As their HBO series Togetherness returns for its much-awaited second season, the acting-writing-producing-directing brothers Mark and Jay Duplass continue their multi-media inquiry of human behavior — and creation of that special sauce.
When Mark and Jay Duplass were growing up in the South, you made do with what you had.
Creativity called for improvisation, and their grandmother led by example. "If she was cooking and didn't have an ingredient," Mark recalls, "she would substitute anything white with cream cheese, and that has become a funny saying in our family. We use cream cheese as a verb: 'If you don't have the right thing, just cream-cheese it.'"
Now the former Hollywood outsiders are among the hottest teams in town. Their HBO relationship comedy Togetherness, a marvel of earnest yearning countered with brutal realism, launches its second, eight-episode season February 21.
They produce multiple TV and film projects a year — some destined for HBO via their two-year development deal, or for Netflix via a multi-film pact — and some for theaters. They have a deal to write a book about their lives.
Meanwhile, they're quietly godfathering a new generation of talent — filmmakers, writers and actors — into the worlds of indie film, cable and streaming, and they're doing things mostly their own way.
"We've learned that cream-cheesing is very good," Mark reflects. "We never followed the rules because we didn't know what they were. People would say, 'That's so interesting,' or 'That's revolutionary,' but we just didn't know any other way to do it. Now Jay and I are realizing that we've cream-cheesed our entire career."
Adds Jay, with a laugh: "We've cream-cheesed this whole industry."
The brothers first caught industry attention 10 years ago, via an Austin, Texas-based independent film movement dubbed Mumblecore, which they helped invent. It was do-it-all-yourself, micro-budget filmmaking that built stories around available resources, like props and friends, relied on improvisation as a creative technique and found its initial audience at festivals.
Film critic Roger Ebert was unimpressed, describing Mumblecore as "not an earthquake like the French New Wave, more of a trembling in the shrubbery."
But the siblings' work — they write, direct, produce and act — stood out as funny, relatable and well-crafted. Their short films and features gained festival attention and awards, and they became regulars at Sundance, beginning some 10 years ago with titles like The Puffy Chair, a road movie made for $15,000 and starring Mark and his future wife, Katie Aselton, and its follow-up, Baghead.
They went on to test the waters of studio filmmaking with a number of low-budget features (Cyrus, Jeff Who Lives at Home). Meanwhile, HBO came calling. For the nuanced emotional territory they like to explore, the premium-cable platform made sense, the siblings realized. But the transition to television required a creative reckoning.
"It's a painful rejiggering process," says Jay, the bearded older brother, who also plays Josh, son of transgender parent Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), on Amazon's groundbreaking comedy Transparent. "If you look at the history of filmmakers moving to television, you'll see that a lot of projects die in the pilot stage because it really is a different form."
"You need to be re-cracked as an artist," says Mark, a more frequent actor, who costars in Togetherness as Brett, one of the four leads, and also in FXX's The League, along with Aselton, and on Hulu's The Mindy Project. "We didn't know TV structure. We didn't know how TV worked."
"Instead of closing out a story, you have to figure out how to keep those balls in the air," Jay says. "It's hard to describe how tough it was, but we finally got there."
And arrive, they have. A thoroughly engaging and unflinching half-hour that offers some of the best ensemble work on TV (the core cast also includes Steve Zissis, Amanda Peet and Melanie Lynskey), Togetherness premiered in January 2015, winding up with an emotionally loaded cliffhanger that has left its fans desperate for season two.
"Endlessly engrossing," said Entertainment Weekly's Melissa Maerz in her review, while Willa Paskin of Slate called it "addictive."
"We've had a whole year of people coming up to us and demanding to know what's going to happen," Jay says. "We got them — and we're proud of that."
HBO's directive — for a show about two couples navigating their late 30s — might have led to something more generic had not the brothers been set on exploring the real-life travails of actor Steve Zissis, a friend since high school who was having trouble finding career traction in Hollywood.
"Mark and I have always regarded Steve as this colossal talent," Jay explains, "but nothing was happening for him. He was in his late 30s and starting to freak out. The potential energy of that is huge. We had to write something with him. He's tragic and funny — everything we're interested in exploring."
