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Filmmaker Interview: Mark Duplass, “The Puffy Chair”

October 29th, 2010 by Rebecca Harper Editor

Actor Mark Duplass is a familiar face to fans of the FX fantasy football-centric guy show, The League, playing the charming troublemaker, Pete, but he actually got his start working onscreen and off with his brother, Jay, on short films and, in 2005, The Puffy Chair, which is now streaming on Hulu. Mark stars in the movie with his now-wife, Katie Aselton — also one of his co-stars on The League — as a young couple who embarks on a road trip unlike any other. In the first segment of our two-part interview series about The Puffy Chair, we asked Mark about the film, his relationship with his brother, and how the more subtle humor of The Puffy Chair is different than the raunchier jokes of The League. Coming soon: an interview with Katie Aselton. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Hulu: The first thing I noticed about The Puffy Chair was the music. There’s lots of indie favorites in there. How did you choose the music and go about getting it in the movie?
Mark Duplass:
We were very naïve when we were making The Puffy Chair. We had about $15,000 of our parents’ money to make that movie. I used to play in bands a lot and I was on this label called Polyvinyl Records that had some cool bands like Of Montreal that are on the soundtrack. And so was really easy, because those guys were really friendly and willing to hook us up; I had toured with them. When it came to Spoon and Death Cab, what it really came down to was the bands were just tremendously generous and nice to us. I learned a lot about making indie movies, just lucky. The last thing you want to do when you go to bigger, cool bands like that is say, “Man, I’ve got this awesome indie movie. You totally want to be part of this because it’s going to help out your band.” I really just went to them and just said, “You have no reason to be in this movie, other than the fact that I will die if I can’t have these songs in the movie, and I need them because I am addicted to them. Please try to remember seven to 10 years ago, when you were scrapping, trying to put your stuff together and how great it was then to have one of your heroes to help you out. This is what I’m asking you to do.” And they did it, and that is very, very cool.

Let’s talk about the casting a little bit. You’re in the movie, obviously, and so is Katie Aselton. [They were dating at the time; now they are married.] Did you write the movie with yourself in mind?
Yeah, we designed the movie with something we call the “Available Materials School of Filmmaking.” We knew that we had $15,000 available, so we didn’t write anything that wasn’t readily available to us. We didn’t have money for a casting director or anything like that. Often when you’re casting indie movies, you just don’t get the talent you want. So what we decided to do was write a movie for myself, for Katie, and for Rhett. We knew that we were good and we knew that it would work, and so we designed the roles kind of around our strengths and avoided our weaknesses as actors, and likewise, that was my touring van from my band. Katie grew up in this little town in Maine, where her dad was the doctor and everybody loved him, and we knew we could get them to support for free. That was my apartment in Brooklyn. We did have to buy two chairs — two twin, matching chairs because one of them was going to get hurt. Otherwise, it was really us saying, let’s try to build this around what we have and not try to dream too big so we know we can make it.

What inspired the story?
It was a desire on the part of myself and my brother to make a feature along the lines of how we made our shorts, which were big, long scenes, cheap production value, focused on acting, story, faces, human emotions. We figured if we did that and set it in an apartment, it was basically going to be a Woody Allen movie. So we wanted to try to do something a different, so in order to give it a little momentum, we said “Let’s stick it in a genre.” The road movie seemed pretty obvious to us. And it was just this kind of conversation where we said we’re going to be dealing with some serious issues in this movie, with relationships, and it’s going to be a little sad in places. We want this movie to be fun and to have that silliness to it. So we were like, what if he’s just delivering a piece of furniture to his dad, something stupid like that? Then we just batted it around, like is it a table, is it an armoire? It was almost like it hit us at the same time: “Oh no, massive recliner!” It was more of a feel-based thing, rather than an intellectual decision.

Were any of scenes that depicted you interacting with Rhett Wilkins, who played your brother, based on any of your experiences with your brother, Jay?
You know, at the time it didn’t feel like that at all. When I look at it now… Jay and I basically share the same brain. We share the same taste, and we share a love of the same things in the world, but our modes of operation have grown vastly different as we’ve gotten older. So there is a little bit now, I would say, be being the Type A maniac, and Jay being a bit more sensitive, careful and wary. We call each other jokingly — but very seriously — I’m the bull and he’s the brakes. The way we talk about it I think is, I think we’re a perfect complement for each other. If it was just me, I’d probably be making 10 bad movies a year. If it was just Jay, he would make one half a movie over the course of the next 60 years. Somewhere in there, we kind of curve the edges a bit.

I was drawn to the relationship between you and Katie in this film. There are some dark and twisted moments between your character, Josh, and her character, Emily. Did she have any influence on the development of Emily?
Katie had a ton of influence on the character. Just to be point blank, perfectly honest. Jay and his wife were going through a lot of those things, and Katie and myself were going through a lot of those things, and a lot of our best friends were going through a lot of those issues. We were all in our 20s, dating for a bit, and we were all scared shitless about getting married. We were doing irrational things to each other on all kinds of fronts. You know, Jay and I wrote the script, but there were moments, like the big fight in the hotel room between us, and the breakfast scene the next morning when Katie’s character really rips into Rhett about marriage and what that means, where Katie would say “Guys, can I just go off here? Will you just let me say what I want to say?” And every time she did that, it was always right. I wouldn’t say they were necessarily Katie’s beliefs, because Emily is an extreme character, but they were certainly fueled by things we were all going through. There’s this quote that says anybody under 30 who tries to make a good movie better try to make it about themselves. We believed that at the time, so there’s a lot of us in there.

Your style of filmmaking is known as “mumblecore.” Can you shed some light on that movement — and is it a badge of honor to be considered mumblecore?
In my opinion, it was a cool time and place in 2005, when someone in the press made up the term “mumblecore.” None of the filmmakers ever called themselves that; it was a press item. There wasn’t a dogma movement where we all decided “Hey, we’re mumblecore!” It was really cool at the time, because we were making tiny movies and the New York Times was writing about them, selling our movies. It was giving a name and a face to something that was completely indecipherable to the public. That was nice. But now, it’s become a bit limiting, I think. Quite frankly, it came out because a certain camera came out. It allowed us to shoot good-looking stuff for cheap. That’s literally why that happened, and that’s why things look kind of similar. But now we’ve grown and we’ve branched out, and our movies have become much different. Mumblecore has become a bit limiting now, because when a movie like Cyrus comes out, and someone in the middle of the country hears it’s mumblecore, they think “What’s that? I don’t know what that is, but it’s not me,” I tend to think our movies have changed a bit and they’re not like that. Mumblecore used to be about completely anonymous people and long, drawn-out conversations. That’s kind of not what Cyrus was. So it was great for a certain amount of time, but now, like anything, you sort of want to distance yourself from it.

You star in The League, which has a totally different sense of humor compared to The Puffy Chair.
The truth of the matter is, Jeff and Jackie Schaffer run The League. We are a creative arm in that insofar as we inhabit those characters, but at the end of the day, we the vessels of Jeff and Jackie’s and their vision for this show. Those characters are basically nothing like us, I would say. Pete is overly confident and calm and secure, and I’m totally neurotic. Katie might be a little closer to her character, because Katie is a total guy’s girl. She’s very good with boys and stuff like that. I think that element kind of rings true for her. Katie didn’t a thing about football going into the show, so she had to do a shit-ton of research. I knew a bit, I’d say a lot from the ’80s and ’90s, but I wasn’t up on the current players. So she and I both went through a massive research period.

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