Interview: Mark Duplass Talks BLUE JAY
The last time Jim and Amanda (Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson) saw each other, it was in the midst of a devastating breakup – the type you never really get over. That was twenty years ago, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from the mental real estate Amanda still takes up in Jim’s mind.
Your heart can only break for the first time once and for Jim, at 18, parting ways with his soulmate from a relationship that would set the bar unreasonably high for the rest of his life, was a traumatizing, perspective shifting period. Jim misses Amanda, but even more so, he misses the person he was when Amanda loved him. He misses seeing the world from the eyes of a young romantic.
Now, after years of both parties imagining what it would be like if the two ever saw one another again, it happens: Jim and Amanda bump into each other at a grocery store. They decide to play catch up like two old, and now adult, friends. They visit their old haunts, like Blue Jay, a shitty diner that isn’t what it used to be (or maybe all that’s changed are the circumstances).
From there the two embark on an epic night of ‘what if’ wherein the two successfully sweep the demons of heartbreak under the rug and enjoy one another's company just like old times. But as Jim and Amanda playfully find themselves rehashing their ancient connection with uncomfortable ease, the happiness of their present grows more painful than the sadness of their past. Playing house hurts when one party has built an actual home to which they must return.
I first met Blue Jay writer and co-star, Mark Duplass, when we chatted about his foray into character-driven horror with Creep - a favourite film of mine. With two years gone and Duplass now gracing my hometown festival with his presence, I couldn’t help plant seeds for Mark to bring his upcoming Creep 2 to TIFF’s beloved Midnight Madness program. As fun for Toronto as that would be, I honestly couldn’t care less what type of film Duplass wishes to bring to the world as long as it contains his ambition to honour reality in genre. And few love stories feel realer than Blue Jay.
This is because Blue Jay is real. Thanks to the truths offered by Paulson, Duplass, and DP/Director Alex Lehmann, it’s quite possible that this quaint weeklong production has resulted in Mark’s most meaningful work to date and that’s more exciting than any thriller.
Blue Jay is now availbale on iTunes and On Demand. It continues its U.S. theatrical rollout on Friday, October 14 in Los Angeles, Portland, and Orlando.
ScreenAnarchy: Are you enjoying your TIFF?
Mark Duplass: I am. I had a really great time at my screening last night.
I did too.
was really fun, and nice and warm and sweet. I was happy, with- you know, sometimes you feel an audience lean into a movie or lean out of it, and I felt them leaning into it. I was just real happy about that.
Absolutely. I leaned way in. I guess, since I already brought up CREEP, for starters, one of the things I so love about your career is that the same person who penned CREEP, penned BLUE JAY.
How do you account - not that you have to account - for your variety, aside from just feeling a bevy of genes or tones.
It's a good question. I can't really account for it, except to say I just love all kinds of movies. To me, the core of Creep is really less a horror movie, and more of like a truly in depth character study of someone who just happens to be strange. There is an argument to look at Blue Jay, which is a really, sensitive, sweet, loving film, and Creep which is kind of the opposite, and say, "They're actually part and parcel of the same thing. They're just digging deeply into people's psyches' in close ups and medium close ups." That's basically what I do. It's just a question of tonal disparity, really, between those two.
I think it's fair to say that you're somewhat compelled to vulnerable characters.
CREEP is no different really.
I would agree with that. You know, Creep was something we chased for a long time. The way that movie worked out was, we shot for like six days with a couple of us, then we were chasing the story, and that movie, that first movie we shot, represents maybe 30% to 40% of that footage that ended up in the actual film. We kept chasing it, and the movie kept begging us to go darker and darker and darker. I was sort of drawn into the darkness that Creep was. I didn't really plan on it. Everyone we were screening the movie for was just like, "This guy's really fun to watch, and he's really scary. Just go there." We were like, "We don't want to make a horror movie!" They're like, "Do it!" We're just like, "All right, fuck it, let's do it."
Nice. I mean, it's got to be somewhat cathartic?
It's totally cathartic. It's a blast. That's why we made the sequel. There's no more fun character, and freeing character, to play.
Am I making this up? Two years ago I swear I heard talk of a CREEP trilogy?
We initially talked about doing three. Then we made the first one. People honestly liked it a lot more than we thought they would. It became this sort of weird little cult gem. Then we got scared to make the sequel. We were like, "Let's not fuck it up. Sequels suck, what are we doing?" We had a couple of false starts, thinking, "Do we want to make a sequel? Nah, let's not make a sequel." Then finally, we came up with an idea where we felt like it was unique enough and worthwhile enough to do. I'm still not sure we're not going to fuck it up. We'll see.
I'm sure you won't. You tend to go back and back until you confidently feel like you haven't fucked it up.
Yes, I'm desperate enough to keep from screwing myself.
