March 17, 2015
SXSW 2015

The Complete Mark Duplass Filmmaking Bible on Becoming a Successful Director

You want to be a successful filmmaker, but you’re a nobody in nowheresville with no connections. 

Well, the Duplass Brothers started out just the same way, and now they are admired, household names in the independent film world. How did they do it? On the ground at SXSW 2015, No Film School covered Mark Duplass’ entertaining keynote address on his career and compiled it into an easy-to-follow 9-step plan. 

[Update] The full keynote has been uploaded online and we've added it above.

As he described it in his Keynote address, Mark Duplass started his career in Austin, where he and his brother Jay had lots of ideas and excitement about filmmaking, but absolutely no connections. After enough odd editing jobs, they had raised enough money to shoot a feature for $65k. Unfortunately, as Mark characterized it, the film they made was “a steaming pile of dog diarrhea.”

Instead of giving up, Duplass started over by making short films that recaptured the feeling he and his brother had making movies for fun as kids. Twelve or so years later, Mark and Jay Duplass are icons of independent filmmaking. Too bad there’s not some formula we could follow to replicate their success. Wait, there is!

Step 1: Find Your Voice by Playing Around

Shoot a scene or a few minutes of a film every weekend with your friends, and have fun. For each minute, maybe there was one second of something that really worked. Throw the rest out, and keep that in mind. Whether it takes two weeks or two years, these seconds will add up and you’ll know what your voice is as a filmmaker. Duplass says:

“Maybe after two weeks or maybe after two years, maybe you will have something unique to offer."

Step 2: Make a Self-Indulgent Short Film Using Your Voice

“Make a self indulgent film for your first movie. You don’t need to be ashamed of yourself. You have no access to actors, you just have yourself. Go with it.”

And make sure it is a short film. The short film needs to come first. Note: you should definitely get a good day job that lets you make money and still have a flexible schedule.

“It really doesn’t matter what your movie looks like. If you have an interesting film voice, people at festivals will notice even if you’re nobody.”

Step 3: Take Your Short Film to Festivals and Build Your Community

Get your short film into whatever festivals you can, then go to the festivals and meet people you like, and want to work with in the future. Meet programmers who will want to program you in the future -- like when you come back with a feature. Maybe even get an agent.

"Community is created by traveling to film festivals to meet people. Find out what you are good at, do that as a short, and grow from there."

Step 4: Make a Feature for $1,000

Write a script with a feel of your short for a very, very small amount of money. Get lights from the local hardware store, cameras from the local electronics store and return them after production if you have to. Duplass urges filmmakers instead to "reverse engineer a film based on what you have access to."

"At this point, your agent might say, 'Don't do that. I can get you money.' Don't. You will spend five years in development, because you're a short filmmaker with nothing behind you.

Step 5: Get Your Film in Front of Celebrities like "Randy Hercules"

Once you make your feature, you need to get celebrities at film festivals to watch it so that hopefully one of them will like it and want to work with you.

One of the actors will respond. Maybe it's "Randy Hercules" who has a 20-year show on CBS, is rich, and is depressed. He's dying to do something creative!

Then when you are talking to your Randy Hercules, you can offer to build him a role based on whatever he wanted to play but has never had the chance to.

Step 6: Make Another $1,000 Film with "Randy Hercules"

Make an extremely inexpensive movie with your Randy Hercules, and maybe you'll get into a top tier festival this time. Offer Randy 20% of the backend (and hope he gives it back to you) and 10% to your crew. Just by having him in it alone, assuming it isn't really awful, you can now expect to make $50k back of your $1k.

Don't be attached to showing your early movies in a theater. It's important instead to own VOD rights. Don't be afraid of VOD

Step 7: Make a TV Show with Randy Hercules and His Friends

Now that you've made a movie that's made some money back, you can sell a pitch to a network. But according to Duplass, it's not likely that you'll make it because of turn around and development quagmires. But you just learned something about the fact that you sold a pitch.

"Hmm. I can make my own movie with Randy Hercules, plus his friends, and license it back to TV." 

Duplass says go ahead and make your episodes. You will sell them to a hungry outlet.

Step 8: Help Your Friends Make Their Movies

Now that you are successfully making money off making films, your friends will all want to make their own $1000 movie too. Help them do it!

"They will help lift you up later when you eventually make a film that isn't so good. Say ok, because you're a communist, and it's a write off."

Step 9: Give Yourself the Chance to Be Happy

At every step of this process, you've been waiting for a landslide of success, the feeling that, as Duplass terms it, "The Cavalry is Coming!" But at every step, you will eventually learn that no matter what you are sure is really happening, the cavalry "is not coming." And while Duplass says you may be pretty tired from having to work so hard to self-generate all your success, you should be proud.

"You look at career, and you think 'not bad.' So how is it possible that the cavalry is not coming? The good news is: who gives a fuck about the cavalry?"


That's it!

It might be a winding journey, but would you follow these 9 steps?     

