Since having their first taste of the festival circuit at Sundance in 2002 with This is John, Mark and Jay Duplass have acquired a reputation for making emotional family-driven films on the budget of a shoestring. While some directors go through periods of messing around with what works, the Duplass brothers have stayed consistent in capturing the best in their actors whether it’s transitioning from an independent release to making their modest leap into mainstream.
Although Jay and Mark shouldn’t be underestimated by how they can spread a buck, the studios backing bigger films like Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives At Home ultimately gave the brothers a little breathing room to accomplish the task of creating stories about everyday people, and how they relate to one another. In the time between The Puffy Chair and Cyrus, the brothers were given space to create The Do-Deca-Pentathlon.
With Pentathlon they’re back to their humble beginnings; the film follows two sports-driven brothers (played by Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis) with a handheld camera in a guerilla-styled manner that brings the audience in from macro to micro, beat to beat. Mark and Jay capture the moments that unfurl in between the chaos with their lens, proving that two filmmakers can evolve as creators without having to change what they ultimately know how to do best.
The Rumpus caught up with the brothers to discuss their latest film and the inner workings of independent film.
The Rumpus: Where did you get the name behind The Do-Deca-Pentathlon?
Jay: It’s actually biographical in origin. Two brothers that we grew up down the street from in New Orleans called the Solak brothers actually created The Do-Deca-Pentathalon. It’s a misnomer for what was an attempt to be a Greek 25 event personal Olympics. That actually happened; those brothers actually competed in it in high school, but it was cut short because the competition was too intense and the parents intervened. It was shrouded in controversy and Mark and I spent the next decade constantly talking about it. It would always come back up, and we’ve always been obsessed with the idea of two brothers who love each other very much and the only way they know how to show it is slamming a basketball in the other one’s face. Eventually when we came up with the concept that the two brothers would become estranged and come back together some many years later, out of shape, and they would reignite the games, that’s when I think we figured out that there was a movie there.
Rumpus: Have the two brothers seen the movie?
Mark: They were a big part of it. They actually came to Los Angeles to do a redux of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon and we filmed it; it will be on the DVD extra special features.
Rumpus: What fascinates you about the family dynamic because all of your films seem to revolve around that theme?
Jay: I guess it’s the world that we live in. It’s the emotional landscape that we live in. We’re very close with our family. There’s a ton of love there, and there’s a lot of energy put towards creating positivity, but also everyone in our family has a pretty strong personality. Everyone has their own very strong desire to do what it is that they feel they need to do to be happy in the world. We find that the conflict which Mark and I live in daily, which is trying to maintain your own individuality and your own sense of being inspired about life, while also being a good dad, husband, and son. For us in particular as well as everyone else that we’re related to,it’s just what we live in and what we’re obsessed with.
Rumpus: How do you guys divvy up the work on set?
Jay: We don’t really divvy it up. The only thing that really happens differently on set is that I’m the main camera operator, and Mark is on monitors watching all the cameras because we often shoot with two or three cameras. For us it’s a big plus because I’m in the room with the actors, and can often whisper things and Mark is on headset with me, and he’s communicating with me, and that’s a unique perspective. Mark is in a unique position of just truly being able to watch everything as it’s coming in. Other than that we function as a two-headed monster. We reckon with what has happened, and we reckon with what we want to do next, and proceed from there.
Rumpus: Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis did a fantastic job in the lead roles; you’ve collaborated and worked with them before — what is it about them individually that makes it easy to collaborate?
Mark: Steve in particular shares our creative spirit, and our vision, and we went to high school with him. We’ve known him for years. He’s the kind of guy that you don’t have to explain why you want him to do something. You tell him and his face lights up, and he goes in and does it. He’s not afraid to fail. That sort of endless optimism is what we really need on set and keeps us going. In terms of Mark Kelly in particular, playing the villain in this film, if there is one, it really helps to have someone who at their core is a really nice, sweet person. What’s great about Mark Kelly is that as he is fiercely competing and doing all of these morally questionable things in The-Do-Deca-Pentathlon, he has a kindness behind his eyes, and it makes for a wonderful balance.
Rumpus: In The Do-Deca-Pentathlon there’s no mention of the father. What happened with that part of the story?
Jay: Our thought is that he either passed away or was driven out of the family by the insane energy of the two boys, and we liked it being kind of unspecific because it’s not the focus of the story. The most important thing was that this gentle grandmother was left to deal with these two maniac boy children.
