Interview: Jeff Who Lives At Home Directors Jay And Mark Duplass

After making their names in the world of small-scale indie features, like their first two films The Puffy Chair and Baghead, brothers Jay and Mark Duplass have been slowly making their way into more mainstream filmmaking, first with the Fox Searchlight-backed Cyrus and now with Jeff Who Lives At Home, the largest film the directors have made to date, but a pretty tiny one by the standards of their studio, Paramount. Jeff, starring Jason Segel and Ed Helms as an estranged pair of brothers caught up in a rambling adventure one day, opened last weekend to strong reviews-- it's not just that Helms and Segel create a believable brotherly bond, but that the Duplasses bringing their naturalistic filmmaking to a studio film creates a nice contrast, an honest movie with small stakes but the budget and stars to get attention.

Though it was already set for a spring release at the time, Jeff Who Lives At Home premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September; a few days after that premiere, I caught up with the Duplasses to ask if they really had cried their way through the entire premiere, how Segel and Helms worked with their improvisational style, and why they had to keep the Jeff script in a years until the time was right. Check out our conversation below, and see Jeff Who Lives At Home in theaters now.

Did you guys really cry through the entire premiere?

Jay and Mark: Both of us.

Is that a common thing?

Jay: Oh yeah. At the first public screening in particular. First it's crying because the Paramount logo comes up and you're like, "Oh God, we made a Paramount movie." It doesn't occur to you until you're sitting in an audience. Even when you're preparing, it, it feels glued together in your edit suite, and our edit suite is a dumpy little building in Glendale, California.

Mark: It's a shithole.

Jay: So it doesn't feel real and its own entity until you've gone away for a while, and you show up at the festival, and you didn't show up schlepping the tape and a backup tape in your pocket.

Mark: Try to imagine, if you can, walking into a theater of 2,000 people who have come to see your movie that has that Paramount logo rolling in front of it, of all those beautiful experiences you had in a movie theater where that logo rolled in front of it. As much as we have slowly gotten to that point in our career, and it is a natural progression, and I do kind of feel like, "Yeah, we do belong here," that's an intellectual concept. When you sit in the theater and you feel that, it just hits us. And we're wimps and we cry all the time.

Does it have anything to do with the extent to which the story is personal for you guys? I assume this isn't your relationship, but you must feel personally connected to the story of brothers.

Mark: We do. Someone said to us, and we just realized it, they could feel how much we love our characters in our movie. That was a really good point for us. These are quirky people and they do odd things, but we're not here to make fun of them. The laughs we have are with them, and so besides our own personal connections and the things in our own lives that we've put into the characters, they kind of take on a life of their own. Someone after the movie was like, "I want to hang out with Jeff. I would watch a whole other movie with just Jeff hanging out." I kind of feel that way too!

Did Jason and Ed have anything to do with developing the characters? You've said this is one of the more written scripts you've done.

Jay:: It left a little less room than I would say normally happens with our movies, because yeah, this movie is a little more on the rails in terms of scripting.

Mark: There's no pre-development or rehearsals or anything like that. But in the moment…

Because they're still improvising in the moment?

Jay: Absolutely. And we want them to bring what they love to the character. We feel like not only with our actors, but with our crew members too, the more that we can find that spark in them that just inspires them to do something special, to do something really specific that they love, that greatly outweighs any preconceived notion we might have had. We're not interested in extracting some preconceived notion. We want to create a space where lightning can strike and hopefully the most inspired version of our original thought can happen. That's tricky, because you need inspired, almost writer-minded people like Jason and Ed and Susan.

Mark: They help manage their character for you while they're improvising. That process you're talking about is especially true in the 4 or 5 scenes in our movie where it's two people having it out with each other. Those happen, and inevitably the dialogue we've written tends to go away, and we just start banging away, a camera on each of them trying to dig in and find the most personal stuff we can find. In our movies that's where the improvisation pays off.

This is so much more plot based than the movies you've made before. Is that a transition in the way you think about putting the movie together?

Mark: It's such a logistical thing. Even our careers, I always felt confident that we could write a script like this, and in fact it was written four years ago, before we wrote Baghead or Cyrus. When we were writing those early scripts, they were written very specifically so they could be made cheaply. If you look at the structure of Puffy Chair or Cyrus, there are less scenes, and they are big, long scenes. Which makes them easier to shoot. The reason Jeff sat around in a drawer for a while is because we knew it would be expensive to shoot. When you shoot a movie with this many scenes and it's a lot of bigger scenes-- dare we say setpieces-- we knew it would require more money. There was definitely a part of our brain that was like, OK, this is going to be a true hybrid for us, maintaining everything we've done up to this point, the organic improvisation, finding great stuff in the moment. But at the same time, part of this movie is Jeff being a little bit of a detective. That is a much more silent, cinematic filming process.

Jay: It's something that you can't improvise, because it's going somewhere very specifics. But this is kind of unprecedented because it is the first movie we've ever made that we could not have made without a lot of money. There's no way we could have done it. Cyrus we could have made that movie for $100,000 in our neighborhood. We would't have been able to have movie stars and a marketing team behind us, but….

Without talking too much about the ending of the movie, it is big, and it escalates the stakes in a way you haven't done before. How did you decide to raise the stakes in the final act so significantly?

Mark: Jeff is a movie with a really big idea in it. It's bigger than any idea we've tackled. Is there a hand guiding us in our destiny? Or are we just like, as Forrest Gump would say, floating around gentle like on a breeze? So to a certain extent the movie demands that we rise up to that at a certain point. But at the same time we love the idea of starting a movie very, very small inside of the big idea. You could almost look at Jeff as like a modern-day update of the quest movie. This is not Camelot, this is the suburbs and strip malls of Baton Rouge, and he's not pulling the sword from the stone, he's trying to pull the wood glue from the shelf of Home Depot. I guess what we have maintained from our previous filmmaking style is that lower dramatic bar, starting the movie small, but we knew that as the movie progressed we wanted to high jump that bar and take it to a new place.

And at the end, he finds meaning in something that also has bigger dramatic stakes that we can all understand.

Mark: That's a fun question for us. If you spent 10 years of your life looking for signs for your destiny, and you got that sign. Is that because it was your destiny the whole time, or because you were so obsessed for so long, you're clearly going to find something. Was that coincidence? Was that fate? We love that question.

Jay: And also, people in our lives who we know who are like that. They're telling me "You know, this was just meant to be." I find that half the time people are telling me that, I'm like "You are out of your fucking mind." You actually think that was meant to be because the Coke rolled down the ramp and hit your foot? And then half the time, I have chills-- it's all been leading to this moment. And that duality that we experience, watching people, either way we love those people because they're dreamers and they're hopeful and they're trying to make that connection.

Mark: And for Jeff in particular, Jeff has not an ounce of cynicism in his body. It should be fun to follow Jeff. The way that we love Jeff is, we're not like that-- we're a little jaded, a little cynical. It takes a lot in our lives to get a reaction. And what's so beautiful about Jeff is I think we've lost something that Jeff still has. Is Jeff an idiot? Is Jeff a genius? Probably a little bit of both, but it's still fun to watch him.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend