Mark Duplass took a master class in film writing and directing when he was young. But at the time, he probably didn’t realize it.
“In 1984 when I was growing up, it was Kramer v. Kramer, and then it was Annie Hall, and then it was Sophie’s Choice, it was Ordinary People, and I was watching all these weird adult dramas as a seven-year-old,” Duplass recalls of the movies he watched on HBO. ”It influenced a lot of how I make movies in terms of attention to interpersonal dynamics.”
The producer, writer and director of movies with his brother, Jay – including Jeff, Who Lives at Home (now on DVD) and Cyrus - has done just that, weaving realistic, well-told, wonderfully-acted adult-themed stories with great comedic flair.
For his latest movie, Your Sister’s Sister, Duplass does it again as an Executive Producer and star. He turned over directing duties to Lynn Shelton, who also directed him in Humpday. Here, Duplass plays Jack, a 30-something still grieving his brother’s death who seeks quiet and solace in an island cabin owned at the suggestion of his friend, Iris, portrayed with the charm, realism and raw talent that is making Emily Blunt one of today’s best and most sought-after actresses.
Once there, he finds the cabin already occupied…by Iris’ half-sister, Hannah, played by Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married, “United States of Tara”). Thanks to her recent break-up and a tequila-fueled late-night talk, thus begins a weekend full of secrets and surprises, especially once Iris unexpectedly shows up.
Gerrad Hall: Your Sister’s Sister is based on a single idea you had about a grieving guy?
Mark Duplass: I had the idea of a guy who is having a hard time in his life because he lost his brother. He’s best friends with [Iris], their relationship is dubious – Why are they just friends? Could there be more? Maybe not. She sends him to her family’s place to get some time to reflect on his life, and when he gets there, her mother is there, who is single, and some weird shit happens. And so we changed it from the mother to the sister, and that was [Lynn Shelton's] idea based on just getting the right actress, from a practicality standpoint.
And so from there, it became a real collaboration between, at first, me and Lynn, and then we brought the actresses in and we started having these phone conversations, building our characters, building different story ideas, throwing out scene ideas – this scene could be fun, this scene could be fun, this scene could be fun – and then we had a big summit in L.A. over a weekend and really kind of hashed out the basic story. Lynn went home and created this big 70-page document that had some dialog, some story direction, some scenes were just sketches, some scenes were more fully written out. But we honestly mostly used that just as a base to get us going. Every scene of the film is improvised.
GH: That’s pretty amazing. Obviously you and your brother, Jay, utilize improv a lot in the movies you direct, but this was on a new level even for you?
MD: This was like Humpday, very improvised. But when me and Jay are making movies, we work from a traditional script, so there’s a little more of an anchor there, but we’re still improvising tons. This movie in particular, our narrative was not airtight when we got on set, and we only had 12 days to shoot. So we were shooting, and then at night we were eating dinner together and restructuring the story and saying, “Oh, wait, no, no, no, she should be the one to say she’s sorry. What would happen if he apologized?” Doing a lot of that.
GH: Almost like a choose your own adventure.
MD: There was a little bit of that going on.
GH: I don’t think I’ve ever seen actors credited before as “Creative Consultants” – that’s a new one – but for good reason.
MD: Yeah, due to that stuff.
GH: Was the title always there? How did it come about?
MD: It was not there. It was the Untitled Island Movie or something for a while. I think that moment when I cheers [Rosemarie DeWitt] in the film and she says, “To my sister,” and I say, “To your sister’s sister,” there was something about that that seemed funny to Lynn and Lynn really liked it. We tested it on people and they would do that thing where they look up and say, ‘your sister’s sister – does that make…yeah’ (pointing in the air, trying to connect the dots). We just thought that way of getting people to at least think and not be bored by it would be enough grounds to have it as a title.
MD: Yes! 100%! There’s less of a male/female divide on these movies. It really is just the force of me, the two girls and Lynn trying to make a movie. But, I learned things about sisters that I could never possibly understand.
GH: Jay is your only sibling?
MD: I don’t have a sister. Jay is my only sibling. We are as close as brothers can get honestly. And we’re also comfortable with our emotions and our intimacy and all of that as dudes. But there’s something about sisters and their physical closeness and their desire to snuggle, these kinds of things that I just didn’t really understand and see. It is so fucking sweet and I was really just blown away by how much love there was between them. That’s why I work with Lynn, she just loves her characters, flaws and all. So it was really cool for me to just be in a true, in-depth study of sisters, which is something I know very little about.
