Over the course of his 10 years as a writer-director (along with his brother Jay), Mark Duplass has become a gifted filmmaker with such works as THE PUFFY CHAIR, BAGHEAD, CYRUS and JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME. The Duplass brothers become known for using improvisation to get to the emotional core of a scene or story, rather than to land a punchline or provide the best series of jokes. The results are often extraordinary, and seem well suited to their upcoming HBO series “Togetherness,” due in January
And because Mark Duplass doesn’t have enough to do, he’s also spent a great deal of his time as a filmmaker acting in (HUMPDAY, GREENBERG, YOUR SISTER’S SISTER, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, ZERO DARK THIRTY, and the upcoming CREEP films) and producing other people’s works (see the upcoming THE SKELETON TWINS for an example), often first-time filmmakers who simply need a gentle push to the finish line to get their film made. One film that the Duplass brothers produce and Mark stars is THE ONE I LOVE, from first-time filmmaker Charlie McDowell, a strange and wonderful relationship drama that I believe also qualifies as science fiction, co-starring Elisabeth Moss.
What’s amusing about the film—more specifically about talking about the film, either in a review or interview—is that it’s truly difficult to discuss without ruining the work’s most interesting “twist,” which just happens to last almost the duration of the film. But when I sat down last week with Mark Duplass and Charlie McDowell, we managed to have an intelligent conversation about THE ONE I LOVE without giving away the best secrets. Only once did the pair not answer a question because it got too close to spoiler material, and I respect that and hope you all get to see the film without knowing too much about it. With that said, please enjoy my talk with Mark Duplass and Charlie McDowell. Keep in mind that Duplass came into the room first, and rather than wait for McDowell to start, I started asking Mark about some projects he’s involved with, beginning with his hilarious FXX series “The League,” which begins its sixth season on September 3.
Capone: When I heard you were coming to town, as a fan of “The League,” I thought, “Maybe they’re in Chicago to actually shoot a scene in Chicago [where the show is set, but not shot].”
Mark Duplass: For one day. Yeah, exactly. “Is that what’s happening?” We had dreams of doing that in the early seasons, but now we’re just doing it all in LA.
Capone: Just faking it 100 percent.
MD: Faking it in L.A. We get someone to set the camera up, get some establishing shots. It works well.
Capone: Last week I saw THE SKELETON TWINS, and I saw your and Jay’s names on there as producers. What does that mean when you two agree to be a producer for someone? What do you see as your job?
MD: We’ve been doing it for quite a while now, the producing thing. It’s not necessarily new for us, and it’s something we started to do mostly because we are part of a big filmmaking community, and Jay and I were fortunate enough to get a leap into the studio world in about 2005-2006 as writers and making CYRUS. So we tried to parlay some of that to help our friends get their movies made. And that ethic still goes today. We find people who we think are talented, or in the case of THE SKELETON TWINS, I knew the filmmaker; I had done his first movie, TRUE ADOLESCENTS and loved him personally. We’re good friends, and he brought me the script. As everybody knows, it’s really hard to get money for independent films these days, and for better or worse, Jay and I are known as a place that can get you a little bit of money to make your movie if you can’t get all the money you want to make your movie.
Capone: Just enough to make it happen.
MD: Yeah. Just enough to make it happen. And that’s how I believe in doing things, and if I have anything to offer as a producer, I can get it made very, very quickly for you, and that’s why we make a lot of stuff.
Capone: Speaking of films that you were involved with for very little money, I was lucky enough to see CREEP at SXSW. I had no idea what that movie was going in, and it was fantastic.
MD: Oh, I’m glad you liked it.
Capone: And now I’m hearing that you’re holding off putting it out until you make a couple more of them?
MD: That’s the plan. This is a dorky business thing; Radius is going to put the movie out, and we’re going to release it early next year, but we’re doing that so we can make a few more and try to release them all in succession with each other, all in the same year possibly. Look, every independent film needs it’s leg up in this business, and the leg we are building for that movie is, while we’re building awareness for the theatrical of the first one, by the time the DVD comes out, hopefully the theatrical of the second one will be happening, and you get the benefit of what THE LORD OF THE RINGS had, but on a much smaller budget, and a much quicker timeline.
