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