"Certain directors find a female muse in the classic star system," Mark adds. "Our muse is a 230-pound balding Greek gentleman we went to high school with. We built this show from a small story about what Steve was going through into a true four-person equal-lead ensemble, and that was at HBO's urging because they needed a show like that in their lineup."
In the pilot, struggling actor Alex Pappas (Zissis) gets evicted from his apartment and winds up on the couch of best friend Brett and his wife Michelle (Lynskey), who are juggling two small kids, existential angst and a marital crisis.
The living room of their Eagle Rock bungalow is already occupied, however, by Michelle's older sister, Tina (Peet), who's landed there temporarily in the course of a relationship disaster.
Zissis (who is credited with the brothers as a creator of the show; Mark and Jay are executive producers) develops and writes episodes with them, bringing his sense of humor and emotional truth to the process. Apart from him, the writing staff is unusually lean.
"It's just us," says Mark, adding that their editor, Jay Deuby, is also a part of the "brainstorm group" that precedes the scriptwriting, and that for season two, they brought in writer Amanda Lasher to provide feedback on their drafts. Ali Waller and Cara DiPaulo did the same for season three, which at press time had not yet received an official pickup.
"Then Jay and I pitch what we think the next episode structure is, and they give feedback on that outline," Mark explains. "We felt it was important that we have strong female voices in there, rather than just dudes." The brothers also directed all the episodes in the show's first two seasons (apart from one directed by Nicole Holofcener, an indie progenitor of the painfully honest territory they mine).
In contrast to their filmmaking style — where the improv spirit has extended to the point of coming up with plot twists while shooting — the making of Togetherness has been "our most on-the-rails creative process ever," Jay says. "Because it's the biggest thing we've ever done, and it was a new form for us. So it's been pretty pinned down, pretty carefully built. Because we knew we had to build it to a strong climax."
In other words, there's been less cream-cheesing and more consulting the recipe. Within that structure, though, they still require their actors to bring all their creativity to the set.
Says Lynskey, whose experience has run the gamut from acclaimed art films (Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures) to network mega-hits (CBS's Two and a Half Men), "There are times when Amanda [Peet] and I have to fight them to do what's on the page. You get a script and it's perfect and hilarious and heartfelt, and then they want you to make it your own.
"If there's a tricky scene, it feels like we have all the time in the world to try different things. They always want the weird little thing that comes after you've exhausted all the other options."
Adds Peet: "They're looking for you to have a singular, unrepeatable moment, and once they've captured that, they move on.
"It can have nothing to do with the dialogue — it's just something in their heads that they may choose not to describe to me, like amping up my vulnerability in a scene or making my sisterliness be the point. Things I can't pay attention to while I'm there. I only realize later, when I watch it, where they were going."
Those subtleties are key, as Mark explains: "If we have anything unique to offer in television — where there's so much great stuff to watch everywhere — it's that we're so obsessed with the sensitivities and intricacies between people, the nuances of what they're going through, and with actors and how they can find the most subtle ways to communicate that. That's where our special sauce is.
"So if anything new can be found or improvised on the day of shooting, that's usually where it happens — in those core emotional scenes where you have the cameras stand back with their zoom lenses on and just let the actors go."
In Metairie, Louisiana — a suburb just west of New Orleans — the brothers experienced "a very uncurated childhood," Jay says. "No music lessons, no filmmaking lessons — we would just get on our bikes and go." With no other siblings, their main companions were each other.
"Every little brother wants to hang out with his big brother," Mark points out. "Jay allowed me to do that, and that's what made us unique."
Their father, Larry, was a trial attorney specializing in civil cases, while mother Cindy, a former elementary school teacher, focused on raising them. "Our parents are wildly different from each other," Mark says. "My mother is very loose, silly, goofy and creative, and our father is very exacting, very disciplined."
The brothers feel these disparate qualities are present in each of them, to varying degrees.
From the start, Mark says, "my sense of pragmatism and being able to take a 30,000-foot view of the business and production side has been there, and so has Jay's sense of artistry and being able to manage the integrity of a project from that perspective. I'm like 60 percent business and 40 percent artistry, and Jay is the opposite. Depending on how each of us is feeling on the vulnerability scale on a given day, it might flip."
