Mark and Jay Duplass claim they made the ugliest movie to have ever played Sundance.
The brothers shot the dimly lit “This Is John,” about a man struggling to record a coherent answering machine message, for just $3 — the cost of a blank tape. Back in 2003, dwindling funds prompted them to do things like return muddy extension cords to the hardware store.
“I think Home Depot can afford to subsidize a little bit of art,” Mark says. “I think they’re fine.”
Fifteen years later, the Duplasses are the ones doling out money. After becoming stars of the festival circuit with so-called mumblecore films, they’re now two of TV’s biggest impresarios through distribution deals with HBO and Netflix, for whom they recently produced the buzzy documentary series “Wild Wild Country.” All the while, they’ve clung to their DIY eclecticism, piling acting, writing and directing projects on top of each other to form careers unlike anyone else’s.
They receive tons of emails from aspiring indie filmmakers who simply must know how “two extremely average guys,” as Mark puts it, managed to pull it off. So, for maximum efficiency, they wrote a book, published this month: “Like Brothers,” an honest look at how Mark, 41, and Jay, 45, built a lifelong partnership.
“Without killing each other,” Mark adds.
The Duplasses sit in the Hirshhorn Museum’s courtyard the morning of their book tour’s D.C. stop, in matching blazers and salt-and-pepper beards. While writing, the first-time authors thought about the questions they receive most often and just started “falling into the process,” according to Mark, who adds that they write screenplays in a similar manner: “That doesn’t mean it’s not analyzed and studied after the fact, but the initial creative vomit goes much better for us when we start spilling it out.”
Katie Aselton, Mark’s wife of 11 years who has acted in a number of their projects, calls Mark the gas and Jay the brakes: “Mark wants to do it all really fast, and Jay wants to slow things down and think about it a little bit.”
“Like Brothers” takes on a confessional tone at times, because the “two guys from the South who didn’t go to therapy,” as Mark frames it, often iron out personal issues through their creative work. We see this in the email exchanges they quote, which also include the grown men calling each other “Dupiss” or signing off as “diarrhea party 2049.”
The two were close while growing up in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans. Mark notes that Jay was always willing to play with him, whereas “most older brothers hold [their younger brothers] down and fart in their faces — at least, in the ’80s in the South, that’s what they did.” The Duplasses slept in the same twin bed by choice. In their free time, Jay borrowed his parents’ camera and directed Mark in short films.
They were “definitely involved in the late-’80s white boy funk movement, unfortunately,” Jay says, but they eventually redirected their energy from music to film in the years after Jay started at the University of Texas at Austin in 1991.
“I think there was an element of, well, if we’re so amazing and we can do anything” — as Mark recalls their parents telling them — “we should choose the hardest thing and we should lock arms.”
Mark frequently visited Jay in college, and the two attended Q&A sessions held by the likes of Richard Linklater. Seeing the filmmakers walk around in jeans and white T-shirts, eating at familiar Austin spots, the brothers realized that people like them — regular people! — could make movies, too.
“They weren’t wearing berets, you know?” Jay says. “We didn’t really know where movies came from, and we thought it was an elite that had been bestowed the gift of being able to make movies. That was kind of true, for a long time. Luckily for us, we landed in pretty much the center of the modern DIY filmmaking movement.”
It’s a movement they identify with, unlike the mumblecore subgenre they were tossed into because of their projects’ heavy improvisation and emphasis on human intimacy. The label landed them in the New York Times early on, and they’re grateful — but “we don’t feel like our characters mumble, and we’re actually wildly obsessed with plot,” Jay says. “It’s weird to be the godfathers of a movement that you didn’t create, you know?”
Regardless, the rise of mumblecore contributed to the cult status of 2005’s “The Puffy Chair,” perhaps the indiest of indie road movies, and 2008’s “Baghead,” a comedy about four struggling filmmakers, both of which premiered at Sundance.
When co-directing, Mark and Jay regularly hold what their longtime friend and collaborator Steve Zissis calls “Duplass brother powwows” to make sure their visions align. It’s difficult to imagine a situation in which they wouldn’t. In response to a silly tweet that proposed a Duplass brothers-themed Met Gala, the pair trade ideas on what that would entail.
“The dream — we would never do this — is that we would wear the ‘Dumb and Dumber’ tuxedos,” Jay says. “It’s very flaunty.”
“But what about us in our hiking gear, with your vest that holds all of our keys and protein bars and carb-loading bars and your water filter and our matching visors?” Mark suggests as Jay munches on a granola bar he just pulled out of a Patagonia fanny pack.
“Our matching visors.”
“And our matching shoes.”
“With the flaps! With the ‘European Vacation’ Rusty flaps on the side. What about, what’s it called, the water — ”
“Hydration systems. Please quote me on that.”
“Because the truth is, we would go to the Met Gala [and] everybody else would leave, but we could stay there a week and be totally sustainable.”
Clearly, they’re on the same page. But even this harmony wasn’t enough to make their aptly named HBO series “Togetherness” an entirely enjoyable experience. The brothers spent about 13 hours a day together, writing, producing and directing every episode. Mark also acted in all of them.
Oh, we’re not done. The show’s first season overlapped with the last of “The League,” an FX series Mark starred in with Aselton, while Jay continued to appear in Amazon’s “Transparent.” (Disclosure: Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) They were also about a year into writing “Like Brothers.” When HBO nixed “Togetherness” after two seasons in 2016, they finally found room to breathe.
They spent more time with their children: Ora, 10, and Molly, 6, for Mark; Mimi, 9, and Sam, 6, for Jay. The brothers sense that their older daughters are “spiritual soul mates” in the same way they were as children.
Jay realized that he enjoys acting the most, a discovery he owes in part to “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, who quickly cast the writer-director in a lead role after meeting him at a party.
“This is no longer a director who is trying his hand at acting,” Soloway says. “He’s one of the greatest actors of his generation. He’s just a channel for emotion and comedy. He is hilarious and also really deep. Most people are one or the other, you know?”
The praise is remarkable considering Jay received his first major part at 40.
Neither he nor Soloway has a solid idea of what the show’s future holds, given recent harassment allegations against its star, Jeffrey Tambor (who partially denies them). But Jay, who dove headfirst into this “reverse midlife crisis,” has plenty else on his plate. He co-wrote and starred in Lynn Shelton’s “Outside In” with Edie Falco and produced Miguel Arteta’s dramedy “Duck Butter” with Mark, who recently appeared in Jason Reitman’s “Tully.”
The brothers still produce the adult animated comedy “Animals” and the anthology series “Room 104” for HBO.
“Duck Butter” is part of the Netflix deal, another instance of their commitment to back their peers’ projects. They had a hand in boosting “Florida Project” director Sean Baker’s career by producing his breakout feature “Tangerine” in 2015.
“They’ve been able to navigate through this crazy indie world and help other independent filmmakers,” Baker says. “I really feel like the whole ‘Tangerine’ experience that I had with them has opened up so many doors for me.”
It’s fitting that the Duplasses ended up at Netflix, whose vision seems to align with their spaghetti-at-the-wall approach. They’ve known Ted Sarandos since the early 2000s — before he was “president of the universe as the head of Netflix,” Mark says — but remain grateful that he hasn’t blocked their email addresses. They’re well-acquainted with the possibility that no one will see their passion projects in theaters and don’t mind throwing projects into the streaming site’s void.
“We have no entitlement at all — like, we came from nowhere,” Jay says. “If they took it all away from us right now, we’d walk away, ‘Seriously, we had a great run.’ ”
“We did it!” Mark screams in the courtyard, his arms outstretched.
“We did it.”