Mark and Jay Duplass cracked jokes as they finished each other's sentences in a hotel room last fall. But they would soon be crying, Mark promised.
That evening, the University of Texas graduates screened their latest film, "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" to a packed house at the Paramount Theatre during the Austin Film Festival. The historic theater has long held a special place in the hearts of the two brothers, who used to escape to the air-conditioned movie palace to avoid the brutal Austin summers.
Both brothers studied film at UT in the 1990s, where they began to find their voices as independent filmmakers. Their 2004 feature debut, "The Puffy Chair," won the audience award at South by Southwest, and the follow-up, 2008's "Baghead," solidified their reputation as unique filmmakers. It also got Hollywood's attention.
In 2010, they made their first studio film, "Cyrus," starring Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill. Despite the bigger budget, the brothers stuck to their indie sensibilities. They continued to rely on improvisation and lo-fi production values to tell a comical story with genuine heart.
"Jeff, Who Lives at Home," which opens today, continues along the path they first initiated with "The Puffy Chair." The brothers have created a funny film that hides a personal warmth just beneath its absurd surface. Like their previous work, "Jeff" is a small, human story told with a guerrilla style that resembles documentary filmmaking. It just happens to have a bigger budget than their earlier films.
"We're more conscious of all the money that goes into it and being somewhat responsible with all that," Mark Duplass said. "The major thing that's different — besides the number of people around — it takes us a little bit more time, conversation and communication to do the things that we want to do with these movies. We still are able to make the movie we want to make. We're not having to compromise the overall vision of the movie, but we're having to walk a lot more people through it."
Jay Duplass adds that all of the talking and intellectualizing of an idea can potentially threaten the brothers' desire to execute it. They remain alert to the fact that hesitation and belaboring of ideas can lead to questioning the story.
The brothers continue to work on their films in the same manner they've used since they began making films at UT. Unafraid of the blank page, Mark writes the original script and brings it to older brother Jay for feedback on a rewrite. Detail-oriented Jay says his strengths lie in post-production fields such as editing. The two share writing and directing credits on their movies and say the division of labor came about organically as a byproduct of their personal skills and interests.
The natives of suburban New Orleans say they have never had a problem taking each other's feedback too personally and take care in nurturing what they describe as a conflict-free collaborative process.
"For whatever reason, we are ‘therapy people' in general," Mark Duplass said. "We can give constructive criticism, and we also know how to take criticism very well. It's not totally unique to our relationship; we're kind of like that with most people. But there's also a tremendous amount of respect and care for the relationship."
"It sounds corny, but the main goal is making the best piece of art you can make," Jay Duplass said. "So when the best idea comes out, the best idea wins."
They both live in Los Angeles, but the town where they came of age as filmmakers still influences their work. Jay recently bought a house in Austin so he could "feel like a regular person."
The goofy, neo-philosopher titular character in "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" first came to the Duplasses years ago as an idea for a short film. Though one could look at Jeff and immediately label him a stoner, a longer look reveals a more nuanced and sensitive man.
Some may see Jeff, a 30-year-old who still lives with his mother, as simply a character dragging his feet into adulthood, but Mark Duplass says he feels a connection to the character's second-guessing of himself. Jeff embodies the kind of hyper-awareness that makes us cognizant that the choices we make in life have lasting ramifications.
"There's a lot of 78704 in Jeff," Mark Duplass said.
As they prepared to walk over to the Paramount for their screening, the brothers shook their heads in disbelief at the notion that they have become the model for filmmakers looking to go from micro-indies to bigger-budget studio work while still retaining artistic integrity.
For those in Austin and elsewhere looking to follow in their footsteps, the Duplasses offer simple advice: Make tons of movies. Don't be afraid to make bad movies. Make them cheap so they don't hurt when they are bad. And keep at it until you find your unique voice.
Riding high on the emotion that comes with any homecoming, the brothers admit the idea of returning to Austin always lingers.
"It's part of our subconscious," Jay Duplass said. "Right now, just bluntly, it would be hard to get a studio film back here. ... But Mark and I always talk about doing little films again, too."
"Everybody's got to get weird every now and then, and there's no better place to do that (than Austin)," Mark Duplass said.
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986