Mark Duplass is the ultimate DIY success story. Here's how he got there.
When doling out advice to aspiring filmmakers, Mark Duplass doesn't mince his words. In his now-famous SXSW 2016 keynote speech, Duplass suggested that new directors "keep making shitty shorts until one doesn't suck." And yesterday, on a live-streamed panel for crowdfunding platform Seed&Spark, Duplass drove that point home.
To promote his generous contest, Hometown Heroes, launched in conjunction with Seed&Spark, Duplass took to the internet to act as the mentor he and his brother, Jay Duplass, never had as they were coming up in the film industry. Below, we've distilled his nine best pieces of advice, all of which contribute to the Duplass ethos: Do it yourself.
1. Be prolific, not precious
Duplass, who has made 20 feature films and four TV shows in just 13 years, admitted that he is "ruthlessly efficient" with his time.
Emily Best, founder of Seed&Spark and moderator of the live discussion, could attest. "He makes decisions quickly and isn't fussy or precious with his stuff," she said. "As a result, he's insanely productive."
2. Build a tribe
Duplass couldn't hide his disdain for another famous pair of filmmaking brothers in town: the Coen brothers, whom Duplass envies for their hermetic ability to formulate ideas. "The Coen brothers see a movie in their head and execute," Duplass said. "I hate them for that."
Instead, Duplass recognizes that a filmmaker is only as strong as her team. "I need the help of all the smart people around me," he said. "I'm not an auteur who can drive the whole thing home—and that's okay. I've gone to therapy and admitted it."
"I'm not an auteur who can drive the whole thing home—and that's okay."
But Duplass was careful to point out that building a strong team doesn't enable a director to effectively become a megalomaniac. "I'm not a creative maven who has people doing stuff for him," he said. "Don't look at people as minions...you need to collaborate and open yourself to the process."
Part of being open to the process is a willingness to get your hands dirty, no matter what the job. "You have to build a tribe around yourself," Duplass said, "but you also have to be willing to do everything yourself."
For filmmakers making their first low-budget movies, Duplass offered an interesting idea: hire other writer-directors who can double as your technical crew. "Nobody makes a better boom op than a writer-director who is booming for you and giving you story help and pointers," he said. "You lose some technical acumen, but you gain in substance."
3. Make it up as you go
When Duplass started making movies, he didn't know how to budget. He didn't know how to schedule. According to the director, he made it all up as he went—on Microsoft Word—and "ended up creating all these new models."
"When I got to LA and started showing people, they were like, 'How'd you do this?'" remembered Duplass. "I was like, 'I'm embarrassed; I thought I had been doing it all wrong!'"
In keeping with his suggestion to hire crew with story-telling acumen, Duplass even advised bringing a less experienced producer on board for your first few movies. "Sometimes you'll do yourself a disservice by bringing an experienced producer to make a micro-budget movie," he said, "because they'll get so caught up in the rules. Bring on a friend who wants to break the rules and do things new ways."
"Get it wrong," he continued. "It's okay to just make stuff up and figure it out as you go."
4. Make your first movies cheaply, and don't be afraid to fail
"If you haven't made a good movie yet, you might have 10 bad ones in you," Duplass warned. "But please get them all out. And make them cheaply."
Duplass would know; he and Jay did that for a decade. "We made terrible, unwatchable movies for 10 years," he said. "They came from a place of feeling like we needed to do everything. I didn't understand that you could collaborate and ask for help. There's an inherent humility in how we make stuff now because we made bad movies for so long."
"Show people what you can do for nothing."
For Duplass, achieving success in indie film is all about taking risks at a small price. "Can you take big creative risks for no money?" he said. "Show people what you can do for nothing."
This is a practice Duplass employs not only in his own movies, but also when mentoring up-and-coming filmmakers. "When Sean Baker came to me with Tangerine," Duplass remembered, "I was like, 'What's the minimum amount you can make it for?' We didn't know what that thing was going to be, but it turned out great."
As an emerging filmmaker himself, Duplass had no connections; he faced a dilemma familiar to those outside the inner circles of Hollywood. "You need names in your movie to get someone else's money to make it," Duplass said. "But in my opinion, if you are where I was—coming from nowhere—it's unreasonable to expect to get money from someone. You're unproven."
Instead, Duplass argued, "you need to rely only on yourself to get your movie made." His suggestion? Come up with a $500 no-name short film to self-distribute on iTunes. Submit to festivals, even if they're second or third-tier, and you've got yourself a proof of concept.
"The tenet I've always followed was I never make a movie unless I know it's gonna make its money back," Duplass said. "Make your movie sustainable at the level you made it at. There are so many creative ways to make a $500 movie. Creep cost no money because we used a found-footage concept and three-person crew. We did a seven-figure sale to Netflix for that movie."
"Think about backing into what you have available to you and don't wait for what you don't have," he added.
5. Share the wealth
When recruiting crew for your first low-budget movies, Duplass emphasized the importance of sharing equity in the film. "Make your people owners in the project," he said. "Give them a creative or economic stake in your movie."