There’s got to be a safety feeling in that too? That your movies are on a small enough scale that you can return to them.
That's by design. Basically, I like to move fast, I like to have fun. Then I like to have room to kind of deal with our mistakes.
You've nurtured the talent of Patrick Brice, since MAURICE, now you're nurturing the talent of director/DP, Alex Lehmann - I caught ASPERGERS ARE US at SXSW (Duplass produced).
I love it. Is there a pattern with who you kind of let into the creative family and how that happens, and where you go from there?
It sounds like a mafia when you put it like that. “who I let in”. It's really people that I jam with, I guess. Patrick was a guy that was, I met him because he was my nanny's boyfriend. We shared a love of weird people and movies and it just kind of evolved. Alex, the director of Blue Jay, was one of the shooters on The League, a TV series I did for years. As we were in the land of fart and dick jokes together, we also discovered, oh we like these other kind of things too. He was like, "I have this documentary I'm making." I was like, "I don't want to fucking watch this guy's documentary." But I like him so I'll watch it. I watch it and I was like, "Holy shit, this is really special." Then I came on board to help him finish Aspergers
Then as I was building Blue Jay in my mind, it was very quick. I knew I wanted a cinematographer / director. I wanted that to be the same person. Who had the camera and was a creative force with me. As I was thinking about people, I was like "Man, this is going to require a particularly melancholic, sensitive person to get this kind of thing." You know? DPs are not often like that. A DP with a lot of ennui is like a weird combo and he just really had it.
Is he a DP first? Or a filmmaker first?
He started off as a shooter, then became a DP, then started directing docs. Now this is his first narrative thing that he's done. Wonderful.
It's just beautiful to me to collaborate with someone who is really excited, coming up, still learning. They don't fully have it down. They don't really even think that they fully have it down. When they have gaps they can lean on me, but then because I'm not directing we're getting all this cool shit out of the movie that I don't know how to do. Because it's them. I just love that level of collaboration.
What would you say BLUE JAY emerged out of? What were you thinking when lightning struck on that one?
I was not in my brain, I was just like in my gut. It was essentially that I'm a very melancholic person. I'm always fighting against that, creatively and instinctively. Because I don't want to drown people in it. I was like, "What if I just pull the floodgates on this and just let it spill out all over the movie?" That got really exciting to me - to not apologize for who I am. Then once I did that I was like, "Oh. The movie's still funny, and it's still all those things that I normally do." I just sort of gave myself the freedom to explore how ridiculously nostalgic I am. Once I did that, and sort of gathered my collaborators around me, I was like, "Oh, I think a lot of people feel this way."
I still see people from high school or college and when I look in their eyes, we're both looking at each other being like, "Oh, you're kind of different than you were." Than maybe how we thought we were going to be, and you're both feeling like a little ashamed and nervous about it. That level of awkwardness, it's so sweet to me. Because it's really based on like, "I hope you think I'm cool. I hope you think I did well. I hope I think I'm cool...
You're such a big part of each other.
Yes! I just love it. I had two very serious high school girlfriends, that I was overly serious about. There's a quote in the movie where Sarah's character reads from my journal. It's a direct quote from my journal when I was fifteen years old, that I'm simultaneously horrified and excited to share with audiences.
A lot of people are going to want to compare this movie to BEFORE SUNSETt and where I don't think that's fair is BEFORE SUNSET is sort of a realistic fairy tale, whereas your film is something, I think, most people can tap into. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that one's first relationship, that's going to be the most dramatic you've ever been and the most you've ever felt to some extent.
I think so. I think the empirical feelings might get bigger as you get older, and more stakes in your relationships, but the subjective feelings of that time are irreplaceable. I think, the way I normally feel is, I cast it off 98% of the time. Like, "Oh you were a dramatic kid. You were so cute. You were so funny." But 2% of the time I look back, and I'm like, "Dude, I was on to something." That earnestness and that confidence. I've lost something, and I miss that guy. As fucking stupid as he was. I want a piece of him back, you know?
I think you sort of just answered this question, but you're unlike your protagonist, in that your life isn't a disappointment. That being said, you relate to that sense of looking back, so if you're not looking back because your life turned to shit, then what is it about those days that you long for?
I don't know. Sometimes it's just like you hear that song and it just puts you back in your body and how you felt. The only way I can describe it is ... I was a musician. It was my first career. As great as the moments were on stage, where you're performing and you're becoming a success, somehow nothing beat being like 13, learning your instrument in a sweaty garage, with your headphones on, listening to The Cars greatest hits and like trying to play along, you know? That moment of, that learning curve of when you were coming into yourself. That kind of only happens once. That's what Blue Jay is connecting to. This couple who was learning how to love each other back then. They were each other's first. It's irreplaceable. No matter how good or bad things become. You can't smudge that out.
