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Duplass Brothers On Working Together And Growing Apart: 'We Are Ex-Soulmates'

Brothers Jay (left) and Mark Duplass have been making films together since they were kids. Their new memoir is <em>Like Brothers.</em>
Carissa Dorson
Penguin Random House
Brothers Jay (left) and Mark Duplass have been making films together since they were kids. Their new memoir is Like Brothers.

Filmmaker siblings Jay and Mark Duplass grew up making movies using their father's VHS camera, but it wasn't until they were in their mid-to-late 20s that their artistic vision really fell into place.

Jay remembers one day in particular, when he was "pushing 30" and feeling frustrated with his desire to do the "impossible artist thing." That's the day his brother Mark announced that he was going to the store to buy tapes for their dad's video camera. Jay had to come up with an idea for a movie before he returned.

"There was something incredible about that time limit of knowing that my little brother was going to come back from the store in 10 minutes," Jay says.

When Mark returned, the brothers began filming what would eventually become This is John. The 7-minute film, which went on to play at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, stars Mark as a man who has a breakdown while taping his outgoing answering machine message.

Mark says that even though the movie was made on a $3 budget, it helped solidify their artistic vision: "It felt so specifically from us that no one else could've made it."

The brothers would go on to make additional films, including The Puffy Chair, Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. They also created, wrote and directed the HBO series Togetherness, which Mark co-starred in. Jay currently co-stars in the Amazon series Transparent.

Their new memoir, Like Brothers, is about the rewards and traps of their close relationship as brothers and artistic collaborators.

Interview Highlights

On The New York Times describing their work as "mumblecore"

Jay: We didn't care what the name was, because The New York Times was writing articles about us as if we had joined in some movement that was decided upon. ... I think the press mistakenly thought that all of these "mumblecore" filmmakers were banded together in a similar ideology, but the truth is that we were all just using the same digital camera and helping each other make our movies because we were broke and we were the only idiots willing to do it. It helped for us to be, I guess, grandfathers of a movement that we didn't create, because it put the eyes of the world on us in that moment.

On being relieved when their HBO series Togetherness was canceled

Mark: We didn't want to admit it, but I think that this idea that we could've had six seasons of that show, we realized we never would've been able to turn that down, because the job was too good on paper. We got to express ourselves exactly how we wanted to. We had full creative control. HBO was just wonderful through the whole process and I think we immediately realized that not only were we physically and emotionally exhausting ourselves from the pure workload — push that aside — this was a real turning point in our relationship, because at this point we had young kids ourselves and we were married and we were trying to figure out: How are we supposed to be with each other? Because when we were 14 and 18 and it was just the two of us and we had a whole mountain to climb, we could be fully codependent and there were very few downsides to that. But as grownups, this "marriage" that we had was — it was not working.

On Mark's ideas coming faster than Jay's when they worked on Togetherness

Jay: That's one of the toughest parts of it, when you're working and collaborating in a partnership ... [and] you feel like you are not as important to the process in this moment. It feels like death, because you're there in the 14th hour and you've been doing it for 14 hours a day for years and years and years, and you're like, "What am I doing here?" The truth of the matter is that ... making a $22-million television show in Hollywood — those environments are not very friendly or open to managing those kinds of critical things. ... That's why people go crazy. That's why filmmakers go nuts.

On the state of their relationship now

The truth of where we are now is that we are ex-soulmates. And that is a weird thing and a complex thing. ... And so we had to dig out space from that beautiful co-dependence and try to see how we could still be close — but not so close.

Mark: The truth of where we are now is that we are ex-soulmates. And that is a weird thing and a complex thing. ... The way we would define that is we were once each other's everything and didn't need anything from anybody else, including our parents or our college girlfriends who just found us really strange. And now we have wives and we have children and we have our own individual creative interests, which have diverged a little bit. And so we had to dig out space from that beautiful co-dependence and try to see how we could still be close — but not so close.

On Transparent creator Jill Soloway's decision to end the show after season 5, in part because its star, Jeffrey Tambor, has been accused of sexual harassment

Jay: What's happening with Transparent has been incredibly challenging. We are a family of people making art together and trying to make the world a safer place. That was Jill's mission from day one, is to make the world a safer place for [Tambor's character, who is transgender]. That really has been what we've been riding on it in terms of creating that show and getting it out into the world, so to have it sort of implode on some level from the inside out has been very traumatic.

I think the trickiest part of all of this lies on Jill's shoulders: Which is how to recreate the show or finish the show without [the] lead character. How to make Amazon happy. How to fulfill the legacy of Jill's family. And how to make Jill happy, and my job is simply to try to support everyone, to hear everyone, to try to understand what everyone has gone through — that is the Transparent way, is a non-binary approach to everything in life, and an empathetic approach. So that's what we are all really doing as a family and trying to keep the show alive and trying to support Jill so that Jill can deliver a poignant and fitting ending to an incredibly big challenge.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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