It’s a safe assumption that Mark Duplass believes at least six impossible things before breakfast. The former musician turned entertainment trailblazer has become a mogul, and some might argue, a savior, in the unpredictable world of indie filmmaking. In a climate notorious for both shrinking budgets and audiences, Duplass has the keen ability to see around corners, championing an alternative business model that capitalizes on the sustainability of streaming while paying homage to the glamour of art house cinema. Simply put, the dude knows what audiences want to see.
Back in January 2015, Mark and his brother, Jay, inked an unprecedented deal with Netflix to produce four movies to be distributed on the streaming service after a brief theatrical release. Later that year, the brothers signed a seven-film distribution deal with The Orchard. The first film under those deals, Blue Jay, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival with its theatrical release and on-demand service debut slated for fall of 2016. We sat down to talk improvisation, the cavalry, and his occasional southern accent.
CINEMA THREAD: You’ve got quite the knack for nuanced dialog and character-driven storytelling. What role does improvisation play in your films?
MARK DUPLASS: Every film is different. Most of the things Jay and I direct work with a traditional script, but we tend to loosen it up a ton on set. Sometimes, though, we just start with an outline and progress from there. On Blue Jay, I wrote the initial outline in collaboration with my producers, my director, and Sarah Paulson. Then, once on set, I would sketch out pages for each scene the night before we shot them. We didn’t have any time to really learn the lines, but those pages gave us a nice form to follow.
CT: The film was shot in just one week. How did your personal relationship with Sarah evolve over the course of shooting this film?
MD: I knew Sarah a bit personally before we made the film. She is extremely close with Amanda Peet, whom I directed in Togetherness. And I knew we could create a realistic chemistry just based on our natural energy together. But I was heartened to find out how much we had in common along the way. And how we were able to spin some of our personality elements into the story as well. She’s a rad collaborator. Fiercely loyal, with a high level of integrity for the truth. She does not suffer fools, and neither do I. So we kept each other on our toes for sure.
I love working with first-timers because they are usually extremely appreciative and incredibly prepared. And, perhaps most importantly, they teach me new things because I can get caught in a rut of the same way of doings things over and over again.
CT: Your seven-picture distribution deal with The Orchard allows The Duplass Brothers films to be seen in theaters before streaming on Netflix, which you have a four-picture production deal with. As someone who has built a lucrative career with VOD, streaming, and theatrical releases—was the theater-to-streaming structure an important element for you, and if so, why?
MD: To be honest, I feel less and less of a need for my own films to have a traditional theatrical release the older I get. But many of the filmmakers I produce are making their first film, and I think it’s important to have an element of theatrical early on in one’s career (not just for the fun and excitement, but also for some of the media coverage and reviews, etc.) So, it was important to find a balance for these movies. At the end of the day, my movies are mostly seen on Netflix by people who are willing to “try me out” for free. And I’m 100% fine with that.
CT: Alex Lehmann was your former camera operator at The League and pulled double-duty as the director and DP of Blue Jay. How did your dynamic change during his directorial debut?
MD: Alex and I did really well on this movie together. He’s extremely humble and had very little narrative experience, but his instincts for storytelling and cinema are very closely aligned with mine. And visually, he’s a much more advanced filmmaker than I am in a lot of ways. So, we had a wonderful blend of our skills coming together to make it work. And, in the end, we both share a sense of nostalgia and melancholy which is the essential ingredient to this film, and that was the horse we kinda rode the whole way through.
CT: Why did you decide to shoot the film in black and white?
MD: We wanted this film to be very bare. Strip away all the extra elements and lay bare a feeling at its core. Alex said it really well… ‘Two characters. Two colors.’
CT: You’re known for discovering and working with new talent. How can a lack of experience be an asset to the creative process?
MD: I just love the excitement and work ethic that comes when you give someone a chance to prove themselves. I love working with first-timers because they are usually extremely appreciative and incredibly prepared. And, perhaps most importantly, they teach me new things because I can get caught in a rut of the same way of doings things over and over again.
CT: What is your relationship to failure? And at this stage in your career, what would you consider a failure?
MD: Blue Jay is hands down the riskiest film I’ve ever made. We went in with a short outline, very little prep, seven days to film, and no ‘big’ story to lean on. It was entirely execution-dependent, and we were not sure we wouldn’t make a steaming pile of garbage. I don’t think we did. And I’m really proud of that. I’m terrified of failing, because I have failed so much in the early portion of my career. But that fear was very invigorating for all of us on Blue Jay.
CT: What does success look like to you?
MD: Learning how to slow the fuck down.
CT: During your 2015 keynote speech at SXSW, you famously declared, “The cavalry is not coming.” At what point in your career did this become your point of view?
MD: It was a gradual thing. I suppose I always thought that making indie films was only a passing phase so that one could get to Hollywood and make bigger budget films. But I slowly realized that making small films (and TV shows) is a way of life and ecosystem unto itself. That, at least for me, is where it’s where I’m most comfortable and where I can tell the stories I think I’m equipped to tell well.
CT: To what extent do you think streaming services and premium cable have galvanized a newfound economy for niche storytelling?
MD: By the time you read this, the rules will have already changed so I don’t dare to venture a guess. I will say that I am thrilled to have a home like Netflix who pays us well to make our smaller, niche films. I don’t take that for granted and realize it could go away, literally, tomorrow.
CT: In previous interviews, you’ve noted that not every film needs to be seen by everyone, just like not every movie needs $14M to be made. Do you think there should be a direct relationship to budget and viewership?
MD: I wouldn’t say “direct” but I do think it’s good to be realistic, especially as you are coming up as a filmmaker, i.e., maybe a niche Cantonese melodrama with no stars shouldn’t be made for $20 million dollars? That said, I think it’s important to make some irrational decisions and shake things up. We put our own money into Sean Baker’s Tangerine and, while I was fairly sure I would make my money back, I would have been happy to lose money on that film to get it into the world.
CT: How long would you say it took you to find your voice in filmmaking?
MD: I lucked into it around age 25. I had been making music and movies for at least 10 years before that. Ugh.
CT: How come you don’t have a Southern accent?
MD: I do when I drink.
CT: If we gave you $50, what would you buy?
MD: I would find a good cause with a corporate match, donate it, bring it up to $100.
CT: Last three Google searches?
MD: Raw Oysters Vancouver. Marlon James new book. Adjustable Jump Rope.
This story originally appeared in Cinema Thread Magazine, Issue No. 01.