Mark Duplass Talks 'Humpday' and Past and Future Projects

Photo: Three's company. Mark Duplass (left) and Josh Leonard (right) star in 'Humpday,' a film directed by Lynn Shelton (center).
Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy
Three's company. Mark Duplass (left) and Josh Leonard (right) star in 'Humpday,' a film directed by Lynn Shelton (center).

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Mark Duplass is an actor and a filmmaker with his brother Jay Duplass, the team behind "The Puffy Chair" (2005) and "Baghead" (2008). He recently starred in Lynn Shelton's film, "Humpday," about two college friends shooting a straight-on-straight amateur porno for the HUMP! film festival in Seattle. The Daily Californian phoned him to talk about his creative process and the joys of playing the intellectual dufus.

The Daily Californian: Your latest film "Humpday" is contributing to a growing number of bromantic films and TV shows, popularizing the self-actualized man through his sensitive side, much like the metrosexual movement awhile back. But director Lynn Shelton explores the extremes of what this movement hints at, namely: when bromance turns sexual and can lovers be just friends? When you approached this project, did you have any hesitations?

Mark Duplass: I honestly didn't have any hesitations. I mean, when we made this project, the bromance and that sort of zeitgeist wasn't really around as much. It's happened, I guess we lucked out making a movie about a subject that was interesting and that people were talking about at the time. That really wasn't at the forefront of our brains, and in terms of me being maybe hesitant or reserved, the only concern I really had was that we would make a movie that was flippant with the sexual politics, and I didn't want to trivialize any of that stuff.

And, I wasn't that worried about it honestly, because from the moment that Lynn and Josh and I signed on to the project and started really defining what it was going to be, we knew we wanted to make a more human comedy about almost the existential crisis of these two guys opposed to the nature of the sexual politics of the movie. That's what I'm good at, that's what my brother and I make movies about. I kind of know how to do the self-actualized, self-aware male who's still essentially a buffoon, because even though he understands his problems intellectually, he doesn't always know how to fix them.

DC: You mention your brother Jay-he worked in a film with Lynn directed by Joe Swanberg. Were you much aware of her presence and work before that film "Nights and Weekends"?

MD: We knew each other because we're in a very similar circle of friends. I met her on the set of this film "True Adolescents" that I was acting in and she was taking stills and we just kind of struck up a rapport based on similar filmmaking philosophies. We really like improvised films with a strong narrative drive, and we just got along really well. So she kind of said "I want to make a movie around you," and I said, "Great!" She called me a month later with a hodgepodge concept of two straight guys and their relationship to gay porn, and within 20 minutes we had the rough outline of the movie. It was pretty fast.

DC: I know on the films that you make with your brother, Jay, there is a written script before you step on the set but there's still this off-the-cuff, conversational atmosphere on the screen. When you were working with Lynn developing the script, did you develop it to that degree of detail? Was there a defined arch in place before you stepped onto the set?

MD: It was a pretty detailed scene outline, but there was no actual dialogue written. So it was the scenes and what points we wanted to hit in the scene, but we didn't actually script anything. Everything on the screen is improvised.

DC: How did you meet up with Josh Leonard? Were you part of the dedicated fan-base that went searching for him in the woods after the "Blair Witch Project" was released, or were you friends?

MD: Not really, I mean I love the "Blair Witch Project," but I met Josh years afterwards at the Woodstock Film Festival. He was a fan of "The Puffy Chair" and I was a fan of "Blair Witch," and we struck up a little bit of a friendship, but I didn't know him too well before going into the movie. I recommended him to Lynn because he and I have a really great natural rapport, and there's something special about the bond between the characters Ben and Andrew that I felt that Josh and I naturally have together, which is on one hand the ability to be emotionally above board and do therapy talk and be New Agey and sensitive and estrogen-laden, but at the same time if things go wrong, we both have huge tempers and have 1970s alpha males in us too.

DC: Did Lynn consult you and Josh about your own friendships and even bromances as a reference point during the shoot?

MD: Yeah, we did, we talked about us, we talked about some of our friends, some of Lynn's friends. It was definitely a collective discussion of what's out there, what's interesting. We borrowed from lots of different people and tried to put together the best thing we could.

