The second session of the final day at VIFF Industry was a one-on-one with fortysomething director Jay Duplass. Duplass gave a refreshingly candid account of the highs and lows in his career as he transitioned from no-budget films to big budget Hollywood productions.
In his early twenties, Duplass sold his car to buy an old Avid editing machine at a time when non-linear filmmaking was beginning to filter down to the masses. He and his brother spent “way too much time” doing bad projects for many years, trying “too hard” to be derivative, funny and witty… “learning not what to do”.
He described how a breakthrough moment came at 30 years old, at the point where he was ready to give up on the idea of a film career and get a regular job. When he shared his feelings of despair with his brother, his brother replied that they were going to make a movie. They made a short based on an episode where Jay had a nervous breakdown while making a voice recording for an ansaphone.
This is John was made for a few dollars, but went on to be a hit at Sundance. Watching it at the Vancity Theatre, Duplass said it reminded him “how fucking desperate I was at the time”.
A year later they were back at Sundance with another short called Scrabble which cost $50 to make, and the next year had another short about coming out which screened at the Berlin Film Festival.
Sundance calling to ask when the brothers were going to do a feature, was the impetus they needed to make rom com Puffy Chair in 2005 - which Duplass described as a road movie with twelve short movies in a row. The script which drew on conflicts in their own lives cost around $15,000 to make. Their mum and dad put up the money and played the parents of the protagonist. It was filmmaking with available materials - meaning pretty much everything they used was free/donated except gas and pizza.
Duplass gave many useful nuggets of advice on making the transition from “Indie to Studio” (as the session was titled), in particular stressing the importance of getting out there and making films, honing your craft.
“Don't think thinking about making movies is the same as making movies,” he said adding that he and his brother have a philosophy: "Make movies not meetings."
“If you haven't made a short film that kills, don’t make a feature,” he added.
It’s much easier to bounce back from a failed short film.
Duplass said that if the film is really good then your questions about what comes next will be answered.
He also talked about the difficulty in coming to terms with the studio way of doing things after they got their first studio movie job for Fox Searchlight (it released Cyrus in 2010). They found the studio way a laborious process and they also had to articulate their vision better than back in the “cavemen” days of shoestring filmmaking.
After being given a script and asked to “make it good,” he said, “we’d kill ourselves re-writing.” He said it was “heartbreaking” but the constant rewrites were their way of saying that they could write scripts.
Hollywood can be a tough place and the brothers “developed mechanisms” to protect themselves, particularly as they are often doing “sensitive, subtle stuff”. For example, they don’t allow crew on set, which also serves to create a comfortable environment for the actors.
The brothers now straddle the Hollywood and home-made DIY movie world, as well as television production and acting roles for Jay. I got the sense that listening to Duplass that hard work really does pay off. That combined with serendipity.
When writing, Duplass said that material that works is often "the thing that kind of falls out of you".
“You can't really decide what it is you have to offer the world. It has to happen to you."
This Is John was a simple idea, cost very little, and did very well.
But it wasn't until after getting "beat up by life and my failed projects" that Duplass had his breakthrough moment.
Nobody said it was going to be easy.