Directing brother duo Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, who previously brought us the indie comedy "Cyrus," are back with "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," which stars Jason Segel as an amiable but aimless 30-year-old who finds meaning in the most ordinary occurrences. Inspired by the movie "Signs," Jeff believes the universe wants him to follow a guy named Kevin, which leads him, in a very roundabout way, to helping his brother (Ed Helms)'s strained marriage. The Duplasses sat down to discuss the other sibling moviemaking team who inspired them to start making their own films and how having a brother on set can be really handy.
Jeff's personal philosophy is based on the movie "Signs." How many times have you seen it?
Jay: I've seen the movie twice.
Mark: I think I've seen it once.
Was "Signs" your starting point for "Jeff?"
Jay: No, it really just started with Jeff. We love these sort of protagonists who are challenged in little ways and are unlikely heroes. And then we try to be ruthlessly efficient with our exposition, because we hate exposition. And so we thought, how can we really define this guy? How can we really clearly tell the audience quickly, and hopefully comedically, who he is? And that was the immediate answer: Someone who is not only obsessed with the movie "Signs," but who is willing to live their life by the guiding principles in the movie. It says everything we want to say. It's sad. It's hilarious. And it shows that this guy's got a lot of heart and he's certainly not a cynic.
What do you think M. Night Shyamalan will think of this kind of homage?
Mark: We've reached out. We want him to see the movie.
Jeff: We're kind of thrilled and terrified at the same time.
Mark: We have a mutual friend who is one of his producers, so we're inviting him into the process. I would be flattered if someone made a movie kind of about one of my movies.
Have you seen Kiefer Sutherland's new series "Touch," where his autistic son interprets mysterious signals and saves the day? Because it's kind of the non-slacker equivalent to "Jeff."
Mark: No, I saw a poster of it. It looked intense.
Jay: Is he touching the universe? Is the universe in touch with signs? Dude, I'm in!
Mark: You know who's really in? Jeff. Jeff is waiting in line right now to see this show somewhere.
When you made this, you were living in your parent's house.
Jay: Yeah, we live in Los Angeles, but we went back to New Orleans to make the film. Not only did Mark and I move back in, but our wives and daughters, we all lived at our parents' house.
So is there a new comedy coming out of that experience?
Mark: Yeah, that's our next film.
Jay: It's our new film, but it's not a comedy. It's high drama.
Mark: It's a TV show, actually. If Kiefer Sutherland's is called "Touch," ours is called, "Don't Touch Me."
How do you share directing duties?
Jay: We are two cavemen who just grunt at each other and try to tackle the phenomenal task of making a film. Our whole process is trying to eliminate the intellectual side of filmmaking. We tried to make films from an intellectual standpoint and we failed miserably in our twenties. It wasn't until we started telling stories about the private conversations that we have, the people we're obsessed with, the really embarrassing shit that they do, and cringing and giggling about it, that sort of birthed the first time we made a movie that people didn't think sucked. They really loved it. Our working process sort of emanates from that. We just stick together and we just make our decisions together. Set is a very interesting, phenomenal place where after every take, everyone runs up to you says, "Can we move on?" Because they just want to move on.
Mark: That's how bad movies are made. By people pleasing directors who know they didn't get the scene, but they know that everybody wants to finish the day and get home and they say, "I think we got it."
Jay: And this particular instance, I think, illuminates why it's helpful to have a sibling. How it works is those people run up to us and Mark and I are able to turn away from them and face each other. And now they have to wait until we figure out what the hell just happened and what we want to do next. And then tell it to them. It provides us a window to really be present with what's unfolding. It's very confusing when you're on set and there's a thousand things going on.
Mark: It's crazy but there's a lot of pressure to make mediocre stuff. That's not to say that people want to make mediocre stuff, but that the system is set up for that in a lot of ways. They want you to be on time, be on schedule and not examine anything.
Jay: They reward that.
Mark: And people get pissed at us.
People like your financial backers?
Mark: Yeah, the whole thing. Producers...
Are you saying your actors hate you?
