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Mark & Jay Duplass on Being Cave Men, Telepathic Brotherspeak, & Finding TOGETHERNESS

Some people are not a fan of the so-called mumblecore movement. Its quiet, nuanced storytelling can oftentimes fall flat with viewers used to a certain sort of melodramatic pay-off. But when it comes to the humor of real life, few do it as well — and full of laughter — as the brothers Duplass. Mark and Jay have taken their brand of moviemaking and applied it to their new HBO series, Togetherness, making wholly normal, thirtysomething life a compelling event for on-screen storytelling.

We were lucky enough to chat up the brothers about their process, creating their own show for the first time, and why their “weird, telepathic brotherspeak language thing” (their words) gives them a leg up in Hollywood.

Nerdist: There’s this sentiment in the show, that whether you’re a part of a family or striking out alone, we’re all still in it, in life, together — rather than the two being separate. Was that something you actively sought to discuss?

Jay Duplass: We try not to make art from ideas. We tried to do that earlier in our career and we made terrible, terrible things. [Laughs] So what we tend to do these days evolves from our natural conversations we have together when we’re hanging out. This show really began out of the fact that we’re both in our late thirties, we have young kids, we know a lot of people who are in that situation. [They’re] struggling, feeling like they’re an inch away from drowning at all times, and just trying to be a decent spouse or a decent parent but still keep their own personal dreams going. People just seem to be getting their asses kicked left and right, and the more that we talked about it, the more we thought, well, 1.) this material goes on forever and ever, so it’s more than a movie, and 2.) there’s plenty of drama and comedy in that, so it felt ripe with all these concepts.

And there’s a lot of our other friends who haven’t gotten any traction with their careers or marrying someone — everyone’s sort of looking at each other with that “grass is greener” mentality. There just seemed to be so much happening at this juncture in life that we could just run with forever and ever.

N: It’s something that feels fairly universal, but there’s something about this particular show and this particular time where it feels especially resonant in that shit-kicking regard. Why do you think that is?

Mark Duplass: I don’t know; I think it’s hard to say. I think for us, in particular, the thing we personally bring to it is our big desire to do everything. We want to be good parents, we want to be good friends, we want to be good children and spouses while maintaining our personal dreams. I don’t know if that’s a generational thing — where we were told we can have everything so we’re going for it — or if it’s just the personal thing for us, but that striving to have it all — to be embroiled with everyone you love but still maintain who you are inside of that — seems like an impossible task and leads to the previously mentioned ass-kicking. There’s a lot of sweetness in that; there’s a lot of heart in there and sadness but a lot of comedy, too. It’s good for the tone of stuff we make.

N: That idea of trying to maintain who you are in spite of all this ass-kicking stuff is one of the things I love so much about Amanda Peet’s character on the show. I feel like I’ve underestimated her!

Jay: She’s doing new and amazing things on this show and we haven’t even begun to tap into all that she’s capable of but we’re super excited about her and her character. I think it’s one of the most dynamic characters we’ve ever created.

N: Something that’s so difficult to pull off well — and something you guys, I think, do really well — are those tiny victories that ultimately have a lot bigger impact on our lives than the “big moments” we build up in our heads. It seems like you’re having a lot of fun with that particularly with Steve [Zissis’ character] and Tina [Amanda Peet’s].

Mark: The chemistry was instant within 30 seconds of watching them in the room together. We almost tailor-made their dynamic based on a lot of what happens naturally between them. So they’re going to be super-exciting for us to follow.

You’ve got these sort of desperate, bottom-feeding [laugh] unsuccessful in career and in love people — which is normally a very sad and mopey situation — but they’re so goddamn tenacious and active in the way that they are, and they’re trying so hard to get something. I’d say that’s part of the uniqueness of them compared to the characters that you normally see on screen.

N: For sure, they’re either usually the butt of the joke or the one people get aww-shucks-y about. It’s very refreshing to see, as someone who’s about to be 30. It’s reassuring in a way.

Mark: I’ll take it.

N: It’s amazing to me how emotionally evocative these small moments can be. You’re really feeling a flurry of stuff you don’t always feel in relation to TV. I could see some people saying that this could be “too real” for viewers. Do you think there is such a thing?

Mark: Not for us, because that’s everything we’re excited about. That sensitivity to discussing something that’s hyper-real would be more palpable if it was a hard-hitting straight drama that was just pounding you over the head constantly. But that’s not really how we see the world. We see the hard truth and the sadness of it — and maybe sometimes we cry about it, but then we start laughing at ourselves and giggling. And that feeling, of all those complex emotions, is kind of what we wanted to lay down as our foundation of the show, tonally speaking.

N: It actually reminds me a lot, Jay, with the sort of honesty and storytelling that goes on in Transparent. Was that experience helpful in you guys making this?

Jay: Well we actually wrote and shot our whole season before I did Transparent.

N: Oh, twist! OK.

Jay: Just because Transparent was on Amazon and had a different timeline. I really just lucked out with the fact that Jill [Soloway, creator of Transparent] and I have similar interests and instincts and aesthetics. So I fit really well into that show and understood it and help her create in the moment as we do when creating this sort of art.

N: Something that I think your guys’ show is doing, Transparent is doing, and even Getting On is doing well is this sort of storytelling that feels incredibly remarkable in its un-remarkability (if that makes sense). It’s so rewarding and sorta lightbulb-y for the viewer.

Mark: Part of the goal of what we’re trying to do is sort of define the epic smallness of life, is how we talk about it. We find grandiose meaning in the moment when you’re having a sugar crash and you want a banana but it’s a time where your partner actually wants to have sex with you. And it’s a tiny moment that can be huge depending on where you are in your life. It can be very defining in a lot of ways.

And Jay and I love documentaries, and how the cinema of documentaries is such that the big plot shifts and turns often happen in the corner of a room, darkly lit, on accident. That sort of underhanded delivery of dramatic turn is something we really sort of aspire to in the dramatic form.

N: Have any of the other shows like The League and Transparent and The Mindy Project that you’ve worked on influenced you in ways you didn’t expect?

Jay: Well, our show comes from this very long collaboration that Mark and I have had since Mark was born. [Laughs] We function in Hollywood, and we have titles and stuff in order to work with unions and get paid, but the truth of it is we’re like two cave man brothers coming out of a cave and trying to make something together. This project in particular has evolved out of our personal relationship and conversations about what we love and the very peculiar and specific things that we find funny and tragic. The word personal is such an understatement when it comes to this kind of stuff for us, you know? And I don’t think that anything we do really compares to the level of intimacy and the feeling of “this is who we are and this is why we’re here and what we’re meant to do on some level.” We’ve been weirdly rewarded for reinventing things the way that we do in our weird little telepathic brotherspeak language thing that we do and create. We’ve come to understand that’s probably what makes us special. And if anything, we try to stay microcosmic in our own little brother world.

Have you watched Togetherness? How do you think it compares to the rest of the Duplass brother oeuvre? Let us know in the comments.

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