By Sean Axmaker
Jay and Mark Duplass have been making films together for over a decade, but it was with The Puffy Chair that they officially joined the ranks of such feature filmmaking brothers as Joel and Ethan Coen, Michael and Mark Polish, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Andy and Larry Wachowski. Of course, cinematic sibling collaboration is the only thing they have in common with the Wachowskis and their mega-budget, effects-heavy big screen spectacles. By their own estimate, the Duplass brothers' debut feature, The Puffy Chair, came in at around $15,000. Their follow-up feature, Baghead, the story of two couples who spend the weekend in an isolated cabin in the woods to write a script and wind up playing romantic games and head games with one another (often while wearing a brown paper bag over their head), is in the same ballpark.
This production model, as well as their semi-improvised approach and hyper-naturalist aesthetic, has propelled them to the head of a loose movement of microbudget filmmaking that has been slapped with the unfortunate title "Mumblecore." It also gives a hilariously well-observed moment in the opening scene of Baghead, a film festival Q&A that kicks off with the familiar cliché of a query "What was your budget?," a jab of satirical revenge. You just know that this question has dogged the Duplass brothers with nearly every appearance they've made with their films on the festival circuit.
In person, the Duplass Brothers have an easy affinity that comes across in shared jokes and comic banter reminiscent of their films. It's not about finishing each other's sentences; it's about interjecting and interrupting, jumping in to contribute their spin to a stray comment, volleying ideas back and forth like a rally in a tennis match and at times delivering simultaneous comments, all eventually arriving in the same place. They clearly like to have fun with the business of interviews. At least they did when I sat down with them in the Seattle International Film Festival hospitality suite to talk about their films, their aesthetic, and their working methods (I resisted asking about their budget). I hope I've been able to capture a little of that playfulness on the page.
Who came up with the term "Mumblecore" and does it have any descriptive value when it comes to your films or those of Joe Swanberg or Andrew Bujalski?
Jay: We're pretty sure that Andrew Bujalski's sound guy coined the term.
Mark: That's the lore. We read that in articles. Most of the stuff we know about the Mumblecore movement is what we've read in articles.
Jay: We do know that we are two of the founders of Mumblecore.
Mark: Or so we've been told.
Jay: Ourselves, Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, I believe.
Mark: I think what happened is, Josh, the character I played in The Puffy Chair, wears a hoody and his hair is disheveled and he is a musician. And that was it - we were inside of Mumblecore. These films are tiny and any label anybody wants to put on them, any chance for people to talk about our movies, we say, just go for it, have at it, because getting attention to little tiny movies made for ten to fifteen thousand dollars is great. But in terms of the aesthetics of the movement, I don't know if our characters really mumble. You can hear stuff. There's a level of improvisation, there's a level of naturalism that we all go for, we shoot on digital…
Jay: … and our first movie did deal with twentysomethings.
Mark: So those are things that include us.
Jay: But our characters don't mumble and we do have plot. We have very specific plots in our movies. We love all those guys and their movies, but…
Mark: We're just a little more genre oriented. The Puffy Chair was our take on the naturalistic road movie and Baghead was us touching on the horror genre and doing the naturalism. We just shot another movie (The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, currently in post-production) that's sort of our take on the sports genre movie. I guess that makes us a little different, but we're totally fine to be clumped in because we have some similarities in the performance style and the aesthetics. I don't think it's completely off base to start grouping people together. It's weird, but like in the music industry 15 years ago, computers came out where you could record a great sounding album very cheaply and that created a whole new wave of lo-fi music. The Panasonic DVX-100 came out in 2002 and that became a cheap camera that we could all make stuff on, good looking stuff for cheap. And I think that camera is why this stuff is happening, more than anything else.
Jay: Digicore! Yeah, you heard it here.
The term "Mumblecore" does have that music industry connection. It sounds like the indie film version of grunge, but a lot more laid back.
Jay: Grunge, but with no edge.
Mark: Less hair…
Jay: … more whining…
Mark: … more buttons.
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