers after seeing one of their shorts at the Cinevegas film fest and pledged, “If you ever have a part for me, I’d love to do it.”
But Hill was hardly the only one impressed with the Duplasses shorts. The brothers had spent the better part of their 20s (and most of their savings) shooting films they were ultimately too embarrassed to show, and the switch to more modest, personal films was little more than a last-ditch attempt to reinvent themselves with something more genuine. (“On the first short, the ambition was not to suck,” Mark says candidly.)
The seven-minute “This Is John” was their breakthrough: In one take, Jay operated the digital camera while Mark ad-libbed a normal guy melting down as he tried to record the perfect answering machine message. Sundance programmers Trevor Groth and Mike Plant embraced the short, screening it in 2003 and inviting the Duplasses back to the fest with “Scrabble” in 2004 and their debut feature “The Puffy Chair” the following year.
Now they’re in a position to support the friends they made on the fest circuit, with the brothers exec producing the indies “Lovers of Hate,” “Bass Ackwards” and “The Freebie” (the latter directed by Mark Duplass’ wife Katie Aselton).
“We were lucky enough to have made a Searchlight movie, so that was a resource we were able to dedicate,” says Mark, who believes in sharing their good fortune, knowing he and Jay can always fall back on making cheaper features. “I think ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ is a really healthy attitude to have. I’m sure we’re going to make a big mistake and get booted out.”