Mumblecore pioneer Mark Duplass doesn’t like the mumblecore tag; “There’s nothing slacker-y about the films I’m making,” he tells TARA BRADY
EDGAR DEGAS, an artist not unacquainted with the notion of painting en plein air, loathed the associated word “impressionism”. Politicised noiseniks Crass once yelled that punk “ain’t got a thing to do with the likes of you and me”. Ewoks don’t call themselves Ewoks, nor does anyone else use that designation in Return of the Jedi.
We should not, therefore, be amazed to learn that Mark Duplass, a man considered to be “a founder of mumblecore”, is hardly enamoured with the word.
“Oh no,” he says. “Are you asking me this? Do we have to talk about this?”
Well, it’ll be an elephant in the room if we don’t get it out of the way early in the interview.
“Right, right. I don’t like the term. What’s your next question?”
He softens and sighs. The writer-director behind, erm, mumblecore classics Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home and star of the incoming Your Sister’s Sister (another fine mumblecore picture), is – whether he likes it or not – considered one of the mumblecorps’ primary proliferators.
“It sounds a little pejorative to me,” he continues. “It does a disservice to a lot of movies. Most people go ‘Mumblecore? I don’t know what that is but it sounds poor and exclusionary. I don’t want to go see that movie’. That’s a bummer to me. I’m not a fan.”
Dare we ask how he feels about the mumblecore synonyms bedhead cinema and – groan – Slackevetes films?
“That is worse,” says Duplass. “That’s so reductive. There’s nothing slacker-y about the films I’m making – except that we were influenced by Richard Linklater’s Slacker. Even with Jeff Who Lives At Home, it’s not a slacker film. Jeff lives in his mother’s basement but not because he’s lazy or without direction. He has the ultimate direction in his life: he believes in the great power of the universe and he has suspended all normal actions in his life to wait for that one big thing.”
He laughs: “And we liked the idea of having someone live their entire life according to the principles laid out by the movie Signs.”
Semantically unstable or not, no school since Lars von Trier’s Dogme ’95 has ruffled feathers to the same degree as mumblecore. Defenders, with considerable justification, regard the movement as proof of the democratisation of the digital age.
“You can certainly date it to when the Panasonic DVX100 (the first low-cost digital progressive scan camcorder) came out,” says Duplass. “They’re making higher budget filmmaking more accessible.”
For the faithful, the filmmakers to emerge post-DVX are the most exciting American gang to emerge since the Jets and the Sharks. Among fans, Andrew Bujalski is hailed as the new Maurice Pialat, Joe Swanson is the new Eric Rohmer, and Lynn Shelton is the new Agnès Varda.
Detractors, meanwhile, point to Lena Dunham’s Girls and Tiny Furniture with a warning from history: acting like a vacuous, superficial ninny doesn’t automatically qualify as satire. Bridget Jones, anyone?
The dread compound word itself dates to the 2005 South by Southwest Film Festival, where three notable practitioners turned out with significant works of art: Andrew Bujalskis Mutual Appreciation, The Puffy Chair by Mark Duplass and his brother Jay and Kissing on the Mouth by Joe Swanberg. The coiner was Eric Masunaga, Bujalski’s sound editor and a one-time member of influential Hawaiian rock band The Dambusters (before that combo splintered into Joan As Police Woman, Guided by Voices and Shudder to Think).
Since then, the public has come to associate the ’core with players Greta Gerrwig and Jason Segel, the boutique DVD imprint Benten Films, verbose neurotic dramedy, natural light and dialogue and ponderous rhythms.
In this spirit, Your Sister’s Sister casts Duplass as Jack, a perennial screw-up who hasn’t quite come to terms with the tragic death of his brother or the unresolved feelings he harbours for his late sibling’s romantic partner, Iris (Emily Blunt). Will Iris and Jack finally get together during a weekend at a remote holiday cabin? Not if Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) gets there first.
Director Shelton and her cast poured over the details and character back stories to ensure maximum authenticity. Sure enough, all three principals, particularly Blunt and Duplass, are superb. What, we wonder, is the prerequisite for actors working within the milieu we’re not supposed to call mumblecore?
“With someone like Jason Segel, you know he has experience with improvisation from working with Judd Apatow. And we knew Emily Blunt had been in My Summer of Love – a fantastic movie – that had been improvised. If you’re a good actor who is interested in exploring on set rather than just reproducing, that’s really the difference. They’re not there to execute but to define.”
Mark Duplass was born in New Orleans in 1976, a younger sibling to older brother Jay. Both boys loved movies although, while the brothers’ contemporaries gravitated toward Spielberg and Lucas brand spectacle, they sought out post-classical Hollywood drama.
“Other kids liked Star Wars: we loved Kramer vs Kramer and Annie Hall and Ordinary People,” says Duplass. “Essentially, the movies we make now are like those hard hitting 1970s dramas we grew up on with some added comedic elements. But we never imagined we’d make a career out of it.”
Tone, indeed, is a defining characteristic of the Duplass Brothers’ oeuvre: “It’s a funny thing with our films,” says Mark of Baghead, Jeff Who Lives At Home and the incoming Do-Deca-Pentathlon. “We always play it straight on set. Our sets are closed, as if for a love scene, for every scene. So if you watch a movie like Cyrus at home, it’s a quiet drama. But I’ve seen people watch it in a theatre and with a big crowd, it’s a comedy.”
The style and methodology holds across media. Mark and his actor-director-producer wife Katie Aselton have enjoyed TV success with the FX series The League, and between them had three films at the last Sundance Film Festival, including the award-winning YTMND flick Safety Not Guaranteed and the survival actioner Black Rock.
He will, additionally, feature alongside Diane Keaton and Kevin Klein in Darling Companion, with Chris Pine in the dysfunctional family weepie People Like Us and in the next Kathryn Bigelow film. Will success lure Duplass away from the micro-budget sector? Not likely, he says.
“Acting is a wonderful, freeform thing that I do – and it takes six weeks when directing takes two years. But my writing and directing career with my brother is the still most rewarding thing I do. It’s taxing and stressful. But you can be clever about it by never asking for too much money. A movie like Cyrus cost $6 million to make. For the studios that’s a no-brainer. They can’t not make money back on a movie starring Jonah Hill and John C Reilly when it cost $6 million.”
The Coens. The Hughes. The Quays. Just what is it with brothers and movies, anyway?
“From my perspective it’s really hard to make a movie. You need someone there you love and trust to help you through it; someone who’ll drag you out of bed on the mornings when you don’t feel inspired. Having a brother doubles the chance that the job will get done.”