Last week, we discussed the Duplass brothers and how their creative story began. Now, it’s time to take a deeper dive into their revolutionary filmmaking process, one which they devised after facing failure and rejection in the more classic Hollywood pipeline.
We left off in their filmmaking journey that they had just made their first feature film, Vince Del Rio, and after realizing its failure, they put together a $5 short film This is John, which landed them a spot in the Sundance Film Festival. This was an incredible boost of confidence for the two men, however, it would be several more years before they really discovered their niche unveiled a new process for making movies that disregarded traditional means.
Upon getting their movie into Sundance, they got an agent, and they found that there were a number of people interested in working with them as creatives. The agent would say “Get ready. There are people with money and resources who are going to snatch you up.” The prospect was exciting, but the promises were empty. Besides some general meetings, nothing really transpired from their first Sundance short. But, motivated and with a bit more confidence in themselves, they set out to make another short, this one called Scrapple. Again, it was shot cheaply, and it was an intimate story of a couple and their obvious relationship problems displayed and exposed through a competitive game of Scrabble. Again, they got into Sundance, and again their agent promised great things that never really manifested. Holding on to hope that something would come from their mild Sundance success, the brothers continued writing.
Being untrusting that intimate and personal stories like Scrapple and This is John could be or would be worthy of being made into feature films, they wrote two scripts that they thought could sell: Unlimited Night and Weekend Minutes and Boobs in the Night. Shockingly, neither of these feature scripts sold. This was a bit of a wake up call for the Duplass brothers. They had thought writing more mainstream ideas would be the key, but just like when they made Vince Del Rio, the stories that they were telling with the intention of fitting them neatly in a “Hollywood” box, were uninspired and didn’t garner the positive attention they had hoped for.
Finally, the two hit a breaking point. After several years of being promised that they could write the right feature screenplay and magically be gifted the keys to the kingdom, to make a proper feature film, they realized something that would change their filmmaking careers forever. They realized that...
"The cavalry isn’t coming."
One of the best Duplass quotes there is. They realized that no matter how many times their agent promised that producers and studios were on their way, ready to take their ideas and turn them into movies, this was ALWAYS a false promise. Although a bit bleak, this realization gave the brothers a newfound sense of purpose. They refined their goals and came up with a new mission for themselves: "Make a feature film that doesn’t suck."
With a decent camera that they had paid off and now owned, a generous $10,000 loan from their parents, a good boom mic, and a morally ambiguous method of “renting” lighting equipment (buying lights from a big named hardware store and returning them within 30 days), they had everything they needed to begin production on a feature film of their own. They were still terrified, stumbling around trying to navigate their arduous artistic endeavors, but they were no longer wasting time waiting for someone else to give them permission. They were going to do this on their own.
Although they now had the means to create, they found that the pressure that they had put on themselves was crippling and a bit stifling creatively, making the question of what their feature film was going to be about, very difficult. In response to this stressful period of ruminating, Mark and Jay began going on walks to talk things over and see if they could unearth anything worthwhile. Being in their late 20’s and early 30’s they noticed a trend in their conversations, as well as conversations with their friends. The milestone of their age bracket seemed to be a new kind of relationship drama. Gone were the days of dating freely and without any real discussion of commitment. Now, men and women were finding themselves at the point in relationships where they recognized they either needed to make the ultimate commitment to one another, or break up and stop wasting time. Facing this dilemma in their own long-term relationships...
Their personal struggle became the central topic of their feature.
Coming up with the rest of the story with which they could place this key relationship drama unfolded based on the locations, people, and props they had access to. This is what they call their “available materials school of filmmaking." With both the characters and story, they first evaluated who and what they had available to them, then they crafted a storyline that complemented the actors abilities, and featured places that were accessible.
For this film, they cast Mark Duplass as the star, a role that was just assumed to be. Then, they cast Mark’s then girlfriend, now wife, and talented actress Katie Aselton to play opposite Mark. Finally, they cast their friend and fellow actor Rhett Wilkins to balance the film and keep it from being solely a relationship drama, to give it more narrative opportunities. After the casting process was done they looked at the resources they had available to them for locations and props to use. They had access to their apartments, Katie’s hometown, Mark’s touring van, and an old, burgundy, reclining, puffy chair. This is how their feature film The Puffy Chair came to be.
The story would follow Mark’s character Josh, who buys a puffy reclining chair for his dad’s birthday, a match to a chair his dad used to have when Josh was growing up. He plans to drive it cross-country and deliver it. These plans go slightly awry when Josh’s girlfriend, Emily, begs to tag along, and when Josh picks up his younger brother Rhett for the journey as well. All the while, the roadtrip and journey home uncover deep rooted issues in Josh and Emily’s relationship, pinning them on the precipice to decide whether to work things out and commit to one another, or end their relationship and move on with their lives.
The Puffy Chair was a Sundance hit! They not only made an indie sensation and crowd favorite, but they signed distribution deals with Roadside Attractions and an, at the time, small media company called Netflix. But, even more important than the success of their first REAL feature, they discovered a way of making movies that both secured the integrity of their work and their creative freedom as well as allowed them to actually make movies (cheaply nonetheless) instead of waiting around for someone else to give them permission. They learned how to “mine the epically small elements of [their] lives”, tell quirky, emotional, personal stories, as well as turn their childhood dreams into a reality and a legitimate career.
Make sure you check out their book (they read the audio version themselves) for even more behind the scenes on how they created their career.
The Duplass brothers realized that the cavalry isn’t coming, BUT rather that they are the cavalry. And the same goes for you. If you want to be a filmmaker, stop waiting around for the cavalry to come, because they won’t. Be your own cavalry. Use the “available materials school of filmmaking” method. Stop waiting, start making, and…
Always be writing.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.