Jay and Mark Duplass Build an Empire, One Low-Budget Project at a Time

Room 104 HBO Duplass
Bryce Duffy for Variety

Jay Duplass had bronchitis for half of 2015.

The unofficial cause: writing and directing every episode of an acclaimed cable series while also starring in an acclaimed digital series, executive producing five movies that premiered at major film festivals and acting in, producing or developing a handful of other projects for film and television.

“My bronchitis was on and off the whole time during ‘Transparent,’ ” Duplass says over a bowl of cereal on a January morning at his home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Eagle Rock. “It started pretty early in ‘Togetherness.’ ”

Bryce Duffy for Variety; Grooming: Annie Slatsky; Styling: April Steiner at Exclusive Artists Management; On Mark: Jacket: Kenneth Cole; Sweater and Pants: H&M; On Jay: Jacket and Shirt: H&M; Pants: Kenneth Cole

From across the dining table, his brother Mark — who worked alongside Jay on the majority of those projects, in addition to a few more of his own — asks, “When you look back, is that the defining element for you?”

“It was the most consistent thing about my year,” Jay replies. “My bronchitis.”

There is no shortage of multitaskers in Hollywood: J.J. Abrams … Shonda Rhimes … Tyler Perry … Amy Schumer. But there’s no one, or no duo as the case may be, juggling as many projects simultaneously both behind and in front of the camera as the Duplass brothers.

“The fact that there’s two of them allows them to create this empire,” says their longtime friend, Steve Zissis. “I think it would be a lot harder if there was only one Duplass doing it all. Mark and Jay have their own balancing act.”

That impressive dexterity continues to get Hollywood’s attention. The brothers have production deals at both HBO and Netflix, a book deal at Random House and relationships with just about every indie film shingle in the business.

Despite a commercial track record the pair admits could most charitably be described as niche — including “mumblecore” features like “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead” and humble star-driven specialty fare like “Cyrus” with Jonah Hill, and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” with Jason Segel — their ascendancy shows no sign of abating. Provided they survive their own to-do list.

“Inflicting pain upon yourself because of your workload is something that is in Mark and Jay’s DNA,” Zissis says.

The actor and writer stars in the Duplasses’ HBO half-hour “Togetherness,” alongside Mark, Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peet. Zissis went to a Jesuit high school in New Orleans with the brothers — a few years behind Jay, and one ahead of Mark — but didn’t forge a true bond with them until a decade later, when the twentysomething Duplass siblings were making short films on the way to breakout success at Sundance.

“I consistently go to therapy and work on this one issue. … ‘How do I be a workaholic, do what we love to do, and not die of a heart attack, destroy myself and my family, and keep my friends?’””
Mark Duplass

As teenagers, the Duplass brothers were aspiring artists — Jay always wanted to make films, Mark was more interested in music — as well as long-distance runners. The sport taught them the value of breaking yourself down and building yourself back up. Their present-day drive is like a marathoner’s, Mark says. “Is that 17-mile run fun? No, but I’m getting some beauty into my spirit. I’m feeling good about my sense of accomplishment.”

As with most of what one Duplass brother says, the other is quick to agree. “That’s a great metaphor,” says Jay, approvingly. “Is a marathon fun? Not really. Did it mean everything to you this year? Yes, it did.”

The groundwork for their marathon 2015 was laid down the previous year. That’s when they shot the first season of “Togetherness,” writing all eight episodes and directing seven, before Jay went into production on the first season of Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking award-winner “Transparent,” as Josh Pfefferman, for Amazon.

Due to a fluke of timing, the shows premiered in reverse order. HBO wanted to hold the completed season of “Togetherness” until 2015, so it could pair with the tonally similar “Girls.” Amazon hustled to get 10 episodes of “Transparent” onto its service in fall 2014, after the pilot debuted to rapturous reviews.

For Jay, committing to acting in “Transparent” on top of showrunning duties on “Togetherness” initially didn’t seem like a huge deal. “ ‘It’s a Web show on the East side of L.A.’ was the thinking at the time,” Jay recalls.

Made on a budget of $15,000, “The Puffy Chair,” left, was the Duplass brothers’ indie break; right, Mark and Jay keep the spirit of that project alive on the HBO series “Togetherness,” co-starring Melanie Lynskey.

Besides, Mark was still a lead on FX’s “The League” — and he had found a way to do both.

But then “Transparent” became a cultural phenomenon, “Togetherness” quickly earned a second-season renewal, and the brothers scored buyers for six producing projects that hit the fest circuit at the same time the TV shows were blowing up: “Tangerine,” “The Overnight,” “The Bronze” and the animated TV series “Animals” all premiered at Sundance, while “6 Years” and “Manson Family Vacation” debuted at SXSW.