GH: This is the first time you’ve worked with a director again?
MD: Yeah, I think so.
GH: Is this the beginning of a Scorsese/DiCaprio, Scorsese/De Niro collaboration, making lots of movies together?
MD: We have talked about making another movie together. We just love this model of, like…for whatever reason, we have good chemistry together. Lynn and I like each other, we work together well, we’re a good fit, a good match. This movie, you’d be shocked at how quickly it came together – it’s an idea, and then it’s some phone calls, it’s a meeting, then there’s a location, then there’s a little bit of money, and 12 days later there’s a movie in the can.
GH: You’ve seen the movie with audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival, Tribeca, large audiences. At the end of the movie, there’s an audible gasp heard from the entire theater, even in the small screening room where I saw it, that “No!” How much did you discuss where and how you would end it? Was the ending always the original plan?
MD: We shot multiple endings for the film – I really believe in arming yourself with options – but this was the first one we came up with. I remember Lynn and I talked about together and we had this feeling like we were being naughty. We were like, “Oh, that would be so awesome if we could end the movie like that, but audiences will never put up with it!” And then, surprisingly, this is the ending that people like the most.
GH: Through focus testing?
MD: Yeah. This is what they wanted.
GH: Of course it’s tough to talk about without giving anything away…
MD: I will say this, what audiences think they want is not always what they want the next day. Listen to what they say the next day.
GH: That is something you’ve obviously learned from being a producer and director. You also write and obviously are an actor. Is there one role where you feel most comfortable?
MD: I love all of them, I love all my children equally. I do feel like, if I’m being honest, probably my best strength is as a writer and a creator of story and sort of a curation of a project. I feel like I’m good at saying, for instance with Your Sister’s Sister, coming to someone and saying, “I see how this movie is going to happen, it’s going to be Humpday plus one. Same structure, a couple of people on an island, let’s put some movie stars in it, we’re going to be able to get it to more people, we’ll shoot it in two weeks, do it cheaply, everybody will great art of it, and we’ll actually make a decent amount of money.” I can see that and curate that. That’s the sort of writer/producer part of my brain.
GH: You’re a “big picture” guy.
MD: Yeah, the 30,000 foot brain. I feel like most of my skill-set…if I have strength as a director, it’s because I understand story and performance that I understand as an actor, so they kind of are co-dependent.
GH: You mentioned “throwing movie stars in there” – Rosemarie DeWitt is fantastic. And anyone who has aspirations to be an actor should just watch anything and everything Emily Blunt does.
MD: That’s what I do. There’s something called ‘star quality’ that you don’t want to believe in because it takes away your ability to work towards it. They have star quality, but they are also just stellar human beings. The more and more I work with actors that people click with, it comes down to – unless they’re a genre actress, people who are doing personal stories – it’s like, they are the great people. They are very loving and very sensitive, super smart, and I just believe that that comes across on screen.
GH: Earlier this year when Jonah Hill was going through awards season and the Oscar nomination for Moneyball, his performance was often referred to as his “foray into drama.” Of course, it was, because you and Jay directed him in Cyrus, where he was great as well.
MD: Jonah was so great about mentioning us. I thought he did more than he needed to do about mentioning me and Jay on Cyrus as his in-roads into Moneyball. In fact, there was a moment when he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get the role, so we set up a special screening of Cyrus for [Moneyball director] Bennett Miller, and reportedly that was the thing that ended up getting him the role.
GH: You have wrapped on Kathryn Bigelow’s Navy SEAL/Osama bin Laden project, which I’m sure is just as confidential as the actual event?
MD: It’s as bad as you would think it is.
GH: You can’t even say the role you play?
MD: I can’t say anything. I wasn’t even allowed to say where I went to shoot. So I can’t say anything about where I was or what I was doing. But I will say that the movie is going to be super important and, from what I can tell, have that same naturalism and integrity that she brought to The Hurt Locker. She tells these wonderfully intimate and natural stories about big things, and I think that’s what made me a good fit for her. We’re doing the same kind of performance stuff, just in completely different stories.
Your Sister’s Sister is rated R and runs 90 minutes. It is currently in theaters in limited release.