Mark: No. They love us, actually. But people will get frustrated when we say, "Guys, it's not right, it's not working, we gotta redo it." Everyone's like, "We're going to get off schedule!" Without a doubt, they all call us at the end of the movie when they show it to them and they're like, "Thank god, because we needed this."
Jay: The moral of the story is we're always right.
Mark: Yeah, always.
So you're totally pleased with the end result with "Jeff?"
Mark: Yeah, we're very, very happy.
Jay: We are so happy.
Mark: It's my favorite movie we've made.
You've said you only want to work with "incredibly nice" people. I'd say Jason Segel seems to qualify.
Jay: He fits the bill! And Ed is right up there with him. It's so hard to make a good movie, so we need good collaborators who believe in what we're doing and who are going to be patient with what we're doing, because we work in an unconventional style. We use a lot of improv and we're doing things in a new way. It is a process and we need people to be supportive of that.
How many takes are you doing, usually?
Mark: We don't necessarily do tons of takes. We probably do more takes than the average movie. But the way it works is, it almost feels like you're shooting a documentary. We pre-light the whole scene, 360 degrees. The actors don't have any marks or anything. They have the scripts to work off of and we also know they're probably going to be getting off of script, so there's this feeling of nobody knows exactly what's going to happen. What can happen is one of two things: Either lightning can strike and it's, "Oh my God, the fact that she didn't know he was going to say this and the camera was right in the right place and holy shit it all came together!" Or you fall on your face. The good news is that by shooting that way, you never have to stop in the middle of a scene and say, "Forty-five minutes to turnaround and re-light." And then go put the actors in trailers and then they get iced. We can just stay in the moment for the whole shot until it's done.
Why did you go with the name "Kevin" to start off Jeff's quest?
Jay: Lots of reasons. One, if you unscramble the anagram, you can get KNIVE --not KNIFE or KNIVES -- you can get Kevin. I love that. Also, this movie is like a sword in the stone quest movie, set in the banal suburbs of Baton Rouge. It's the most ridiculous quest movie that you could ever propose and we just love that the first major clue in this mystery that he embarks upon is as boring a name as Kevin. It's just an everyday name.
Mark: It's not Cornelius. It's not Thelonius or Excalibur. It's just a regular American name. And that's a metaphor for Jeff. He can take any normal little thing and he can see the grand mystery in it. And we've lost something by not being able to do that, I think. Jeff's got something great about him.
You've said you're inspired by the Coen Bros, especially "Raising Arizona."
Mark: We love them.
Jay: Yeah, we are inspired by them. We try to be them. We failed miserably at it. We probably made movies in the most polar opposite way that they do. We don't come from the entertainment world. Our parents are normal, middle-class people. Our dad's a lawyer, our mom's a mom. We didn't realize that human beings made films until we saw "Raising Arizona." That was really the first movie where we realized...
Mark: You could feel the director.
Jay: Yeah, we could feel them and their sense of humor. You could sense their intelligence and they way the feel about human beings.
Mark: (Drawling): "Put the crawdad in the pot."
Jay: Yeah. It's just like you knew about them by watching the film. And that's what woke us up and made us realize, "Oh my God, people make this stuff up." It got us thinking, "This could actually be something we do, not just something we obsess over all day."
Since you're co-directors, when you start winning awards, who gives the speech?
Mark: Well, we've won some stuff. But I don't know if we were ever both there. I'm glad you brought this up. We're going to have to talk about this. There'll be some sharing, no doubt. We'll hopefully work out something ahead of time that is charming...
Jay: A little funny and ultimately heartwarming.
Mark: But nobody can do a speech like Colin Firth, man. Every speech he gave last year was like... my God. That dude's amazing.
So, your next goal is to work with Colin?
Jay: No, we'll just have him write our speeches.
Mark: He can just write our monologues. C. Dog.
I couldn't help but notice that gas in this movie is about $2.86, which is about $2 cheaper than it is right now in Los Angeles. Is is it really that much cheaper living in Baton Rouge?
Jay: I don't know if it is anymore.
Mark: No, it jumped like a year and a half ago.
Jay: But gas is significantly cheaper in Louisiana and Texas. What we do to remedy the problem is we drive to Texas every time we want to fill up up with gas. It saves a lot of time and money.