Baghead, the second feature film from Mark and Jay Duplass (collectively known as “The Duplass Brothers” because… well, you can probably figure it out), opens at a film festival where four actor friends, two guys and two women, decide they’re sick of never getting good roles, so they agree to go to a secluded cabin in the woods to write a movie for themselves, only to be terrorized by a man with a shopping bag over his head.
While it might sound like the kind of outlandish horror flick we’ve seen so many times before, it’s the Duplass Brothers’ inimitable way of introducing horror elements into realistic character dynamics that makes Baghead a logical follow-up to their indie debut The Puffy Chair. Much of the movie is spent introducing the four characters, best friends Chad (Steve Zissis) and Matt (Ross Partridge), Matt’s long-time flame Catherine (Elisa Muller) and Chad’s friend Michelle (Greta Gerwig), who he’s totally crushing on but who has eyes for Matt. The four of them create some interesting situations all filmed using the Duplass’ unconventional shooting methods that involves going off script and shooting long takes in hopes of capturing some sort of magic realism.
For a movie that starts by mocking film festival stereotypes, it covers a lot of ground, and Hollywood has definitely taken notice of the Duplass’ talents as they’re developing projects both for Universal and Fox Searchlight.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Mark and Jay, as well as two of their cast, Ross Partridge and Greta Gerwig, the latter who is quickly becoming the “spokesmodel” for the enigmatic “mumblecore movement,” a group of low-budget indie filmmakers who base their movies around improvisation. The Duplass Brothers have been cited as groundbreakers in that field, so we asked them to finally clear up where they stand on that whole “mumblecore” thing, but first we had to figure out which was which. (No, they’re not twins, but on tape, they do sound a lot alike on tape.)
Mark or Jay Duplass: We sound very similar so if you happen to misquote us, that’s not a problem.
Jay or Mark Duplass: It’s very easy. We’re not worried about it. Unless he says something stupid.
ComingSoon.net: One of the core elements of the movie is the relationship between these characters trying to break into the business, but what started you down the road to making this movie?
Jay Duplass: Out of desperation and fear. (laughter)
Mark Duplass: Yeah, I think it’s like someone makes a really great first record and then they tour forever with that record, and then their second record always has the ballad about how they miss home, ’cause that’s what they’re going through. So like this is our second movie coming off of years of being on the festival circuit and the people we were around and surrounded by are desperate filmmakers and desperate actors like all four of us in this room. Jay and I have always made it a policy just to try to make movies about the things that we feel like we’re an authority on or at least we think we know intimately enough that we can do the little details that we feel can make a movie special. For us, this was like, ‘Well, this is what we’ve been doing for the last few years. This is kind of the world that we know.” As much as we don’t like the concept of a film about filmmakers, we felt like it was a part of the population we knew and loved a lot in that lovable loser “Rocky” way that we could put them up there and not just make fun of them but love ‘em up a little bit, too.
CS: Once you had the concept, was the movie thought out fairly linearly from the idea of four people writing a movie in a cabin by the woods?
Jay: It was a dual thing. The baghead
Mark: The bag was separate, it was kind of over here and then they just kind of got in there together.
Jay: The first baghead image was kind of the first thing. It was just like (puts on movie announcer voice) “In a world where all horror films are now about torturing people and tearing their limbs apart how do you make something scary with just a grocery bag?” Actually, Mark was kind of obsessed with horror movies and he was like, “What’s the scariest thing to you?” and we were driving around making “Puffy Chair” and I was just like “A dude with a bag on his head looking in your window?” That’s like the scariest thing. Aliens doesn’t scare me because I haven’t seen any yet, but like some weird dude
CS: You’ve seen guys with bags on their heads looking in your window?
Mark: No, we can imagine.
Jay: No, we don’t have bags yet, but I did see “Raggedy Man” when I was seven years old at summer camp and it was very disturbing.
CS: At summer camp, they really do like scaring kids and trying to scar them for life.
Jay: They really do! And it’s totally inappropriate.
CS: Greta, you’d already worked with them before and were kind of “on the scene” but how did you hook up with them, Ross?
Ross Partridge: I was just a desperate actor at a film festival. (laughter) Yeah, we met at the Nantucket Film Festival and I’d seen “Puffy Chair” and I was there for other reason, and we just became quick friends and that was really it.
Mark: He was never like, “Oh, can you write a part for me?” We just called him and one day we were like, “We have something for you” and he was like, “Sweet, I’ll do it!”
CS: What did they tell you guys about the parts you’d be playing or did they already have a script they could hand to you?