From the start, it had seemed like a full, but manageable year: focus on “Togetherness” as a duo, act in “Transparent” and “The League” as individual side projects, and launch those festival projects. Then the brothers signed a four-picture production deal with Netflix in January and an overall deal to develop TV projects with HBO in June.

Even with a schedule already bursting at the seams, the opportunities were simply too good to turn down. “The realm of making microbudget stuff will always be totally in our control,” Mark says. “Most of the time we just pay for those out of pocket. Then there is stuff that’s too expensive for us to pay for, and we want partners on, like ‘Togetherness’ and ‘Animals’ and some of our original Netflix movies.

“The best part of what’s happened now with TV and large conglomerations making their way into content, like Amazon and Netflix,” he adds, “is that they’re so (big) that the tiny, tiny amount of money they give is an inordinate amount to us.”

It’s not lost on either brother that this career upswing coincides with increased responsibilities in their personal lives.

Mark has two daughters, ages 3 and 8, with actress Katie Aselton, a frequent co-star and collaborator who was also a regular on “The League.” Jay has a 3-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter with Jennifer Tracy-Duplass, a social worker who aids psychiatric patients at a local hospital.

“Their eye for talent is unparalleled. And they’re good producers, in terms of making talent feel safe and getting the best out of them.”
HBO’s Casey Bloys

“I consistently go to therapy and work on this one issue,” Mark says. “I’ve devoted an hour every two weeks to ask, ‘How do I be a workaholic, do what we love to do, and not die of a heart attack, destroy myself and my family, and keep my friends?’ It’s an impossible ecosystem to get right, but for whatever reason, Jay and I feel compelled to stay in it. All the self-help books say: ‘Slow down. You’re fine. Why do you need to work so hard?’”

They both admit they’re seeing less of friends, but family time remains precious.

“We’re not the guys who work all night and sleep four hours,” Mark says. “We sleep eight hours a night. We’re with our families, pretty much, unless we’re shooting. We call it peacetime and wartime. Peacetime is (when) you’re in post-production or you’re writing, anything other than wartime: the 12-hour set day.”

Right now is peacetime. “This is the most downtime part of our year,” Jay says. “We’re not acting and we’re not in production.”

But the juggling hasn’t stopped. They’re writing season three of “Togetherness” (which HBO has yet to officially order, though it sounds like a foregone conclusion). They’re also working on pre-production for two of the Netflix movies (they won’t direct), prepping season two of “Animals” with creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano at HBO, developing a third project with another creative team at HBO, and thinking about starting on that book for Random House about — what else? — the art of collaboration.

“I never get the sense that they are anything less than 100% focused on what they’re doing for us,” says HBO president of series Casey Bloys. “Then I read things in the trades, and I think, ‘Oh wow, when are they doing this?’”

The answer usually involves creative scheduling. When Jay got an offer to co-star in Greg Kinnear’s directorial debut “Phil,” he loved the script and Kinnear’s vision so much he worked out a unique solution. “I shot all my scenes in four days,” he says. “It was like seven pages a day. It can be done. It’s not a power play. It’s just ‘If it’s these days, I can’t do the movie.’”

Still, he says his reps are fielding more offers than he can possibly consider. And both brothers are learning the hard lesson of saying no.

“Three or four years ago, no was like, ‘We got an offer to act in or direct this thing, and it’s not that great, but how can we say no because we were struggling for so many years to get projects?’ ” Mark says. “Go to therapy, figure it out. ‘You should only be taking projects that are good and move your career forward.’ Great, got that settled. Then you become a little more successful, and now you have to say no to good things because there’s no time for it, which is so difficult.”

But even Duplass brothers need a break at some point.

“People can’t believe we (didn’t go) to Sundance this year,” Jay says. “We’re like, ‘If we don’t have a movie, there’s no hanging out.’ We’re having a building year. We will be at Sundance next year, I’m sure.”

Bryce Duffy for Variety

It’s likely that one of the Netflix 
projects, details of which are not yet disclosed, will take them back to Park City. It was the fest circuit that brought them to Netflix in the first place, and forged a relationship dating back to their 2005 debut feature, “The Puffy Chair.” Made on a budget of $15,000, the film was an early acquisition for the streaming giant’s nascent distribution unit, Red Envelope Entertainment, and chief content officer Ted Sarandos.

Netflix already streams a mix of past Duplass projects through output deals with indie distribs like Magnolia and Radius, so the idea was to bring the next batch of titles directly to the service. “We talked very specifically with them about the kinds of movies they kept buying from us,” Mark says. “From ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ to ‘The One I Love’ to ‘The Overnight’ to ‘Tangerine.’ It was a really great conversation and very candid.” The crux: What can their value be to a massive global company like Netflix? “I never thought about branding when we were starting our production company,” Mark adds, “but we realized our brand has a value to it insofar as these movies will have some integrity, and they’ll be well reviewed.”

