Interview: Mark and Jay Duplass Discuss ‘Signs,’ Good People, and ‘Jeff, Who Lives at Home’

By  · Published on March 16th, 2012

Mark and Jay Duplass like people. No matter how much their characters screw up or how mean they get, they love them. There’s no cynicism or condescension from their part. When you’re dealing with a character who lives his life based on the ways of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, it wouldn’t be too hard to poke fun at him. The Duplass brothers don’t do that.

Their newest film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is pretty in line with their past films. It’s a story of good-hearted people who are completely lost, all looking for the right signs. And, as Rev. Graham Hess did in Shyamalan’s alien-invasion film, they find them in unexpected places.

Here’s what Mark and Jay Duplass had to say about Jeff’s adoration for Signs, how they build their characters, and the importance of improvisation:

Which one of you guys are fans of Signs?

Mark: Well, we’re both fans of the fact that Jeff is a fan of Signs. I think that’s the most important quality.

Jay: And we’re fans of all people who are not only fans of Signs, but as it was articulated to us today, defenders of Signs and M. Nght Shyamalan. What’s even an extra rung above that is…First rung is fans, second rung is defender, third rung is a person who takes the principles of Signs and makes them his own 10 commandments and implements them in his own life. And that’s who Jeff is, and that’s kind of the perfect establishing facts about what defines his character.

[Laughs] He’s the only one who likes the water bit in the movie, too.

Mark: Yeah, that’s true!

Jay: He’s totally obsessed with it.

Dd you guys just meet someone who looked at Signs that deeply? Where did the inspiration for that come from?

Jay: No, we haven’t met anyone exactly like Jeff. We wish we could because we would have him move in with us. We definitely thought it was a really great launching point for his character. And, in particular, define Jeff in the tone of the film and the way we wanted to, which is, you know, like it’s funny that a guy would lead his life by the principles of Signs. It’s a little sad. But the most important part for us is there’s not an ounce of cynicism in someone who would be that obsessed with that movie. We really wanted to create a lead character who was pure and childlike and had no cynicism.

Jeff’s pretty similar to your other characters: a good person who’s just very desperate.

Jay: We think desperate people are really funny, and we find that they have a lot of apart too, and we find that we are also like them.

Mark: Yes. We hope that we are good-natured. We are not sure. But we are for certain desperate.

Well, say even Pat, I’d say deep down he is a good-natured person, but just kind of lost his way.

Mark: I would agree.

Jay: We generally feel this way about people in life. It’s not just the way that we feel about our characters. We feel that everyone just wants to be loved and to find their place in the world. And certain people are just more abstracted from that reality. For us, that provides a great process… Mark is doing calisthenics right now [Laughs]. But it provides a great art for us to take a character like Ed’s character from like the biggest douchebag in the world to what is really just a great heartfelt turn, and for us and for him to realize in a certain moment to realize that he just wants to be connected to his wife.

You mentioned how you don’t know anyone like Jeff, so how do you create a character like that? Do you draw from a lot of people or things you hear?

Jay: Oh, that’s where it all comes from. It wasn’t until we actually started making movies about ourselves and our friends and, you know, our family. [Laughs] Mark is dancing around the room right now…

Most people do that during interviews.

Jay: We’re just trying to stay alive at this point! But yeah, I mean it wasn’t until we started tapping into the real shit that we’re obsessed with… [Laughs]

[Laughs] I wish I was there in person to see this.

Jay: We wouldn’t be doing it if you were here because it would be inappropriate. But since you are on the phone…

[Laughs] Do you guys do this during all your phone interviews?

Jay: We should! I don’t know if we could get through them all if we did. But yeah.

You guys should at least try… since you draw from people, are you both constantly writing down events that happen or odd things you overhear?

Jay: We don’t keep a notebook, but it definitely goes into the memory bank. One of the fun things about doing things like prep days or traveling around with our movies is that being in airports and being around all these new people, it’s really great for us, because we’re obsessed with people and we’re obsessed with these weird little passive-aggressive dynamics and little hopeful things that they’re doing. I don’t know why we’re that way, but it’s just what we love. So there’s this recycled memory bank of ideas. And they usually, at some point or another, make their way into the movies.

You can easily make fun of someone who loves Signs as much as Jeff does. Where’s that line for both of you, where the tone could become mean-spirited?

Jay: Yeah, it is so important. We don’t think about it necessarily consciously or describe it consciously. Just like Mark was saying, it’s how we are. We see a guy like Jeff who smokes pot, watches Signs all day, and basically, everybody is labeling him as a stoner. It’s weird. We’re so extreme and unconscious in the way that we see people that when people start calling Jeff a stoner, we got pissed off. And we’re like, “Oh yeah, he is a stoner. That’s what he does all day.”

But what we see is we see the flipside of that coin, which is a guy who is thinking about his life a lot, thinking about his place in it, and trying to find a greater purpose and waiting for something much bigger. And I feel he is sacrificing a lot in order to get there. He doesn’t have a wife and he’s probably not going to get kids. He doesn’t have a job. He’s not stable. For us, there’s an optimism and an idealism in that, and there’s a sort of like misguided heroism in it.

Your filmmaking style really encourages improvisation. How much of what the actors bring through that process informs the film?

Jay: We really encourage improvisation on our sets. We kind of force it, actually. While we’re working from a very tight script, there’s definitely a sense of creative camaraderie with all of our actors. And they know that we’re relying on them to bring honesty to the role. And if that honesty takes the form of the exact words that we wrote, great. So be it. It sounds great. But if they need to deviate from that, or if we need to throw some surprises in, we hope that they’ll be ready to do it with us and be kind of arm-in-arm with us as we try and make the scene the best it can be. Because we’ve found a good recipe for mediocrity is just to march through the scene as you wrote it and not pay attention to what’s really going on.

Since you’re doing so many takes, how long does it usually take for you both to know you’ve gotten what you needed?

Jay: We usually know. I can’t say that we’ve ever…There are times when we’ve thought it was going to beautiful and it ended up not being beautiful. But there’s never been a moment where we’re like, “Oh, well that wasn’t that great” and then it ended up being beautiful. So it kinds of leads us to our big theory of set, which is if you are asking yourself whether you’ve gotten it or not, which happens a lot, you definitely didn’t get it, because you’ll usually know.

Say like when you get to something and you know you haven’t gotten it, or you are not able to correct a scene, even in writing on set, like, how do you kinda get it down?

Jay: Well, Mark and I will usually conference about it and we’ll figure out how much time we have left in a day. We’ll tell our AD, like, “We’re not getting it and we’re not sure how we’re going to get it. We might have to go for a walk. We might have to try some weird shit.” [Laughs] If we have time for the rest of the day, we’ll hammer at it for a while. But if our actors are completely beat and we feel like the energy is just not right, what we will sometimes do is we’ll just like leave and move on to a different scene and we’ll reschedule it to come back another day. But the main thing that I would say that we have promised ourselves is that we’ll never leave a set until we get an inspired version of what we came to get… [Laughs] Damnit! He’s dancing now!

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Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens in theaters today, March 16th.

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