September 19, 2013

Watch & Listen: The Duplass Brothers on Their Approach to Screenwriting & Honesty on Screen

Duplass Brothers Mark and Jay Austin Film Festival Film CourageFor the past decade, the Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay, have been one of the driving forces of the mumblecore movement. One of the misconceptions of the Duplass Brothers' films (The Puffy Chair, Baghead, Cyrus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home) is that their dialogue-heavy, naturalistic scenes are all improvised. Certainly, this filmmaking duo gives actors space to explore their characters and situations within each scene, but their stories are scripted out well before they get to set. Film Courage recently asked writer/director Jay Duplass to describe his first seven days writing a screenplay while the Austin Film Festival's On Story podcast featured an in-depth conversation with the Duplass Brothers, covering the evolution of their filmmaking career. You can watch and listen to both interviews below.

First, here's a short clip from an interview with Jay Duplass from Film Courage about the first seven days of writing a screenplay.

Notably, Jay answers the initial question about the first days of writing a screenplay by backing up to what happens (or more specifically doesn't happen) before those seven days. Jay points out that he doesn't start writing anything until he really understands the character and story arcs. Only after he feels comfortable with the story and the characters in his mind does he commit to writing the screenplay. Jay then explains what specifically happens in those seven days and why:

The first seven days are just, honestly, writing feverishly in a row without ever looking back so that I don't have a chance to destroy the idea before it has a chance to live. That's really what it's about.

Screenwriters are most likely their own worst critics, so destroying an idea before it ever has a chance to live is an experience with which most screenwriters are familiar. Hidden behind Jay's initial seven-day burst of writing is the implicit need for screenwriters to rewrite these initial pages after the first creative outpouring. The rewriting, however, should come after the creative flow. Otherwise, that original idea may not stand a chance.

The Austin Film Festival On Story podcast recently posted "A Conversation with Jay and Mark Duplass", recorded in the fall of 2011, where the filmmaking brothers elaborate on their careers and methods. You can listen to the complete podcast below:

Together, the brothers candidly recount that their early work just out of film school in the mid-nineties was derivative and not personal at all. Out of sheer frustration, they shot the short This is John. The short focuses on a man trying to record his answering machine message who almost has a breakdown when he can't accomplish this simple task. They shot it in one take on a crappy camcorder, cut it down to 8 minutes, and got into Sundance with it. Mark Duplass explains what that short meant to them:

It was a big lesson for us. It was, I think what we have to offer is…putting these thinly veiled versions of ourselves and our experiences up and, as seriously as we take them, let people laugh at and with them and have fun with it. And it was that comedy/drama blend of that, and we have basically stuck to that model today. Let’s try to put acting and story first and foremost. And it’s okay if the film isn’t beautiful. People will like it if it has something honest in it.

The philosophy of putting honesty on screen without regard to perfecting the visuals certainly pervades the early work of the Duplass Brothers and earned them their following. This honesty also attracted the attention of studios. In the podcast, the brothers describe their frustrations when trying to merge their storytelling styles with Hollywood demands and how they have to reassure A-list talent that, yes, there is a movie here as they film scenes in non-traditional ways. Make sure to take time to listen to the entire Austin Film Festival On Story podcast for some great lessons for independent filmmakers and screenwriters.

Speaking of the Austin Film Festival & Conference, I will be moderating some of the panels at the screenwriting conference this year. The Conference runs from Oct. 24 through Oct. 31. I will be there from Oct. 24 through Oct. 26 - panels I'm moderating yet to be determined. If you plan on making the trip to this year's Austin Film Festival & Conference and will be there on those days, please send me an email or look for me there and say hello.

Do you relate to Jay Duplass' strategy of writing in your mind first, then blasting through the first draft of a screenplay before your inner critic squelches the idea? In your opinion, does the importance of honesty on screen outweigh the perfection of visuals in films? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

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4 Comments

Similar to my process. I won't start until I know the ending. If I don't know the ending, then I have no idea where I'm going and I'll get stuck on page 40. But once I figure out the general idea and arc, I can write a draft in about 5 days. Like Jay I just binge write. I just hammer away, 10-20 pages per day without any regard to making sure it all makes perfect sense.

Some argue this is bad because once you have something down on paper it becomes immensely more difficult to change it. I disagree because before you actually have anything written down all you have are ideas which you can't do much with until you write them down.

September 19, 2013 at 10:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I appreciate their style and insight. I love the fact that have consistently made independent films that are entertaining, hilarious and dramatic. I have to call out something that comes to mind every time I hear of the Duplass Brothers and no it has nothing to do with their writing which I think is pretty great.

They kill me with the overuse of the snap zoom. Maybe Im being nit-picky but seriously the snap zoom on every other shot in Cyrus just drove me insane. I dont know why and Im sure this complaint sounds funny but seriously... enough.

September 19, 2013 at 12:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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<3

September 20, 2013 at 6:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Micah Van Hove
Writer
director, producer, dp

To the final point they make about how only 50 great short films are made every year---If we take NFS as a microcosm of indie film, look at where the focus is:

Any NFS article related to BMCC, RED Dragon, Digital Bolex etc. in the past 12 months get between 80-200 comments (give or take).

This article: 3 comments

It is so easy to get caught up in every single element that surrounds filmmaking (storytelling) but which never actually touches the heart of the craft. I'm not saying I don't love and gravitate towards posts about new gear that makes it possible to make better *looking* movies.

I do.

I love them.

But these guys are some of the most exciting and inspiring talents, for my money, and I have taken away more from this post than every camera rundown this year combined. This is the kind of advice we should be keeping an ear out for. Even if you don't dig their movies, they have a ton of great insight, practical advice and wisdom for any reader on this site. Cheers everyone, happy filmmaking!

September 21, 2013 at 1:18AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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George