The Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, are often described as members of what’s been dubbed the “mumblecore” movement of tiny, ultra-low budget, dialogue-propelled independent American movies. But with “Cyrus,” starring John C. Reilly as a Los Angeles guy who gets involved with a single mom played by Marisa Tomei, whose son (Jonah Hill) may be trying to sabotage their relationship, they’ve moved into the arena of studio pictures, even if the funding came from that most independent-minded of outfits, Fox Searchlight, and the approach is still stylistically idiosyncratic.
Jay Duplass recently visited Dallas for a pre-screening of “Cyrus” and talked about how the movie came to be. “Surprisingly,” he recalled, “after ‘The Puffy Chair,’ which was at Sundance in 2005, right from that moment we started having meetings with Hollywood and basically started getting offers very quickly—which surprised us, because that movie was totally homemade, myself, my brother, my wife, his wife, one of our best friends from Austin and another cast member. That was it. It was seven people, cast and crew.
“We were getting offers like big comedies to rewrite and direct, and maybe there was a star attached. It had to go in March, you know. Mark and I began to figure out that’s definitely a formula to make a really bad movie. But they kept coming at us.
“We learned a few things during that process. We learned how specific our sense of humor is and our style is. We also learned that it’s very hard for us to work on anything that we weren’t totally inspired by. The good side of it, industry-wise, is that they would send us home with a script and we would spend a week just re-imagining the entire story from our perspective, scene by scene. It was extremely exhausting, but it really kind of fortified who we were and what we were doing. And we would go back and pitch the idea to them, and they would almost always say, ‘I can’t believe you rewrote the whole thing.’ Typically what would happen is they’d be very impressed with the story but they would ultimately say, ‘There are ten or twelve other people attached to doing the movie as it was originally conceived, so we can’t do that. But why don’t you pitch something else?’ That’s how we got to pitch more of our own ideas and kind of proved to the industry that we did have a mind for plot although we made little shaggy-looking movies, but we thought in true story terms.”
In writing “Cyrus,” Duplass continued, “we wanted to do an unconventional love story. A lot of our previous movies were about relationships with constant bickering, and we wanted to explore the positive side of a relationship.”
And from the first he and Mark had John C. Reilly in mind for the lead. “We’d always adored him,” he said, “and we wanted to have a conventional guy be the lead in the movie and the lead in the love story. And honestly in the first two weeks when we were writing it, we called the lead character John, and after three or four weeks we just admitted to ourselves, let’s face it—we’re writing this for John Reilly. And every time we imagined a scene, it got funnier, but it also got emotionally deeper and weirder with John in mind. So at a certain point we knew we probably weren’t going to make the movie if he didn’t do it. This character definitely does some questionable things, and we knew that if John was doing it, he’s so lovable and so funny and just such a generous person in general, that you would feel that and still be along for the ride. He’s just always been one of those actors that just doesn’t seem to have a limitation—he can do it all.”
Fortunately Reilly said yes, and so did ultra-hot Jonah Hill, who signed on for the change of pace title role as the strange young man who becomes John’s antagonist. “Everybody knows that funny, affable, charismatic side of Jonah,” Duplass said. “We saw this other sort of dark, deep, calculated side to him. We wanted to see something different from him—that was really exciting for us, to have him do something different.”
Jay and Mark brought their distinctive style to “Cyrus” as well, applying it to a larger project than their previous efforts but remaining true to themselves. That included using their usual kind of on-set improvisation. Their scripts are fully written, but the actors can change the dialogue while shooting, and their colleagues then respond similarly as the camera continues to film, following the thread of conversation, including the pauses. “I think what differentiates our style of improvisation from everyone else’s is that normally when people think of improvisation now, they think of the Apatow world or the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell world where essentially improv means to generate a joke,” Jay explained. “What we’re doing is that we improvise every scene, we improvise dramatic scenes. And the goal is not necessarily to make something funnier—it’s just to get a more naturalistic performance.
“That’s why we shoot in a documentary style where we bring the cameras to the actors. We really just set them up in a room and say, let’s do this—you guys know what you’re here to do. So we refer to it as character-based or role-based improvisation. They know the goal they’re trying to achieve in the scene. They’re more than welcome to use all the language in the script if that’s comfortable for them, but they also need to know that the person across from them probably will not be regurgitating lines as written in the script. And what that forces them to do is truly be in the moment with that other actor. It creates the feeling on the set that we’re trying to accomplish in the film—the feeling that anything can happen right here in this moment. We want to really keep you on your toes. We’re trying to create an environment where lightning can strike.
“Yes, John is in this movie, and he’d done Will Ferrell stuff. And yes, Jonah is in this movie, and he’s done Judd Apatow stuff. But it’s not balls-out humor. It’s really character first and story first. I feel like it’s more of a ‘Sideways,’ ‘Juno,’ ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ tone, where it is funny, but it’s really story first.”
That approach means that a good deal of the filmmaking actually comes after the shoot.
“Our edits are really long—it’s almost like a documentary edit,” Jay said. “It took us nine months to finish the film from the day we started shooting. That’s pretty rare for a little movie like this. We’re really managing the tone and trying to make sure that we’re tweaking people’s interest but not going over the edge. And we’re monsters in the editing room. The worst thing we can do is to make you sit in a seat one minute longer than you’re supposed to sit in a seat. And we love short movies. The ninety-minute form is something we are obsessed with. To me, if you can fit it into the ninety-minute form, it’s the greatest thing ever, because if you have people leaving the theatre saying, ‘I want more,’ that’s the best position you can be in.”