The Coen brothers and their movie Raising Arizona do get credit for inspiring Jay and Mark Duplass to head to film school to try to be just like their idols. Like, they literally wanted to be Coens 2.0. They totally failed, but in the process they found their own way of telling offbeat, touching stories with a humorous tilt.
The writer-director brothers brought their new film Cyrus to SXSW after a well-received turn at Sundance. The film stars John C. Reilly as a long-divorced guy who starts dating an adorable woman (Marisa Tomei) who seems too good to be true. That turns out to be the case when he meets the woman’s 21-year-old son (Jonah Hill) – their parent-child relationship crosses all sorts of boundaries and is just plain weird. It’s a simple story that doesn’t require absurd set-ups and antics to get real laughs.
In case you haven’t caught wind of the Duplass’ reputation for being looser with their scripts than with their prom dates, I can tell you there’s at least some truth to that. They told me they’re quite willing to mess around with their dialogue.
Yes, this means they’re cozy with the dreaded I-word – improv – but not quite in the vein of “You know how I know you’re gay?” They write a script they believe is funny and light, but what they’re really after is genuine emotion. I got the sense that if they had to choose between a take with a better one-liner or simply a revealing straight reply, they’d go with the latter.
The way they’re able to do this is by being, as Jay put it, “obsessed with structure.” The dialogue may be flexible, but the brothers and their actors are clear on the specific story being told from start to finish. And what helps? They actually shoot that way, in chronological order.
“We shoot in order to capitalize on knowing what happened yesterday, and what happens is it produces emotional honesty,” said Mark. I ask you, what is sexier than men who’ve built their careers around emotional honesty?
Jay explained how it works: “It kind of starts as an oral tradition where we tell each other the story. The best part of our relationship is after I tell Mark a story, we don’t have to discuss what the reaction is – he sees it on my face.” He said Mark usually writes the first draft, but Mark said once they’ve told each other the story enough, whoever is most inspired gets the job. (No, you’re smarter, no, you’re smarter!)
Mark, who’s also an actor, generally dictates the initial thoughts for dialogue into a tape recorder so it sounds more authentic, with all the “ums” and “uhs.” By the way, he keeps the tapes – I asked. Once they’re shooting, they have the actors do several takes getting through the arc of a scene saying whatever they think of. Jay said he and Mark would also sometimes feed an actor a line they think of while watching on the monitors.
“Then they blurt it right back at you, and they haven’t even had the time to process it or let the line get stagey, so it just comes out completely natural,” he explained.
The actors seem to love it. First of all, when Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly walked up to the start of the red carpet and saw Jay and Mark, they exchanged bear hugs, and Jonah exclaimed, “I missed you guys, dude!”
When I asked the actors what about the script made them want to make the movie, they were still all about the Duplass love.
“Well, it was who wrote the script, really,” said John (yeah, I’m first-naming everybody), and then Jonah immediately said, “Yep, me too. I like Mark and Jay a lot… I clearly jumped on that opportunity. There was no other option for me. It was a beautifully written script by two guys who have made awesome movies, [as well as] actors that I really respected.”
John added that the brothers told him upfront, “We’re not going to use the script… or at least we’re going to mess around a lot.” He credits that for all the fun stuff that ended up in the movie.
I have to agree with him that the movie’s a lot of fun in that awkward, oh-man-my-parents-have-sex-ew kind of way. You should definitely check it out. Those Duplass men really have a good thing going.
And that’s all I’ve got for now, coming to you from “the best town in the world!” according to Mr. Jonah Hill.