Learning to love each other and learning to love period.
Yeah. It's really ... I don't know. I don't care how successful you are, that’s inescapable somehow.
When I saw early on in the film that Blue Jay was their favorite diner, or whatever, I immediately thought of Golden Star, which is my equivalent diner, and I just started thinking about that place. It incites a whole mood or feeling and something that I considered dead. But memories, as you said, can trigger that and bring you back. Can you talk about choosing the relics of their past for this film?
Yeah. This town that we shot in is the first mountain town right outside of Los Angeles, and I love this town. I actually vacationed there with my family because, I think it's important that my kids see that not everything is as beautiful as LA is. Of course, the town is just kind of broken and left behind. A little bit of a metaphor for what's going on in their relationship. I grew up in New Orleans and there was a second run art house movie theater there called Moving Pitchers. P I T C H E R S. We would go there because they would sell us beer, at like 15. There I accidentally got this incredible art house film education. I was going for the beer, but I was staying for My Own Private Idaho, and Short Cuts and I was like, "Oh! What are these movies? This is fucking weird and awesome!"
That feeling that I have when I think about that and who I was in that place, is kind of what I was going for when I tried to pick these little elements for them: in the town liquor store where they used to buy beer together, the diner where they had coffee. I don't know, again, I'm a very nostalgic person, but when I sit in those booths that I sat in when I was 16, I'm just like walloped with a flood of everything. It's not all bad. It's just big.
When you sat down to write this thing and you have all these themes in mind, and all these things that you want to be in there, how do you do that? What do you tap into and what’s the process of shaping it?
Very specifically, it was a blast over two or three days to create what I thought the plot of the movie would be in like a two to three page outline, just like a rough sketch. Then I bring that into the room with Alex, the director, Mel (Eslyn), Syd (Fleischmann), Xan (Aranda), the three producers, and Sarah, and we have a little, private creative session. What do we like about this? What's working? What's exciting? What's banal? Whatever. Then Sarah (Paulson) and I started talking about what's going to make us great in the movie.
This is something I really believe in, in the process. I just ask her, I'm like, "What's going on in your life. I'm not going to steal things directly from your life, but feelings and things that we can put in the movie. That, when the camera's on, when you're talking about this, we're all going to feel that this is a big thing." You know? So we talked about all those things. I borrowed some real things. I was like, "Oh, I know Sarah loves animals." When she starts talking about animals, something special happens, so I'm going to write something for her about animals. Little things like that. Then, over the course of maybe three or four of those creative sessions, I turned the outline into like the fifteen to twenty pages that represented the narrative of the movie. Then the night before we would shoot, I would usually write a version of that scene for us to follow; very specifically not something that either Sarah or I could memorize in time.
Yeah. By design. It was like loose, and we would chase the narrative around. You look for accidents. I'm all about going back to the music thing. I'm all about that really raw, interesting demo that happened when bands record the song while they're writing it; lo-fidelity, the musicianship is low, there are errors, but the energy in it is like, you'll never get that again. You kind of only get that once, if you set it up right. That's kind of what I'm going for in movies. I don't know how to do the well rehearsed thing - repeat it over and over again. I'd be the worst theater actor in the history of time. I'm all about, let's just get slightly prepared so it's kind of messy, and then get it up and hopefully when we shoot it, it will all come together. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you don't, but that keeps it vital for me.
Emotionally you really went out on a limb on this one I would say.
How was that? What were some of the most rewarding moments?
There's a moment towards the end of the movie that was really scary for me to do, for a couple of reasons. One is it required a lot of me emotionally. I'm always scared as a performer that I'm going to fail the movie. I'm going to fail as an actor and not quote unquote “bring it”. It's not something that a lot of actors talk about, because we all want the directors to know that we're there and we're like, "Oh, I can get there." But we're all like, "Oh God, can I get there? I don't know if I can do it." It's terrifying.
Pressure's on dude. So that was scary for me. Also, I don't really make it a secret that I'm kind of like an anxious, depressive, person, who likes to keep his life on the rails. This movie was like, take it off the rails. So you do that stuff and it's against every instinct you have. You know? It was very cathartic for me. I really enjoyed it in the end.
Do you have an ex-girlfriend you do and/or don't want to see this film?
Honestly, I had two high school girlfriends and one college girlfriend that were like - so I'm a serial monogamist.I hope all of them see it, and all of them can laugh at some of the tones of like, how serious I was and see some of that stuff. At the end of the day, for me, I do want to poke fun at it. Because it was so ridiculously overly serious, but at the same time I honor it, because it's so fucking sweet. I don't know. I have some nieces and nephews who are around that age now. I'm starting to watch it and I'm just like, "It's so pure and so sweet." You can't get that back.