Mr. Movie

Mr. Movie: Interview with Mark Duplass of ‘The One I Love’

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass star in “The One I Love.”
Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass star in “The One I Love.” Associated Press

On Sept. 11, 2014’s The One I Love kicks off the Battelle Film Club’s 2015 fall series. I have the pleasure of introducing the movie.

It stars and was produced by Mark Duplass. He and his brother, Jay, are among the kings of the art film world. Their movies — like them or not — are always original. Their first movie was the acclaimed but little seen The Puffy Chair in 2005. Then they did a low budget and little horror film that did get noticed. Baghead came out 2008.

Oh, you’ve not heard of or seen either movie? Few have. But those loving art films and films with unique characters and plots are well aware of the Duplass brothers. And some of you probably know Mark from his recurring role on the FX television network series The League.

The Duplass brothers are also the go-to-guys for many in the art film world who want to make a movie. The highly thought of Safety Not Guaranteed — one of my all-time favorite movies that few have seen — and Your Sister’s Sister are among them.

When The One I Love was released for its, unfortunately, limited run before disappearing into Netflix limbo, I had the pleasure of a half-hour of Mark Duplass’ time. His movie was the best movie that nobody saw in 2014. Now film fans in the Tri-Cities have a chance to see it on a big screen — where it belongs.

Gary Wolcott: I’ve been doing this for 24 years, and I have never seen a movie I didn’t know how to review until now. Rule No. 1 for movie critics is to not include anything in a review that’s a spoiler. And anything I say about The One I Love ruins the plot and the twists and the surprises.

All I can say is it starts out like a romantic comedy and ends up like something Twilight Zone originator, host and writer Rod Serling would have written in the 1960s. I really loved it.

Mark Duplass: I think that’s a good start and it’s OK for people to know that. We took the form of the romantic comedy and turned it upside down, and examined relationships and used this almost magically real plot device in ways you don’t normally do.

GW: You star and produce. What drew you to this project?

MD: I build up most of the movies I produce and act in. I really like director Charlie McDowell. I know he works quickly and I told him, I really like you, I would love to make a movie with you. I’ll produce it and I’ll act in it and I’ll show you how to build a really small movie that can be made quickly; a couple of actors, a couple of locations. Here’s the basic idea of a movie I’ve been considering.

GW: So it’s your story?

MD: Yes, the basic kernel of it. No character stuff. No first, second or third act, just the kernel that is the twist of the tale. From there, McDowell and his writing partner Justin Lader worked on it together for a week. They brought me a 10-page outline and it was amazing. We found a property we could shoot in and we reverse-engineered the script so we could shoot from inside that property. I brought Elizabeth Moss into it. She wanted to work with me, and we started shooting less than six months later.

GW: It’s a short movie and you mentioned doing it quickly. How long did it take you to shoot it?

MD: Two-and-a-half weeks.

GW: Two things. One, it doesn’t take an eight-figure budget to make a good movie. Two, I felt the same way about The One I Love that I did about your best movie until now, Safety Not Guaranteed. In that one, by the end I didn’t care if the time machine worked or not. Is Safety Not Guaranteed your idea too?

MD: No. It was brought to me as a full script. And it was already great. They had some trouble making the movie because they wanted to make it at a higher price point. I convinced them they shouldn’t make it for that much money. The more money you bring in the less of a chance you have of making the movie you want to make. So I said, I’ll protect you. I’ll get you a little bit of money to make it so you’re not sacrificing what you want to do. You’re not going to get rich. But the upside is you’ll make a good movie.

GW: What are you like as a person? I see the characters you play as loner types, kind of withdrawn. And I see you disagree.

MD: I don’t think I play only loner types. I’m lots of different things. Part of the excitement of The One I Love is the ability to play lots of different shades in one movie. If you go to a party and you mingle and you stop to talk to one person. You normally shuck and jive within 20 percent of your personality until you get it going. If they’re a sports fan and you’re not, you try to go a little bit this way or that until it works. Then you move on and have a conversation with someone else, and pretty soon you’re leaning on a different side of your personality to make that conversation work.

The same thing happens with relationships. You project a shiny, perfect version of yourself to attract them in. Then that starts to wear off and you’re not as giving or sensitive or funny or interested as you were. And that fascinates me; how we’re not wholly ourselves but just a reflection of who we’re consorting with.

GW: We’re compartmentalized.

MD: Yes. Some people are much more extreme at it than others, but there’s a little bit of that in everybody. I know people that I love and respect that are hopelessly and helplessly themselves. Those people are usually, unfortunately, rarely successful in this world because they can’t maneuver in that way.

GW: Instead of loner types, and thinking about what I’ve seen you do, a better description of those you play is what you just described: compartmentalized.

MD: Yes.

GW: I like the characters you play. There’s something real about everything you do and that’s refreshing. I like you even in small movies where you have basically nothing to do. You were terrific in the Chris Pine-Elizabeth Banks flick People Like Us. You had a couple of scenes as the next door neighbor, and you were real. Very little else in the movie was.

MD: The one thing I ask of my directors — even if they’re doing a heavily scripted thing — is to just give me one take where I get to improvise in or around the scene. I’ll go off on a run and still keep the scene the length it is. I want the surprise from the actor across from me while we still bring the narrative where it needs to go. I believe in the power of improvisation — organized improvisation — so you can get a natural amount of looseness. And it’s just not that I look more natural. It brings a different quality from the actor sitting across from you. It’s honest. And the one unique thing I offer as a performer is what I’m able to elicit from the people across from me. I can read people really well and throw surprises at them. I’m better at making other people look good. It’s one of my strengths.