Capone: It will certainly get people writing about it, even outside of the reviews of it. People will say, “Hey. Here’s an interesting idea that someone’s never done before.”
MD: Yeah, and I think that stuff is really important.
Capone: I’ve been dying to know more about, because I keep seeing it listed on your filmography, this “Togetherness” show that you’ve done for HBO. What are we waiting for there? I haven't heard much about it.
MD: So we just shot eight episodes for HBO. My brother and I wrote and directed all the episodes, and we’re going to air in January. And it stars me, and Melanie Lynskey, and Steve Zissis, and Amanda Peet. And it’s a show about two couples. Instead of Jay and I going to write and direct a movie, this is like our four-hour movie.
Capone: We haven’t seen you do a movie in a couple of years, but now we’ve got this.
MD: Yeah. And I really loved the form, and I think in many ways it allowed me to do more of what I wasn't to do, which is that quirky, interpersonal relationship analysis. But you can really go hardcore when you have four hours to play with.
Capone: I bet. This will be your epic.
MD: I’m really excited.
[Charlie McDowell enters the room.]
Capone: Hi, Charlie.
Charlie McDowell: How’s it going? Nice to meet you.
Capone: I’m just getting some preliminary Duplass information out of the way here.
M: Just swapping recipes over here.
Capone: As someone who has had to attempt a couple of times to review this film, and now I have to go through writing about it again with this interview, how have you handled the situation you’re in in terms of what you’re able to talk about, and what you don’t want to talk about?
MD: It’s not our problem. How do you handle it.
Capone: I’m going to make it your problem pretty fast.
MD: [laughs] Exactly. It’s been fun, to be honest with you, because rather than walk people through what the storyline is in an attempt to get them into the theater and blow a bunch of fun things that they find out when they get there, we decided to hold onto that. And the decision came about organically, because after Sundance we all assumed that the cat would be out of the bag, that everybody would start talking about what the twist in the movie is.
Capone: I saw a couple of reviews that didn’t seem to give a crap.
MD: Yeah, a couple people did.
CM: It’s mostly the ones that don’t like the movie. They’re like, I don’t care to protect this.
MD: Yeah, yeah. But mostly the critics said, “Well we don’t want to tell you what it’s about because I want you to see it the way I saw it.” And then when Radius picked up the movie, we did this test where we screened it in two theaters side by side with a group of people who knew what you would normally know from the average trailer or poster, and then on the other side where it was cold, and it was just night and day in terms of the way people come out of the theater talking about the film. We found that it’s almost not the words that people say when you value word of mouth, it’s the vibe, and people came out of that theater who didn’t know and were like, “Dude, you gotta see this movie. You have to see this movie.” And that’s the kind of word of mouth that basically is the greatest capital for an independent film. So we’re like, let’s try to hold on to that.
Capone: I don’t know if you were aware that back in May the Chicago Film Critics Association did a film festival, and we had this film. I booked it myself after seeing it, actually.
MD: Oh, cool. thank you.
Capone: But even to just write a synopsis for the program to get people to come see it was tough. I think all my questions talk around the secrets, but I still want to talk about what’s going on here, which is that idea of being faced with the idealized version of the person you love, and how would you respond to that? You would embrace it, or you’d be suspicious of it, or you’d reject it because you’d miss the flaws. Talk about how that idea came into being with you and your writing partner [Justin Lader].
MD: It was very collaborative, yeah.
CM: Well, we started on this idea of when you start a relationship you give the best version of who you are, and you’re all of a sudden more interested in museums and all these things that you didn’t necessarily love before, but you’re trying to impress someone, and you’re trying to adapt in all of these things. So we found that to be a really interesting starting off point, because I feel like it’s something that we all do, and then how do we build a story around that? And I think, not to give away what happens, but I think that it just naturally unfolded because we had this core theme that the movie revolves around.
