The filmmaker, producer, actor, writer, musician and famous brother (to Jay Duplass) talks filmmaking, music and ‘being reckless, fast and not second-guessing myself’
This year alone, Mark Duplass has produced Wild Wild Country, the astonishing Netflix doc series about a controversial Indian guru and his community of devout followers (and won an Emmy for it); written episodes of HBO’s Room 104, which he created; co-authored a book with his brother and filmmaking partner, Jay Duplass; acted in the film Tully, Amazon’s Goliath and other projects; produced notable indie flicks Unlovable and Duck Butter; and … well, the list continues.
Last month, HBO aired the Season 2 finale of Room 104, an experimental anthology show where each episode, set in a hotel room, takes on a different tone and characters. (Duplass, a former musician, even wrote a musical episode this season.)
Duplass talked to Please Kill Me about what he learned from his years as a musician, how he maintains creative control and why “doing it fast” works for him.
PKM: Even though you have deals with major players like Netflix and HBO, you seem to have retained kind of a punk-rock ethos in terms of how you make stuff.
Mark Duplass: Yeah, the way that we do things could not be more different from Game of Thrones. (Laughs) I think the reason (we can do it) is that each of them needs big, big, big shows and big, big, big movies, and they spend all their time, money and energy looking for those. But at the same time, they need to fill up their channels with other things — and that’s where I come in. I have a great relationship where I can say, “Look, pay me a tenth of what you’re paying these other people. I can go make it on my own, you don’t have to worry about it.”
I grew up as a scrapper, and The Puffy Chair was a $10,000 movie. At the end of the day, I guess I’m most comfortable in that space: making things cheaply with my friends and finding new ways to do things that are closer to how I felt when I was 15 years old picking up a guitar for the first time.
PKM: That instinct and the confidence that you can do something yourself — for a lot of people, I think that comes from music.
Mark Duplass: I grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans, outside of any film industry knowledge. The only role model I had for what a successful artist was were all these incredible independent musicians in New Orleans who were playing every week, releasing records and just selling from out of their van — and they were making a living doing it. (I was) an overly sensitive singer-songwriter in my teens and early 20s, and I put out two records that I pressed myself, and I booked my own tours. I’d travel around and sell maybe 400 records, but I could actually make a living doing that. So I learned a lot from music in terms of doing things yourself and not waiting for anybody to give you permission to go do it.
I did sign one record deal with Polyvinyl Records when I was in my early 20s. … They would just put in the minimum amount of money that they needed to make the record, and then when it was (out), we would split it 50-50. That’s kind of how we run our film business now: We model off of all those rock deals that were made back then, which is, like, no bloated talents, make it for the minimum you have to make it, and if it hits, then everybody who’s a partner shares it, down to the PAs on set. And if it doesn’t? Well … now we’ll go make something else.
PKM: There are a lot of memorable musical moments in your work: Blue Jay has one I love, and of course there’s this season’s musical episode of Room 104. Are there times when you think you’ve been able to use music really effectively onscreen?
Mark Duplass: That’s a good question. I mean, I always work very closely with my composers, because I know music and music theory. My music supervisor is one of my best friends, so I’m always very intensely involved in picking songs as well as score. I think Blue Jay’s a really good example: We use the song “No More I Love You’s” in there, and it’s evocative of a certain nostalgia.
I don’t think I would’ve had the confidence to write a three-minute scene to just them dancing to a song if I didn’t feel the way I do about music and know it and feel it so intimately.
PKM: As your success has grown, are there musicians you admire that you’ve had occasion to meet?
Mark Duplass: I’ve had a couple of really sweet, seminal meetups. I’m a big fan of Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters, and he and I have become friends. And I had a great experience a couple months ago: My wife and I were celebrating her 40th birthday in New York City, and we found out that Death Cab for Cutie was playing in Philadelphia. I got to know those guys a tiny bit, because they let me license one of their songs for The Puffy Chair. … They were very popular and I was nobody, and they let me have the song basically for free. So we went down there and got to see them before the show.
