Director siblings Mark and Jay Duplass have always made movies about the "epically small" things in life -- a puffy chair, a bag on someone’s head, a missing pair of sneakers -- and how big they can become in the right situation.
After attending the University of Texas, the brothers became associated with the Mumblecore micro-budget filmmaking movement out of Austin. Their DIY films, "The Puffy Chair" and "Baghead," got the mainstream’s attention; yet they maintained the same aesthetic principles even after their 2010 studio debut "Cyrus."
The pair is in top form with "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," which has their films' trademark vulnerability, raw tension and clumsy relationships. The movie centers on stoner/couch philosopher Jeff (Jason Segel) who, sent on an errand by his mother (Susan Sarandon), ends up on a quest to fulfill his destiny. His brother Pat (Ed Helms) also enlists Jeff’s help to investigate his possibly adulterous wife (Judy Greer). It's easily the best and most personal of the Duplass brothers’ movies.
When we talked to the talented siblings, they fired back and forth on their affection for lovable losers, being starstruck around Susan Sarandon and the cinematic merit of "Joe Versus the Volcano."
If "The Puffy Chair" was your version of a road trip movie, "Baghead" was your version of a horror movie, and "Cyrus" was your version of a love triangle movie. Then what is "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"?
Mark Duplass: That is an excellent question.
Jay Duplass: It is a quest movie.
Mark: It is not as easily definable, because it’s a quest movie … but also it’s our take on the family drama film, too.
Jay: But I think plot-wise, it is a sword-in-the-stone quest movie. It just so happens that the quest is not taking place in Camelot. It’s taking place in the suburbs and strip malls of Baton Rouge, which is almost as regal.
Mark: Just a lot more boring.
Jay: Yeah, exactly.
Mark: Part of the movie is about finding mystery and grandiosity in the banal in life, and that’s what Jeff can do. Jeff can look at a package of doughnuts in 7-11 and be like, "That is a secret and a key and a sign to the mystery of the universe," and that’s what we love about him.
Jay:When Jeff unscrambles the word "Kevin" and it turns into "knive" and he pulls a knife out of the storage block, in his mind he is pulling the sword from the stone and he is Lancelot. That is why we love him. We love him so much for that.
Lovable losers are always in your films. What would happen if you got Jeff from this film, John from "Cyrus" and Josh from "The Puffy Chair" together? What would take place?
Mark: "Ghostbusters 3"! [starts humming the theme song] I think they would complain about the lack of women in their life. That would be a problem.
Jay: Definitely. They’d probably all try to agree on a movie and watch it together and get room service.
Mark: And then I think they’d have like a really sensitive conversation from their bunk beds at like 11:30 at night about how they’re feeling a little lonely and a little lost.
Jay: And underappreciated in their lives.
Jay: By the way, we just described private vacations that Mark and I take.
Mark: Our perfect night. That’s our perfect night.
On "The Puffy Chair" commentary, Mark, you said that you and Jay have a classic, push-pull relationship where you’re the bull and he’s the breaks. Is that still the case?
Mark: Yes, you got it. I’m the bull. That has not changed. I’ve only become a more ferocious bull and Jay has become a more steady breaks ... Me left to my own devices, I would make 15 mediocre movies a year and I’d be burnt out and dead by the time I’m 40.
Jay: Left to my own devices, I would make one movie every four to five years.
Mark: No way, one every 10.
Jay: One every 10, and the first one would be really good and then the second one would be horrible and the third one would be really good. It would not be balanced at all.
Mark: So somehow together we are able to create a normal or at least semi-normal person.
Jay: Yeah, not solo, though. That’s bad news.
"Jeff, Who Lives at Home" is about the relationship between brothers, which makes me curious about your own relationship. Does working together so much ever get in the way of just being there for each other as siblings?
Mark: You have to be careful about that, and they’re inextricably linked now to a certain degree. There’s not like, here’s brothers time, and here’s work time. Even when we’re hanging out at our parents’ house sometimes we start talking about work. Or even when we’re working on set we start talking about like, "Oh man you are not going to believe what she said to me last night."
Jay: Creatively, for instance, you want the strongest collaborator that you can have and also you love them and you want them to be in a good position. So if they’re having a hard day, you process it a little bit so they get up to speed and then we can create together. It works both ways.
Are the two of you believers in fate and destiny and that everything happens for a reason?
