Mark Duplass, along with Joshua Leonard (“The Blair Witch Project”), is one of the two stars of one of the funniest and just plain nicest movies I’ve seen in awhile. If you haven’t yet read my review, writer-director Lynn Shelton’s Indie Spirit award-nominated “Humpday” is a really funny comedy about two completely heterosexual best friends who become possessed by the idea of making an art-porno in which the two of them take their bromance to its highly illogical extreme.
Duplass may be best known as one half of the film-making Duplass Brothers, who had a big indie/festival hit with “The Puffy Chair,” one of the most acclaimed films in the so-called “mumblecore” movement — improvised, usually comic, films in which no one actually mumbles much but in which the dialogue is largely improvised. While the “mumblecore” tag has become more than a little dated, the Brothers D are currently completing their first movie with big-name stars (specifically, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, and John C. Reilly), which was without a title when this interview was conducted but we’ve just learned via Anne Thompson is going to be named “Cyrus.”
“Humpday” technically could be considered mumblecore because, while it was for the most part tightly plotted, the dialogue was improvised. It’s a technique Duplass was clearly comfortable with as he has acted in the films he has been making with his brother, Jay Duplass, for over a decade, as well as in such other ‘core hits as “Hannah Takes the Stairs.” We caught up with Mark via phone a bit early in the day (my time), one recent Friday morning…
PH: Just before I saw “Humpday,” I reviewed the DVD of “The Odd Couple.” I was just thinking, now that you’ve had time to think about the movie and everything, and we have this recently coined word “bromance,” which this movie obviously deals with – how do you think “Humpday” fits in with all these other movies that have been out there?
MD: That’s weird. When we made “Humpday” there really wasn’t the bromance movement in the zeitgeist. We were just operating in Seattle doing our own little thing. We were not conscious that we were part of a movement at all. When I look back now I can see that there’s something about the lovable loser/shlubby guy over the last five or ten years that’s become our new hero or protagonist. And there’s something funny and interesting, and ultimately kind of sweet, about the burgeoning friendships that happen between these type of guys and in particular a little bit of buffoonery that comes with it.
I can’t say why it’s happening now. I definitely know that, in my own life, as I get older I look for more intimacy out of my guy friends. I don’t know why. I’m more comfortable in my own skin, I’m more comfortable crying on dudes’ shoulders and talking about my insecurities with guys than when I was at a keg party when I was sixteen.
I don’t know why it’s become such a part of the zeitgeist. I’m happy about it. I like exploring it. There’s a sweetness to it and there’s a comedy to it that I think is really rife for exploration and art.
PH: You said you and Joshua were basically kind of acquaintances before the movie, but now you’re actually pretty good friends. That happened on the film?
MD: We’re very close friends – he’s one of my closest friends. [Before making “Humpday”] I only knew him tangentially and then Lynn said “Look, I need help casting this role.” I recommended Josh, just based on knowing him a little bit. I knew him enough to know he was a very special human being. Very emotionally evolved – he’s been through a lot for a guy in his early thirties, but more importantly he and I have this great dynamic.
We love each other so much and we have no real physical boundaries. We’re very intimate emotionally, physically but at the same time if one of us did something wrong to the other one, we would have absolutely have no problem shooting the other one in the face. It’s a good love/hate combo that makes for interesting acting chemistry.
PH: Do you think you guys will ever do another movie together?
MD: We talk about it all the time. I think we would love to. It would be a question of the right time and the right characters. “Humpday” is so special to us, if we did something we’d want it to be something really different.
PH: I was looking at some of your earlier short films and I was curious about your acting background because you seem so comfortable in front of a camera. Is there any aside from these movies?
MD: There really isn’t. Jay’s my older brother and, since we were little, he would hold the camera and I would be in front of the camera and that’s what we’ve always done. It just began as a function of the fact that I was the best free actor that he could find. Then, as my brother and I got more serious making movies, and now we’re making studio movies, [and that’s] an artistically rewarding but also very stressful environment.
Acting has now become this sort of little safe haven for me to be truly creative and truly free and not bear the onus of the movie. When I’m done, I go home and I go to sleep. When I’m directing a movie I’m thinking about it all the time. It’s a great counterbalance to my directing life.