DC: Some of the funniest moments of "Humpday" stem from the level of comfortability of the characters on the screen and the natural humor that results from what seems like old friends talking. How much time did you spend with Josh and the actress playing your wife, Alycia Delmore, talking over your characters and just getting comfortable around each other?

MD: Well, it wasn't so much getting comfortable, but it was building an intense backstory so that we had stuff to draw upon for the improvisation. We had some meetings, iChats, and Josh lives in LA so he and I had the luxury of hanging out a bit and just saying, these guys met at 20 in college and this is what happened between now and then. And that was most of the work we did, we didn't rehearse anything we shot. Everything we did we got between the first and the third take.

DC: At one point in the film, your character Ben wakes up to being mounted by his wife, played by Alycia. Josh also has his share of awkward moments in bed with a love interest named Monica. Speaking for yourself, did you have a harder time working with the sex scenes involving women, or with Josh?

MD: Neither of them were very difficult, I would say the scene with Alycia was a little more uncomfortable just because of the nature of what it was. Maybe I should have been more uncomfortable with that stuff than I actually was, but it all seemed very exciting for me to explore and it was all very interesting. The set was a cast and crew of 12 people, and everyone was so friendly, it was a very safe environment to work in. It wasn't really stressful or tense at all.

DC: The Duplass brothers and your films have been classed into this community of independent filmmakers and the inescapably-nominated "mumblecore" genre, but you and your brother have recently attained a major distribution deal with Fox Searchlight and are currently working on an upcoming project with Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei. Those are big names! How do you see or define the community you are involved with?

MD: It's hard to say, because I have so many communities that I'm involved with. I mean, there's one in the press that people call mumblecore that's kind of like a group of DIY filmmakers making small, digital films, and we certainly do that, but there's a larger group of friends that we have in LA who are making smaller studio movies like Fox Searchlight, so we kind of have a foot in the uber independent micro-budget world and we also have a foot in the "Indiewood" world. We've been lucky enough to surround ourselves people who like what we do and want to support us. And if that's doing it for $10,000, fine, if we can get $10M to do it, we'll do that too. It's really all about finding the appropriate budget level and finding people who like naturalism and a sense of realism in their movies. There's a lot more people in Hollywood that want that than we initially thought there might be.

DC: During the film, the question comes up whether art justifies confronting one's phobias or greatest fears. In your own career, have you ever encountered this dilemma or attempted to work with a topic or scenario that scares you?

MD: No, I struggled for so many years to make anything decent or watchable that once I discovered that putting my own hang-ups and fears onscreen is what lead to good pieces of art for me. That's what makes it relatable, because it feels human. It feels like you can make fun of yourself and it draws people to our stuff. Honestly, it's paid incredible dividends to make fun of myself. Every time I'm pushing myself and examining the stupid shit that I do in myself, and it proves to be funny and dramatic and it's what I have to offer. I don't shy away from it at all.

DC: And as a director, during the hotel scene your character becomes increasingly fixed on the technical details of the shoot and the direction of the amateur porno in the making. This seems to function as a coping method for an awfully awkward situation. Do you ever experience this same sort of awkwardness when you're directing, say a sex scene, and can you relate to this notion of professionalism as a defense mechanism?

MD: I can relate to it, not so much with sex scenes, but when you're a young filmmaker a lot of times you get convinced that if my set is really professional and I do everything correctly I'm going to make a good movie. And so people get really obsessed with doing things with propriety, but then you forgot-"Oh, I forgot to be inspired and make a good piece of art!" And I made that mistake a lot when I was younger. I think Jay and I are that point where it's like, "Fuck all that shit," whatever it takes to get something inspired and interesting. The crew positions on our set are completely blurred, it's a smorgasbord of people trying to make a good piece of art. A lot of people can walk on our set and be like, "This is so incredibly unprofessional." Not everyone is doing their jobs how you read about them in the film school textbooks, but it works for us and that's kind of all that matters.

DC: You starred in the Duplass brothers' debut, "The Puffy Chair," in 2005, but there seemed to be a lack of Duplass brothers on screen in "Baghead" in 2008. Do you enjoy acting in your own films? Is it a matter of the resources available to you?

