'Cyrus' directors discuss improv style, careful process

Courtesy of Chuck Zlotnick
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BY ANKUR SOHONI
Daily Arts Writer
Published July 5, 2010

On Jan. 28, the Sundance Film Festival sent eight filmmakers, movies in tow, to eight different theaters across the country. The film festival publicized “Sundance USA” as an event to bring the country together for a celebration of cinema and discourse.

One of the eight theaters selected for the event was Ann Arbor’s very own Michigan Theater, which welcomed filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass, co-writer-directors of the film “Cyrus,” for a screening and Q&A session. Ann Arbor residents flocked to the Michigan for the event, and with a strange self-awareness sat in the huge, sold-out theater to watch a small independent film.

Five months later, “Cyrus” is now in nationwide limited release. The new film attracted stars like Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei, giving the directing team its best chance yet to reach a bigger audience. With a somewhat rebellious approach to filmmaking, the Duplass brothers represent a new wave of filmmakers creating a new, rawer dramatic form. “Cyrus” is their biggest film yet, and with a new Paramount Pictures film, “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” due out next year, the brothers have a chance to take their style to new heights.

That’s not to say they don’t have a taste for the classic film experience. With the film industry slowly shifting from the theater to home video, the brothers expressed affection for tradition and how it affects their filmmaking process in an interview with the Daily.

“In an ideal world, I will say that in a packed movie theater is the ideal screening of our movies,” said older brother Jay Duplass at the Birmingham 8 theater in Birmingham. “You get the full laughter, but you also get the punch of the emotion towards the end. It just takes longer to get there.”

Mark Duplass noted that home video gave their previous films “The Puffy Chair” (2005) and “Baghead” (2008) an entirely different identity than did their respective theater releases.

“When there are people around you laughing, it gives you permission to laugh,” he said. “It turns it much more into a comedy. ‘The Puffy Chair,’ at home, feels like a hard-hitting relationship drama. In a movie theater it feels like ‘Dumb and Dumber.’ It’s like night and day.”

“Cyrus” is being marketed nationwide as “a brutally honest comedy.” With their film in the hands of Fox Searchlight, the brothers hope to win over new viewers and fans to their singular style.

“Fox Searchlight has been really good at marketing these kinds of movies,” Mark said. “We’ve trusted them in a lot of ways … We don’t know how to get this movie to a big group of people, and they kind of do.”

“Cyrus” continues the brothers’ trademark improvisational directing style, which has gained them critical acclaim in years past.

“There will be a writing process, and then we start shooting, and we really start seeing what (the actors) are like,” Mark said. “Then we start – even if we don’t put it in the script – tailoring the scenes and how we direct the scenes, going to their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses.”

Jay spoke about the transition from pre-production to production, characterizing it as unpredictable but ultimately liberating.

“You have these ideas and then, you know, people come on set and start doing shit, and it’s totally different,” he said. “It’s very important to be really honest about what you’re getting. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, sometimes it’s weird and different and you need to learn how to adjust.”

Their style contrasts with standard Hollywood protocol, in which the directors tend to force everyone around them to adjust. The director is often seen as the creative dictator of the cinematic form, but the Duplass brothers seem entirely comfortable turning the system on its end, turning the director into a reactionary filmmaking force.

Placing the actor in the role of pseudo-screenwriter, the Duplass brothers’ style empowers their cast with the opportunity for a more creative presence in the film. Nevertheless, Mark, who is an actor as well, noted a fundamental difference between an improv actor and a writer.

“(Actors are) not trying to generate comedy, so they’re not thinking as writers so much … They’re just trying to inhabit a character, and re-say the existing lines in new, interesting, surprising, natural ways,” he said.

Jay described the mindset differently, noting that the brothers direct actors to focus on a single goal.

“ ‘I gotta get out of this goddamn room before this guy shuts me down, and I gotta do whatever it takes,’ ” he said, putting himself in the mind of an actor. “When you instill that motivation in somebody, and you know your character, it becomes really exciting and creative and vibrant.”

Their shooting methods also play a role in allowing their style to sustain itself.

Filming documentary-style with a fully lit set, the directors allow each actor to fully inhabit another personality – one with independent motivations and movements. While their style presents a unique challenge to actors, it also gives them more freedom.

“We bring the camera to them. That’s what so great and so terrifying about it at the same time,” Jay said. “Once they embrace it, we run a whole take. We don’t do line per line like a lot of films do.”

But the brothers are quick to admit how difficult their process is. Every day of production requires a special self-confidence, and the entire cast and crew must keep up scene by scene.

“Having the spirit and strength to believe that, even though the scene sucks right now, we’re going to find something” is key, Mark Duplass said.

“It keeps it alive,” Jay added. “But it makes it very important to be…”

“Vigilant,” Mark interjected.

“Cyrus” returns to the Michigan Theater July 9. However, if the Duplass brothers’ dedication is any sign, it certainly won’t be the last time we hear from them.