Their history with Sarandos guaranteed the kind of creative freedom they’ve insisted on their entire career, this time without needing to find a distributor to recoup costs. (Theatrical release plans will vary project to project, with the Orchard on board to service big-screen and VOD rollouts.)

“Ted trusts us implicitly,” Mark says. “They’re like, ‘Go make four little movies the way you want to make them, and we’ll give you a nice price.’ It’s cheap for him, lots of money for us.”

One of the films will be based on a Duplass brothers script, and Mark expects the brothers will act in one or two as well, but the goal of their production company remains that of supporting their filmmaker friends and young talent on the rise.

“It keeps us vital, and reminds us what we felt like when we were making ‘The Puffy Chair,’ ” Mark explains. It’s also a bonus to see buddies like Patrick Brice (who directed Mark in 2014 genre film “Creep” before both brothers produced his microbudget sex comedy “The Overnight,” starring Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) earn enough money to buy a house. 
“Off of two independent films,” Mark says. “This is the dream.”

Jay chimes in, “Usually, those make you lose your house.”

Bloys says the Duplass’ relationships mean they’re a wise investment for HBO. “Their eye for talent is unparalleled,” he says. “And they’re good producers, in terms of making talent feel safe and getting the best out of them.”

In order to keep themselves available to help other filmmakers break in, the brothers are aware they may need to scale back in other areas. One job up for evaluation: directing every episode of “Togetherness,” as they did in season two. Jay points to the way Soloway delegates duties on “Transparent.”

The realm of making microbudget stuff will always be totally in our control.” Mark Duplass
Jaimie Trueblood/HBO

“We were very afraid that if we didn’t direct everything, that we’d become managers and the material would get worse,” he says. “From watching Jill, I’m coming to appreciate the creative position of a showrunner. I know what it is, or at least what her vision looks like, which looks damn good. It’s not a management position for her, it’s very creative, very collaborative.”

Another lesson they’ve learned, especially as the side jobs start piling up: The busier they become, the more important it is to communicate.

“Most people can’t do one marriage; we have two marriages,” Jay says. “Everything Mark and I do has to be discussed and clarified. We can’t fuck around. Mistakes happen, but we deal with it as a marriage. ‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing this thing, just want to check in with you.’ We’re getting a lot better about being above board.”

As stable as their situation is at the moment, Mark can’t help but feel there’s another shoe waiting to drop.

“I think everyone in TV is going to figure out soon they actually don’t have to pay us and treat us this well because we all want to be here anyway,” he says. “I don’t want to be Debbie Downer, but I think there’s so much out there that the value of these things is gonna come down, viewership is gonna come down, and the money going into it is gonna come down. I feel like we’re in a golden age right now. We’re very, very privileged to be here.”

For Mark, part of that slightly pessimistic outlook comes from experience, first as a musician trying to break into the DIY scene in the late ’90s, when he felt late to the party, and then as a filmmaker at the crest of the DIY indie film scene, which the brothers saw boom in the early days of VOD, and crash when the market became saturated.

It’s a sobering thought when you’ve got your hands in multiple series, and the industry is buzzing about “peak TV.” The average gross audience for the first season of “Togetherness” was 2.9 million viewers an episode, compared with 4.3 million for lead-in “Girls” and 9.1 million for the first season of “Ballers,” currently HBO’s highest rated comedy.

While the brothers insist they feel no pressure from HBO, they’re hoping the “Togetherness” aud grows in season two. “We’re good Catholic schoolboys … ” Jay starts. “We want to please our parents at HBO,” Mark finishes. They’ve heard anecdotes from friends and fans who caught up with “Togetherness” months after it aired via HBO Go, and others who are just coming to the show as the cabler promotes the new season.

Their own TV viewing is limited by the sheer volume of their work. Jay says he tries to keep up at night when he’s checking email, and takes time out for “The Americans” and “Louie.” But the list of shows he still wants to sample keeps growing.

“The first one that disturbed me is ‘Mr. Robot,’” he says. “Our camera operator from ‘Togetherness’ shot it, and 
we’ve been hearing about it forever, but then it started winning awards. I’m like, ‘I can’t find the time to watch what is apparently going to be a really fun and awesome show.’ ”

Even if the current TV bubble bursts, the brothers have learned to be confident in what they do.

“It would (worry me) if we haven’t always been able to shuck and jive with the industry,” Mark says. “We thought we were going to be career Fox Searchlight filmmakers, and the system died right when we got there. Then immediately we recalibrated, found our way into microbudget filmmaking, found our way into TV.

“We’re just survivalists. I literally have zero fear about what is gonna happen in the industry. We’re always gonna find the gap.”