Mark Duplass threw his hat into the entertainment mix as a founder of the mumblecore movement before joining up with FX‘s the surprise hit tv show, The League. Since then, he’s associated with filmmakers big and small, working on Oscar nominated films (Zero Dark Thirty) and indie gems (Safety Not Guaranteed) alike. This year, Duplass has been seen on the silver screen in Creep, Tammy, and The One I Love and on television in The League, The Mindy Project and Togetherness. If you’ve watched a screen at some point, it’s likely you’ve seen the man’s face. So why is he so worried about burning out or becoming irrelevant?
Join me as I talk with Mark in detail about Creep, The One I Love and The League about a gamut of what his career means and where he thinks it may be going.
One of the things I really like about the film was the concept really reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode from way back in the days. Mark, I was wondering when you are creating your characters for this, did you go about it thinking like, “Ok, these guys are both Ethan. There’s one more kind of normal version and then the more idyllic version” or did you approach it as if they were two entirely separate characters?
Mark Duplass: I don’t want to get too much into the specifics because we’re really trying not to spoil the plot- the fact that there are two characters. We watch people watch this movie- those who know that enjoy it a lot less than those who don’t know it. So we are going to try and hold that information, but I will say, as an actor this was a very new type of role for me. Part of this is something I’m very comfortable with and done a lot of, being in sort of like fumbley rom-com mode I feel good- I know what to do there. And then there’s another side of this that I’ve never really done before. So it was at once a little scary doing that but at the same time I did have one foot in the door that I understood.
Mark, you’re obviously used to seeing yourself on screen, but was it like a somewhat new experience being like, “That’s really weird- two of me up there!”
MD: Yeah. It’s interesting when you’re basically approaching a character that has all of these different facets to it. Essentially you are going to be playing something that is very much not like you, you know? Sometimes you approach a role and you’re like, “I’m going to play myself. I’m going to do a very good version of myself in this and I’ll do well.” And I always feel very comfortable watching myself do that. In a movie like “Creep”, which is also here at the festival, it’s uncomfortable for me to watch that. In a movie like “The One I Love,” there are things I do in the film that seem very strange to me- but it’s always interesting to watch.
Can you talk a little bit about what it was like working with Elizabeth and how you built your chemistry together?
MD: It is incredible how she can click in like that. We were a big group of collaborators. There was a core group: Mel Eslyn, our producer that lives in Seattle, and me and Charlie and Justin, our writer, and Lizzy. I would say we were probably the five core team of really getting the thing going; obviously the whole crew was important. Lizzy is first and foremost an actress and very much started that way, but then by day two, by day three, by day four- as we’re discussing character and improvising a lot of things – she started to turn much more into a filmmaker and started to become aware of the filmmaking process and became a co-filmmaker with us. I, on the other hand, I’m always half filmmaker, half actor, started to feel much more confident with Charlie, a first time director. By day one I was like, “Oh, he knows what he’s doing” so then I could start to recede a little bit more to become more clearly an actor in the movie.
Speaking of that confidence with Charlie, what was it about the project or the script or his pitch that gave you the confidence in him?
MD: There was no pitch. We built it together. Really the what it was, I just go on instinct, and sometimes I get screwed because of that, but I really liked him a lot personally, I thought he was really smart, I thought it was really sensitive, was right for this kind of material. We share a sense of humor. I find that those things normally tend to work out, but you don’t know until day one. I had a sense by watching how much he had prepped and seeing the storyboards and seeing things, I was like, “Oh, I think this is going to go well!” Still you don’t know. And our first day went well. “Alright, we’re good.”
That seems to be a similar through-line with your other work, say with Patrick Brice with “Creep”. I spoke with him briefly at SXSW and he was talking about how the two of you collaborated to build the story out. Can you juxtapose that process with this?
MD: Not completely dissimilar, though I would say this film, “The One I Love” was intensely prepped with storyboards. Charlie had every shot in his mind visually and knew how to tell that story. In “Creep”, Patrick and I basically stumbled out of a van stoned and tried to find a movie with an interesting idea and fell into something that was interesting but only half-baked. And then we kept going back and reshooting and testing and reshooting and testing and reshooting, and crafting this movie as we went along. “The One I Love” was built to be executed in a 15 day shoot. “Creep” was an arts and crafts project that evolved slowly through mistakes.
In that evolution process that was “Creep” — where did you tap into the character of Josef?
MD: He was always there. We always knew that at the end of the day, when you come to see “Creep” which is being called a “found-footage horror movie” you’re coming to see a different version of that— you’re coming to see a movie about a very odd Craigslist encounter. That is, a version of: what does it mean when you show up to buy a toaster oven from some stranger, and you walk into their house and you just trust that everything is going to be ok- and they start talking to you about their ex-wife and their physical space is a little bit close and things feel weird- but you don’t leave for some reason. We wanted to examine that very dynamic and take and wring it for everything that it was worth. The more we tested the movie, the more we shot, the more we really wanted to go down the wormhole. Everybody was saying, “Go down the wormhole- we want to see how far you can go.” And that’s what we did.