MD: It started out a bit about resources, but also since we're improvising it was nice for Jay and I to have a filmmaker inside of the scene to help push the improvisation in the right directions, just narratively speaking. But then my ego got totally into it and I loved being on camera, so I like doing it now for my own creative purposes. I like acting in other people's projects too. It's a lot less pressure than directing a film, because you show up and you do some creative stuff and you go home. You don't worry so much about whether your movie is working or not, and cry to your wife and think you're a failure. It's a lot easier on the heart and soul, I enjoy it.

DC: And you're working on the upcoming Noah Baumbach film with Ben Stiller, "Greenberg." What can you tell us about that?

MD: Yeah, we already shot that. I do a smaller role in the movie, playing one of his best friends and old bandmates, and there's a lot of dirty laundry we need to air out. (Ben) was amazing to work with, incredibly smart and giving and open, just a highly intelligent human being. They're both incredible. I've been a fan of Noah's for years, so a chance to work with him was like, jump at it!

DC: Speaking of bands, you have been a recording artist in that past, with a solo release as well as an album with the group, Volcano, I'm Still Excited!! Would you say your musicianship contributes to your acting and filmmaking?

MD: I think it's more like the creative process, stumbling through my teens and my early 20s trying to find out what are good ways to make art. I learned a lot about that making music. It's about who you want to be as an artist versus what you really have to offer. A lot of times it takes a lot to reconcile those two things. I thought for a while as a filmmaker that I wanted to be making movies like the Coen brothers, but the thing is, I really am not good at making those movies. I love watching them, I would love to be good at it, but I'm not. I'm good at making the movies that we make because that's my niche. And so I learned some of that from music: learning what doesn't work as opposed to what does work.

DC: In the past, including in Joe Swanberg's "Hannah Takes the Stairs" and your film, "The Puffy Chair," you play a main character or protagonist that the audience is probably conflicted about and that some people will walk out of the theatre just not liking. In "Humpday," you are often on the safe side of likeability, but the three main characters seem to toe this line. Do you enjoy the challenge of embodying someone that may not be all that liked? How do you approach such a role?

MD: I like playing guys with "dufusness" in them, for lack of a better word. I definitely think I wouldn't be good at playing a saint on film, or a guy trying to get his son back who is essentially perfect. I am more like these guys that I play on screen in real life. I do dumb shit and try to charm my way out of it, and it doesn't really work all the time. They feel close to home to me, and I think that's why I gravitate towards them. It's not so much that it's a big challenge and I go for it. It's what I feel like I'm good at. I think the real challenge for me would be to play a guy with a gun trying to rob a bank, I wouldn't know what the fuck to do with that. In a lot of ways it's my comfort zone.

DC: What was it like as a director yourself working with Lynn on the film? Did you ever feel the need to keep quiet, or did you have a fairly collaborative relationship?

MD: It was pretty collaborative and that wasn't just me, everyone on the set was putting input into story, into acting, into lighting. It was a good environment for that. I never felt like I had to turn the director side of my brain off. My filmmaker was being utilized a lot as was everyone else's on the set, so it was a pretty cool environment.

DC: How do you think the story was affected with Lynn, a female director, directing a film about two straight guys making a porno?

MD: It's hard to say, I don't know what it would have been like with a guy directing it. But I definitely think that Alycia's character Anna in the movie is really strong, and I think that Lynn and Alycia can be credited for that in particular. The Anna role is kind of a trap role. She could easily be the shrew and the nag, or she could easily be the cuckold who doesn't know what's going on. And both of those are not interesting to me, and they did a great job of keeping her aware of what's going on, but not being too nagging about it. And I think that's a real testament to the female presence on the set.

DC: Just one last question: If you were to submit a film for consideration to an amateur porn festival, who would you choose as your co-star, living or dead, and where would it take place?

MD: Well, the right answer to this question is: It would be with my wife in my bedroom. And I say that because it's true, and because there's a really good chance that Katie will read this article online somewhere. So I'll just be real smart about that one.


Contact Hayley Hosman at [email protected]

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