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Mark and Jay Duplass

Q&A with the writers and directors of Baghead

Jul 01, 2008 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

A week into last month’s Los Angeles Film Festival, Baghead gave filmgoers a laughably disorienting cinema experience when, during an early scene that’s set at a fictional underground film festival, a director fields sincere post-screening questions from the audience about his ridiculous indie film We Are Naked. After hearing the same questions concerning budget and improvisation repeated at various screenings during the L.A. fest, watching the scene had a mind-bending reverse 3D effect, as if a couple hundred of us had been sucked into the film collectively.

Baghead writers/directors/producers Mark and Jay Duplass have become all too familiar with the Q&A ritual since the 2003 Sundance premiere of This Is John, their hilarious short film about a man suffering an emotional meltdown while attempting to record a satisfactory greeting on his answering machine. The short jumpstarted the stagnant careers of the New Orleans natives, years removed from their film student days at the University of Texas at Austin, and earned them representation with the William Morris Agency. The brothers’ 2005 feature debut The Puffy Chair, in which Mark starred and Jay was credited as sole director, won praise for its naturalistic depiction of romantic and familial relationships on the brink.The Puffy Chair positioned the brothers within the mumblecore movement, a label attributed to the works of Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and other young directors who make talky, sometimes improvised low-budget confessional films.

Baghead reaches beyond the common definitions of mumblecore by embracing conventions of the horror genre. In the film, four desperate actor friends who attend the We Are Naked screening vow afterward to write and make a better film over a weekend in the woods. Only, unbeknownst to them, a terrorizing figure who masks himself like the Unknown Comic is on the prowl. On paper, a synopsis of Bagheadreads like a spoof, a la Scream, but the Duplass brothers contend that it’s an extension of their previous relationship-oriented films. Shot verité style with an HD camera and a cast and crew of less than 10,Baghead is a humorous and earnest film with some legitimate spine-tingling moments.

Under the Radar met with the Duplass brothers in Beverly Hills days before the theatrical release ofBaghead.

Where were you guys in your filmmaking careers when The Blair Witch Project came out? What impression did its success make on you?

Mark: We were mostly editing at that point in time. It was ‘99, right? We had just started an editing business; we were editing all the crappy movies that were made in Austin for like five dollars an hour, and we hadn’t made anything at all worthwhile, I don’t think.

Jay: Honestly, it’s weird, I remember it making a big impression upon me. We were just fans though. We didn’t think about it in any way like we wanted to incorporate that. We were still in a phase where we wanted to be the Coen brothers. But I remember seeing it. I remember, we saw it like that first weekend. It’s very popular to rip on Blair Witch after the fact like a lot of people do, but that first weekend, if you saw it, if you didn’t get the shit scared out of you, I don’t know, you must be made of steel, because it was incredible for us. And, just beyond that, I thought the performances were really great, and they were really truthful.

Mark: Yeah, we loved the naturalness.

Jay: Yeah, about having real people go through something like that was honestly kind of mind blowing.

Mark: It’s weird, other people have drawn the connections from Baghead to Blair Witch, and we really didn’t think about it. It wasn’t like. “Ah, let’s go try and make something kinda like that!”

Jay: ‘Cause we made relationship movies, and we kind of think Baghead is a relationship movie. We just happened to add a genre to it. We made a feature before that, and three short films that were pretty much straight relationship movies before this, so, for us it’s not conjunctive, but it makes sense.

What about the Unknown Comic? Have people been asking you about him?

Jay and Mark: Yeah.

Mark: I didn’t know of the Unknown Comic until I started looking up Baghead later, and I was like, “Oh, shit. There’s another Baghead. [laughs] And it’s wearing a suit, at that.” I don’t know what it is. There’s just something great about the unknown, even if it is just the Unknown Comic. There’s something mysterious about it, something ridiculous and funny and kinda scary about it. It was that classic thing: It’s not what you see, it’s what you can’t see.

