Hidden Gold: The Duplass Brothers Infuse ‘The Do-Deca-Pentathalon’ with Character-Driven Truthfulness

Even though they’ve made studio films with Hollywood stars including Jason Segel (Jeff, Who Lives at Home) and John C. Reilly (Cyrus), the celebrated filmmaking fraternity of Jay and Mark Duplass—who often share credit as co-writers, co-producers, and co-directors—are still closely associated with “mumblecore,” the DIY storytelling style that emerged in tandem with the digital-filmmaking revolution of the early 2000s. The Duplass brothers’ latest release, The Do-Deca-Pentathalon (opening July 6 in theaters, currently available on VOD), continues the handmade storytelling tradition of their acclaimed micro-budget pictures The Puffy Chair and Baghead.

Filmmakers Mark Duplass (L) and Jay Duplass

Originally from New Orleans, the Duplass brothers boast eclectic résumés separately and together. Jay makes documentaries when he’s not collaborating on fiction projects with his brother, and Mark is building impressive momentum as an actor in indie movies and cult-favorite television. In addition to starring in the series The League, Mark has appeared in a slew of films—this year alone, his output includes Lawrence Kasdan’s Darling Companion; Alex Kurtzman’s directorial debut, People Like Us; and Kathryn Bigelow’s highly anticipated upcoming movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Jay Duplass chatted with Script about Do-Deca, a funny/sad movie that depicts sibling rivalry gone wild—thirtysomethings Jeremy (Mark Kelly) and Mark (Steve Zissis) revive a childhood ritual by commencing “The Do-Deca-Pentathalon,” a grueling string of sporting contests intended to decide who is the better brother. Mark Duplass—who is also busy promoting the simultaneous release of People Like Us—popped in briefly to join the conversation.

SCRIPT MAGAZINE: How competitive were the two of you growing up?

JAY DUPLASS: We have always been close, and far enough apart in age—three and a half years—to where there wasn’t much competition when we were young. Ping-pong is an epic battle between us, but with filmmaking, we are united against the difficulty of making a good film. In general, we’re always climbing some kind of mountain together, which seems to distract us from any sibling squabbles that might come up.

SM: How did you come up with the brotherly dynamic in the new movie?

JD: This story is actually based in reality—two brothers we grew up near who actually created a 25-event Olympics to compete in against each other.

SM: How did the Do-Deca concept and the brotherly-conflict theme dovetail each other during development?

JD: They came at the same time due to the story being based in truth. Over the years, Mark and I have been obsessed with these two brothers, and the fact that in order to express their love for each other, they created an epic Olympic-style competition in which only the two of them are invited to participate. For us, the concept became a movie when we came up with the idea that the two estranged brothers would reconvene some 20 years later to reignite the games.

SM: When you’re writing, do you begin with an overall storyline, or begin with a seed (a scene or a theme) and then explore?

JD: All of our ideas come from this giant bowl of soup which is honestly just an ongoing conversation between the two of us about our lives—stories of our friends, and things we’ve witnessed that are funny and true and inspiring. From that point, a unifying or central idea will emerge, and the storytelling begins orally back and forth between us until the story is fully formed, at which point Mark usually writes the first draft. Then we trade drafts back and forth.

SM: Given your preference for on-set exploration, how far do you take the writing? Do you ever write dialogue, or do you stop at scene descriptions?

JD: We do write full scripts, and they look and feel like normal scripts. It’s just that on set, we encourage our actors to explore and improvise because we are obsessed with making events and behavior as real as possible. We also shoot in script order, as much as possible, to achieve a sense of naturalism.

SM: When do you bring actors into the mix?

JD: For some films, we have written the roles for the actors—Puffy Chair, Baghead, Cyrus. For others, we have cast after the fact—like Do-Deca and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. It depends on the project, really.

SM: Does your relationship with actors change based on the size of the project? For instance, can you bring a Steve Zissis into the development process earlier than, say, a Marisa Tomei or a Jason Segel?

JD: Not necessarily. We are super-collaborative and personally connected to all of our actors. In the case of Cyrus, John Reilly was on board very early. Our conversations with him and what he was interested in at the time definitely influenced the evolution of the movie. We like to get the actors involved as early as we can so we can learn what makes them tick, and where we might be able to find the magic.