Greta Gerwig: Yeah, there was a script and the script was only written out similar to what the structure of the movie is, but they did sayI know that when you gave me the script for Michelle, it was sort of like “This person is undefined. Do what you want.” So that was really great to be able to bring everything, all the crazy I wanted to.
CS: What did they tell you about your character because you hadn’t really worked with them before.
Ross: No, ironically, I had read the script a while before they actually called and asked me to do it, ’cause Jay and I had gotten to the point of sitting down and talking about different things and collaborating on different things. I remember I think you were still trying to figure out the end and I kind of had forgotten about it and then Jay was just I really admire these guys and of course, I would do anything to work with you guys and they were like, “Just bring yourself and don’t worry about it, just bring yourself.” So I brought my desperate actor self (laughter)
Greta: You know, weirdly, on the script front, I just remembered you know that Allison Bagdel, I’m writing with her, you guys sent a version of the script to her and she had read it and she saw it at the Maryland Film Festival. That girl died laughing. She was like, “I had no idea it is so great!” Even though the script structure is the same, it’s so different than what appeared on the page and the jokes and everything are totally different.
Jay: We have this weird thing too where our scripts don’t necessarily read funny. They read like things that move really fast and have plot and accomplish things but we’ve actually had a hard time translating to Hollywood, like the fact that these scene are going to be funny, because they’re written dramatically and they’re directed and performed dramatically, but we just kind of know in the back of our heads that as things are building up upon one another, you’re going to be laughing at it. Yeah, because it’s like cringe-worthy laughter that doesn’t really play on a page as much as it does when you have people performing these roles that are just giving it up.
Mark: Yeah, there’s a lack of jokes.
Ross: Hopefully, that’ll change that, but knowing Mark and Jay and knowing their sense of humor, even just watching “Puffy Chair,” when I read “Baghead,” obviously I was like, “Okay, there’s a guy with a bag over his head like is he really going to get me?” Knowing their humor, it still read funny on the page, I think. I thought it was still a well-written script and really plot crafted, but at a certain point, I was reading it and I was like, “Oh my God, it f*ckin’ got me.”
CS: Did you guys know who you’d be casting for the four people at any point while writing the script?
Mark: We didn’t know Ross or Greta or Elise Muller before we started writing the script, but once we met them and decided to put them in the movie, then we did a couple of things to kind of help the character fit more to their personalities but the major changes always come on set for us, because it’s just our belief is basically that you bring the movie to your actors and you don’t bring the actors to your movie, and you use their strengths and avoid their weaknesses and focus on what is inspiring to them in the moment rather than trying to jam them into some sort of preexisting vision that you might have had. Of course, that all has to still lead towards the plot, but that’s our job is to find inspiration and wrangle it in the funnel.
CS: How freeing is that as actors? You’re used to having to learn lines and find the character, so is it more freeing to do this or are you doing stuff worrying that they won’t be able to use any of it? There’s always that thing when you’re doing improv where you can do a lot and film it all, but you never know what’s going to be used later.
Greta: Yeah, really freeing. In some ways, it’s also even a bigger challenge because you really have to start existing as the person and thinking not just “how do I make these lines sound natural coming out of my mouth?” but also like, “What would this person actually say right now? What would this person actually do?” Even though, not all of it is interesting, it totally immerses you. Like I felt like I lived as Michelle for the month. I was really sad when we were done shooting. It was about a month, three weeks, and I was really sad to see her go because it felt like I was living as her for those three weeks, and I really liked her by the end. I thought she was so funny.
CS: That leads to the other question about how much of yourselves you end up bringing to these characters by living as them for so long? Does your own personality bleed into them?
Ross: Absolutely. I mean, we couldn’t say that they didn’t and like I said, Mark and Jay said, “Bring yourself and we’ll craft the rest” and being able to identify with certain parts of this character, there were certain things that I hope to think that I’m not as quick to jump the gun as Matt. He’s a little more .
Jay: Ross is smarter than Matt.
Mark: And Greta is smarter than Michelle. (laughter)
CS: I read that at one point, this was going to be a studio movie, which seems very strange. At what point did you decide, “Hey, we’re going to do it this way” and did a lot change at that point?
