Co.Create

"Like a Demo Tape From Your Favorite Band:" Mark Duplass Talks Improvisational Filmmaking

Mark Duplass is the star and executive producer of Your Sister’s Sister and one half of writer-director team, The Duplass Brothers. Here he talks to Co.Create about improvisation, insane productivity, and getting to 95%.

Don’t let his laid-back charm fool you; Mark Duplass is a creative force of nature. When he’s not starring in two films that open at the same time, as he happens to be right now, he’s writing and directing them with his brother, Jay, and moving between any number of other projects.

Duplass appears in Your Sister’s Sister, co-starring Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, and Safety Not Guaranteed, with Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza, both in theaters now. These follow the April release of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, written and directed by the Duplass Brothers and starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon. The brothers’ next feature, The Do-Deca-Pentathalon, is set for release later this summer. Somehow during this swarm of activity, Mark will also find time this year to star in the fourth season of the hit TV show The League on FX. And you can expect his profile to rise further once everyone gets a load of him in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker.

If you’ve seen any of The Duplass Brothers’ movies or watched The League, you’ll probably have noticed how natural the dialogue sounds. There’s a good reason for that: Mark is a believer in improvisational filmmaking. It plays a big role in the features he directs and some of those that he acts in, including Your Sister’s Sister, which was directed by his friend Lynn Shelton. Below, the undersung powerhouse talks about curating improv performances from both sides of the camera and how he got his start.

During the closing credits of Your Sister’s Sister, all the leads are listed as 'creative consultants.' Is that because of the improvisational content?
That credit in particular is because, even though we worked off a treatment, every line in the film is improvised. I’ve worked with Lynn [Shelton] in the past—we did this movie called Humpday a couple years ago. The concept for this film, though, is actually something my brother and I had come up with a while back, but we just figured it wasn’t a movie we were going to make, so I brought it to Lynn and we ended up developing it together.

Was there anything difficult about taking direction on this movie after you created the concept for it?
No, not at all. Lynn is a great friend and a co-collaborator. I made so many bad movies in my teens and 20s, and I’ve been beaten down enough to know that ego has no place in filmmaking. It’s been beaten out of me. So it’s really all about just finding the greatest idea you can. If that comes from me, great. If it comes from the key grip, that’s fine too.

How is improvising in another director’s film different than your own?
It doesn’t feel that different in the moment. On some level, it’s easier to improvise in someone else’s film than your own because I don’t bear the full and utter responsibility of my rantings and ravings at the end of the day. They have to deal with it. But the process is always the same to me. We’re not improvising so that we can achieve jokes. We’re not doing extra dialogue at the end of the scene or the front of the scene. We’re improvising the scene, so you have to keep your mind on the narrative at all times. But as long as you’re driving the movie forward, you’re doing your job.

What about making movies this way appeals to you?
I would say that making a movie with a perfectly constructed script that took two to three years to write is probably going to make the best movie in the long run, but if you’re making them quickly and shaggy and cheaply, I believe that allowing your actors to improvise will make a better movie usually. What you achieve is that wonderful quality of a demo tape from your favorite band, like if you listen to the demo tapes of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from Wilco. It’s raw, it’s loose, some of it’s a little out of pitch and a little out of time, but you feel like you were there the moment the idea was birthed. And there’s something very special and intimate about that, and I love that feeling, I think that’s what improvisation brings to narrative cinema.

How does the improv dynamic change when more established actors like Jonah Hill or Susan Sarandon are thrown into the mix?
It doesn’t change at all, to be honest with you, at least in the case of my movies and Your Sister’s Sister. These actors have seen our movies, so they’re coming into our world rather than us bringing our world to them. And they’re doing it because they want to do it, and they want to be able to explore and improvise. It works really well, to be quite honest with you. I personally believe that if you’re a professional actor, you’re going to be good at improvising if you want to improvise. All you have to do is be willing to explore, and be open to falling flat on your face.