Mark: I think the important question here is, what does Jeff believe? Honestly, because for us, we really just wanted to see a guy who has the biggest heart in the world and might be the biggest moron in the world, and he might be a genius. Jeff is such a great conversation starter for people because we notice that people who see this film come up to us, and the guy in the couple is convinced that we are making a statement that, "Yes, there is a greater destiny out there and that is what happens and that’s what it is," and his wife will be like, "No, it was just totally chaos and things ended up coming around." We love the idea that this [film] would be a conversation piece as opposed to us saying, "This is what we believe! And here’s the message of the film!"
Susan Sarandon is the biggest movie star you two have ever directed. Did you get starstruck?
Mark: Big time.
What are some of your favorite Susan Sarandon films? What were you excited to ask her about?
Mark: Oh my God, the big start for me was with "Bull Durham." But then there are all these odd films like "White Palace" that was just like crazy. We were like, "Who is this woman?" And then we saw "Atlantic City" once we were in film school and we were like, "Oh God, she’s amazing." It was intimidating being on the phone with her and then we got over that. We’re like, "Okay we can now talk to her on the phone. We’re good." And then she showed up on set and then it was like extra intimidating just being in the presence of her. But she has a very disarming quality and she humbles herself and she knew we were nervous. You could tell she was helping take care of us.
But I heard she was nervous too, because of the improvising.
Mark: Yeah she was nervous too because of the improvising, absolutely.
Jay: And that was the best part about it.
Mark: She was just like, "Look, I haven’t done this before. I hope I’m good at it." Of course we knew she was going to be good. We knew. All you have to do is be a good actor, be open to the process, and be a student of the human condition as she is -- a sensitive, lovely person. We actually got over it, but then I hadn’t seen her in three months and I got starstruck again when I saw her this morning. So it never stops.
In this film, Jeff loves the M. Night Shyamalan movie "Signs." What film did the two of you take to heart or maybe too seriously when you were growing up?
Mark: There are some easy ones that we like. We love "Raising Arizona," but everybody loved "Raising Arizona." There was a phase where we loved "Joe Versus the Volcano."
Both of you?
Jay: Both of us. Critical movie for us. Not only did we love it, but it was like a science experiment for us.
Mark: We wouldn’t allow people to not love it, and if they defamed it we would come down on them with the -- now that I realize this -- totally snobby and preachy knowledge. We’re like, "John Patrick Shanley wrote and directed that, and he’s a really respected New York playwright, so this movie is important!"
Jay: Not only did we revere it as a movie, but we revered the principles for which it stood …
Mark: A life philosophy.
Jay: … and we believed in living your life with that philosophy, and we believed in the lesson being told, and we tried to implement it in our own lives. And when other people didn’t get the movie we were personally offended that they didn’t understand us.
Mark: And it was fine, we just wouldn’t speak to them anymore.
Jay: "Fine, you can have your opinions and f**k you, get out of my life."
Also Check Out: "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" Trailer
Is it still one of your favorites?
Mark: Not anymore, I think we’ve outgrown it at this point.
Jay: I haven’t gone back and watched it because I’m afraid it’s not going to live up to the past.
I read that the budget for one scene in "Jeff" involving a car crash exceeded budgets of entire movies you have done in the past.
Together: Yes, pretty much.
Approximately how much did that scene cost?
Jay: It was a huge deal for us. Obviously, you’ve seen our previous films. They’re shot in domestic scenarios. They’re very controlled, so this is a big step for us. I don’t know if we’re allowed to talk about the budget.
Mark: No, we’re not supposed to talk about the budget for this movie right now. They’ll let us talk about it when it comes out on DVD.
Jay: I’ll say this, though; the movie is still extremely low budget for the caliber of stars that we have and what we do in it. That’s for two reasons. One, Mark and I are kind of obsessed with being fiscally responsible and trying to make movies at a very reasonable price. We do come from the DIY world. So when we’re doing stuff in a big fashion, we always have ideas about how we can reduce the budget and the film apparatus ... Mark was saying earlier, this movie is going to make money regardless because we made it really cheaply with giant movie stars. We probably wouldn’t even need to do a theatrical for this movie to make its money back. That’s really how we like it, because we are doing some different and challenging things.
Mark: It’s safe that way -- they can’t kick us out of Hollywood.