If you've already savoured the talents of the charming Mark Duplass in Lynn Shelton's gem Your Sister's Sister then you're in for a treat, as not much more than a month later he is again in cinemas in Safety Not Guaranteed. Surprisingly in his role as an inventor who believes he can construct a time machine, he is less likeable than usual.
I just feel compelled to do stuff and I can’t figure out why necessarily
“The real question is, is this guy crazy or not?” Duplass asks in his rapid way of talking. “He is certainly not the affable everyman I've played a couple of times. I don't really have any agendas on how I appear as a performer. I just want to do the best thing I can do for the role and that means in the case of Your Sister's Sister, literally my character was so flawed I needed to be very affable and very likeable to get audiences on board with me. In the case of Safety Not Guaranteed, I take the fact that people know me as an airy man and use that in my favour. So I can act a little bit more outlandish but still have them on my side. There needs to be a little bit of awareness. For instance, when my brother and I made our last movie Cyrus, we cast John C. Reilly in our lead role because we knew the guy was going to be doing some morally questionable things and everybody loves John C. Reilly.”
New Orleans-born Duplass (he has Cajun ancestry) is what they call in the business a multi-hyphenate. He's a writer-director-producer-actor and general dogsbody, mostly on micro-budget, so-called Mumblecore movies that he directs with his elder and more retiring brother Jay. He also acts on television's The League with his wife Katie Aselton, who also has directed her own movie, Black Rock, which he wrote and produced. The dynamic 35-year-old first caught my attention at Your Sister's Sister's world premiere in Toronto last year when I was surprised how spruced up he'd become since the movie.
“Oh, Mark's doing more acting now,” Lynn Shelton confirmed in our later interview as the reason. Indeed he has since appeared in Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden pic, Zero Dark Thirty, and one imagines there are many more interesting roles to come.
In Toronto Duplass hadn't been available for interviews. He's so constantly busy he rarely is. Yet as usual he was in Sundance, staying at a condo, so being an intrepid Australian I trudged through the snow to meet him. Apart from again plugging Your Sister's Sister (which he partially wrote) at the festival, Safety Not Guaranteed was having its world premiere, as was Black Rock, a kind of American Picnic at Hanging Rock starring Aselton, Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell, which strangely hasn't surfaced since.
Duplass's latest directing effort, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, had been in Toronto though wasn't in Sundance. It had already been picked up by Paramount Pictures, who ultimately didn't know what to do with it, especially in Australia, after it did scarce business in the US ($4.3 million), so it went straight to DVD here. Unbelievable.
Duplass does not aim to make big bucks from his movies. He believes there is a new model where you don't need to be too greedy. “My brother and I own the movies we direct and we do well on those actually. We made our first movie The Puffy Chair for about $12,000 and we put it into theatres and then we spent $50,000 promoting it, made $250,000 in the theatres and then another $200,000 each on DVD and through Netflicks. We never hit $1 million on that movie but everybody made money, it was well reviewed and it launched a ton of careers. That's a huge success. So I think you can't just look empirically at the numbers at the end of the day.”
One of the ways in which he makes his low-budget moviemaking work is to reduce the overheads. “I have an agent who has been with me forever and a lawyer but I don't have a manager or a publicist," Duplass explains. “I've got to say, even if you make $1 million on a movie and somebody takes 25 percent, that's still $250,000. What are these people doing? How are they living? What's their problem?”
Duplass says he is a highly driven Type A person. “I was born that way. I have always been that way. I just feel compelled to do stuff and I can't figure out why necessarily.”
Is his wife a Type A person too? “She's not as bad as I am, thank God, but she is worse than most!” His brother, he says, is more laid back. “Creatively, though, we are 100 percent linked. He is much better at slowing down and exercising and gardening and living a more balanced life, which is predominantly why I go and do other things outside of our filmmaking partnership. Jay and I make a movie every year or two and then I have a bigger work appetite so producing movies like Your Sister's Sister and Black Rock and acting in others like Safety Not Guaranteed and Zero Dark Thirty keeps me satisfied.”
Watching both brothers present their film in Toronto, there is a goofiness they obviously share. “Our mum is super goofy and a big nicknamer and we are a goofy family,” Duplass admits. “My daughter is goofy, and my wife is goofy and we just like that. I think I am fortunate enough that I am a middle class person with no big socio-economic problems and my life is good and I can afford to be goofy.”
Duplass has to go. Parker Posey has fallen ill so that Aselton, who is six months pregnant with their second child, is now hosting the Sundance awards ceremony. “I have to cheer her on,” her husband says with a loving smile. “But I am sure that she will be good. She is so good in a room.” He is not wrong. Watch this space.