Capone: I know from what I’ve read, the dialogue is almost entirely improvised, but that being said, it’s not like it was made up on the spot either. Tell me about what happened before the cameras got rolling in terms of the story and character background.
MD: Yeah, well it was a heavily, heavily plotted film. So the document that we made the film from was a 50-page document, and it was basically everything that a traditional script has, except the actual dialogue. So your story points: we’re going to go from A to B to C to D and it ends here, and this is what it feels like. All that stuff was in there, and even some dialogue suggestions at times. Then for certain scenes, without giving too much away, where we have more effects, there were reasons why we had more tight scripting. So Justin and I would try and write pages before and try to really get us ahead of schedule on that. So there are a lot of different ways the scenes were shot. But to say it’s improvised is, it’s the least improvised improvised film I’ve ever made. It’s trying to make up the dialogue itself on the spot so that you have a sense of an organic, naturalistic-feeling relationship within the very constructed, sci-fi ship.
Capone: And you’ve done this before for your entire acting and directing career, but is this the most pre-planning that you’ve done using this method?
MD: Well, the movies that I write and direct with Jay have a full script, so those are much more planned out. But in terms of movies that I’ve shot with outlines like HUMPDAY, and YOUR SISTER’S SISTER, those movies had more meandering going on. We would even change the story points in those movies as we went along. This thing was pretty dialed in, and, like I said, the words we were choosing were the things that were up in the air.
Capone: How do you know when you’ve got enough to work with that you can take into the editing room and piece it together the way you want it?
CM: We shot it really quick, we shot it in 15 days. I remember going into it thinking that I had to do all the homework. I had to be prepared. In terms of shot listing and story boarding, I had to have all that ready to go so that I could just focus on the scenes that we were shooting and not worry about different camera stuff and ideas. I remember when we were shooting, I literally, because we didn’t do that many takes, would be like, “Each little chunk of the scene, do I have it in there somewhere?” And then you trust that you do have it in there, and that in the editing room, it all cuts together. But we were all very aware of that.
MD: There weren’t a lot of crazy runs off on tangents. It’s not improvised like where you’re hunting for a joke or something.
Capone: Right. And that’s something that I love about the films that you’re involved in. You’re improvising not to get to a joke, but to get to the heart of a scene, and that seems so much more difficult to me.
MD: Yeah, that’s is it. Well what ends up happening is in the more perfunctory scenes there is less exploration. You get it, and then all of a sudden it ends up being 10 to 12 lines of dialogue. It may change a little bit, but it doesn’t like accordion out. But in the big emotional scenes in the film, they tend to spill out all over the place, because you’re looking and finding, and those are really tough to edit. And that’s like a documentary.
CM: It was also though, too, if you look at the film and how it’s constantly shifting and changing story wise, we would look at each scene, and there wasn’t really room to play around and talk and see what happens. It was like, you need to hit these like three different story beats.
MD: To lay out the next scene.
CM: Yeah, to lay out the next scene so it all makes sense. So for us it was more about making sure the story was there, and then the improv was great for creating this really natural-relationship feel to it.
MD: And also the movie, from the birth of the idea to when we started shooting, was six months. What you can’t do likely is write an airtight script with dialogue in that time. What you can do is get an airtight narrative and then abandon the planed acumen of great dialogue and embrace the spontaneity of improvisation, because that works for speed.
Capone: How did you know that Elizabeth Moss could do this style of acting?
MD: We totally didn’t.
Capone: It was a leap of faith? “She’s a good actress. She can probably pull this off.”
MD: She’s a good actress, we’ve seen the dark intensity, the brooding, the wonderful expressions in her eyes from “Mad Men.” I knew her enough personally to know she’s like a guys’ girl, too. She can do that chemistry and rom-com fun, light, sweet, charming thing. So those two faces of Elizabeth Moss were things we felt were going to be needed for the character. In terms of improvising, you never know if they’re going to be good at it. My opinion is if somebody wants to do it, and if they like people, and when you meet with them they’re students of the human condition and they’re talking about people, they’re going to be able to do it.