Jay: A few things. We basically were just I dunno. Studios definitely had their designs on the project and a lot of them wanted to make it more streamlined as a horror film and we just felt like we didn’t have any business making a horror film. We wanted to make a relationship movie that was funny and scary. And then there’s also the concern about putting famous people in a movie that is about non-famous people trying to make it as actors. That would be too weird. We also just got a lot of advice that “If you can make the movie on your own and you can afford it and you can make it cheaply, you should do it.” In the end, it just kind of came down to it. Also, the final decision really came down to the fact that we knew we were going to have to be 100% on our game to make sure all the different tones of this movie were going to marry together and it was going to be one animal, and that it was going to take all of our ability to make that happen, and if anything got in the way in retrospect, it was a really dumb move to make this our sophomore effort, because it can so easily fail. But luckily, it’s a perfect movie. (laughter)
CS: So for those three weeks, there were literally the six of you out at this house?
Mark: There were like ten of us. I mean, like six for some of the time, but ten.
Mark: It was the actors, me and Jay, and a couple other people.
CS: When you’re making a movie like this, I know you’re doing these scenes that you let play out and film everything, but you probably still have to worry about getting a certain about shot every day.
Jay: Oh, yeah. It’s all about when the moment of inspiration strikes. Sometimes that’s on the first take, sometimes that’s on the seventh take. As soon as that moment hits, then we build the rest of the scene around it and become a little more structured.
Mark: We’ll start to extract certain lines we like.
Jay: “Oh, Ross, I didn’t get that line from you. Can you set this thing up? Let’s do the first third of the scene where you and Greta are doing this, and we’re going to take it a little more like this” and we’ll start to exact
Mark: And we have a schedule. We try to stay on schedule but we’re never like a real film shoot where we say, “F*ck, we’ve only got an hour left. Just make the scene as good as we can or we don’t leave until we’ve gotten it, or if not going to get it, then we’d reshoot it. In fact, we actually ended up reshooting quite a few of the scenes even during the normal production time, just to make sure we could get it.
CS: When you’re just living and working at a cabin like that, do you actually take days off or just work every day? And being in the same house together, are you able to get away from each other if you need to?
Greta: Yeah, we had our own cabins that was pretty good.
Ross: But we’re very nice.
Mark: I think we shot six day weeks
Jay: But these guys helped too.
Mark: They were like cooking and driving and picking sh*t up. You guys always helped
Greta: Ross taught me how to drive stick. (laughter)
Mark: And Ross pretty much like gaffed the whole movie.
Jay: It’s the reason we hired Ross to produce our next movie.
CS: He’s going to have a whole second career doing gaffing.
Mark: He was also the producer on the last movie we shot.
CS: While the movie does have horror elements and the comic relationship stuff, I think if you try to sell it as a horror movie, people would be disappointed and yet, as a comedy, the horror bits actually work really well.
Jay: That’s kind of how we felt. Just beyond that, we wanted to have a situation where you’re looking at these characters and you feel like you have that sense of verité, that documentary sense of reality where we were just interested in, “Well, what if you actually cared about these people and you feel liked they’re real” and then something scary happens, even if it’s as low-fi and ridiculous and small as a dude with a grocery bag on his head, that means something now, as opposed to “I wonder in which way this person will get chopped up?”
CS: It seemed like you were shooting the scarier scenes in a different way than the rest of the movie. Was that all done in post-production or did you make a conscious effort to do that while shooting?
Mark: We just tried to shoot it like we normally shoot stuff, like we decided to try not to present it in a horror film way, but that being said, we definitely did some reshooting to make it organic, but we also wanted it to be mysterious.
Jay: Yeah, shooting horror stuff is kind of like thrift store shopping. You get lucky and 80% of the stuff you pick out, you throw it on and it looks good, but then 20% of the time it takes a lot of energy and effort to make it look that casual. We did have to double back on ourselves a bit for some of that stuff.
CS: Let’s talk about the film festival experience, because the movie really lambasts the obvious questions you probably get at the Q ‘n’ As at screenings. You’ve all done those, so can you talk about bringing the movie to Sundance and having to deal with the same type of thing after showing your movie?
Ross: Well, I think being to festivals with this movie, at least we’re proud to stand in front of it and be like, “Okay, we love this movie and we’re so goddamn proud to be here.” Jack Garner’s movie is a little bit different. The short that we’re making fun of,.. I think it would be a different experience if you were feeling uncomfortable about the film itself and your performance.
CS: Who made that short film at the beginning of the movie?
Mark: We wrote it into the script and then our friend John Brion, whose one of our crew members and he’s a Sundance director himself, he shot it for us.
CS: What about your own festival experience, Greta? You’ve done a few movies that have done the festival route.
Greta: Yeah, at the premiere, Mark and Jay said at the Q ‘n’ A last week, it’s so humiliating how much you really do love getting asked questions (laughter) and then you hear yourself running your mouth and sounding like Jack Garner, and then you’re like “Oh, God I am that guy.” But I think on some level anybody, be it independent filmmaker or actor or somebody like scrapping and forcing their way into some kind of recognition or success has some instant little ego spark light up in them when somebody asks them a qustion. They’re like “Yes! Yes! I can talk forever.” (laughing)
Ross: I exist! I exist!
