Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Mark and Jay Duplass

The Right 'Puffy'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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SAN FRANCISCO - Brothers Jay Duplass, 33 and Mark Duplass, 29 make their big screen debut this week with their amazingly well-written road film The Puffy Chair. Jay directs, Mark acts and they both wrote the screenplay. They began their career by opening an editing house in Austin, working on a series of local films, as well as writing and directing their own short films. Eventually they threw caution to the wind and concentrated on one good short, This Is John, which led to The Puffy Chair.

CC: I like how you start the movie with Josh and Emily doing that baby talk thing. That was a very brave decision.

Mark: It didn't feel like a brave decision at the time. We need to start this thing in the middle of a moment, with a little more mystery, rather than just laying it out. I remember watching some sort of action movie, like Lethal Weapon or something. And it starts off with a chase scene that has nothing to do with the story of the movie, but you're in the middle of something.

Jay: We started with our own fight scene. It's just different.

Mark: In our test screenings, the baby talk was controversial. People were like, 'that's so annoying. It's hard to get over and get behind these characters.'

CC: Better this than one of those annoying, testosterone-fueled films in which the characters try to out-cool one another.

Mark: To me the hardest thing to do is actually make someone look cool on screen. 'Cause that's so elusive. The easiest thing to do is take people who are vulnerable and just tear 'em down.

Jay: That's easy but making the funny and likeable is hard.

Mark: So you can watch them going through 90 minutes.

CC: Did you shoot on video? I was unable to tell...

Jay: Video. A Panasonic Mini DV camera, 24-frame camera. It shoots the actual frame-rate of film, but the tones are very warm. It doesn't have that super sharp DV that Sony cameras have. When you shoot a wide shot, you have a lot of different color ranges and temperatures ranges, but when you shoot close ups, it's dead on.

CC: There are a lot of close-ups in the film.

Jay: We just like 'em. We're not going for any overt aesthetic in terms of the look of the film. Basically the aesthetic is hopefully it looks real.

Mark: Jay and I have a little communication. Having the director shooting the camera, and me as one of the main writers in the scene, it gives us all the control we need. Jay can whisper something for me to do something.

Jay: It'll give him a hint that he needs to go further.

CC: So many of these scenes feel organic. One scene in particular shows an argument between Josh and Emily. It not only sounds like a real conversation, but both characters seem to be coming from a genuine place; they both have real things to say to one another. It's not just the guy's story.

Mark: We wanted to make a relationship movie that's about all the dumb shit we keep getting in fights over with our girlfriends -- and now our wives. That was a seminal scene.

CC: What's your writing process like?

Mark: Jay and I just hammer out the scene structure on little note cards. And then I'll bang out a draft really fast so it's more instinctual and not belaboring over any dialogue. And then we pass it back and forth. I usually do a ton of work and then Jay's kind of a quality control person. And the on set, the actors end up improvising a ton of that dialogue and just sort of making it their own. Katie was really great at nailing down the way a girl would say those things. We don't make anybody stick to the page. You get to say and re-say this dialogue however you want as long as you're hitting the beats of the scene. I write into a hand-held recorder. You get great flow but your dialogue isn't so great because all your characters come out the same. But the fastest and most genuine way to get true characterizations is to let your guys improv it.

CC: I liked the look of the Rhett character. At first he seems like a nut, but eventually you begin to really get him.

Mark: In a frenzy he shaved his head. When Rhett gets a calling from the universe, he has to follow it. A week before we were shooting the movie. We were terrified, he kinda looks like a Nazi. But he's so sweet, his nature comes through.

CC: What kinds of films did you work on in your editing business?

Mark: It was like the dregs of Austin. We were the guys who would edit your movie for $15 an hour. If you couldn't afford anyone else, come to us and we'll do it. So we did the really bad movies and our friends' movies. It was fun for a while, but it was supposed to begin as a tool to foster our filmmaking and have a free place to edit.

CC: So you started making your own short films.

Jay: Everything we did was bad up until This Is John.

CC: What about the actors in Puffy Chair? Were they friends, or did you audition them?

Mark: The three main actors were friends. Me and Katie and Rhett were all people we knew. I hadn't had any training, but I'd acted in our shorts. I'm used to the camera and I'm used to Jay, and there's a benefit to me being one of the writers.

Jay: When you generate the material you're connected to it and you know it emotionally.

Mark: If I showed up in someone else's movie I don't know if I would be able to do half of what I can do in our movies. I just feel really connected to this stuff.

Jay: Nothing was faked. Mark and I have always been attracted to acting in situations and even documentaries where stuff looks and feels real. There's just something, every now and then when you're watching a movie you just see a scene and you're like, 'that happened.' I mean, I know there are people on the set and stuff, but emotionally, for those people, that happened. That was not pieced together in editing. That was a genuine moment. We re-routed our entire shooting structure to foster those moments. Try and allow something to happen and then try and capture it on film, which is sort of the opposite of what they tell you in film school. It's a very different ethic.

May 24, 2006

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