Movies get “put on the shelf” in Hollywood all the time. Usually it’s because they aren’t good, maybe they require re-shoots (or go direct-to-DVD as-is) or the studio wants to wait until the lead actor has a bigger hit on their hands first.
Not the case with the latest movie from the Duplass Brothers, Jay and Mark, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. In the case of this movie, it was because the sibling writing/directing/producing duo just got too busy to finish their movie.
“It was shot right after Baghead…about four years ago,” the younger of the two, Mark, explains. ”And then we had to put it on the shelf because we got the greenlight for Cyrus right after that, and since Do-Deca was self-financed, we were like, ‘Well, we’ll just get to it when we’re done with Cyrus.’”
But that never happened. ”Then we got greenlit for Jeff, Who Lives at Home right out of Cyrus and it was just this steady stream of work. Right when we finished Jeff, we were able to get back and finish it. And we were like, ‘Holy shit, it’s been almost four years since we shot this movie!’”
Four years, but worth the wait for their latest, a micro-budget movie similar to their first features, The Puffy Chair and Baghead. In Do-Deca, Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly play two brothers, Mark and Jeremy respectively, who, as teens, created their own version of the Olympics, a 25-event competition. Twenty years later, the two are a bit estranged. But when they gather one weekend for Mark’s birthday, the two have another go at the battle secretly, worried Mark’s wife (Jennifer LaFleur) may try to stop what she deems childish behavior, not to mention her concern over his recent health problems.
“We’d be lying if we didn’t say a small part of us was insecure or nervous about taking out a much smaller film like this after we made Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” Mark admits. ”But we find that people respond to it in the same way that they responded to The Puffy Chair and Baghead in a lot of ways. It just has this scrappy, underdog quality, and people just take to it. So we’re psyched.”
As they should be. Audiences and Hollywood have taken notice of the Duplass Brothers, and one of their next projects will be directed by The Hangover‘s Todd Phillips. They gave me the latest on that movie when I recently sat down with them at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, and htey also told me about the shocking number of projects they currently have in various stages of development, why people should not want to be their friends, the biggest mistake independent filmmakers make, and how they credit film festivals with getting them where they are today.
Gerrad Hall: The Do-Deca Pentathlon had a screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and I know festivals have been a huge part of your career. Would you say they are what allow you to be sitting here right now?
Jay Duplass: Definitely. The first movie we made that we feel didn’t suck was a short film that was seven minutes called This is John. The whole cast and crew was Mark and me. I shot it on my parent’s home video camera and Mark acted in it and it was a one-take improvised thing that literally cost $3. It went to Sundance and it got written up as one of the best short films that year. [After that], we were in a short film program with a short film that cost $750,000, and it changed our whole lives. Very specifically, I think Sundance in particular – validating that film, putting their stamp on it – it allowed agents and studios to see our work and to also recognize that there’s a voice in there behind the ugliest filmmaking that has ever been done.
Mark Duplass: Yeah. It’s basically like, lipstick on a pig is still a pig. Put Sundance on a pig, it’s a breakout indie hit. (laughs)
GH: What’s so interesting about the festival world is that someone get their movie into Sundance and go nowhere with it. So why do you think people latched onto the two of you? What was the one that really got the festival’s and Hollywood’s attention?
MD: The Puffy Chair was really breakout for us. And I think part of it is, we’re lucky that our sensibilities and what we love happen to have a mainstream-adjacent flair to it. We’re telling very classic, narrative structures that movie studios can market, but in more quirky and interesting ways, at least quirky and different. And then the other half of it is, we’re actually very business-minded and we’re very careful about what we make. I think that, just to be brutally honest, there are a lot of independent filmmakers who I hear complaining, ‘I don’t know why I can’t get this awesome triple-abortion drama made. It has no movie stars, it only needs $18 million, it’s a great movie and the studio system is fucked! They won’t make this movie!’ And I’m like, ‘You shouldn’t make that movie for $18 million because it won’t make its money back.’ So we’re very careful about what movies we make at what size. For instance, a small, scrappy, interesting sports comedy with no stars should be made at that budget level – small. Jeff, Who Lives at Home could be made bigger. So you just have to be careful about getting things made that can be made so that you don’t get stuck in development for years and get real depressed.
GH: Do you think a lot of independent filmmakers try too hard to make something different rather than focusing on making a good movie with a story we’ve maybe seen before just with a different veneer?
JD: You’ve basically described the evolution of our filmmaking. When we went to film school in the early ‘90s in Austin, Texas and we tried to be the Coen Brothers and we tried to make giant, great, singular pieces of art from the very get-go, we failed miserably. It wasn’t until we just gave up on that and just started making stories about what we’re obsessed with privately and just making them so cheaply – and it really was a switch from, ‘I’m trying to make the best piece of art that’s ever been made,’ to, ‘Let’s just make something that doesn’t suck for once’ – literally, that was our thought process behind it. Now we know that there was more than that going on. It was the first time that we just tapped into the private stuff that we talk about, which we now know because of talking to articulate people like you guys, that that’s what we uniquely have to offer the world. And I think that’s something that we would encourage younger filmmakers to do, and we do often because we teach a lot and we mentor a lot of people through various organizations, is…there are a lot of filmmakers out there who can do big, gigantic, amazing, enormous stuff, I think your job is to figure out what you uniquely have to offer the world, and that’s something that no film school can teach you. And it’s something that only the process of making art and failing and then succeeding can teach you.
GH: Once you had gone through that process yourself, you found big support in Tony and Ridley Scott, who were pretty instrumental in getting Cyrus made. It’s so interesting that these two brothers who we generally associate with big, action movies saw a bit of themselves in you.
MD: Brothers stick with brothers maybe. The truth of that relationship is, Michael Costigan, our producer, really was the person who brought us into the Scott Free fold. That was a really nice marriage because Scott Free has a nice, big, fat, overall deal with Fox, and us being able to be under their wing from a pure financial and economic and power standpoint to make a movie like Cyrus was very helpful. And the same thing happened with Jason Reitman and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. We had people who are more powerful than us over-looking the little, tiny movie.
MD: Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s so different.
JD: It’s so different. We just let it flow. Honestly, the best work that we do and the most productive stuff we do is just being brothers in the world and hanging out. The form that that currently takes now – because we both do have kids, we both do have very busy careers – is usually driving in the car to something like this [press day], traveling, being in airports…
MD: A good 47-minute commute to a press junket can be very productive.
JD: It really does, because ultimately, all of our movies come from…they don’t come from business stuff and trying to come up with stuff. That’s secondary to Mark and me talking about, ‘Did you hear what Frank’s dad said to him last week? You’re not gonna believe this shit!’ And then we start talking about it. And we both, I think, now know we’re testing movie ideas, and that’s a big part of our creation process. Our writing process is this oral story-telling back and forth – How fat is this idea? Does it have form? Can it take flight? Whether that idea becomes a movie or not is really irrelevant. We have a great amount of detachment with it. It’s just a giant soup that we keep throwing things in, and eventually Frank and dad are going to show up somewhere in a movie, and we just don’t know how or when, and depending on who’s working on it at the time, either of us can kind of throw it into the mix and be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s perfect. Let’s go with that.’
GH: That reminds me of the Woody Allen way of working where he throws small ideas into his desk drawer, pulls one out one day and finds new inspiration for a way to work it into a story.
MD: Yeah. The moral basically is, don’t be our friend and, really, don’t get anywhere near us because you will end up in a film.
JD: You will end up in our movies. (laughs)
GH: Which is how Do-Deca came about, right? Two guys you grew up with?
MD: Two guys we grew up with – born 18-months apart, intensely competitive – in high school started this actual event, the Do-Deca-Pentathlon.
GH: Just for themselves or designed as an event for everyone?
MD: Oh, they don’t care about anybody else! And that’s the key, it’s just about the two of them. It’s not about being great, it’s about being great than you. And that’s very important. If they were entering a competition with 250 people, they would be fine to come in 249th and 250th. The key is coming in 249th, ahead of the other brother. And so we love this idea. It had the DNA of that broad element that people would be interested in, but also just really sweet, funny, kind of sad. And once we cracked the code of having them re-visit the games 20 years later when they have no business doing any sports at all, that felt like, ‘Ok, we have a movie.’
GH: You’ve referred to it as a sports comedy. Along with that, I really latched onto seeing the character Mark slowly unravel and see him as this guy who doesn’t stop to smell the roses anymore and has let life – his family, his work – get in the way of living.
JD: That’s great. That’s a very well-articulated thing that we were trying to do subconsciously and didn’t even realize it at the time. Most importantly to me and Mark is that [these characters] experience life the way that we experience life. Like we said before, it wasn’t until we tapped into what we do and what we talk about that things came alive. We do experience life in that way, and we find it very hard to strike a balance between being happy and following our dreams and following our inspirations, being good husbands and good dads and good sons. It’s what we’re obsessed with, it’s what we talk about, so I guess that’s what our movies are all about.
GH: You mentioned not realizing that about the character Mark until after the movie was done … is it common for that to happen that you don’t see a “theme” until the actors bring it to life?
MD: Yeah, we’re very instinctual, and if it feels good, where we’re like, ‘I know there’s some very awesome intellectual theme to be extrapolated from this, but mostly it makes my tummy feel good, so let’s do this.’
JD: Yeah, for instance, that scene where Steve Zissis’ character starts the scene by saying he can’t believe how fat his foot is and he can’t believe how fat he is and how he’s gotten to this point, that scene was written as a much more “movie scene,” which was a straight-up reckoning and apology between this couple and this guy who had let things go to far. And it was just boring to us. We didn’t know why it was boring and we didn’t really have to articulate it or intellectualize it, and we now know that that’s not our job; our job is just to be like, ‘This sucks. How can we make it not suck?’
MD: ‘Let’s change it!’
JD: ‘What do we want to see?’ And Mark and I went away like we often do in the middle and there’s 20 people on set – and when we’re doing a studio film there’s 75 people on set – and we walk around the block, we talk about, ‘Well, what do you want to see?’ And we came up with the idea that Steve starts talking about how fat he is and that he just kind of figured it out for the first time. And not only is he fat, but his foot is fat, and that’s ridiculous. How did this happen? We literally came back on set, told our actors where the scene would start, and they were able to just let it unfold.
GH: Right now, how many different projects would you say you guys are juggling, whether it’s trying to get something greenlit, you’re already writing, Mark is attached to act?
MD: Probably 30.
JD: Yeah. Between us, in terms of the material that we have, yeah, it’s probably 30.
MD: Those are movies, those are web series and pod series and TV shows, but a lot of movies.
JD: The industry probably only knows about ten of them. We’re both insanely productive human beings, we think in movies, and like we said, we had this giant soup, so all these ideas are constantly swarming.
MD: Yeah. We have a lot of younger filmmakers we’re working with now, too, that we really like and that we’re bringing into the fold, so that adds to the productivity.
GH: Do you know for sure the next movie you’re directing?
MD: No, we don’t. We’re writing a bunch of stuff right now, so we’re gonna have to [wait and see] on that.
GH: And Mule, the one Todd Phillips is directing, that one is written?
MD: That’s something we’re writing right now.
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is currently available on VOD and is in theaters Friday, July 6th. It’s rated R and runs 76 minutes.