SHU Film Fest Features Video Chat with Jay, Mark Duplass
A group of Sacred Heart University students and their professors chatted via video with filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass recently when the School of Communication and Media Arts presented the brothers’ film, The Puffy Chair.
The movie and video chat were part of an annual film festival presented by SHU’s Film and Television Master’s Program. It took place in the Frank and Marisa Martire Business and Communications Center’s theater.
The Puffy Chair is an independent film written, directed and produced in 2005 by the Duplass brothers with a budget of $15,000 that they borrowed from their father. This road-trip tale stars Mark Duplass as Josh, a struggling New York musician who buys a vintage recliner through eBay to give to his dad in Atlanta as a birthday gift. He rents a van to pick up and personally deliver the chair with his girlfriend, Emily (Kathryn Aselton), and hippie brother, Rhett (Rhett Wilkins). The journey inspires conversations about relationships, marriage and human connections through a series of interactions along the way.
The film was shot with simple equipment and followed a rough storyline. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to South by Southwest’s film festival, winning the Audience Award. Roadside Attractions and Netflix ultimately released it in 2006. It has been described as an inspiring, fun and whimsical breakout film that offers an achievable format for aspiring filmmakers to emulate.
The brothers also produced the films Baghead (2008), Cyrus (2010), Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011) and The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012), as well as the television series Togetherness (2015-2016) and HBO’s Room 104 (2017). In addition, they have written a number of productions.
Residing in Los Angeles, the brothers connected with the Sacred Heart audience via Skype, and a camera was trained on students to enable a two-way view. Producer, editor and writer Todd Barnes, known for films like The Locksmith (2010) and a friend of the Duplasses, moderated the session.
Regarding the creation of The Puffy Chair, Jay said, “Our goal was to make a feature film that didn’t suck.” Mark elaborated that they decided to make a movie that had 10 eight-minute scenes. “Doing less scenes and long scenes is good for independent filmmaking,” he said.
The brothers are also advocates of speedy production. “Build a movie in three days, shoot it in six days, and you’re living in the lap of luxury,” Mark said. “When we make our movies now, it’s a little crazy, but we’ll start shooting six weeks after writing it.”
The Duplasses’ commitment, approach and availability of resources on Puffy also were key to its completion. “We were dedicated to the movie and smart enough to get it done. And the story felt genuine, and we’re always preaching that,” Mark said. “And back then, it was good to grab people who were ready to go.”
Jay expanded on thoughts about genuine dialogue. “With celebrities we work with now, we let them do their own thing. The more we do that, the more natural the acting is,” he said.
Though they are now in the Hollywood zone, the brothers haven’t let their success change their methods. “There’s a tenacity to how we want to do things. We did Puffy Chair to get to Searchlight (a comedy based on a story they wrote), then went right back to Puffy Chair. We are ruthless about doing that and doing what we do. We’re better off in Puffy world,” joked Mark.
Jay said they don’t like to overwork a project. “For us, talking about making a movie repeatedly expends the energy to create it. We just figured things out as we went along,” he said.
Jay also shared their scriptwriting process. “We create a full outline to the point we know our whole story. This evolved from storytelling when we were kids. I’ll write an outline, read it to Mark and he’s nodding his head the whole time. We’re really wily about not getting mired and stuck,” he said.
As for inspiration, Jay said, “Our biggest influences are documentaries and the lives of our friends and family…We’re constantly inspired by people. We like to be at airports and wonder what people’s lives are like. The lightning strikes when the story unfolds in front of you, and you go, ‘That’s a movie, or a TV show.’”
Their work on Room 104, set in a single room of an average American hotel and telling stories about the assorted guests that pass through, has been an eye-opener for them. “The show is incredibly cheap to make; we own the show and they [HBO] license it. We have full creative control. We write the episodes and pass them on to young filmmakers to make. The young directors who we give this to do a better job than we do and are more excited to do it. We just put our writing stamp on it,” Mark said.
He noted that remaining humble has been important. “We failed for so long that it inspired an inherent humility in us. When we got on our feet, we were able to collaborate well with people. And we realized we needed more help. The acceptance that we don’t know best has made all the world of difference,” he said. “We’ve been around a while and know the form; if we don’t, we bring in those that do.”
“We’re doing it our way because we want to be happy,” Jay remarked. “We feel so lucky to have money and live in L.A., but we don’t really buy things. We just want to make people laugh and cry.”
Mark offered the student filmmakers some advice: “Start now and build libraries you can own and license. That’s the move.”