GW: You’re a terrific character actor. You have this guy next door quality about you. That said, I feel like I’m never going to get to know you. Again, back to the type of person you normally play; that compartmentalized person. And I like that too.

MD: Even the most affable among is is hiding something.

GW: Back to the movie. You made this in a couple of weeks. Is a lot of it ad-libbed?

MD: Yes but there was an outline and very detailed. In fact, it’s the most detailed outline I’ve ever shot from. There was no actual written dialogue on the page. And without giving too much of the plot away, there were certain scenes that required a lot of effects and required strict organization on how they were shot. So the night before our writer scripted pages we were going to use the next day and gave us enough points to kind of keep us caged in and organized.

GW: It seemed that way.

MD: The goal was to make a structure that is a romantic comedy turned sci-fi film narrative, but within that tightness to get the shaggy, loose realism of improvised dialogue to kind of balance things, and make it seem not so rigid.

GW: Once you figure things out, it’s easy to know how it’s going to end. But getting there and as it gets darker and darker and darker, it is so much fun. And bringing up Safety Not Guaranteed, again, I felt the same way about it. Early in the movie, I’m going, “So what? I don’t care. Why am I here?” And the longer the movie goes, the more hooked I get until I walk out saying that is one hell of an excellent movie experience. To me, that’s brilliant filmmaking.

MD: Thank you.

GW: You were in Tammy and worked with Melissa McCarthy, who I think is the sexiest woman alive. And by the way, that is probably the most commercial movie you’ve worked on. What’s she like to work with?

MD: She is so wonderful as a person. I liked the experience of being with her and her husband Ben Falcone, who directed the movie. It’s like being at a big dinner party at their house. They’re taking care of everybody, and hosting everybody, and made sure the quality of time on set was the most important thing. She is a really great improviser and intimidating to be in scenes with, and is one of the best at digging out comedy nuggets. She’s at the top of her game right now.

She immediately set me at ease. Melissa had seen some of my movies and told me, “I love what you do and the quality you have, so just come on set and do your thing.” She also doesn’t do a lot of love interests in her movies, so it was interesting to me to be one of the first.

GW: Another of your movies I loved: Jeff, Who Lives at Home. You and your brother, Jay, wrote and directed that one, but you didn’t star. Where do you come up with ideas like that?

MD: Jeff was something I wrote early. I was in my mid-20s. The idea was to create a detective story that was all about feelings and where the clues were not weapons or anything else. The clues were interpersonal connections and feelings. Look at the form of that movie. It’s straight up Raymond Chandler but my Marlow is a stoner lonely guy trying to find his purpose, and the murderer is happiness. I took all the normal Chandler plot points out and filled them up with feelings.

I didn’t know if it would work, but if I could pull it off … it was definitely execution dependent.

GW: Jeff was fun. And again, I walk out of your movies entertained. And that’s the point of movies, right? It’s why I fell in love with them at age six when I saw my first movie The Wizard of Oz. Changing subjects. Who do you want to work with?

MD: I love Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World). He’s a friend of mine and an awesome movie star; he’s good looking but not too slick; he’s affable and smart. I just think the world of him. I feel about Chris O’Dowd (St. Vincent, Bridesmaids) in the same way. I have big dreams of working with Meryl Streep one day and to really just learn from her. I’m obsessed with Richard Jenkins (Eat Pray Love, The Visitor).

I like actors that are students of the human condition, like I am. My brother and I, when we sit together in restaurants or in airports, watch people and are just constantly falling in love with the strange, weird people we see. And when actors are like that, those are the people I want to work with.

GW: That makes sense. The people in your movies are three-dimensional.

MD: I am very fortunate that I was raised in a middle-class family and I never had to worry about famine or genocide or anything. The problems in my life are about relationships and about people. Now I’m fortunate that I don’t have to worry about money. So that’s what I focus on. I’m the luckiest person in the world.

GW: I always ask actors and directors this question. Do you have a favorite movie or movies?

MD: I have movies that I love to watch over and over. I get more things from them the more I watch them. When I watch the first Rocky, it just emotionally knocks me out. I love the underdog quality and that lovable loserness that is present in all my films. People who are flawed but fist-pumping for greatness are my favorites.

GW: Favorite director?

MD: Bennett Miller. He’s making unique movies inside the studio system. Moneyball. Foxcatcher. I marvel at him because I’m scared to try to make a bigger-budget movie. I’m worried I’m going to get all my edges rubbed out. He has the best of both worlds right now.

And historically? [John] Cassavetes (1970’s Husbands) has always been my hero.

GW: Do you ever see yourself moving the next level up to become a superstar?

MD: I don’t think so. I think I had a moment last year where I did Zero Dark Thirty and I did Tammy. They’re bigger movies. I said, am I going this way? In all fairness, this is a time when a guy like me can actually be a movie star like a guy like Chris Pratt or any other kind of average guy, blah, blah, blah. But I really value my anonymity. I get recognized here or there, but I can walk around with my kids and not be mobbed.

GW: You are for sure anonymous. I told several people that I was going to interview you today and to a person they said, who?

MD: I have a little corner in the sandbox and I’m good there.

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