In past blog posts we have covered many of cinema’s greatest legends, some of the most iconic and well known filmmakers of all time. While there is so much to be learned from these individuals, there’s equally as much to be learned from those who have gone a bit of a different route in the course of cinema history. The filmmaking duo I’ll be talking about today are (by self-proclamation) the genetic B minuses of the world. They are true artists with poignant stories to tell, ridiculous work ethic, and an enormous wealth of passion and emotional intelligence to give to the craft. Known for films like The Puffy Chair, Baghead, and Cyrus, as well as TV series like Togetherness and Room 102, I am talking about the Duplass Brothers.
Mark Duplass, the younger member of the filmmaking duo, was born December 7, 1976 in New Orleans, Louisiana to his parents Cynthia and Lawrence Duplass, and his older brother Jay. Essentially, this is where the creative pair got their start, not as filmmakers, but as brothers. Unlike a lot of older siblings, a keystone in Mark and Jay’s relationship was that Jay, although three years older, agreed and enjoyed spending time with his little brother. They spent long days together running around their hometown of Metairie, making home-movies about a kid-Karate master protecting his house from a robber, sneaking onto single-rider water slides to ride down them together, and watching movies. At night they would sneak into each others’ beds, lay next to each other, and dream together. They would talk for hours about their hopes, their dreams, their excitement, their worries. Something about their relationship was special from the beginning, their bond was something beyond brothers and friends, although there might not be a word to quite describe how special their relationship is, soul mates may be a sufficiently descriptive moniker.
With big emotions and an inclination towards music, movies, and creativity, from an early age Mark and Jay were destined to be filmmakers. Some of their favorite films were The Karate Kid, Raising Arizona, Dumb and Dumber, Rocky, and Ordinary People. While their filmmaking ventures of childhood were more inspired by the Cohen Brothers, Jim Carrey, and Mr. Miyagi, the deep emotional tones of films like Ordinary People would go on to be the cornerstone of Duplass brothers movies, raw and emotional.
From writing and playing music together, to messing around with a camera shooting little shorts, as Mark and Jay Duplass got older, their drive and work ethic to achieve their goals as artists became much more legitimate. They were working hard to improve and find their voices as artists, to uncover the depths of their creative identities. But things took a shift when Jay went away to Austin, Texas for college. Despite being an intelligent and independent person, Jay found the adjustment to college life almost unbearable. He was overwhelmed, depressed, and conflicted by his desperation to go home matched by an equally strong inability to quit something (in this case college) and leave it unfinished, to fail. So, the brothers’ relationship adapted and Mark began filling a role as older brother, supporting and comforting Jay through the adjustment. Although still in high school, Mark would travel to visit Jay frequently, sharing Jay’s dorm-twin bed, going to parties with rowdy college kids, and forging an even closer bond between the two.
This impenetrable bond would carry over into their early twenties (and beyond) when their invigorating dreams and ambitions to be artists transformed into extreme self-imposed pressure to succeed and a practice of working themselves into the ground to make things happen. Mark started an indie rock band, called Volcano, I’m Still Excited!, which he wrote music for and went on tour, driving from gig to gig, selling CDs out of the back of his van. The brothers invested in an Avid editing machine and started their own film editing business out of a cheap box-with-no-windows office space. And, eventually, they were contacted by a fortune 500 company to make a documentary for several hundred thousand dollars. Ultimately, the company folded and the documentary became lost footage, but as starving artists, aged 19 and 22, they now had several hundred thousand dollars and some wind in their sails. With this, they decided it was time to make their first feature.
Wanting to make something in the spirit of one of their favorite movies, Rocky, Mark and Jay began their venture to make Vince Del Rio, the story of a runner in Texas facing struggle and strife, on his path to achieving his athletic ambitions. They put their blood, sweat, tears, and pretty much every last penny of their several hundred thousand dollars into this film, but what they realized too late is that what they didn’t put in was a touching performance or a unique and personal story. After writing, organizing, shooting, and editing Vince Del Rio, they watched a final cut and it quickly became apparent that they had made (in their own words) an “unfixable, steaming pile of donkey turds." Already individuals with big emotions and a tendency to get “woogie” (their terminology for feeling depressed, anxious, and in a funk), this “failure” sent the brothers into an even deeper spiral and depression.
With each passing year Jay and Mark continued working hard, made more attempts at getting inspired and making something great, but the depression was overwhelming and their dreams were being dissipated before their eyes. Being starving artists was cute when they were in their early twenties, but now at age 25 and 28, Mark and Jay were starting to realize maybe this dream wasn’t meant to be...maybe it was time to throw in the towel, put on their “adult” pants, and get a “real person” job. But, one fine day, Mark was struck with a jolt of transcendent inspiration, a death rattle of sorts, one last push before burying their lifetime dream six feet under. No big budget, no quality equipment, no crew...just Mark, Jay, and their parents’ old camcorder with a broken pixel in the center. In a bit of a frenzy, one casual afternoon, the Duplass brothers made their first Sundance accepted short film This is John, an improvised story of emotional strife experienced by main character John Ashford (played by Mark Duplass) as he attempts to re-record the voice message on his answering machine. The story is subtle, human, emotional, and a bit silly. Little did they know, but they had locked into what would become the key tones of a Duplass brothers movie, human stories, big emotions, and the perfect amount of silliness and oddness to balance it all out.
From their experience with This is John, they also stumbled upon a new means of making a film. Rather than trying to sell scripts in Hollywood, or get an agent and take dozens of waste-of-time general meetings that never amount to anything, they realized that the best way to make a film, keeping 100% creative integrity, with no risk of it dissolving into the endless abyss of unmade-Hollywood movies, is to get a camera, get some friends, and tell a fucking great story. Don’t tell Rocky if you aren’t Sylvester Stalone. Don’t tell The Karate Kid if you aren’t Robert Kamen and John Avildsen. Think of a story from your own life, a human experience you have had or you feel close to, that can connect to others. THAT is the story YOU are supposed to tell. The Duplass brothers realized this and started making their own films. They were financially savvy, the HARDEST working people, they put all of themselves into making their low-budget films, and ended up making a name for themselves in Hollywood.
I am constantly inspired by the Duplass brothers, their work ethic, their deeply personal and moving films/tv shows, their ability to navigate a brother-brother film duo professional and personal relationship. If you are unfamiliar with the Duplass’ and you have dreams to be a filmmaker, you should learn their names - learn their story - because they are a true example of artists paving their own way in the world. They are a true example of always be dreaming, always be working hard, and of course... Always Be Writing.
Something I heard Mark Duplass say in a keynote that I still remind myself of today is this:
"The calvary is not coming."
It's up to you to go and carve your own path.
For a more detailed account of the Duplass Brothers’ road to success, and truly a filmmakers guide to making it in the industry, I urge everyone to read or listen to their book Like Brothers.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.