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Our talk with Mark Duplass will take you about an hour to absorb, and we sincerely hope you will. But say you only have about seven minutes, 13 seconds, and access to YouTube. Watch his 2003 short This Is John and you’ll have the CliffsNotes on who he is as a filmmaker: A genius at distilling our most towering personal fears, frustrations and joys into one seemingly inconsequential or silly event. The simple task of recording an outgoing phone message becomes a study of existential loneliness and self-doubt. The cold fingers-on-your-neck sensation comes when you realize you know exactly how he’s feeling.
Another early Duplass trademark? The entire cost of the wholly improvised film was about three bucks. Duplass, along with his brother and producing partner Jay, became known for making studies of the human condition that masquerade as movies; and for making movies that fit whatever budget, props and actors were available.
Two years later, Mark wrote, produced and acted in his debut feature, The Puffy Chair, which The New York Times called “a scruffy little miracle of truthfulness.” It was a true Duplass production – highly personal, built around a couple of props they already owned, and featuring mostly their friends, who mostly improvised the dialogue. Though it was seen by just 25,000 people in theaters after screening at Sundance, Mark and Jay suddenly found themselves fielding calls from well-established actors who wanted to be in their next indie. Stars like Ed Helms, Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly were fine swapping trailers for couch surfing in exchange for a collaborative, improvisational experience that used their talents beyond saying a line and hitting a mark.
Major studios got interested, too. As the movies and the budgets got bigger, Mark and his brother sometimes struggled to walk the line between commercial filmmaking and the subdued, human and outright weird aesthetic that set their work apart in the first place. It’s a creative POV that feels as much a part of who he is as what he does, and therefore to be valued above any potential box office take. And they largely succeeded in maintaining that sensibility. “What’s intriguing about Cyrus,” wrote Roger Ebert of Duplass’ 2010 feature about an overgrown kid with creepy mommy issues, “is the way it sort of sits back and observes an emotional train wreck as it develops. The movie doesn’t eagerly jump from one payoff to another, but attunes itself to nuance, body language and the habitual politeness with which we try to overlook social embarrassment.”
Jeff, Who Lives at Home, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon and Creep followed in quick succession, all bigger, all largely well reviewed. And all great for a Duplass, a guy who wants beyond little else just to make films that people see. Even so, he realized his and Jay’s approach is not the stuff of which blockbusters are made. Enter the golden age of TV, embodied in this instance by Netflix. It’s a platform made for an artist seeking creative freedom in getting niche projects to a significant number of people who are actually looking for something different, and Duplass has taken full advantage of it. The guys at Netflix are no dummies, either. “[Mark and Jay] are singularly the most informed and instinctive filmmakers and businessmen in the industry,” says Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer. “They know how to get a film made, and they know how to get it seen.” Probably why they now have a four film production deal with the company, and why Mark has become somewhat of a fairy godmother to countless up-and-comers he now helps. Consequence of Sound wrote in 2015, “The simple fact that with all of his success, [Mark] still pushes tiny projects… is proof that he may be independent film’s most valuable asset.”
Amid all this, it’s easy to forget that on top of all the writing, producing, directing and mentoring, Duplass is a fine actor, earning praise for his performances in many of his own films, as well as others’, including Safety Not Guaranteed, Zero Dark Thirty, The Lazarus Effect, and TV series like The League and The Mindy Project. Not bad for a guy who early on almost quit in despair of ever becoming a filmmaker. Yet he’s said his questions about happiness and why it can be so hard to achieve is a theme he continues to explore in his work. Just our two cents, but maybe it’s as simple as doing what you love. And proving time and again that whether they cost three bucks or $10 million, great stories are always worth telling.