Film-makers' sibling revelry

Like Brothers (above), published this month, looks at how film-makers Jay (top left) and Mark Duplass built a lifelong partnership.
Like Brothers, published this month, looks at how film-makers Jay (left) and Mark Duplass built a lifelong partnership.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

Mark and Jay Duplass have become stars of the festival circuit with their mumblecore films and are now two of television's biggest impresarios

WASHINGTON • Film-making brothers Mark and Jay Duplass claim they made the ugliest movie to have ever played at Sundance.

They shot the dimly lit This Is John, about a man struggling to record a coherent answering machine message, for just US$3 - the cost of a blank tape. Back in 2003, dwindling funds prompted them to do things like return muddy extension cords to the hardware store.

"I think Home Depot can afford to subsidise a little bit of art," Mark says. "I think they're fine."

Fifteen years later, the Duplasses are the ones doling out money.

After becoming stars of the festival circuit with so-called mumblecore films such as the 2005 road movie The Puffy Chair and the 2008 comedy Baghead, they are now two of television's biggest impresarios through distribution deals with HBO and Netflix, for whom they recently produced the buzzy documentary series, Wild Wild Country.

All the while, they have clung to their D-I-Y eclecticism, piling acting, writing and directing projects on top of one another to form careers unlike anyone else's.

Like Brothers (above), published this month, looks at how film-makers Jay (top left) and Mark Duplass built a lifelong partnership.
Like Brothers (above), published this month, looks at how film-makers Jay and Mark Duplass built a lifelong partnership. PHOTO: RANDOM HOUSE

They receive tons of e-mails from aspiring indie film-makers who simply must know how "two extremely average guys", as Mark puts it, managed to pull it off. So, for maximum efficiency, they wrote a book, published this month: Like Brothers, a look at how Mark, 41, and Jay, 45, built a lifelong partnership. "Without killing each other," Mark adds.

The Duplasses sit in the Hirshhorn Museum's courtyard in Washington on the morning of their book tour's D.C. stop, in matching blazers and salt-and-pepper beards.

While writing, the first-time authors thought about the questions they receive most often and just started "falling into the process", according to Mark, who adds that they write screenplays in a similar manner. "That doesn't mean it's not analysed and studied after the fact, but the initial creative vomit goes much better for us when we start spilling it out."

Katie Aselton, Mark's wife of 11 years, who has acted in a number of their projects, calls Mark the gas and Jay the brakes. "Mark wants to do it all really fast and Jay wants to slow things down and think about it a little bit."

Like Brothers takes on a confessional tone at times because the "two guys from the South who didn't go to therapy", as Mark frames it, often iron out personal issues through their creative work.

The two were close while growing up in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. Mark notes that Jay was always willing to play with him, unlike most older brothers.

The Duplasses slept in the same twin bed by choice. In their free time, Jay borrowed his parents' camera and directed Mark in short films.

After Jay started at the University of Texas at Austin in 1991, Mark frequently visited him and the two attended question-and-answer sessions held by the likes of director Richard Linklater.

Seeing the film-makers walk around in jeans and white T-shirts, the brothers realised that people like them - regular people - could make movies too. "They weren't wearing berets, you know?" Jay says.

The brothers made an aptly named HBO series, Togetherness, which premiered in 2015. They spent about 13 hours a day together, writing, producing and directing every episode. Mark also acted in all of them.

The show's first season overlapped with the last of The League, an FX series Mark starred in with his wife, while Jay continued to act in Amazon's Transparent.

When HBO nixed Togetherness after two seasons in 2016, they finally found room to breathe.

They spent more time with their children: Ora, 10, and Molly, six, for Mark; Mimi, nine, and Sam, six, for Jay, who is married to social worker Jennifer Tracy-Duplass. The brothers sense that their older daughters are "spiritual soul mates" in the same way they were as children.

Fittingly, the Duplasses have ended up at Netflix, whose vision seems to align with their spaghetti-at-the-wall approach. They have known the streaming site's chief content officer Ted Sarandos since the early 2000s - before he was "president of the universe as the head of Netflix", Mark says - but remain grateful that he has not blocked their e-mail addresses.

Well-acquainted with the possibility that no one will see their passion projects in theatres, they do not mind throwing projects into Netflix's void.

"We have no entitlement at all - like, we came from nowhere," Jay says. "If they took it all away from us right now, we'd walk away, 'Seriously, we had a great run.'"

"We did it," Mark screams in the courtyard, his arms outstretched. "We did it."


• Like Brothers (US$14.60 or S$19.60) is available on

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2018, with the headline 'Film-makers' sibling revelry'. Print Edition | Subscribe