Jay Duplass is flying solo today. Which is a little unusual, since he spends so much time joined at the hip to his brother, co-writer and co-director (and occasional actor) Mark.
But this is the Toronto Film Festival, and Mark has another film in rotation - he co-stars with Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt in Your Sister's Sister - so the media schedule is a little fractured. Thus, it's just Jay at this particular round table discussing the brothers' new dramedy, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, which stars Jason Segel and Ed Helms as brothers racing around Baton Rouge trying to solve a riddle while their mother (Susan Sarandon) is confronted with a puzzle of her own at work.
Fortunately, Jay is more than capable of holding his own in conversation - and Mark's absence gives us the chance to discuss Jay's solo project, the documentary Kevin, which screens here March 23 as part of the Canadian Music Week film festival.
We last spoke when Cyrus was coming out, and we talked about your transition from indie to studio work. How are you picking your projects now? Are your calculations based on talent, budget or something else?
It's based on a vibe. [There are] so many elements - actors, whether a studio wants to make it, their behaviour, does it feel good, are they going to be nice to us, are we tired of having to explain ourselves? Are we ready to just go "I'll shoot it" and we'll basically make something like a documentary? It really depends on us. We make long-term plans, but they all get broken.
After four features, what's your working relationship like with Mark?
I'm three and a half years older, [but] Mark is the Type-A personality: he's confident, and I'm extremely careful. Most people say they couldn't work with their brother, and I understand that concept. Making movies that don't suck is hard, and we are constantly aligned together against every evil. This is the thing about selling out. Selling out when you're on a film set isn't like "Oh, we're going down this terrible path." It's so easy to do. "Sure, that location's good enough because its 11:30 and we're waking up at 4 in the morning. This is good enough." But when you have two people [directing], you hold each other to the thing of "we are lucky to be doing this." Sometimes it's "I can't take it any more, man - can you just keep the thing going? I'll be in the trailer." That's how hard it is. Directors after movies are dead presidents - they look like hell. It's too much for one person; if you share it, and love the [other] person, they have your back.
This movie plays out on a larger scale than you've previously attempted. Did that pose any challenges?
Our movies are shot documentary-style. People aren't required to hit marks, and I'm shooting as a documentarian. When you shoot something locked down, you have to go one extra step, storyboard and prepare, so people can do their jobs on the day. As a filmmaker, you have to go an extra step and wonder how you can make it stay in your style. So while they're rehearsing, I'll do practice moves and unlearn everything I know - and when it happens, luckily it works. But it takes an enormous amount of cognition. Mark says it's like thrift-store shopping: you have to work goddamn hard to make it look like it fell off the rack this way. It's three times as hard to make it look like clothes handed down from your dad.
How did you land Susan Sarandon, who doesn't do a lot of small character comedies these days?
I'm sure she was thinking "Who the hell are these little whippersnappers?" But her son Jake told her we made Baghead. Honestly, she's done 50-plus movies or whatever, [but ] she's like a kid. She's a wide-eyed kid who is absolutely terrified of going on set and baring all, in the best way. For her, it's "How am I going to play this as honestly and vulnerably as possible?" It was one of the most inspiring things I've witnessed making movies. You'd think all this experience would tighten someone up, but she's managed to maintain this openness. It would have been easy for her to come on the set every day and say "Okay you little farts," and we'd say "Okay, yes ma'am!" but she doesn't do that. She didn't want to do that - she wanted to live in our world and do what we did.
I wanted to ask about Judy Greer, who's just exploded everywhere in the last year or so - she's the breakout of The Descendants as far as I'm concerned, and her big scene in Jeff is just as amazing. How did you get her there? Or did she do it herself?
I don't know what it is. Mark and I see that in her, and not to dilute it, we are proud and amazed but not surprised. We feel that way about Ed and Jonah [Hill] and John [C. Reilly], all these people who do the heavy lifting in our films. Mark and I know specific types of funny people come from a dark place, having to create humour because life is hard. There are certain people whose depths we see on the surface - Jason and Ed are that way, Jason is an incredibly great combination of sad and hilarious all the time. That's what we're interested in. Judy's scene is one of the ones we're proudest of.
Speaking of depths, Ed Helms seem to respond to the challenge of playing a more complex character.
We left it up to Ed. We talked about it a lot. He said he was ready to go deeper, to do dramatic stuff from a real place. [The character's] not just a jackass. For Ed, it was important to have this character rooted in some depth; for us it was exciting to take [Helms] from his wheelhouse and move him to a deeper place. We are super-proud of it, and Ed is, too.
Finally, we need to talk about Kevin.
The documentary is about this great musician in the early 90s in Austin. His name was Kevin, he was wildly loved in Austin, and he disappeared in 1995. Mark and I have always been wondering what happened to him and where he was. Basically, I found him and started hanging out with him and learned this crazy stuff that happened to him. The movie's about getting your inspiration back. How do you resurrect your dream?