Mark and Jay Duplass call their rise from filmmaking obscurity to in-demand, studio-backed directors “textbook,” and they’d be right. Beginning with the no-budget short This Is John in 2003, the Duplass brothers have consistently wowed the festival circuit with their distinct vérité style—rife with improvisation—and their stories of gabby, existential wrecks trying to sift their way through the quagmire that is human interaction. Their latest film Cyrus is also their first backed by a studio, but the only way you’d know it is by the names on the poster. John C. Reilly stars as a down-and-out divorcee who falls for a beauty, played by Marisa Tomei, and has to deal with the unusually close relationship she has with her emotionally-stunted son, played by Jonah Hill. The brothers are on a roll. They’ve already wrapped their next studio film, Jeff Who Lives at Home, starring Ed Helms, Jason Segel, and Susan Sarandon. Here they are on their new-found success, their struggle with female characters, and their movie-watching habits.
Did you write all the roles for the actors that played them? Mark: We really wrote it for John specifically, that’s where it started. And then once he came on board and we took in his level of intelligence and emotional maturity, we realized like, oh shit, we’re going to need a force to combat this. And then we knew Jonah was a fan, so when we sat with him it was like, where did this kid come from? I don’t know if you’ve had time with him before, but he’s a little dark, very intelligent, very sensitive, and very smart, kind of beyond his years. Kind of like Cyrus. And then when it came to Marisa, it literally compounded what I just said. Shit, now we have two really powerful guys. How do you have a woman who can stake her claim in this movie?
With your two studio-backed films, all of your male leads are established comedians. What attracts you to them? M: It’s the perfect blend, in a lot of ways. Audiences are going to go see those movies because they want to be entertained by these guys that they love. They’re also all incredibly likeable people, and our protagonists do a lot of very unlikeable things, so that’s really helpful. Jay and I are doing a blend of comedy and drama that we find is kind of specific. Most of these actors see our movies, and they’re comedic actors who are interested in doing something dramatic. We’re not going to go out and go full retard and try to get the Oscar. Let’s do a blend of the comedy and drama. They want to come to our world a little bit, and we love what they’re able to do. They all inhabit naturalism really well.
You’ve been criticized for not fleshing out your female characters as well as the males ones. Jay: I mean, we write about what we know. The main thing is, we’re never going to make a movie because a critic is telling us that we’re not good enough at doing something else. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to illuminate the human condition as we understand it, and to give as much of ourselves as we can possibly give. In our next movie, we have a female lead.
Is it Susan Sarandon? M: Yeah. But this particular movie is primarily about the competition between two guys. We wanted the female character to be as strong as possible. That’s why we hired Marisa Tomei. She’s as strong as it gets. She has a lot of integrity and compassion in everything that she does.
What was the idea behind making a radiant beauty like Marisa Tomei instantly fall for a guy like John C. Reilly? M: It’s written into the script that there is a woman that the character of John has never been able to get. So it was always conceived that way, that she was very much out of his league. There would be a bit of a mystery as to what it is about him that’s so interesting. And for us, there’s a lot of reasons for that. But, one of the core reasons is that John is a lot like an older version of Cyrus, and Molly is in love with her son. She’s not romantically in love with him, obviously. J: But I think that this sense of desperation of holding onto the women that they love, and the oddities about these two guys and how tenacious in battling it out with each other, I think that’s a big part of what draws Molly to John. But, more importantly there’s a John C. Reilly element to this, which is the undeniable magnetism of him as well. In particular, the scene where he’s at the party singing “Don’t You Want Me”. There’s a heart in that move and there’s a doofus-ness in that move that we just really love.
When he just leaves her in mid-conversation to go dance. M: Yeah, he’s going to try and get this party started and he’s going to throw himself on the coals to do it. That type of bizarre heroism is stuff that we love. And we see Molly as a character who can see the unconventional beauty in a lot of people. In particular, John and her son. We want audience members to ask that question when he shows up and they first meet and they first talk. You should be thinking, “Why would she ever go for him?” We’ll try and show you. Hopefully we did our job.
How much do you rely on John C. Reilly to bring out that charm? J: I mean, it’s not a coincidence why the character is named John. Mark and I had private conversations as we were writing the script that, Oh my God, if John Reilly doesn’t do this movie, I don’t think we’re going to make it work. Over time, it became clear to us that everything he was doing was funnier, more emotional, more tragic—all the things that we looked for in a movie just got heightened when we would think of John C. Reilly in the role. And then he played it, and it was better than we could have ever thought.
Do the Duplass brothers love big, mindless Hollywood blockbusters? M: Oh yeah, but more on the comedy side of things. Dumb and Dumber is top ten. If Dumb and Dumber comes on TV we’re fucked. We can’t leave, it’s over.
What do you guys go see in the theater? Are you guys going to go see a big summer movie like Inception? J: I don’t know, we don’t see much of that. We both have kids right now, so we don’t do anything anymore. We try and steal screeners from studios. And, we have Netflix instant viewing, that’s basically our world now. Honestly, the thing that we’re riveted by is documentaries now. That’s our style, that’s what we’re obsessed with. We’re obsessed with something real. We go to film festivals all the time. Narratives are hit or miss, but every time when we walk into a doc it blows us away because there’s a sense of reality there, something real is happening. Something is unfolding in a way that it can’t be denied.
Looking back on your still early careers, aren’t you amazed at how you literally went through the quintessential steps of young filmmakers? M: It’s kind of textbook. We are incredibly humbled by the opportunities, but at the same time, you know, we’ve been working toward this for a long time. It’s strange to say and it could come off sounding wrong, but when we’re sitting in the audience last night at BAM with this movie, there’s a huge part of us like, “I can’t believe we’re here,” but then we watch people reacting to our specific sense of humor and how much they get it and love it. We’re just like, “Fuck, I think we deserve to be here, this is awesome.” It’s a really good feeling.