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How the Duplass Brothers collaborate without killing each other

The Duplass Brothers have made more than two dozen films and TV shows together, largely on their own terms, and funded other directors' low-budget projects. Now they've collaborated on a new book, "Like Brothers," about making it as independent filmmakers in Hollywood. Jeffrey Brown talks with Mark and Jay Duplass.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, brothers in film, Mark and Jay Duplass, chronicle their directing and acting careers in a new book.

    They sat down with Jeffrey Brown recently, in the latest edition of the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • Jay Duplass:

    Something's wrong, guys.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In 2005, a film called "Puffy Chair" both perplexed and transfixed the Sundance Film Festival. It's about two brothers who embark on a road trip to pick up a chair from eBay as a present for their father.

  • Mark Duplass:

    I will give you $2,000 if you keep your mouth shut.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It helped introduce a wider film audience to the quirky, low-budget movie-making of the writer-director team of Mark and Jay Duplass.

    The two brothers from the suburbs of New Orleans have made more than two dozen films and television shows together, and largely on their own terms.

    They not only write, direct and act in their own projects, but also fund other low-budget independent filmmakers in television, including the recent Netflix documentary series "Wild Wild Country."

    Among their recent work, the HBO TV series "Togetherness" about marriage and friendship.

  • Actor:

    All right, you see? You're a mess.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    As actors, Jay appeared in "Transparent" and Mark in "The League."

    Now they have collaborated on a new work, a book about making it as independent filmmakers in Hollywood, and trying not to kill each other along the way. It's called "Like Brothers."

    Mark and Jay Duplass joined me recently, and I asked them about thriving outside the Hollywood system.

  • Mark Duplass:

    I really feel like we have carved a tiny little corner of the sandbox that is uniquely our own. And if we stay there, we really stay happy. But it wasn't part of our plan.

    I think there could be no plan for us. We came from the suburbs of New Orleans with no connections and rigid Catholic schools, and the idea of having a career in the arts was beyond consideration. And when we decided to do it, we sort of locked arms and spirits and souls, and we sort of began that Sisyphean journey pushing the boulder up the mountain.

    And I think what happened is that we realized halfway there that, if we were going to be able to make the kinds of things we wanted to make, we weren't going to be able to do them with other people's money.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How do you define — even at this point in your lifetime, how do you define what you have been building and doing?

  • Jay Duplass:

    We're taught as filmmakers that we're supposed to be auteurs, we're supposed to be dictators, and we're supposed to know everything.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    My way, right?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jay Duplass:

    It's going to be my way. And for us…

  • Mark Duplass:

    And that you're somehow less than if you don't have all the answers in that moment. We tried that in our early 20s.

  • Jay Duplass:

    We tried that. We tried to be the Coen brothers. And we failed. We're just not as smart or as charming or as funny or as visionary as they are.

  • Mark Duplass:

    Just a small piece of advice. Don't try to be the Coen brothers.

  • Jay Duplass:

    You will fail.

  • Mark Duplass:

    Only the Coen brothers can be the Coen brothers.

  • Jay Duplass:

    Yes.

    We did have a long period of time where we were trying to be like other filmmakers. And it wasn't until we literally had nervous breakdowns and basically ended up sort of accidentally made a $3 short film that was something that we had gone through, was a guy trying to perfect the personal greeting of his personal answering machine, fails to do so.

    And it was like this hilarious, tragic, weird little almost home movie.

  • Mark Duplass:

    Hey, it's, John. Sorry I missed your call. Just leave me your number. I will get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks.

    Hi, it's John Ashford. Hello.

  • Jay Duplass:

    We took the movie to Sundance, and we watched audiences, like, gasp and laugh their butts off.

    And we looked at each and we were like, I guess this is what we uniquely have to offer the world.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is our voice and this is who we are.

  • Jay Duplass:

    Is making fun of our own quiet and pathetic and sometimes loud desperation.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That sounds like an accidental life, in a way, or career.

  • Mark Duplass:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Was it hard to find the voice that you…

  • Mark Duplass:

    It was hard to find.

    It took us, honestly, about 10 to 12 years of floundering around as young artists in Austin, Texas. Luckily, that's a place you could live on $6,200 a year and make weird art, and not be a total outlier.

    We had a community that was supportive. And that's what we're trying to do now for younger filmmakers, or more experienced filmmakers, you know, where we try and foster them and create the environment where they can create and get some of the help that, honestly, we never got, because I think we have survivor's guilt, is what we're realizing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Survivor's guilt?

  • Mark Duplass:

    Survivor's guilt, yes, because we suffered for so long trying to figure out, you know, what it was that we uniquely had to offer.

    And what we always tell artists — and part of this is in the book — is, you know, those strange conversations you have with your sibling or your loved one or your best friend in the middle of the night, where you're giggling uncontrollably, or you're crying about something that is so personal to your experience, that is probably what you uniquely have to offer.

    And that's where you have to start. And that's where it all started for us.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You write about being offered by Marvel, right, a big-budget film, and how you rejected them, because you want the smaller budgets?

  • Jay Duplass:

    That's really not our currency.

  • Mark Duplass:

    We're not suited to serve that well, honestly.

    I think they would be disappointed in us, and I think we would be frustrated, because we like to make like 10 to 15 projects a year. You have to have a unilateral focus for three years. And that just wouldn't make us happy.

  • Jay Duplass:

    If we made a superhero movie, I think we'd spend like 12 minutes on the scene where the guys is putting the suit on, and he feels a little fat, and he feels a little self-conscious about it.

    And then he has to talk to his wife about it. And they have to work up, like, a level of confidence for him, so that he can go out wearing that skin-tight suit.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And the audience would be saying, what's going on with this guy? Put the suit on.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Duplass:

    Or maybe they would love it, you know?

  • Jay Duplass:

    Maybe.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Mark Duplass:

    I think the climax would be, she's willing to have sex with him without the suit on. And she accepts him as he — and we would love it.

  • Jay Duplass:

    Yes, that's the breakthrough we're looking for.

  • Mark Duplass:

    Is that a billion-dollar box office grosser? Do we feel good? Everything good?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You ready to take that on?

  • Mark Duplass:

    Everybody good with that? OK, good. Let's do it. Let's do it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, the partnership and the approach will continue? Is the plan?

  • Mark Duplass:

    I think so. I think we're changing now, and we're realizing that this insular, two-person co-dependent collaboration of writing, directing movies in lockstep doesn't work for us right now.

    And we're expanding that circle, not only socially, so that we can have wives and children, but creatively and professionally.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Oh, those, huh?

  • Mark Duplass:

    Those are important, yes.

  • Jay Duplass:

    Oh, yes. Oh, yes, those.

  • Mark Duplass:

    But, creatively and professionally, you know, we can go out and produce things for younger brother filmmakers like "Wild Wild Country."

    And that feels very right to us in a way that feels like we can still be close and support each other, but get a little breath of air that doesn't exactly smell like the other one's breath every time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the book is "Like Brothers."

    Mark and Jay Duplass, thank you very much.

  • Jay Duplass:

    Thank you.

  • Mark Duplass:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have to laugh.

    Online, the Duplass brothers shared three documentaries that touched or inspired them. You can find that at our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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