Mark Duplass On Breaking Into Hollywood, Filming On iPhones, And The Best Advice For Young Filmmakers [Interview]

Mark and Jay Duplass have collaborated on shorts, feature films, television, and, by their account, some cheap childhood remakes of The Blob. (They just threw a beanbag down the stairs.) But they've crossed into an entirely new medium with their latest effort: a book, called Like Brothers.

Like Brothers is part memoir, part practical filmmaking guide, part soul-searching about The Karate Kid Part II. Flip to one page and you'll get sincere advice on how to buy a camera when you're flat broke. Flip to another and you'll read a vivid recollection of Jay breaking the news about Santa to tiny Mark. Although it bounces between real-life moments and abstract musings, the book carries the distinctive Duplass voice throughout, making it an appropriate addition to their rapidly expanding resume.

As the book drops this week, Mark took some time to chat with us about auteurs, iPhones, and the longest partnership of his life.

You and Jay read a lot of books on the industry before you started filmmaking. Are there any books you used as inspiration for Like Brothers?

Not really. You know, the way we've always approached films is we don't really have any influences because whenever we've tried to be influenced or use anything, we just made things that were derivative and not great. So no models for Like Brothers. The only thing I would say is that we try to lean into the things we felt we were uniquely qualified to offer. We know you have a lot of books that you like to read and we don't wanna waste your time. For us, we felt like, we know what it's like to try to build a career when you are nowhere and no one gives a shit about you. And how hard it is to do it on your own. But how to do that with someone you love. So we wanted to present that, and also some larger thinkpieces about the nature of collaboration. When it's great and builds you up, and when it can suffocate you. We have a lot of experience in navigating that over the last 40 years of our partnership.

You say in the book that you grew up watching these great dramas of the '70s and '80s on HBO. Do you think that gave you a different perspective as kids?

It's hard to say. Did they create part of us, or were we just oddly drawn to them and wanted to watch them? Because our other friends were offered the same access but they just didn't want to watch those and kind of preferred Star Wars. I think there was something in us that was, I don't know, just inherently interested in them? But it certainly emboldened us and I think it helped to create that sort of internal clock of ours that always leads back to interpersonal relationships. Why are people always trying to be close and fumbling and messing it up? I mean, if you can't tell from the book, we're obsessed with intimacy. How we get it, and then once we get it, how to escape if we need a breath of fresh air.

Your first attempts at movies were homemade remakes of The Blob and Invisible Man. Did you and Jay remake any others?

Those were the ones we can remember and then we definitely made a karate master who gets burgled movie. That was our first really completed narrative. It is clear to us now that our earliest films were not in any way prophetic of the filmmakers we were to become. I think you can sort of watch the early movies of Spielberg and the Coen brothers and you can see, oh, these guys are geniuses and they know what they're doing. It's evident from their early work. There is nothing of that in ours.

The book talks a lot about the complementary styles you and Jay have. You're the story builder or "barfer," he's the story closer. Does this hyper-compatible relationship you have make it harder for each of you to find a rhythm with other collaborators?

No it doesn't, oddly. I think that we offer in the book is generally how we work together but that doesn't mean we don't change from time to time and offer not only each other different skill sets, but different people as well. So I think if anything, our intense lifelong partnership has made us stronger in collaborating with different kinds of individuals because we find that, I mean just speaking candidly, most people are not that adept at learning how to build a piece of art collaboratively. I think there's this thought that unless you are the one bringing all the great ideas all the time, you're not valuable and you're not an auteur. So we find a lot of people tend to get a little defensive and spew a lot of bullshit so they can feel like they're of value and we are very much of the opinion that it's okay if you don't know what's right. Just siddle up to some smart people and they'll help you get there. That's what tends to work for us.

I kinda love that you challenge the word "auteur" in the book. I was wondering if you could expand on what you associate with that word and why you don't identify with it?

Well I think there is such a thing as a successful auteur. When I watch what Paul Thomas Anderson does or when I watch what the Coen brothers can do and many others, it does seem that they're able to enact a singular vision and do it successfully. I think the Coen brothers in particular can really see the movie before they make it. And we're just not that way. We're not smart enough, or we don't have that kind of DNA. I can't say for sure. But for us, making art is a discovery. And that's when we're at our best, when we get the smartest people around us to get into a room and we try to cobble together the moment. Not only does that make a better product for us, but the process keeps us a little more alive, a little more vital.