And on the set, Jay says, "the differences become more accentuated. Mark becomes more forward-charging, and I become more obsessive about getting depth and detail. We feel the push and pull, but we know it's really good for the art."
In their youth, their mother involved them in endless creative projects, always using available materials.
"It was never, 'Let's go to a crafts store and get what we need,' or 'Let's take lessons,'" Jay explains. "It was, 'Oh, you want to make something? We gotta destroy these curtains.' Or 'Let's rip apart these Mardi Gras beads and bake them in the oven to make plastic stained glass.' It was very low-fi,DIY, artsy-craftsy."
Says Mark: "I think that was very informative of how we make our stuff today."
While money was tight in their parents' early years, their life was solidly middle-class — they graduated from the prestigious Jesuit High School in New Orleans, an all-male college prep known for high academic standards, where they each made straight As, and went on to the University of Texas at Austin. In Austin, they eventually started a film editing business that exposed them to the work of many of their fellow aspirants,
They moved to Los Angeles in 2005, after The Puffy Chair had begun to put them on the map. Mark was gaining headway as an actor, but they decided to link their fortunes,
"We were a team," Mark says. "We made a vow that said, 'We're going to be the Duplass brothers together for as long as we can without killing each other, because we're stronger together; we're better artists together. Then we went bananas. Anybody who wanted to meet with us, any script that needed a director, any script that needed a rewrite, we would pitch, we would be there.
"But ultimately, we found that the films the studio system told us it wanted to make, it didn't really want to make. We were wasting some of our time."
Enter TV, with its multiplying platforms, and in some cases, deep pockets and offers of creative control. The exposure and marketing support have come as a revelation, compared to the bare-bones offerings of indie film distributors.
"It's like corporate patronage of the arts, in some ways," says Mark, referring to HBO, Netflix and Amazon. "They're doing so well financially that they can afford to subsidize smaller, more personally oriented storytelling."
Togetherness was financed and developed in the traditional mode at HBO, but the brothers are intent on bringing some of their do-it-yourself indie background to the business side of television
An example is Animals, an animated half-hour for adults from creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese, told from the sardonic point of view of talking rats, pigeons and other New York City creatures. As producers, the Duplasses self-financed the project and brought it to Sundance and then HBO, where they negotiated a two-season pickup.
"We definitely see a future where things are made independently and then brought into the TV space," Mark says. "Rather than just sell a script and pilot, and risk being canceled, I want to say, "Here is a season of a television show. If you like it, you have to buy this season and one more."
That preference for owning both the risk and the reward means they're not all that receptive to outside investors.
"When people hear we made something really cheap and then it did well," Mark recounts, "they think, 'I'd like to give them $10,000 and make a huge return.' What we have to say is, 'Of course you would, but we're doing all the work, and we're going to put in our own money.'
"Ninety-five percent of people — when faced with the elbow grease that is required, and many times the financial risk, where you're working for close to free before you finally get a payoff — decide they don't want to do that."
The brothers have no shortage of elbow grease — or the enthusiasm that fuels it. It's one reason their list of active projects grows ever longer. But there are other reasons, including the suffering and sacrifice that preceded their own breakthroughs.
"I went through a lot of depression and anxiety to get to where I am today," Mark says. "So if I see someone really talented who hasn't made it yet and I feel like I have the ability to help them, I have to do it. I can't stop myself."
For example, he points to Sean S. Baker, whose vibrant debut feature Tangerine, shot on the IPhone 5s, was produced and financed by the Duplasses for $100,000. It went on to festival success, theatrical release by Magnolia Pictures and critical acclaim.
"The other thing is," Mark continues, "we're now so well-connected in this industry, and there're so many people who want to work with us, that if we have an idea for a project, we're one email away from putting that thing in motion. It's a blessing, but it's a curse."
Adds Jay: "The tricky part is that now we have to say no to great things. We've said a lot of 'no' over the years, to carve out what we think is special and has integrity, but the opportunities now are so out of control. We've spent so many years getting to this point, and now we don't have to do this much work, but it's really hard to turn that mechanism off. That has become the biggest challenge."