Jay: I want to know more about what’s inside of you. (At this point, everyone’s laughing and talking over each other.)
Mark: Sometimes it’s basically like first question is, “Tell us about how brilliant you are,” and the answer is “I’m brilliant in this way.” Next question is “Tell us about how brilliant you are in this way” and “I’m also brilliant because I’m like this.”
Ross: “Sorry, that wasn’t the question you were asking?”
Greta: There’s this poem, it’s really short that just says, “I want to be famous so I can be humble about being famous. What good is my humility when I dwell in this obscurity.” I’ve always felt that’s what happens at Q ‘n’ As.
CS: Were you at least able to get into better parties at Sundance this year?
Mark: We got into the quote-unquote “good parties” which were like the esteemed parties that you’re supposed to go to
Ross: But then you get in there most of the time and you’re like, “Let’s go back to the hotel.” (laughter)
Greta: I went to what I think was the gay and lesbian party on I don’t know what it was but it was definitely the Gay and Lesbian Alliance party, and it was really fun dance music and a lot of vodka.
Jay: Like any other night in New York basically.
Ross: I went to a séance actually at Sundance that I’ll never forget. Robert Redford has that restaurant way down at the end of Main Street, and it was by some organization that sponsors women’s films, so they brought in the guys from that show on A&E, “The Conjuror” or whatever it is, to conjure up these spirits because supposedly, there’s this rumor that somebody died in this restaurant, and all the waiters are familiar with the ghost, so there was about thirty independent filmmakers sitting around in a circle going, “I heard something!” (laughter)
CS: I want to ask about the “mumblecore” thing because I remember the first time I heard about it, it was from a publicist who was trying to convince me to see a movie by saying how it brought all these “mumblecore people” together, and I was like “What the hell are you talking about?” I came into it kind of late obviously, so who came up with this term and are you happy with being lumped into it?
Mark: We are very happy to have articles written about us because we’re making little films. That being said, we feel that we share the esthetics of the mumblecore movement, the handheld cinematography and the improvised dialogue and some of the aimlessness of the characters in their ’20s and ’30s, but we also feel we’re fairly different because we’re obsessed with plot machinations and with genre. Mumblecore is defined by a definitive lack of that whereas we’re almost like a Hollywood movie wearing some mumblecore jackets.
Jay: Or at least we’re obsessed with how we can use genre to our advantage and what the expectations of that genre are.
Greta: You guys also don’t really use non-actors.
Mark: No, we don’t use non-professional actors. We like actors.
Greta: I feel like you can tell in their films. In “The Puffy Chair,” Katherine, Mark’s wife, she’s an actress.
Jay: You guys are actors, and like with a lot of mumblecore movies, they’ll do like one take and that’s it. What you get is what you get and that does happen with us sometimes if we catch lightning.
Mark: We torture our actors a little bit. We make them do six or seven different things sometimes in the same scene just to see what it’s going to do to the other actors and what it’s going to do to the other actors and what it’s going to do to the scene. We explore enormous amount of ranges of stuff.
Jay: Mumblecore movies have more fun than we do, because we work really f*cking hard.
Greta: I threw up about a hundred times.
CS: And in mumblecore movies, they don’t throw up?
Greta: Not as much, no.
CS: I know you guys are working on some more studio movies so how is that style of directing going to translate?
Mark: Excellent question.
CS: Are you going go try and do things more structured than your last couple movies?
Jay: No, our goal is to just do what we’re doing but put some famous people in them so the studios feel comfortable that they can sell them, because we like professional actors. We don’t need non-professionals. We’ll use our friends and we’ll use famous people and maybe our friends will become famous, too. We’re just trying to maintain our processes as much as humanly possible, because it’s a don’t fix it if it ain’t broken thing.
CS: Do you have anything specifically you want to do next or something that’s ready to go?
Mark: We shot a movie in April called “The Dodecapentathlon” about two brothers who compete in their own personal 25 event Olympics and Ross was a producer on that movie and Steve, who played Chad in “Baghead,” is one of our lead actors, and then, we are gearing up to direct our first studio movie towards the end of the year.
CS: Do you think that movie might be ready for Toronto?
Jay: Definitely not Toronto.
Mark: Depending on when we do our studio movie, hopefully we can get it ready in time for Sundance, that’s the goal.
Baghead opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, July 25.