You say that you usually call in two writers and one smart nonindustry person to review new material. Why is that outsider perspective important?

Well, it's part and parcel with what we were just talking about. We don't really feel like we have a full capacity to see a piece of art through — from front to end, make it the best it can be — on our own. We feel like we're always missing things, we feel like there are always little blindspots. So we developed a system of leaning on our collaborators and our friends to kind of help us get it there. Show us what we missed. I don't know why some people perceive that as a weakness. I guess we just had our egos beaten out of us following so many failed pieces of art over the years that we're fully comfortable admitting that we are at best 85% of the equation and we need help.

You give a ton of advice to young filmmakers, about everything from story creation to investments. Is there any one piece you think is the most important, that you hope they take away from the book?

Not really. I mean, the book is for a lot of different people. I think a lot of the really specific stuff about filmmaking is good for up-and-coming filmmakers. But it also applies a lot to any sort of independent artist or people who are trying to do something that are not connected and they feel they have to build it themselves. One thing that's come back to us from the early people who have read it is I guess a larger piece about how to collaborate and create a long-term intimate relationship that particularly applies to male intimacy. It seems natural to me that Jay and I would speak to each other the way we do and be willing to admit our faults and cry a lot [laughs] and validate each other's feelings. But a lot of men that I've talked to — and women — have said they sort of admire us for how we communicate intimately as men. That's something I've been oddly proud of.

I really like your discussion of "Air Supply movies," the kinda cheesy ones for when you're feeling sick or down. What are some of your go-tos?

They're all in the book, the big ones for me. But I got strep throat about three months ago and I watched the entire Before trilogy — Before Sunrise, Before Sunset [and After Midnight] — and while those are great movies, you can watch those without being sick, they're particularly effective when you're feeling weepy. But Somewhere in Time is a big one for me. Not a great movie, great when you're sick. Starman is also another one. And the Same Time, Next Year movie adaptation of the play, with Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda. Super corny but it totally works in a pinch.

Starman is also in your top 10 movie list, which I wanted to touch on. One of the movies you submitted, Tootsie, is also one of my long-time favorites. But I haven't watched it since those allegations about Dustin Hoffman came out, because I'm worried I won't be able to enjoy it the same way. Have you found yourself having similar struggles with Tootsie or any other movies over the past year?

No, I haven't done a lot of redoing of those films. I'm not staying away from it, but the art I'm consuming now is more documentaries and books. For whatever reason, it's just what I'm interested in. So I haven't really been faced with that conundrum.

Well how are you negotiating this art and artist debate we're having right now?

I'm not really part of that debate, to be honest with you. Our ideas are really focused on simple things that I feel like I can be effective with, which is trying to be as emphathetic and kind and understanding in a time when everyone has a very strong opinion about why other people are wrong and shitty. And I just don't feel like I need to add to that conversation. If I have a place, it is trying to find connections with those people think are unconnectable in our divided times. So that's really where I put myself.

You talk a bit about filming on iPhones, like in Tangerine. In the time since that movie came out, we've also seen people like Soderbergh shoot their films on a phone. What do you think about this trend? Is it a fad, or the future?

Well there's a lot of different ways to shoot movies on iPhones. When we made Tangerine, there was a very specific reason we did it. We were working with nonprofessional actors in naturalistic environments and we just didn't want a big filming apparatus to distract the performers. And we wanted to make it very small. Now, the iPhone is so adaptable that you can actually shoot an iPhone and have it look like it's shot on an electric camera by attaching mounted lenses and recording devices to it. So the handheld iPhone thing is quite different from the one that Soderbergh [used.] That being said, I just love that it's being identified as a tool to make movies. Because it sort of democratizes filmmaking.

What's the future for you and Jay? You talk a lot about pursuing solo stuff at the end of the book.

When Jay and I started, we were writing and directing movies in lockstep, in perfect unison. And then we slowly started to branch out into producing, widening our circle of collaborations with other people. Like Sean Baker, and the Way brothers on Wild Wild Country, and so many others. I think we are experiencing a time where we really want to tell different kinds of stories with different voices and help to support them. That's a large part of what we're doing. Jay's also really enjoying acting, which does not and cannot include me [laughs]. Our company is growing fast, widening the scope of the stories we're telling, and widening the people we collaborate with. So we can kind of stay fresh and get a little space from that really intense one-on-one collaboration that helped us get to where we are now, but can be a little constricting and unsustainable.