In The Puffy Chair, a character sneaks into a motel. In Baghead, characters attempt to sneak into a private party. What has been your most successful entry into someplace you were not supposed to be?

Jay: For me, one time when I was in Austin, a friend of mine called me and said Richard Linklater’s crew is about to go out and shoot some football footage and they need a camera assistant. And they were like, “You shoot cameras, right?” And I was like, “Yes.” And they were like, “Would you like to come and be a camera assistant? You can handle it, right?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course I can handle it.” And I went out and was completely unprepared, and, when you’re a camera assistant, you have to have a whole cart full of crap, like loading— I don’t even know what it is! But I didn’t have anything and I just showed up, and I was like this dork out there ruining their film shoot. I think, in general, Mark and I are desperate people and we’ll basically say we can do anything because we want to participate and be involved.

Mark: When I was 13, I created a fake University of Florida college ID.

Jay: Oh God, that’s awesome.

Mark: And I made one for Jeff Morris, and he and I put his mom’s eye shadow on our face to make it look like 5 o’clock shadow beard and went into the Seminole Mart and we bought beer.

Jay: The beer thing is a given, dude.

Having made short films on your own, and then having so much control over your features, I was wondering, are there storytelling or filmmaking conventions that rein you in, that keep you from making abstract or indulgent stuff?

Mark: I think the thing that reins us in is our fear of making something shitty, [laughs] and a fear of making something that people don’t connect with. We definitely are abiding by some sort of genre rules, I guess, in our movies. The Puffy Chair is a loose road movie, and Baghead is a loose horror movie. So I think we are following the genre conventions, but the thing that would keep us in line is the feeling of— we’re really not trying to make art movies that are challenging the people in major ways. We’re trying to make great movies that people can connect with. We’re not out to reinvent the wheel. We just want to make another wheel, basically.

You guys re-shot the opening of The Puffy Chair. Did you discover any other examples of what not to do during Baghead?

Jay: Did we learn anything? [laughs]

Mark: Don’t write bad scenes. We had some ill-conceived scenes that just weren’t working, so we had to restructure them. Definitely don’t direct your actors before the first take because they may go off and give you something amazing if you don’t put a limit on them. That happened to us a lot on Baghead.

Jay: Mark and I, we’re not the type of filmmakers where we want much more money or this or that, but the one thing that we do want is more time, because we like to try a lot of different things on set. And we like to spend the time that it takes to find something inspired that’s also gonna work within the framework of your movie.

Mark: And also a day off every now and then.

Jay: A day off is very helpful and will make a better movie.

Mark: It’s so fascinating how whenever we get stuck in the writing process or the filmmaking process or the editing process or something, if you sit down and watch any movie, you’re gonna learn something. When we were on Baghead, we were staying at a cabin that was like a rental property that had the obligatory VHS collection, and we would just pull out movies and throw them in, and every time we would watch one, I’d learn something that would affect the movie the next day.

Before the end of your films, it seems that you like to strip at least one character emotionally bare. Would you agree with that?

Mark: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t think about it consciously. We never think consciously that we should do that, but that happens.

Is it true that Andrew Bujalski’s sound mixer coined the term “mumblecore”?

Mark: We don’t know. That’s what we hear. We just read about it somewhere.

Jay: That’s what they tell us.

But you guys are OK with it, you’ve adopted it?

Mark: We don’t really adopt it for ourselves, but we’re fine that people who write articles about us include us in the movement, ‘cause we have some similar aesthetics and some similar values to what mumblecore is about. There’s certainly improvised dialogue, there’s characters in their 20s and 30s, there’s the small problems of the middle class and these kinds of things, but we think we’re a little different in how much we love plot and genre and standard story structure. We like to obey that stuff.

Going back to re-shooting the opening of The Puffy Chair, how did you come about using Death Cab for Cutie’s “Transatlanticism”?

Mark: We just loved the music. At the time, it was what we were listening to and thought that we were more connected with them than we actually were, and it would be easier to get the song than it was. When we shot that scene, when we were all in the van shooting it, it’s what we were listening to in the car, randomly, while we were shooting. ‘Cause we were shooting MOS, we didn’t need sound for it. And it was in the background a lot while we were editing it. We were just like, “That’s what we want.” It was kinda always there.

