Thursday, January 3, 2013

... and a Duplass new year

Last year on New Year's Day, we watched movies according to an inadvertent theme: Step Brothers and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, our two favorite comedies from 2008 that both happened to be movies I was seeing for the fourth time. (We'll ignore the fact that we closed the day with probably the worst comedy of 2011, The Hangover Part II.)

This year's theme was no more advertent, but it was more objective. This year, we watched Mark Duplass movies.

We probably could have seen this coming for a couple days if we'd looked. We'd postponed watching The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, which Duplass directed with his brother Jay and which had been a candidate for last Friday night's viewing, when we decided that its 76-minute length made it perfect for one of our son's naps. And since I may be working both days this weekend, yesterday could have been our last nap before I need to finalize my list next Thursday. In fact, it ended up being more than perfect -- not only did we watch the whole movie, but I got in an hour nap before my son awoke from his. Score.

We didn't discuss our second viewing, Your Sister's Sister, until right before we popped it in. Duplass only acts in this one, though I wouldn't be surprised if he had plenty of informal roles advising director Lynn Shelton since they are both founding parents of the mumblecore movement. Since it was the only disc I had at home from Netflix and there's a premium placed on turning around movies quickly this time of year, I was rooting for that choice, and my wife jumped at it.

And since Duplass appeared in the last movie she'd seen before that, Zero Dark Thirty, that made three straight Duplass movies for my wife. Crazy person that I am, I squeezed in two non-Duplass movies on the 31st (Sparkle and Amour) that she did not see.

I'd love to tell you what I thought of these movies, but remember: cone of silence.

So instead let me take this opportunity to praise an unusual part of the Duplass brothers' movie-making technique that pays untold dividends in the final film.

It was probably in conjunction with the release of Jeff, Who Lives at Home that I heard Mark Duplass being interviewed. (Mark seems to do pretty much all the public stuff -- in fact, I don't even know what Jay looks like.) In that interview, Mark talked about an approach they favor that would not be possible on a larger film with a bigger budget and more locations. With the films they make, though, they can afford to do it: film the scenes in the same order as they appear in the script.

There are all kinds of reasons this is not possible with most movies. The process of making movies is so dependent on maximizing your opportunities to get your cast in place according to their schedules, or shoot at a particular location when it's available, that there's almost no way you can film the scenes in sequence. In fact, I doubt that this is even something filmmakers subconsciously shoot for. Logistics are first and foremost, and it's probably not that unusual to shoot the last scene of the film first.

The sequence the scenes are shot shouldn't matter one iota to the audience, because they will be edited together in the correct order. Yet I think on some level, the sequence does matter to the audience -- because on some level it matters to the actors.

Even though these guys are professionals (though that's not necessarily the case with mumblecore movies), I think an actor can't help but have a slightly better grasp on his/her character's emotional state if he/she has already acted out the scenes that brought his/her character to this point in the story. And I think this is why almost every Duplass movie I've seen has a satisfying emotional payoff in the final five or ten minutes. Consistent with these movies' naturalism, the actors themselves have lived in these characters' shoes. When they have the big final reconciliation, or whatever occurs in the final act, the actors have already experienced the arguments (there's always an argument) that have gotten them to this point. They don't need to ask what their character's motivation is -- they've lived through it.

It only stands to reason that an actor who shoots the film's climax first has to do a lot more work to get him/herself into that character's head space. Even if the actor has read the script five or six times, he/she can't help but be at some kind of disadvantage over actors who have already done the emotional processing of those scenes in front of the camera.

This unusual though completely understandable technique also has the benefit of the Duplass brothers already working through script problems that may come up in earlier scenes. If something just isn't working and they have to change it up -- this interview also revealed that the brothers will just wander off together to discuss a scene, leaving the cast and crew waiting for them to return -- those changes will already be incorporated before they have to shoot the finale. There'll be no going back to reshoot or make adjustments based on problems that came up along the way.

What's funny is that this seemingly revolutionary method may have been born out of sheer laziness, a sheer unwillingness to conform to the hard conventions of making movies. Clearly, the "harder" thing to do is to shoot a movie out of sequence. It involves juggling all sorts of logistics based on availability and schedules, and is perhaps a skill that's better suited to an efficiency expert than a creative talent like a writer or director. And indeed, I'm quite sure that someone other than the director handles this on most films, though I couldn't tell you exactly who (the producer or someone on the producer's team, most likely). With the Duplasses, who have a huge amount of creative control, they may have just said "Eff that. That's not how we can understand this process or thrive within it." And it may have just been because the other way seemed "too hard."

But the proof is in the pudding. When a Duplass character experiences his/her third-act catharsis -- a catharsis that always has plenty of heart -- I always buy it, and I always find that it's coming from somewhere. Now I know where.

It also helps that the Duplasses have a knack for casting actors (such as mumblecore regular Steve Zissis, who starred in The Do-Deca Pentathlon) who have an innate understanding of the human condition. Remember, adding to the amazing work these actors are doing is the fact that they are frequently improvising their dialogue. You can only improvise dialogue if you truly understand a character and what he/she would do in any situation. Another benefit of already having "lived their lives" chronologically.

And now that I believe I've seen every 2012 project that involved Mark Duplass, I'll tackle the remaining field of non-Duplass movies. Just eight more days before I close my 2012 list.

Ha, IMDB tells me that I haven't seen two Duplass movies from 2012, Darling Companion and People Like Us. That's with already seeing the other movie he directed (Jeff, Who Lives at Home) and the other one he starred in (Safety Not Guaranteed). That's in addition to his regular work on the TV show The League, which we also watch.

If he keeps up this busy pace, then 2013 really will be a Duplass New Year.


Nick Prigge said...

No!!!!!!!!! I'm dying to know what you thought of "Your Sister's Sister", specifically the last 30 minutes because I have so many swirling thoughts about them.

That is, however, an interesting piece of information regarding Duplass and does seem to explain a lot. A little like a stage play - which don't have big breaks to set up for shots, obviously - in that lets you follow the character the whole way through. I wonder if perhaps more low budget films of this ilk might try that technique?

Vancetastic said...

Soon, Nick, soon!