Rumpus: You guys captured all of those underlying layers there are to competitive sports. Was there a certain way that you guys outlined the script that gave the actors a particular way to interact with one another?
Jay: A lot of people think we work from outlines because we improvise so much, but we actually write the scripts. Of course once we get on set we talk in terms of goals and motivations, and how we get there. We encourage our actors to come up with their own ways of what they need to do, and what they need to say. We definitely start with scripts that I think are pretty clear in underlining the emotional depth that we want to achieve.
Rumpus: So do you guys talk a lot about back-story of the characters with the actors?
Mark: Not really, actually. We don’t do that in our process. When I work on films with Lynn Shelton we do that, because there is an absence of the script, and just an outline, but for us it’s very instinctual. We do have a lot of hang out sessions so that the actors who don’t know each other yet can feel each other’s rhythms and get to know each other, but we like saving the surprises of working a scene, and working a character over for the moment they happen on set. In my opinion, if you rehearse something too much you can kill the magic of it. We like to watch the spill out the first time we’re shooting.
Rumpus: All of your films have that intimate feeling because of the framing of the handheld and the zoom shots, as well as the extreme close-up shots. How important do you think that is to the intimacy of storytelling? Also as a viewer, if other people’s films don’t have that kind of feeling are you put off by it?
Jay: We’re definitely not put off by it. We’re obsessed with the Coen brothers who are diametrically opposed to us in terms of filmmaking style. We’ve just found that this is the style that enables us to capture what we love, which are basically real moments that are happening, that are uncontrolled, and unfolding in a way that we couldn’t quite predict. We do feel like it has enabled us to get those moments and I think the one thing we tell actors is, ‘look we’re going to be improvising, we’re going to be sitting in a lot of chaos, but when the moment happens and lightning strikes, I will be there, and I will capture it, and I will get it in close-up. If you have your moment I won’t be locked into a wide shot. You will not have to repeat it 7 times so that we can make it happen over the course of the scene.’ Mark and I are specifically obsessed with true moments being presented for audiences, and we’ve definitely gotten some nice feedback that a lot of people do feel that anything could have happened in those moments. I think the truth of the matter is that we’ve created a set where anything could happen and the events were uncontrolled.
Rumpus: I’ve noticed a lot of filmmakers say that a film becomes a fully formed idea in the editor’s room. Do you feel like your body of work and the structure of a film changes on set?
Jay: I think the way you would look at it is like, we’re collecting all of these wonderful bits and pieces on set, that we know will eventually make this collage, but we know a lot of them aren’t going to make it, so we gather 25,000 bits and we know only 10,000 will make it in the film. In a lot of ways the whole adage of a movie coming together in the editor’s room is truer than ever in our films because they’re particularly documentary-like in their approach.
Rumpus: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, more so than Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives At Home has that reminiscent spirit of the films that you guys made like The Puffy Chair, and Baghead. Do you guys think differently when you’re making a studio film?
Jay: This is a unique case because we made The Do-Deca-Pentathlon in 2008. We actually shot it then, and we basically had to put it on the shelf because we got green lit for Cyrus, and then we got green lit for Jeff, Who Lives At Home back to back. Mark and I, and our entire crew, were pretty excited to get paid a pretty decent salary to make a movie. It really is that third in the trilogy of the micro-budget films that we made, and we certainly would like to return to that in the future. We’ve always loved how Soderbergh does things. He does one larger film and then a smaller film to remind himself of who he is and why he does what he does.
You do have to get into a different mindset when you’re making a studio film, but not creatively. It really comes down to the mechanics of filmmaking. I think the big difference is that on a tiny, independent film it’s a much more instinctual and physical process. We’re actually moving lights around, actually cooking at times; you’re in it and there’s really no break. When you make a studio film you have to intellectualize a lot of it. You have to explain and articulate to people why you’re doing what you’re doing, so they can do a lot of the lifting. You have to do it with investors and people who are going to release the film, so there’s a lot more articulation in the studio realm, and that for us can be challenging at times.
Rumpus: You both definitely have your own independent projects, but do you direct together so there’s no conflict, so you won’t compete with each other?
Mark: I think that would be a really bad reason to direct a film, but I will say that when you are making an independent film, particularly the kinds of films we’re trying to make which are sensitive relationship-oriented films, they aren’t always the first kind of movie people want to give money to. It’s nice to have a partner who understands you completely and shares your creative vision. I think that for us the answer is really simple; it’s that two heads are better than one.
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is available on pre-theatrical VOD June 26, and a theatrical release is slated for July 6.