“It’s like the Dogma stuff but without so many rules,” said Jay Duplass, half of the fraternal team of writer-directors of the filmmaking approach he and his brother Mark have adopted, most recently in their horror comedy-drama “Baghead.” It’s a slimmed-down, improvisational style that some have characterized as the Mumblecore Movement among independent movement for its characteristically overlapping dialogue, and the pair happily discussed it and their movie during a recent visit to Dallas.
Mark explained that while they hadn’t coined the term, they don’t object to it as long as it gets their pictures noticed. “Independent films need attention,” he said. “We want to get our names out there.” And, he added, the approach is common to a number of today’s independent filmmakers, including themselves—although there are differences as well. “There are some similarities,” he said. “We shoot digitally, and we like naturalism, and we use improvisation. But Jay and I tend to be structure and genre whores. We just love classic moviemaking structures. We’re not out there to reinvent the wheel. We want to have performances that feel as natural as possible. But underneath that, we try to have a broad, solid story that’s sort of barreling toward a climax.”
“For us, we failed a lot in our twenties making films,” Jay added. “And we decided that the most important thing for us on the set is to feel like we can fail—to have an environment where you can make mistakes and look at it and say, ‘This isn’t working—let’s take a break,’ or ‘Let’s do it again.’ To give yourself an opportunity to recover. The ability to do that, and have the trust of all the crew and cast members to follow you through that is very important.”
“Great visuals are awesome, but they’re not going to make or break a movie—at least not for our tastes,” Mark said. “What we can do is get a group of actors we know and love and trust and get a really tight story structure and make something that’s natural and believable and, hopefully, entertaining.”
“We write the dialogue, but we give the actors the freedom to go and do and say what they want when we get on the set,” Jay added. “We don’t really shoot in setups; we light the entire set 360o, so they can go where they want to go. We bring the camera and the microphones to them. That being said, they stick to the script pretty well, but they kind of voice things in their own peculiar way. It brings a certain spontaneity that Mark and I are looking for, a certain kind of naturalness to the acting that we’re kind of obsessed with. We allow a lot of things in our films to be loose, but one of the things that we’re really pretty strict about, kind of obsessed with, is that we want it to feel like it could potentially be real, and make the audience question, did this really happen or not?”
Part of the process involves the actors working cold against one another. “There’s no rehearsing at all,” Mark said. “In fact,” Jay added, “if we catch them reading lines, we seek them out and stop it.” And Mark continued, “That first moment of surprise—you’re never going to get that again.”
The approach the brothers had been discussing arose from their own experience, when they literally made a short film, “This Is John,” for $3, and it was accepted for the Sundance Festival. “We shot it with our parents’ home video camera, and we didn’t have microphones or anything, and we basically just used the tape that we’d bought at Seven-Eleven that day,” said Jay.
“It was the cost of the tape, that’s it,” Mark interjected.
“That movie essentially defines our ethic of filmmaking today,” Jay continued. “Before that film, we’d just come off of spending a lot of money on a really shitty movie. It was terrible, and we were depressed. And we were on our couch saying, ‘Man, we suck, and we’re never going to do anything.’ And then I was like, ‘Okay, we’ll make a movie tomorrow morning, no matter what.’”
Mark said, “What we realized was, we stopped making movies about what we thought we should be making movies about, and we started making movies about the things that we intimately knew how to make movies about, which are the semi-tragic and semi-hilarious problems of the white middle-class, which seemed enormous to us at the time. And even since then, we’ve just followed that ethic. Give Jay the camera, and if I’m not acting, I hold the microphone, and we just follow around the actors and try to find what’s funny, what’s entertaining to us. And we let everything else fall by the wayside—good lighting, good cinematography, production values—we don’t worry about any of that. We just focus on acting and story.
“Jay and I, our movies begin as conversations, a series of conversations. We kind of talk and talk and talk, and all of a sudden we feel we’ve got a movie. Then we structure it out, and then we go away, and in two days the whole thing is written.”
With “Baghead,” they took aim at the horror genre. “Horror movies, as successful as they were, weren’t scary anymore,” Jay observed. “It had become torture-porn. It was gory and disgusting and mean, and there was blood and loud sound-effects. But none of it was scary at all. So we got into a dialogue about what really is scary.”
“A simple mystery of not knowing what something is,” Mark continued. “And the other element of the film was about desperate filmmakers trying to get themselves famous. There’s something kind of gross about that, but really beautiful at the same time. There’s something endearing about it to us. And so we used those characters trying to figure out an interesting, low-fi way to do a horror movie, and brought it down to something stupid and ridiculous, like a brown-paper bag” employed as a mask.
And so “Baghead”—about two couples that go to an isolated cabin to write a script, only to be terrorized by a guy wearing a bag over his face—was born and made. It’s currently rolling out across the country under the Sony Classics banner.