PH: (laughing) You just killed one of my other questions!
PH: About the final scene. You purposefully didn’t talk about it beforehand about what was going to happen and what you were going to do for the film’s resolution. Did you have a bunch of contingencies running through your head, since you didn’t know what Joshua was going to do?
MD: Yeah. I wouldn’t say “contingencies,” but I did have thoughts about where it could go and I did have markers of places that I thought would be interesting. I thought for sure these guys would try out a kiss. I felt like that was coming at some point.
PH: By the way, I’m going to try not to give [the ending] away to the readers.
MD: Of course. I didn’t really know, obviously, what was going to happen. I had some ideas, but in general it really was a true process of exploration. It was “he’s gonna walk into that hotel room and I don’t know what the hell is gonna happen.”
The first day we shot for an hour and about 75 to 80 percent of what you see is from that very day.
PH: Here’s another thing. I think it’ s from one of the DVD commentaries, but I believe Lynn Shelton has said that you all actually didn’t know that it was going to work. You never really know that on any movie, of course, but in this case you really came in with the idea that “maybe this will work, maybe this won’t” and the entire movie might be discarded and never see the light of day. What got you to make that commitment anyway, even though you felt it was risky.
MD: It was the right time in my life. I was just about to shoot my first studio movie with my brother. It was a movie that I had developed for a few years and I knew we could execute perfectly. It was right in my wheelhouse, it was everything I knew how to do well and that was very exciting to me. The other side of that coin is wanting to do something that was really at risk of failing and the feelings that brought out in me…. “Humpday” was a little bit of me regressing back to how I felt when I was 19 or 20 making art movies. “It could be really cool; we’re probably going to fuck it up, but let’s give it a shot anyway.” There’s a vitality to that; it was the right time in my life.
PH: So you wanted to get back on the high-wire again?
MD: Yeah, I wanted to get on the hire-wire again.
PH: You’ve brought me very nicely to the next question. Now, the movie with your brother you were referring to, this is the one with Jonah Hill? Do you have a title for that yet?
MD: We do not have a title yet, but we’ll probably have one in about two days. We’re all getting through all the best options right now and trying to decide what that’s going to be. But, yeah, we’re still working on that.
It’s really become a special kind of a thing. Everyone has been so supportive and they love it so much, and so do we and we’re being very careful about when we release it and what title we use and we really want to do it right.
PH: As I understand it, Marisa Tomei plays his mother and John C. Reilly is her new boyfriend. What’s it like working with that kind of actor, as opposed to the the sort of stock company you’ve built-up with the so-called “mumblecore” films.
MD: Creatively speaking, very, very similar. They had seen all of our movies and we only brought them on board because they wanted to make a movie like this. They wanted to improvise; they wanted to go explore. And so, creatively speaking, we really were on that level. But, I gotta say, and I did not expect this, there is something to working with quote-unquote “professional actors.” These people are fucking good. They are good at their job.
I was cocky and thought “me and my friends, we know what we’re doing, we’re fine.” There is something to working with professionals. There is a reason these people make the money they do and get the praise that they do. Particularly, Jonah is…there’s a whole new side to Jonah. It’s a completely different character than he’s ever played. And it’s really, really special.
We’ve always known he’s a special kid; we’ve known him for quite a bit socially. We’ve been looking for something that can break him out of just the teenage roles that he’s played before, and we feel like this is it for him.
PH: I’ve seen some more potential in him more recently. His part in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was something that seemed a little bit beyond what we’ve been seeing.
MD: He’s got it.
PH: Getting back to “Humpday,” It kind of fits into this broad category that’s been called “mumblecore” and I’m kind of curious because I was kind of pleasantly surprised since I’ve started seeing the movies…you guy’s don’t actually mumble!
MD: I don’t think we mumble either. I think it was very nice to have that movement in, say, 2005 when my brother and myself, Jo Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, and a handful of other filmmakers – Ti West, who made “House of the Devil”…We were making $10,000 movies on our little cameras and it was great that The New York Times gave a name to our movement, to whatever. They gave us reviews and it brought awareness to us.
