"I think it's an incredibly difficult thing to make something that doesn't suck. And it took me ten years of making things." - Jay Duplass
Together with his brother Mark, Jay Duplass has made a lot of films, starting with many really bad films by his own admission. Only after failing repeatedly did he and Mark find success with their first Sundance short, This is John, a story of a man having a nervous breakdown when he can't successfully record his answering machine greeting. After This is John in 2003, the Duplass Brothers returned to Sundance in 2004 with their short Scrapple and 2005 with their feature The Puffy Chair. Studios took notice and starting offering bigger budgets for their brand of smart, authentic comedy. But bigger budgets didn't necessarily work in favor of the Duplass Brothers' style of filmmaking.
You can hear Jay Duplass tell the story about how he and his brother Mark have made their careers in the world of independent filmmaking in the Austin Film Festival On Story episode below. If you don't have time to watch the whole episode now, I've pulled out three lessons Jay Duplass has learned along the way.
"Do Something Real"
With no crew and no budget, Jay discovered that when he directed and operated the camera, he would have the actors (usually Mark and their friends) run entire scenes from start to finish. Jay would focus his attention and the camera on one character, moving with that actor, then re-run the scene to follow another actor and see where he could grab overlapping coverage along the way. By giving the actors the freedom to move and speak to each other, Jay discovered this sense of realism from their performances, which has become a signature of the Duplass Brothers' work. When they strive to "do something real", that's when they find their characters and story.
Place the Actors First
After the festival and critical success of their features The Puffy Chair and Baghead, studios pursued the Duplass Brothers to make their version of smart comedy with larger budgets and more recognizable on-screen talent. Jay explains that on studio films, "actors are brought to the apparatus," meaning the actors are escorted onto carefully lit, constructed sets full of various crew members and equipment, where the actors are placed within the apparatus so the camera can capture their performances, all of which is tightly controlled and scheduled.
The Duplass Brothers are used to working in the opposite way, placing the actors first with very little crew or setups and using the actors' improvisations to create the performances and drive the narrative. Jay admits that they have had to explain their creative process to the studio executives repeatedly during projects because it flies counter to the accepted way of making studio films. Actors, however, tend to get their process much faster and appreciate the freedom to explore their characters and stories.
"Living in an Open Universe"
The Duplass Brothers' HBO show Togetherness was never supposed to be an HBO series. Jay explains that Mark disappeared for three to four months each Fall to work on the show The League and Jay wanted to do something during the Fall, too. Jay collaborated with his friend Steve Zissis on what they thought would be a web series, but when they showed the scripts to others, their friends suggested they pitch the idea to HBO as a series. To their surprise, HBO loved it.
Originally, Togetherness focused on a protagonist with three supporting characters because that's the world of film and that's the narrative structure that Jay knew. HBO said they wanted four equal characters. Through the development process with HBO, Jay discovered that characters on an HBO series are "living in an open universe," meaning that while each episode has a plot and specific payoffs, the overarching story keeps growing emotionally as the series continues. Jay explains that he and Mark have always struggled with this in their feature films and now they find that Togetherness has given them a much more natural platform for their style of emotional storytelling.
Jay sums up the lessons he has learned as a storyteller and filmmaker nicely when he says:
All it really is about is expressing the things that are inside of you and sharing them with other people. That's really all that matters.
Be sure to check out the full Austin Film Festival On Story episode above, as well as additional episodes on the On Story website.
This year's Austin Film Festival and Conference is right around the corner, Oct. 29 - Nov. 5, 2015, and we have a discount code for $25 off Conference Badges and Weekend Badges. Get your badge on the Austin Film Festival webpage and enter code NOFILMSCHOOL for the discount. I will be moderating panels again this year, so come find me and say hello at one of the following Script-to-Screen panels, as well as the Teenage Scriptland panel:
- Se7en with Andrew Kevin Walker
- The Fugitive with Jeb Stuart
- Chocolat with Robert Nelson Jacobs
- Teenage Scriptland panel with writers Liz Tigelaar (creator/executive producer, Life Unexpected, writer/producer, Bates Motel, Nashville, Revenge), Tamar Laddy (writer, Hart of Dixie, Pretty Little Liars), and Tiffany Paulsen (writer, Nancy Drew, Further Adventures in Babysitting).