Was that a chronological process where the footage that we see at the beginning of the film- the idea wasn’t fully formed yet? You didn’t quite know where the shots were going?
MD: Each time we went up we would change the middle, we would change the ending, we would change the front. Because the found-footage form is so easy to shoot and so cheap and fun, you can afford to just keep throwing out footage- to keep making new footage because we’re a small, tight group.
You say easy to film. By easy I am assuming that you mean—
Yes, exactly, but what were some of the hardest things about having to be in that deep, creepy, eerie character and yet riffing for so long within that?
MD: When you watch “Creep” you’ll see. A lot of the movie is on me to try and keep the movie afloat and keep it buoyed, and that made me nervous— I was worried it would look indulgent. There’s also a big challenge to have credibility in a found-footage movie. To keep your conceit strong— “Why is this camera on?” We felt very strongly about keeping that airtight the whole time. From a purely macro-perspective, why does the world need another found-footage horror movie? There are so many, so I felt a responsibility to a certain degree to offer something new that has some genuine laughs and genuine different kinds of feelings inside of that movie. The way I describe it, it’s like every movement— this sounds pretentious but I’m going to try and make it not pretentious— every movement, whether it is art or music or something, it maxes itself out and then it has to reset. Right? You watch painting and it goes from crazy and then all of a sudden some guy is just putting a dot in the middle of the canvas and keeping it simple. “Creep” is an attempt to reset the bar on found-footage horror genre which has gotten so crazy with sound design and craziness— let’s just strip all of that away and go back to the basics. Unsettling human behavior. And that’s what we try to do.
Yeah, very effective. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed your performance within it, too—
MD: Thanks man!
—especially for something within a genre that’s not known for performance.
MD: I’m going to get an Oscar—
Oh, I’m fully expecting it. Speaking of potentially getting an Oscar, but obviously you have a lot on your plate. You’re doing writing, directing, producing, acting and not only within the films but also in the world of television. Which of those mediums do you think— I know that obviously you’d like to do all of them— but which do you think speaks most to your personal brand of creative process?
MD: I think feel most comfortable and confident curating a small group of people and going out to make a piece of art like “The Only I Love” and like “Creep”. It’s my comfort zone. It’s what I love. I love that Charlie was frustrated making the movie and then we get to do this awesome thing together. It’s his first movie, I could feel his excitement. It affects me and keeps me excited, so I win the most on that process. That being said, my HBO show has been one of the more creative filming processes I’ve had where someone’s given me money to make something and they’re not- they don’t have their hand up my ass the whole time. They’re really being supportive to make exactly the kind of art I want to make. That has been great and if they want to keep making seasons, I’m going to keep making them!
You’ve done a lot of small independent stuff but then you also dipped your toe into some more bigger budget things like “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Parkland” and yet you keep coming back to doing these smaller projects. Is that due to your proclivity for doing things in a small group and the freedom that independent film affords?
MD: Yeah, both actually. Part of it is the freedom but part of it is the impatience I have. I don’t want to write a script that costs 30 million dollars to make because I know it’s probably going to take me five years to get it made in order to get al l of those elements together. I would so much rather call Charlie and be like, “You got a window? Let’s throw something together. You’ve got three months, let’s go do it!” It’s impatient, but again, there is a vitality to it. I was a really rebellious kid, I hate authority, I always have- and this feeling that we’re doing it our own way in our renegade way, that keeps me vital. I’m terrified of burning out or becoming irrelevant. Some of my favorite filmmakers, they make great films for 10 years and then all of a sudden they are just gone. And I think staying around first time filmmakers, keeping it cheap, carrying lights— I think that kind of stuff keeps you relevant.
My readers would hate me if I didn’t bring up “The League.”
MD: Yes! Season 6! I start shooting in 4 weeks.
You guys also just locked down another season as well?
MD: We actually did five and six, the two together. Five already aired, six is our next one, the future beyond that? God knows what will happen.
In terms of that future, obviously you’ve had a bit of unexpected success—
MD: —totally! It’s the first time I ever did it!
And who doesn’t love that show? In terms of your chemistry with the other performers, can you talk a little bit about how that has changed over the season besides what we can obviously see on the screen?
MD: I’ll tell you what has been interesting— we’re all very, very close; we’re like cousins now, we’re like family. As we started to get closer, it made it harder for us to start to insult each other as we do on the show—
And yet you insult each other more and more—
MD: —but now season 4 clicked in, we really feel like family, the chemistry is—we know we like each other, nothing we can do or say can hurt it. So now we have the utmost freedom to just be despicable. So, it’s in the right spot right now.
If you did have the option to continue the show, if popularity stays where it is, and demand is up— do you see yourself wanting to continue doing this for years and years?
MD: I love going to work with those people. I love being able to improvise. And quite honestly that show affords me the ability to do what we do, making these little movies, so it is a great scenario in that realm. Will it be funny to watch me do that in my late 50’s? I can’t guarantee that. It might be a little sad, it might be great. Who knows. We’ll see.