JD: On set, do you try to complete any given scene within a single day, or do you have certain scenes that you work on over multiple days?

SM: We do try to tackle one significant scene per day, but we are also somewhat irreverent to standardized movie scheduling. We believe that our films live and die on the truthfulness of the performances, and we will revisit a scene over and over until we feel like the lightning has struck.

SM: While I’m sure the percentage changes from scene to scene, on average, what percentage of any given scene would you say is pre-planned and what percentage would you say is ad-libbed?

JD: Every scene is preplanned—and every scene is improvised. What ends up in the film is really a result of the most inspired thing that is captured on set that still moves the story forward in a functional way.

SM: When you give actors this much freedom, do you ever have to pull them back in order to keep them on track with the storyline–-or do you prefer to get everything you can and find a place for the best stuff later?

JD: Our process on set is a constant conversation and exploration, as we are not necessarily trying to exact specifics on set as much as attempting to find hidden gold. Once we find it, everyone seems to feel it, and we carve it up in editorial.

SM: What is the division of labor on set between the two of you?

JD: The only difference on set is that I’m the primary camera operator and Mark is watching all the monitors. (We shoot with multiple cameras.) We consult after every take, and oftentimes we direct actors individually and separately so we can maintain secrets and spontaneity on set.

SM: Question for Mark—since you’ve done a good deal of acting for other directors, what lessons have you brought back to your own productions about creating a comfortable atmosphere on the set?

MARK DUPLASS: Jay and I are pretty set in our process at this point, but I do steal little bits and pieces here and there from other directors.

SM: Also for Mark—since some of the movies you act in have significantly larger budgets than the ones you make with your brother, what do you like—and not like—about the environment on big-budget productions?

MD: I often find that the budget of the film doesn’t dictate the vibe. I’ve been on $45,000 films that feel overly controlled and stilted, and I’ve been on $45 million films that follow the bliss of improvisation and creative exploration. It’s really all about the people involved and much less about the budgetary scale of the film—except when it comes to trailers!

SM: Jay, do you see a parallel between the documentary approach to collecting footage and the multiple-camera aesthetic you and Mark use?

JD: it is absolutely a parallel process, and we’ve always functioned this way in our fictional work. The documentary process, I feel, keeps me focused on what is unique about the way we tell stories fictionally, and it helps us find greater depth and a greater level of truth in that work.

SM: Do you accept or reject the “mumblecore” label?

JD: Neither we, nor anyone we know, has participated in a conscious way in mumblecore. To us, the mumblecore style feels exclusionary to audiences, which is the opposite of what we want. Also, in contrast to typical mumblecore values, we feel like our films are plotted heavily, the characters work very hard to get what they want—and no one mumbles. So we do reject the label.

SM: What do you find most–-and least—exciting about millennial DIY filmmaking?

JD: We just think it’s inspiring and empowering that anyone can make a film nowadays. All you need is a decent camera, a microphone, and a few thousand bucks. The upside of this is a lot more regional filmmaking. Prior to 2000, it seemed like 90 percent of films shown at festivals were made in New York or Los Angeles. Now, they come from all over, and they have unique sensibilities. That’s super-exciting. The downside is, anyone can make a movie. A lot of people are making features before they’ve even made a decent short film, and as any film-festival programmer will tell you, the percentage of good films is way down.

SM:  Much of Do-Deca exists on a fine edge between drama and comedy. When you’re shooting, do you try to play scenes one way or the other—or do you shoot the behavioral reality and then find the right tone during editing?

JD: We do try to shoot the behavioral reality, and we let the comedy come from that truth. Then we thread the needle in editorial, when we have more time, as well as the ability to test our films and watch audiences laugh/cringe/cry along the way.

SM: There’s a striking exchange toward the end of the picture between the Mark character and his wife about how Mark has trouble controlling his diet whenever he smells chocolate on Stephanie’s breath. How does dialogue that organic and relatable come into being?

JD: We never rehearse, and that’s specifically because of improvised moments like “chocolate breath,” which we feel can’t be replicated on subsequent takes. Steve Zissis’ brilliant sense of humor came up in that moment, but more importantly, Jenn Lafleur’s reaction was genuine. Steve genuinely won Jenn over in that moment, and it’s kind of undeniable in the performance. We believe these types of moments are the currency of our films.

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