According to Duplass, this model, which he calls "creative communism," incentivizes crew to work for cheap, rewards them for contributing to a great finished product, and encourages them to continue working with you. The Duplass brothers found success via the model in 2005, when they made The Puffy Chair for $10,000 with a loan that they eventually paid back. "Everything we made beyond that we shared back with cast and crew," Duplass said. "They had day jobs and worked on other movies, but they were dedicated to us enough to become an unofficial band. There were no salaries upfront, but you stay creatively linked. Take only 25% of profit. PAs should always have a piece of the project, too."
6. Be your own mentor
"Jay and I suffered a lot," Duplass remembered of his early days making films. "It was hard for us. We almost gave up a million times."
This was largely owing to the fact that the Duplasses had no mentors. There was no one to tell them how to break into the industry with their first movie; they had to figure it out for themselves. "I didn't have mentors," Duplass said. "I had to make it my own way. You should hope that someone will come to help, but your plan every single day should be that nobody's going to help you. Nobody gives a shit about you or your movie."
"I don't want to work with someone who is pretending like they know everything."
While that may sound pessimistic to some, Duplass actually intends it to be galvanizing. Rather than wait around for a mentor that will never come, he believes filmmakers should take their careers into their own hands. "When people come to me," Duplass said, "I'm looking for someone who has already built seven things. I look for unstoppability."
Of course, this doesn't mean that aspiring directors should be blow-hards. "I made a lot of mistakes early on feigning confidence when I was trying to prove myself to people," Duplass admitted. "I don't want [to work with] someone who is pretending like they know everything. I look for grownups who can communicate and won't get defensive in creative conversations. You gotta be comfortable in your skin and bring what you have—having a unique POV is critical to me."
7. DO IT YOURSELF!
According to Duplass and Best, agents these days are looking for self-generators who represent the "inevitability of success," meaning that they have a proven DIY project or two under their belt.
"It sounds shitty, but I feel the need to be truthful," Duplass said. "Every question I hear when I speak at colleges or film festivals is, 'How can I get my script in the hands of someone who is gonna help me get it made? How do I get an agent?' The answer to those questions is, figure out how to make a great movie without anybody's help. Do it on your own, in your local community, with the resources you have at hand. There are no good movies out there, so when you make a good one, someone's going to find it."
"The people I find are really successful are the people who are driving the train themselves."
Regarding how to "level-up from super-indie projects," Duplass said, "Make short films every weekend while you figure out what your voice is. Stop going out to eat. Jay and I lived off $7,000 a year forever and saved our money. Make a $100,000 feature with a borrowed camera that goes to a film festival, maybe not even Sundance. Maybe Florida Film Festival. Then, you'll get an agent. That agent will have access to semi-famous actors inside their agency and you'll build your next movie. You'll pay them the $125/day SAG Ultra-Low-Budge Rate. Make that movie. Then, you get foreign distribution because of the star. It's a step-by-step incremental process that continually puts the power in your hands and never put you in the place of saying, 'I'm so excited to make this movie as soon as someone gives me the money.'"
"The people I find are really successful are the people who are driving that train themselves," Duplass added. "The more you can do that, the better off you're going to be."
8. Stay local
What if you're a filmmaker living outside of Los Angeles or New York?
"Some kid in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky can take her iPhone out and win the Academy Award next year," Duplass said. "In an ideal world, that kid would pick herself up by her bootstraps and make that movie, but with the Hometown Heroes project, I want to give $25,000 loans as a kickstart to push that wave forward."
Both Duplass and Best suggest reaching out to local and state film offices. "In LA, you can spit and hit a cinematographer," said Best, "but if you're outside of the major market, you have to go to the offices. Or try Cinematcher, a new app that's like Tinder for cast and crew."
9. Embrace diversity
When Moonlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture earlier this year, Duplass wrote a letter to the Academy. "Films like this build a small but steady bridge between us," it read.
Best mentioned the letter during the live-stream, to which Duplass replied, "Look at what a movie like Moonlight has done. It's made the film industry look at a very small movie about the life and emotional journey of a young black gay child into a financial commodity. It's a horrible-sounding thing from the outside, but money is what drives these things."
Duplass continues to advocate for diversity; in true Duplass fashion, he also walks the walk. His newest series for HBO, Room 104, featured 50% female directors. "The series organically lends itself to different types of protagonists," Duplass said. "It's about anybody who is coming through a hotel room!" As a result, actors of all ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds are represented in the series.
Admittedly, however, Duplass wasn't always at the forefront of inclusive filmmaking. "Early on in my career, I was so focused on making good art, it tended to be full of white dudes because it was autobiographical," he said. "Now, I'm woken up. You gotta be thoughtful. If I close my eyes and grab the nearest directors to me, 95% are white dudes. You can't just blindly grab. There's curation involved."
"Diversifying your projects can't do anything bad to your movies," Duplass added, "and has a chance to widen appeal, cross a bridge—and most importantly, help you make money."