Your Comment

16 Comments

Mmmm... Some weird stuffs here. They had "absolutely no connections. After enough odd editing jobs, they had raised enough money to shoot a feature for $65k". So they had amazing connections! I work in the film business for years in big companies and I would need more than 20 years to save that amount of money.
"Get lights from the local hardware store, cameras from the local electronics store and return them after production if you have to.", yeah that's weird, maybe possible in the US, but in most places in the world you have to buy or rent gear. And it will cost more than 1000$.
Make a 1000$ film with a famous TV guy? Yeah, not possible neither except in the US I guess.

The rest is interesting, but, yeah, very american. I'm glad it works! Too bad I can't live there.

March 17, 2015 at 10:14AM

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Vincent Galiano
Filmmaker / Screenwriter / Photographer
362

You don't have hardware stores or low-end actors on hard times that are willing to work on indies?

March 17, 2015 at 10:34AM, Edited March 17, 10:34AM

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Re: actors it's not that unusual in the UK to see TV actors pop up in shorts/indies where they'll be paid a nominal fee. Working in soaps etc can kill your soul, even if it's good for the bank balance, so sometimes they like to rough it and do some actual acting.

March 17, 2015 at 1:46PM

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Jon Mills
Filmmaker
766

Naming no names I had a friend shoot a very high profile music video with 10+ gh4s, all returned after the shoot with no questions asked..

March 19, 2015 at 12:48AM

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Jason Baker
Music video / concert visuals / motion graphics
7

There's a lot of good stuff in here about how to make it as a filmmaker, but "Step 3: Take Your Short Film to Festivals and Build Your Community" doesn't hold true to me. Especially when it comes to short films. More often than not, filmmakers give too much power to film festivals. Sure, it's great to get in and mingle with industry professionals, but it's created a standard that is unrealistic. Many filmmakers find themselves ousted from a short program because their film 'doesn't fit in' with the other shorts and therefore doesn't get into the festival. I think that this is problematic because it encourages filmmakers to make movies that 'fit in' for the sole purpose of getting into festivals.

At least for short films, online blogs and festivals will not only get more eyes on your work, but help you build your audience much more effectively than the couple hundred (or less) that will attend the short program that your film is screened in.

That said, I think there's a lot of great stuff that Duplass touches on. Filmmakers should both be realistic about their goals and their resources.

March 17, 2015 at 12:34PM

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Chelsea Lupkin
Director / Director of Photography / Screenwriter
211

I was hoping the speech in full would get uploaded somewhere but no signs yet...

Still, this is hugely inspiring stuff. I've always had a huge amount of time for the Duplass brothers, mainly because of their work ethic - they've just ploughed on and put in the hard yards.

I think some of the specifics re: festivals and developing TV may be right *now* but in a few years time who knows? No matter how smart and funny their short This Is John is I doubt many festivals would accept something that scrappy now, least of all Sundance. So I'm not sure trying to follow their specific path now would work, just as trying to follow Robert Rodriguez's path or Soderbergh's path would work right now. As ever, you have to find your own way.

But the core message seems to be make stuff, make lots of stuff, make the stuff you want to make. I think that's a pretty good motto.

BTW: if you take a look at the On Story podcast on iTunes, there's a 40-minute interview with the brothers from 2013 where they talk in more detail about their early films, moving to bigger projects and the pull of Hollywood - highly recommended.

March 17, 2015 at 1:39PM

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Jon Mills
Filmmaker
766

March 17, 2015 at 5:54PM

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William Stewart
Director of Photography
567

March 18, 2015 at 3:32AM

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Jon Mills
Filmmaker
766

How in the name of Uncle Buck can this get down-voted? Seriously?

Jesus. This place blows my mind.

March 18, 2015 at 1:46PM

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Jon Mills
Filmmaker
766

Some men just want to watch the world burn jon

March 18, 2015 at 3:44PM

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Max Ciesynski
Gaffer
667

wow, really quite extraordinary mothermode of information and yeah the comments generally here have just got woefully negative.

March 18, 2015 at 6:34PM

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Procter
113

Inaction and not trying hard enough will have that effect.

October 11, 2015 at 7:47AM, Edited October 11, 7:47AM

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Brad Bingham
Actor/Writer/Filmmaker
196

That's basically what my filmmaker accountability group is all about. Each director has to shoot a new short every two months or pay the group $100. Check us out at justfuckingshoot.com

March 23, 2015 at 2:06AM, Edited March 23, 2:06AM

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Steve Yager
Filmmaker
320

that sounds awesome

March 26, 2015 at 4:06PM

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Kory Gasser
Filmmaker
253

Wow watched Dinner Party and it was hilarious. Very relatable for me haha. Great job. I might have to try and find something similar or start one here in San Francisco.

April 6, 2015 at 1:48PM

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Levi Hakola
Amateur
81

Are creative docs allowed?

November 25, 2016 at 4:35PM

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Emulp Edmon
Documentary Filmmaker
86