There’s that great scene where you’re coming out of the tunnel and the music’s building. You had shot that before you knew you were using “Transatlanticism”?

Jay: Well, there was definitely a time where we were editing for a while, and we were just kind of playing with these long shots that just didn’t seem normally like they would go in a movie, but we did do a road trip after the original shoot of the film and try and acquire footage, and we knew that we wanted a really long tunnel shot. But we weren’t totally sure that that piece of music was gonna be it, and that it was gonna climax in that way.

Mark: Or that we’d be able to get the rights. [laughs]

Jay: Yeah, we didn’t know for sure, but we were going for it regardless of whether or not it would actually happen.

There’s an interesting atmospheric break in Baghead where the characters are in the lake. Does a scene like that get written beforehand?

Jay: No, that was a scene that actually played out like a dialogue scene, and there was all kinds of other stuff that happened during that scene, and then we realized during editing that, I don’t know, we just started playing with it, and we put this Nick Drake track in there that— we don’t have it now, but we have very similar stuff to that, and it got really poignant and exciting and scary and weird.

Mark: It was basically two people frolicking in the lake, and two other people watching them, and it got really creepy, and we were like, “Wow. Let’s not say anything. Let’s just watch them do this.” That’s not an uncommon journey for our scenes. They get mutilated and changed into other things.

Does your filmmaking budget dictate your screenwriting?

Jay and Mark: Yeah.

Mark: We’re not like, “Aw, man, we can’t afford that!” I think Jay and I just naturally think in terms of what is shoot-able, and our pen doesn’t even go to the explosion, ‘cause we know it’s not gonna happen. So there’s always that freestanding limit there, and I don’t think we’ve ever written anything that was necessarily out of budget range.

This Is John, that was something that you made on the fly?

Jay: Yeah, it was kind of an accident. It just came out of hangin’ around our apartment in Austin at the time, and just being depressed about the fact that we were approaching 30 and hadn’t made a decent movie yet and thinking we were gonna give up on this, and Mark was just like, “OK, screw this. We’re gonna make a movie today.” We only had a DV camera, and we originally had made movies on 16mm in classical filmmaking ways, and we just hung out until we came up with an idea. And it was a different type of idea. It was the type of idea that we had previously always thought, “You can’t make a movie about a guy trying to get his answering machine message right. It’s not film worthy. You have to make a movie about Darfur if you want people to watch it.” But we were just at the end of our ropes at the time, and so we just did what was at our disposal, and we made it, and it happened to ring really true with us in terms of what we were experiencing emotionally at the time. And also it was based on something that had happened to us previously, so it all kinda came together. It was weird. Basically, the only thing we can attribute it to is being dumb enough to keep making movies when none of them were working. And eventually that one worked.

Was it written?

Jay: No.

Mark: No, we literally just got the idea, and I put on Jay’s roommate’s clothes, and it was just like, “I’m goin’ out the door.” And Jay’s like, “I’m just gonna start rolling.” And I was like, “All right, I’m comin’ in.” And then we shot for 20 minutes, one take, and then chopped that down to eight minutes and it was done.

Jay: But the thing about it that was different, that has been the seed of all the ideas of the movies that we’ve made since, is just when we got the idea, we connected and we knew that there was something there. We both instinctively knew what the meat and the tragedy and the comedy of that thing was, and it was obvious to us. When that spark happens, that’s when we know that we have a movie that’s worth making.

What will we see next from you guys?

Mark: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. We just shot that in April. It’s a movie about two brothers who create and compete in their own personal 25-event Olympics. It is a true story, not based on us, and if Bagheadwas our take on the horror movie genre, this will be our take on the sports movie.

Did you shoot it in the same fashion as your previous films?

Mark: Pretty similar. A little extra crew, a couple extra cameras, but same ethic in place.


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