Speaking with writers/directors Mark and Jay Duplass is challengingly fun. It’s hard to keep up with the brothers, as they speak fast and finish each other’s sentences, revealing that while not twins, they do share an intimate bond. The Duplass duo is responsible for the freshest independent movie this summer, Cyrus, which stars John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill in the story of a man who’s caught in a bizarre love triangle between mother and son. The movie trailer makes it out to be a superficial romp, but it’s the opposite, surprisingly unexpected and fresh. The directors’ unique approach includes improvisation, shooting chronologically, and not blocking their actors. We recently sat down to discuss their first “big-budget” film.
Was the kernel of inspiration for Cyrus the intimate relationship the two of you have as brothers?
Jay Duplass: Every girlfriend that we had growing up in our teens and in our twenties, they’d just bail out because they couldn’t crack the seal. We’d be at dinner on a double date; Mark and I could be talking to each other for three hours. We’d look over, and they are just bored and annoyed with us.
Mark Duplass: [We were] usually talking about something very small, like the guy in the corner with the pink fanny pack and how obsessed we are with him and how we’re gonna make a movie about him one day and everybody’s just like, “What are you doing?” So you know, we watched it be funny for certain people and tragic for ourselves. But we like to exploit our own tragedies so you guys can laugh.
JD: You’re the only person that’s figured out the central relationship is based on the two of us. That’s pretty cool. I’m proud of you, seriously.
I’m not the only one who’s figured it out …
MD: No, you are the only person who has ever said that to us.
JD: Everyone else wants to know if we were doing some weird incest with our mom, and we’re just like, “If we were, we wouldn’t be making this movie!”
Was the film written for John C. Reilly?
JD: When we first conceived the story, it wasn’t him. It was just all about creating an unconventional love story and a really interesting love triangle. But when we started writing the script, it was no coincidence that one of the character’s names was John as we kept imagining John Reilly in the role. Every time we did, the role got funnier and more emotional and more interesting and more awkward, all of the things we wanted it to be. So after about a month of writing, we just looked at each other and said, “Let’s just face it: We’re writing this for John Reilly, and if he doesn’t do it, we might not do this movie, so let’s be really clear.”
Why is Cyrus, who’s supposed to be in his early twenties, dressed like a middle-aged man?
MD: There’s sort of this profile of the studio musician who’s a creative person but they’re not that free-wheeling, pot-smoking guy. They’re very professional about what they do, and they’re very neat and tidy and organized. We liked the idea that Cyrus saw himself as this guy who’s really got his shit together. Cyrus has been a grown-up in our minds since he was five years old. He’s been an emotionally involved person since then. She’s brought him up as an adult, so, in a lot of ways, he’s socially aged to his mid forties, but emotionally, he may be a little behind.
This is the first time you’re working with a studio and a budget bigger than $15,000. Did that corrupt you?
JD: It corrupted us with the money to buy houses and pay for our daughters being born—that was terrible corruption that happened to us. No, but it’s kind of interesting because a $7-million movie in a studio is more financially strapping than making a $15,000 movie by yourself. I mean, $7 million is an extremely low amount of money to make in a studio, when you’re working with unions and you’re putting a movie through a studio machine. There’s an enormous amount of costs that come with that. So we actually felt the pressure more with money on this than with our previous movies. That being said, we did get to pay for famous people to be in this movie, and Mark and I have always wanted our movies to reach more people. There’s just an unfortunate matter of fact in this country that if you make a movie without stars, [the film doesn’t get seen], unless it’s the one movie out of every five years that actually gets out there—probably less than that—and it’s usually some weird phenomenon like Napoleon Dynamite or Blair Witch.
How does it work between the two of you on the set?
JD: We basically do a take and then run and meet each other and we discuss what happened and how we feel about it. That discussion probably takes about 17 seconds at most. Generally, we speak telepathically to each other, and sometimes it’s just a nod while it’s happening, like, “Oh my god, this is happening.” We often direct our actors separately. We come up with a cohesive plan, and Mark will direct one and I’ll direct the other one. For one, it keeps the takes moving really fast, and it also keeps things secret, because we want our actors walking into a scene uncomfortable and vulnerable and, you know, not sure what is going to happen next.
There’s a fine line in your films between tragedy and comedy and …
Yes, squirminess. How do you balance that?
MD: That is our focus. When we’re on set, we’re not trying to make it funny at first—we’re just trying to make it real, and we disoblige our actors from trying to be funny. Like, it’s not your job to be funny; it’s your job to be this character and to act this character to its full potential.
JD: And if we need to make it funny, we’ll put a knife in your hand and take your pants off.
Cyrus is now playing in Santa Barbara theaters.