Interview: Jay Duplass Talks ‘Cyrus’

By  · Published on June 25th, 2010

The Duplass brothers have taken a big step forward with Cyrus. Their previous films such as The Puffy Chair and Baghead were both very good, but Cyrus is great. One of those reasons: the awkwardness and realism. When you watch a Duplass film it couldn’t feel more close to real life. The jokes aren’t broad or too over-the-top, but grounded in a realm of uncomfortableness.

This isn’t a battle a la Step Brothers or Rushmore style, but something real. The Duplass brother’s shooting style is a contributing factor to that which is quite unorthodox compared to most filmmakers. They shoot in sequence, the camerawork is practically all handheld, and they hardly stick to the dialog on page. Their formula is different, but obviously works. Here’s what Jay Duplass had to say about all this:

So, how did you make sure not to make Step Brothers 2? It’s obviously not that at all.

Thank you, I appreciate that. That’s an important message for us to get out there. It is John and Jonah, but we don’t want people coming in expecting Step Brothers. The easy answer to that is: although we love those type of movies and laugh our asses off, those aren’t the type of films that we make. Ultimately, it’s a relationship movie first. It’s about characters and real people tying to accomplish real things. Secondarily, we want it to be as funny as it can be. We don’t really write jokes or ask our actors to be funny, but we actually go the opposite way. We try to make sure that they’re just playing their characters. It’s the situation that comes off funny.

When you pitched the film to Fox Searchlight with the script did you and Mark say, “All the dialogue you read in the script actually won’t be in the movie.”

Yeah, we told them exactly how we work. It’s interesting that, in the end, the movie is actually pretty similar to the script. It’s just the method of getting there is really different than how most people in Hollywood shoot. We just try to go off script so we can get that level of naturalism that we’re obsessed with.

What’s your process of writing dialogue? Do you guys focus less on that because of how off script you go?

Honestly, the way it goes down is that my brother and I get the story down pretty heavily. When it comes time to do the first draft we have everything set. We know what the story is, we know how it’s going to add up, and Mark literally spews the whole script out in a linear fashion without looking back in a matter of two or three days. The dialogue actually comes out of the mouth. When it’s on the page, it doesn’t look as pretty as a lot of scripts look. It looks messy and looks almost superfluous. We definitely have a process where we try and keep the piece of art out of the intellectual realm as much as possible. We try to keep it in the body and as a living, breathing thing.

And all the plot points stay the same?

Absolutely. The plot points are all the same, but except for a couple that are just from typical editorial choices. Sometimes you take out scenes to make the film move along a little bit quicker.

One scene I wanna ask about that I know was cut out was where you actually got to see Cyrus having a panic attack. Was that cut out because it could’ve made him too sympathetic?

There’s definitely some things we had to cut. We were writing a very specific tone and there were some things that Cyrus was doing where… At a certain point, if you’re really connecting with this kid and realize he’s just a kid scared of losing his mom you have to save that realization until the end. If you realize that earlier on it would make it harder to have a lot of fun with the competition between John and Cyrus.

The most interesting part about Cyrus’s relationship with Molly is the subtle creepiness to it. There’s something slightly inappropriate about it, but the film never condemns that.

For us, we don’t like to condemn anything or any of our characters. Ultimately, at the core of Cyrus- who’s probably the most extreme character we’ve ever created- he really is just a kid terrified of losing his mom. That’s really the only significant relationship he has in his life. That’s what drives him to this desperation.

How do you balance though making Cyrus sympathetic while also making him out as the menacing and manipulative kid that you do?

You know, I don’t know. It’s more of a sub-conscience process, but I’d say more than anything we start off with an impression and then flip it over on its head. Hopefully, by the end of the movie you really get who he is and why he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s important that you understand him.

Do you think John ever comes off creepy as well?

Yeah, John is going head-to-head with this kid and using everything in his arsenal to try to take him down. In our opinion, no one is innocent in these movies. There’s no right or wrong. Everyone has flaws. That’s how we experience the world and that’s how we see people. We don’t judge them for it, but what we will do is put them on film and laugh with them and even at them a little bit. Never in a mocking way, but just in the way you’d laugh at yourself for all the little weird things you do.

You don’t hide their warts at all. It’s pretty awkward when you see John following Molly home. He’s a really nice guy, but it’s still odd.

Yeah, he stalks her and he even admits it. She’s a little creeped out by it. At the same time, if the guy turns out just to be a genuine dude then it’s a little flattering. It’s flattering if someone like that is focusing all about you.

John is a good guy. There’s that one scene where he says, “I know I’m a good guy,” and that really plays into how self-aware your characters are, but that’s also a really sad moment as well.

I know (laughs). We just love that his character is one-hundred percent on-the-line and that’s one of the great things about John C. Reilly. He can achieve a level of vulnerability that not many people can.

Reilly put it best too that Cyrus isn’t only ruining his relationship with Molly, but also messing with his goal to have his life together by the time of the wedding.

I think that is definitely a sub-conscience aim that maybe even the character is not even aware of. His ex-wife is getting remarried and he just doesn’t want to be that person that all of his and her friends have come to see him as.

When you get to Cyrus’s redemption at the end, how do you make sure it’s not too triumphant? It’s great how you don’t disregard the fact he’s acted like a terrible person for most of the film.

Yeah, we don’t. Honestly, we don’t like to suggest anything specific like everything is going to be okay from this point on. We’re definitely walking a fine line with the tone of the movie to makes sure there’s a lot of interpretations. The ending of the movie is more of a product of what’s going on inside of each audience member. Things are left pretty vague. There’s definitely some satisfying moments, but who knows what will happen in the future.

Couldn’t you say though that Cyrus ends a little more upbeat than your previous films?

Definitely. I don’t know if it’s a product of the fact that this movie has an enormous amount of conflict in it. It was something where you needed to achieve a balance in terms of the overall piece of art. There’s definitely some hopefulness there that definitely hasn’t been present in some of our past films.

Was finding the right tone something you struck at during the editing process? Since you shot so much footage I’d imagine once you get to that stage you could, if you wanted to, make a completely different movie.

That’s exactly what it is. Although the plot would’ve been the same, but because we are ninety-percent in close-ups that tone and the mode of how these people are treating each-other rises to the surface a lot more than you see in most films. From our perspective, we feel like we could make different movies with that footage. Our edits take a long time and it’s usually about nine months of editing. It’s documentary feature edits. We probably recut every scene twenty times.

Did you ever end up with say, a broader cut? Something more over-the-top?

We never did, but we certainly could’ve ended up with a more balls-out comedy cut.

How do you make sure to keep it restrained in that realm? You could have easily gone too far with the conflict between John and Cyrus.

You know, we’re just following our instincts. Ultimately, we like relationship movies that are funny. We’re going for a documentary-like style with the realism. We really want people to feel like they’re in the room with these people. You know, it may or may not be happening, but it certainly feels like the argument I had with my girlfriend last week. That’s the type of stuff we’re obsessed with. It’s a lot of work for us to imagine the tone, but it’s easy for us since that is what we’re drawn to.

The documentary style definitely comes off with the handheld camerawork.

It’s really just a result that we shoot totally differently than most of Hollywood. Normally, Hollywood will bring actors to a mark and overall, it’s a machine type of production. We actually do something completely different. We set people loose in a room and we say, “Do what you want.” Go where you wanna go, say what you wanna say, and have the interaction you wanna have. You know what the script is about and you know the goals you have to achieve, but just run free. We come to that interaction as a documentary-like crew. The adjustments of the camera are really because of where the actors are going.

Cyrus is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.