Death Cab really was the band my wife and I fell in love to listening, and “Transatlanticism” was the song that we had licensed for The Puffy Chair. They ended up closing the show with it, and they dedicated it to me and my wife, and we just started to cry. So there is some little cross-section of access points that my film career has allowed me into, but, by and large, I really don’t like crossing the divide between my heroes and my personal life.
PKM: Do you listen to music when you’re working?
Mark Duplass: It depends on what I’m doing. When I’m writing Room 104, I listen to a lot of music to inspire me and get me in the mood — and then I shut it off and I write in a sprint. … I like listening to whole records; I’m not a song person. I’m in this phase now where I’m doing this show called The Morning Show, and it shoots 45 minutes from my house. I can listen to a whole album on the way, so I’m doing catalogs of people. I just started with Neil Young’s first record, and I’m going all the way through his records.
PKM: So have you ever considered making a music documentary or a full-length musical?
Mark Duplass: I’ve thought about it, but, for me, doing it fast, fun and furious was a part of the fun of it. The greatest moments for me are always (when) I’m coming up with a song, I turn on my little Pro Tools rig and I’m recording the demo while I’m writing it. That hour — there’s never a bigger rush than that.
I got this great piece of advice from Jon Brion, who I went up to when I was nobody and asked him to produce my record. He was like, “You should just record it yourself. I’m not really gonna do anything for you that you can’t do.” The best advice he gave me was, “When you’re writing a song and you’re about to record a demo, get out the good mikes and make that your final version, ‘cause you’re never gonna be able to beat your demo version in the studio. It’s gonna feel different, it’s gonna feel stale.” So I’m always trying to approximate that with my art.
“Arnold” — the musical episode of Room 104 — is very much a case of “written fast, recorded fast.” I think that the speed and the messiness is part of what makes it exciting to me.
PKM: I think a lot of creative people really struggle with executing an idea. Maybe the idea itself came easy but taking it to a finished state is the hardest thing. What do you tell those who have trouble with that part of the process?
Mark Duplass: In the moment, don’t think about it. Trust your first instinct and go with it; don’t shop around for 15 different avenues before you pick one. … And before that happens, do your homework. Make sure you know all your music theory and all your chords so you can get yourself out of trouble as you need to. And if you’re a filmmaker, make sure you’ve read all the screenwriting books and have all the tools so that your instincts can use those in the moment.
I guess it’s a combination of doing your homework and then, once you’re in the creative moment, move quickly and move honestly. That’s what works for me. It does create messiness, and it does create art that is not perfect, but then I surround myself with a group of people who are smart and honest with me. I bring sometimes a C-minus to the table, and then they help me bring it up. And then if that only happens to be a B+, so be it. That was the best we could do. Let’s put that out and let’s go make something else.
PKM: Even now that you’ve had some success, do you still struggle with self-doubt? Do you think, “I don’t know if this idea is good, or if I should even tell somebody about it …”
Mark Duplass: It’s a yes and a no. I always am unsure about whether the idea will connect with people. But I’ve never had a doubt about whether I should try to make it. I don’t know whether that stems from that initial instinct I had, which is that I have no business being here in the first place. I’m just some kid from the suburbs who clawed his way to this position I’m in, so what do I have to lose?
I got here by being reckless and fast and not second-guessing myself, so I’m just kind of leaning into that. The doubt and the fear is there, but the only time I’ve ever had success is when I’ve just barreled through it, so that’s all I can do.
PKM: Is there anyone you model that attitude after?
Mark Duplass: The first models were the local musicians of New Orleans. As a filmmaker, I always loved what John Cassavetes had done by gathering his friends around … I loved his process. And honestly, Richard Linklater came into my life at a really important time. He gave me the courage that being “regular” — which was how I felt — was working for him.
You know, Mates of State was on Polyvinyl when I was there. I saw them working their asses off, putting out a record a year, touring, doing it. They were just climbing up the mountain. And I was like, “All right, if I just stick my head out and work really hard, I think I’m gonna be OK.”