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We talked to director-actor duo Jay and Mark Duplass about their many, many film and TV projects

Written by
Jillian Anthony

Before talented brothers Jay and Mark Duplass became indie-film darlings in Los Angeles, they spent years after college living as broke filmmakers in New York. Now they’re making upcoming HBO series Room 104, starring in television series (Jay as forever-adolescent Josh in Transparent) and films (Mark alongside Sarah Paulson in Blue Jay), and they signed a four-film deal with Netflix—and all of that’s just this year. Before they appear at The New Yorker Festival on October 8, we spoke to them about work-life balance, fruitful collaboration and keeping it in the family. 

Let’s say you’re in New York for a weekend. Where do you go?

Mark Duplass: I lived in Greenpoint from 1999 till 2005. I always come to the neighborhood and watch the changes and the highrises and people with tattoos rolling babies in strollers. A really fun stop for me is Thai Café on Manhattan Avenue; that was a date spot for me and my wife. When I come into the city it's usually something that's a quick trip because I have little kids, so I don't really get time to luxuriate, but my favorite thing to do is put my headphones on and cruise around the old neighborhoods. I like being nostalgic and maybe crying a little bit.

Jay Duplass: I lived in Williamsburg and the East Village, so I tend to visit restaurants we used to go to and try to kill myself with nostalgia. I like Cafe Mogador and Veselka and the Japanese sushi market. Those are the kind of the places we could afford, infrequently at least, when we were living in New York.

Now you’ve been working in Hollywood for years and have had success with films like Tangerine and The Skeleton Twins.  Any advice on how to be so prolific?

MD: Our first piece of advice is, don’t do it. At a certain level of success, it may not be due to balance and happiness. If you happen to be desperate and helplessly driven like we are for some unknown reason, what it comes down to is being ruthlessly efficient with your time. We do work hard but we don't work long hours. We generally like to be home for breakfast with our kids and like to back home for dinnertime. If we have to listen to 30 songs for credits, we skip through them in 20 second intervals, and divide and conquer is a very good approach to help you split chores. You normally have to give up one enormous section of your life. For some people that has been, I won't get married or have kids, and for me, my social life has taken a big hit. I have family, I work with a lot of friends, but you’ll never find me saying, “Hey, let’s get a drink at 8:30[pm].”

JD: Yeah, a drink at 8:30 hasn’t happened in eight years, when our kids were born. And at 10:30, you’re unconscious. Mark and I do not get involved in projects that probably won't happen for a few years. We're just very realistic about where we are in life what we can accomplish, and there are a lot of people who will spend seven or eight years making a movie, and we just don't get involved in projects like that. We think of things from a producer perspective from the get-go.We’re also ruthlessly efficient about what we choose to do. Most people in Hollywood are making about 10 percent of all the things they’re considering; Mark and I are making 95 percent.

Do your individual projects ever get in the way of your collaborations?

MD: It’s definitely not clean. We were at each others’ side for almost two years straight doing Togetherness and that's about as collaborative-heavy as it gets. [When it was cancelled] we gave each other a really huge hug, and I scooted off and did Blue Jay [Ed. note: opens October 7], and Jay had an experience with Transparent. There’s a hefty sine-cosine wave of “I want to do everything together” and “All right, give me space, I’m losing myself here.”

JD: It’s automatically like a marriage; we’re not going anywhere, our parents live here and our kids are really close and we all spend time together, so it’s a relationship you have to work on. 

How did you feel after Togetherness was cancelled? I've got to know what happened to Brett and Michelle's marriage!

MD: It's been various stages of grief and liberation. I'm currently feeling very lucky that our fans are feeling similarly to how you are feeling, and that were not going to end up in season five, out of ideas and dragging it out but the paycheck is so huge we can't give it up and we start making shitty decisions. I would probably not be above that paycheck. But it's kind of nice being cut early and saying, "Oh my god, I'm gonna miss you guys," instead of "Why aren't you going away already?"

JD: "We're getting a little bit of Freaks and Geeks treatment; it's not the worst thing in the world. We got to make an incredible show exactly the way we've wanted to make it for two years. Mark and I feel whatever the opposite of entitlement is. It's mindblowing to us that people think we would be entitled to have infinite seasons of a show. Mark and I came from the suburbs of New Orleans and knew no one. The fact that we're getting paid to make stuff that we like is still a wake-up-and-pinch-yourself thing for us every day. The fact we made a top-notch television show at the premiere network that's maybe ever existed and they let us do everything we wanted to do and put us on billboards in Times Square—that's the overwhelming feeling I have in retrospect of that show.

Your work often looks deeply at the everyday realities and relationships of life rather than large events, and it seems like your upcoming HBO show Room 104 keeps with that theme. Why are these smaller stories so attractive to you?

MD: Part of it is our natural taste level, part of it is what we feel we're good at doing that we've discovered through a lot of failure. I think what's exciting about Room 104 is it's a perfect container for relationship dynamics. We get to do different stories with different characters every night. That random motel by the airport has all kinds of people pass through, from those who can barely afford it to those who are used to staying at five-star resorts, so this is a new opportunity for us to explore new walks of life and ethnicities and every type of issue, and we've kind of taken it off the rails a bit and we're having a little more fun with it. It will come out in the middle of next year at some point.

What’s your favorite indie film of the last year that neither of you were involved in?

MD: I really loved Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice. It was incredibly universal.

JD: That movie rocked me to the core. It made me cry and laugh in that it’s a group of people trying to be successful, and one experiences it more than the others, and they have to deal with it. And the guy that’s so successful is the saddest one—not that we would know anything about that.

MD: It does what Jay and I are always striving to do, which we call the epically small—expose a universal touchstone—which is difficult and special.

Jay, I hope your Transparent character, Josh, will have some personal growth in season three.

JD: There's definitely more about facing toward their problems and neuroses and the origins of why they are the way that they are. I think the thing about season three is people are taking more chances and trying things that are either taboo or that they were afraid to try before. I don't know how much growth really happens, but the dysfunction has to be there because that's really the engine of the show. I think Josh definitely takes some chances this year. 

You have an upcoming humor essay book coming out. What was that like to collaborate on?

MD: We've never really done any sort of prose writing ad humor. We’ll see if it's funny. We're just trying to be honest and reflect our experiences as collaborators. If there's a touchstone to the book, it's really about the wonderful and terrible nature of collaborating with those who are so close to you. Whether it's in our case as brothers, or your spouse or children or best friends, not just artistic stuff but about how to maintain a marriage and how to be overly sensitive dudes. We're trying to be as honest as we can. Hopefully we'll be able to laugh at some our struggles and failures to be the people we want to be.

Jay and Mark Duplass speak with Emma Allen at The New Yorker Festival on Oct 8 at 7pm. $45.

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