How do you curate the improv performances you want as a director?
The key for me is no rehearsal, and don’t direct the first take. Allow insanity to happen and sometimes the surprises are wonderful, even if sometimes they’re god-awful. It’s all about creating an environment where lightning is most likely to strike. You need to have your cameras ready for each and every actor, and when it happens once, you’ve got it. There’s nothing worse in an improvised film than when you strike some magic and they say, “Great, go back to your trailer for an hour, come back, and do the same thing again.” That’s terrible.

So when it comes to something like your climactic monologue in Your Sister’s Sister, are you thinking about it in the weeks leading up to it?

Not really. I try to go pretty spontaneous on that. In the case of Humpday, I had a monologue, in the case of Your Sister’s Sister, I also had one; and in both cases I wrote them the morning of so that they would be structured but also fresh, and I didn’t tell anyone what I was gonna say so it was kind of like a surprise and we can all take it for what it was in the moment.

Let’s switch gears and go back to the beginning: how did you and your brother get started?

We’ve always made movies together and music together, and we didn’t have any industry connections so we were just two kids in a suburban cave making weird shit. We struggled for a long time, trying to imitate other filmmakers, and then one day in our mid 20s, we were really depressed because we hadn’t made anything good. We just picked up our parents’ video camera and made a short film that cost us $3, of a guy trying to perfect the personal greeting on his answering machine. We shot one improvised 20-minute take in the kitchen. And there was no crew—just Jay behind the camera and me acting. And that was our first movie that got into Sundance. It won a ton of awards, and got us our agents and all that stuff. That was basically what taught us what we’re good at in making movies. They don’t always look beautiful, they don’t always sound beautiful, but if we try to keep an organic performance that’s kind of truthful and funny and sad, then people tend to connect to it.

So you originally set out to be a director rather than an actor?
Yeah, much more a filmmaker. The acting thing came just because we were shooting movies and I was the writer of these movies so it helped if I was in them to improvise. And then, whether it’s my ego that’s got a hold of me or I really enjoy it, the process of making a movie as an actor became the most fun work that I do. You go to camp, you meet all these people, develop new relationships, and then walk away and they have to do everything. I just really love it as an antidote to all the stress and turmoil of directing movies, which is really rewarding, but really taxing.

As an actor, you tend to exude this “regular guy” charisma—is that at all a reflection of the way you are in your own life?
It’s hard to analyze yourself through your screen persona, but what I will say about a lot of the movie roles I’ve done is that they’re all somewhat thinly veiled versions of myself, particularly in the case of Your Sister’s Sister. When you’re deeply improvising like that, your cadence and the rhythm of your speech usually boil down to your personal style, so Rosemarie, Emily, and myself, we all feel like that when we’re talking and hanging out. That said, though, the characters are completely fucked up and the choices they make are nothing like us—they’re significantly less emotionally aware than we are as people. Your Sister’s Sister is probably the closest to me personally of any movie I’ve been in recently.

Do you have a preference between directing and acting, and what you’re known for?
I don’t care what I’m known for more. I think honestly what I’m known for is just being a maniac who does a lot of stuff, and I kind of am that. But I like doing a healthy combination of directing movies and writing movies and also producing little movies and acting in them. For me the roles are less clearly defined than on these big budget movies because when you’re making a movie like Your Sister’s Sister, I’m a producer and an actor but I’m also helping to hang lights and cook dinner and move the van and all that shit too, and I like all the tasks associated with an indie film.

What’s the secret to putting out films at such a rapid clip?
For me, it’s admitting that you don’t know everything. Also admitting that not every movie is going to be better than the last. There’s a certain amount of luck to making a good movie. And it’s about getting the movie to 95%. Because it takes three times as much time to take a movie from 95% to 100% as it does to get from 0% to 95%. And then when you get to 95%, ask for help. I don’t know why directors don’t do this more. Some of them seem like if they don’t finish the movie themselves with their own vision, then they’re failing. Get your favorite filmmaker friends to come out and watch your movie and tell you what’s wrong with it. And test it on audiences and see how they feel about it. I don’t think it makes you less of an auteur to get guidance. I practically beg for help when I hit walls, and I’d rather do that than bang my head against the wall and waste a bunch of time.

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