PH: Was it The New York Times who coined the word?
MD: I don’t know who actually termed it, but they sort of broke it out. And that was great and we needed that attention, but fortunately we’ve all evolved as filmmakers and the styles have evolved and the technology has evolved. So, we’re a little bit out of that movement and the press still wants to use that word. I think it’s outlived it’s usefulness, unfortunately. But I’m glad that it was out there for awhile because it did help to launch our careers a bit.
PH: It’s interesting because the first one I saw was “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and I thought, “this is pretty written,” which brings me to a question I want to ask you about “Humpday” and this may be more of a question for Lynn, but this move feels written. It feels like one of those movies were afterward people ask if the dialogue was improvised and they say “no it wasn’t, but that was because we did our jobs so well it felt like people were making it up as they went.” Why do you think it feels so tight even though you really were improvising the dialogue?
MD: The editor, Nat Sanders, is unbelievable at trimming fat and Lynn as well is very good about knowing that we want to stick to the narrative and not go off blabbing about things. But I also gotta give credit to Alycia [Delmore, who plays Anna, Ben’s highly tolerant wife and does so extremely well], Josh, and myself for knowing that just because you’re improvising doesn’t mean you can talk about bullshit for an hour. We were improvising the narrative and you have to keep the actor-brain on but also a writer-brain. So, while you’re inside the scene you’re driving the story and throwing out little surprises to keep things on track. If you feel things going off track, you have to spin it back and make sure you’re headed towards that narrative. It’s a very specific kind of improv – it’s narrative driven improv and I think that makes the difference.
PH: Obviously, this is not a story where you have heroes or villains, but your character does kind of do the most questionable things of any of the characters.
MD: Yeah, I agree.
PH: He seems very comfortable taking some big chances with his relationships. How do you think about him, for example, in the scene where he stays several hours at the party, though he has told Anna he’d shortly be leaving for home and her special pork chops. What’s kind of going through your head about what he’s thinking about?
MD: His behavior is understandable to me because he’s at a bit of a crisis point when he sees Andrew. He’s in his early thirties and his life is fine and it’s great. But when he sees he remembers the person he was when he was 19, in college with Andrew, and their whole life was ahead of them and their dreams were at their fingertips. It makes him realize that he has not achieved that he would have hoped he’d achieve; he didn’t become exactly who he hoped he’d become, and that makes him want to take all the little elements of his life, throw them in a box, shake it upside down, dump it on the floor and see what happens. He wants to shake things up and see what kind of foundation they really have. I think this whole idea of doing this porn with Andrew is right in line with that.
PH: That’s funny. It’s pretty much in line with exactly what I was thinking. He almost had to be not really sure whether he wanted to keep going on the path he thought he wanted to go on.
PH: Now, I’ve got a very superficial question for you, and I guess we’ll wrap up with this one. I was watching “This Is John” [a very funny 2003 short subject by the Duplass Brothers] last night. You look younger now – and very different at times. In some of the shots I thought maybe your brother was subbing for you or something. You really look different now and I can’t figure out why. You have any ideas?
MD: I don’t know, except when we made “This is John,” we combed my hair in a very special way and put on the computer guy’s outfit that was our roommate at the time. That might have had a specific part in it, but, who knows, maybe I found the fountain of youth.
PH: I was thinking maybe you had a nose job but then I looked again and I said, “no, the nose looks the same.”
MD: I haven’t had any work done, if that’s what you mean. I don’t plan on doing that anytime soon.
PH: [Laughing] I was just comparing pictures and I couldn’t support that theory. Since we’ve got another second here, I’ll ask you another question about that film. You were playing your roommate?
MD: That was a pretty quick movie – from conception to when it was done shooting was a half hour. We shot one 20 minute take and then it was done. I dressed up like my friend, Will. Put his clothes on, combed my hair like him and just imagined what it would like to be a frustrated computer programmer trying to the outgoing greeting on his answering machine. And that’s what came out.
It happened very quickly. Cut it down to eight minutes and that was our first movie that got into Sundance. That’s how life is…a $3 movie.
Read the Premium Hollywood interview with Mark Duplass’s “Humpday” co-star, Joshua Leonard.