Cyrus: Duplass (Jay and Mark) Method

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Jay and Mark Duplass are the writers/directors of “Cyrus,” starring John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill. The film is being released by Fox Searchlight on June 18.

Working with Jay and Mark Duplass has always been a unique experience for both cast and crew members, and the brothers saw no reason to change their idiosyncratic approach for their first Hollywood film. Their unconventional methods ranged from shooting the script in chronological order to allowing the actors to develop their own dialogue and blocking. Even the most experienced hands were surprised and energized by it.

“I think we should write a book about the ‘Duplassian Method,’ because it is fascinating on every level,” says co-producer Chrisann Verges. “For me, the most wonderful thing about the way they worked was that we shot in script order. We could see the story unfolding and watching dailies was like a soap opera. What’s happening to Molly and Cyrus and John today? The actors told me they really enjoyed that because they were able to grow in their relationships, much as you would in real life.”

Giving power to the actors

In another major break from more traditional filmmaking, the brothers don’t set up specific action for their shots. “We bring the camera to the actors as opposed to bringing the actors to the camera,” says Jay. “We found that we couldn’t get the performances we were looking for by putting actors on marks, so we started fostering realistic experiences and capturing them like documentary filmmakers. In the beginning, Mark was holding a boom, I was holding the camera, and it was all literally going down right in front of us.” 

As irregular as that technique may seem, it creates the immediacy the Duplasses—and their actors—value. “I love the way they use the camera,” say Marisa Tomei. “A lot of the time they had two cameras going at once, which allowed them to catch everything as it happened the first time. It was really great for the actors, because we were able to be right there at the same exact moment as our scene partners.” 

To further that sense of realism, the brothers flood the set with light so the actors can go where they want to go, without worrying about hitting their marks. “We had to spend a lot of time rigging the set,” says Verges. “But once it’s rigged, the actors can get in there and do their scenes. And once we started shooting, we shot a lot. Since we were using an HD camera, we didn’t have to be concerned with how much or how long we shot. We might shoot five hours of footage a day.”

As recently as five years ago, those long takes wouldn’t have been possible, but the advent of high definition systems, like the RED camera used on CYRUS, gives filmmakers amazing flexibility. “We did 15-minute takes in this movie and we got gold by not interrupting them,” says Jay. “Plus, shooting 35 millimeter film, you have a giant beast of a camera on your shoulders. I’m one of the camera operators and I’m not a strong person, so that was a big part of the decision to go with RED as well.” 

Improv

But it’s the improvisation that is truly the heart of the brothers’ unique brand of filmmaking. “We would start with the script and then go into improv,” says Verges. “Maybe the first third of a take was scripted, but just when you thought the scene was over, they’d let the camera run a little bit more and get these great nuggets at the end.”

And while that’s a big part of what makes their films special, it also means the filmmakers must be able to rely on their actors to know the characters inside and out. “These actors are really intelligent,” says Jay. “They know what they’re doing and they understand scripts and storytelling a lot better than most people. What Mark and I do is give them a very specific objective for each scene. For instance, ‘You are very angry with this person and your job is to get out of this room.’ 

“And then we secretly tell the other person, ‘Whatever you do, do not let this person out of the room,’” he continues. “If you just go with those two objectives, you’re going to have a scene, and if you have really good actors who understand the story and the characters, you’re going to see amazing, crazy things happen. The language and specifics and the subtleties change on every take.”

For the actors, improvisation brings both freedom and responsibility. “Once you start improvising, the characters take on a life of their own,” says Reilly. “Sometimes they leave the script behind. Most of the time, we did the scripted scene once or twice, and then we changed things around or looked for new jokes. A lot of times we never even did the scripted version. We used it as a blueprint for what was supposed to happen in the scene. I like improvising, but it’s also kind of like screenwriting on your feet.”  

Evaluating the method

After each day’s shooting, the brothers reviewed the footage and made decisions about the progression of the story based on what they felt worked. “Mark and I have learned to sublimate our preconceived notions and do what’s best for the movie,” says Jay.  

The result is a very personal film that reflects the Duplass brothers’ singular worldview. “This movie feels very homemade and I think that’s their intention,” says Jonah Hill. “And when I say ‘homemade,’ I mean it’s not like something you get at The Gap—it’s the sweater your grandma made you. It’s not like any other film I’ve ever made.” 

“I hope that people experience something they can connect to,” says Jay Duplass. “And I hope we frame it in a way that makes them laugh. Life can be very painful, so we try to put it up on screen in a way that makes people laugh at the whole situation.” 

“The main reason an audience comes to see a movie like this is to see something that is as true to life as you can get on film,” adds Mark Duplass. “Our goal is to deliver something that makes the audience feel like we put a microphone in their bedrooms and recorded the last conversation they had. We are trying to understand the human condition, but in a way that’s funny and makes us feel like we’re not alone. There are some very quirky characters that we’ve built here, but the truth is, they’re a lot like us.”