Capone: It is one of those situations watching this film where you think that you now what she’s capable of as an actor, and this just blows the lid off that.
MD: I want her to win everything this year. We all did an awesome thing with this movie, and I look at her, and I’m like “This is like something else.”
CM: It’s also exciting too to see her as a contemporary leading girl, which she is. We don’t see her that often in those rolls, so to see her in this, it’s just real exciting for all of us.
MD: If I was a studio, she would be in every one of my films.
Capone: What are the dangers of working in a story that has a degree of magic to it? What are some of the things where you have to say, “We’ve got to make sure not to go over there.”
MD: Your movie can become stupid real quickly.
CM: [laughs] And there were those moments on set. I remember watching a scene where they’re explaining what’s going on, and hearing it out loud, I remember being on set and being like, “Oh boy. This might be the worst movie of all time.”
MD: “Oh boy, this is going to be trouble.”
CM: But I think that one thing that we all really strived for and totally agreed on from the beginning is you just keep it emotionally honest. You keep the characters grounded and emotionally honest. You don't have them reaching for comedy or for this fantastical idea. You keep it real and honest, and then from there you can go to places that are fantastical, because as long as you believe these people and you believe them in the situation and that they’re a couple and struggling and all of the sort of complexities of the relationship, then what’s around them can go whereever it goes.
MD: Unfortunately, we had to cut the scenes where I fly.
MD: You’ve got to cut your babies.
Capone: You said before this is a special effects film, it’s your first feature, you had to do things maybe a little differently than you would a straight-up improvised movie. Were there adjustments you had to make? What were some of the other considerations you had to think about?
CM: Yeah, it terrified me. But it’s exciting. That excites me. We all wanted to make a movie that pushed the envelope, and we went really far with it. It was just making sure that we knew what we were doing. So we did a lot of tests for special effects, and we made sure that we all felt really comfortable going into a scene and that we figured out where we were going with it.
MD: It was shot listed and the scoped down to a T. He was the most prepared director I’ve ever worked with on that front.
CM: SIt was really about going into the prep work and going into it believing that we were pulling it off. And there were a couple of moments when we have quite a few effects in the film, and if the effect wasn’t perfect when we saw it in post, if it didn’t totally work, then we wouldn’t put it in. So it was only the ones that we felt like worked really well.
Capone: The last question I had was connected to the conversation about dealing with magic. I’ve seen more lately of what are basically relationship dramas, but then there’s another layer of some other genre put on top of that. Sometimes it’s horror, sometimes it’s sci-fi. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED was a sci-fi film that also was really about this love story. What does taking that approach make possible that just a straight dramatic narrative wouldn’t give you?
CM: A few things. One, there are so many indie-dramas being made that it separates it. You can take a traditional story that we’ve seen before, and you can go in a different way, and all of a sudden it feels like something completely original that you’ve never seen, and because of that, hopefully you connect more so than you would if it was just a straight-up traditional narrative. And then also I like the idea of taking bigger, high-concept ideas that would be massive $100 million studio movies with stuff blowing up, but we just focus on the performance, character-driven piece of it. It’s exciting to bring in other elements and make the film feel original and bigger than it is.
Capone: Mark, what do you get from that approach?
MD: To me, it’s like you look any industry like music or film, or art, and it’s this sine-cosine wave of getting more and more complex, and then people get tired of it, and then they come back down to simplicity. You look at like the transition of Coltrane into Miles Davis making “Kind of Blue.” It was crazy, crazy, crazy, and then he makes “Kind of Blue,” and it was like boop-boop-boop. We’re in like the middle ground right now where we’re realizing the technology is affording us the ability to make our small relationship indie films more complex and interesting, and I think we’re going to keep going, and I think it’s going to get wild. Then 10 years from now, somebody’s going to come out and make a straight, black-and-white, two-person MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, and everybody’s going to go, “Thank god. I’m so fucking sick of THE ONE I LOVE.” So you just go in these waves, and this is just one wave we are on.