SXSW Interview: ‘Cyrus’ Directors Mark and Jay Duplass

In the past week, I got a chance to sit down and talk to Mark and Jay Duplass about their movie Cyrus with a handful of journalists at the SXSW Film Festival.  Cyrus stars Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener,  and John C. Reilly.

How long had you guys been working on the script?

Mark Duplass: Good question. You know, we normally write our scripts pretty quickly when it’s just us producing them, because we know we’re going to improvise the dialogue a bit, so once their structure is rock solid, we are production ready. But you know, this was a script where you have to write it well and make it attractive to writers and to the studios so that they want to green light it. So we did spend a little time making it look pretty. I think we worked on it maybe a year or so.

Do you have any experience as children of single parents dating again or knowing people in that situation?

MD: None, really. We are good little Catholic boys and our Catholic parents have been married for 42 years and they are still together.

Jay Duplass: What we do have a lot of experience with is desperation.

MD: and interpersonal dysfunction, we’re good at that.

When you had the photograph of the breastfeeding, and then the shower scene, those were terribly icky. Were there other things like that that you took out, because you thought it was too much?

JD: The ickiness was about what we had hoped for.

MD: There was an ick-o-meter on the set at all times.

JD: We were trying for a 3.8 ick factor the whole time.

MD: You go over and people start crying, it gets weird.

How frustrated are you guys with the Hollywood romantic comedies?

JD: We’re not frustrated with those, because we don’t go watch them. For us it’s a different type of entertainment. An inferior one, but…

MD: I’m not the person that’s going to say those movies shouldn’t be made. A lot of people get a sh*t -ton of enjoyment out of them, and I know that a lot of people think that our movies are weird and stupid. To each his own, basically, is how we feel.

It seems like there is more comedy to be mined from a real screwed up situation.

MD: For our sensibility, and our style, we really like to work with those special weird people who come out of the worm holes of 78704 in Austin. Those unique individuals that you are just like, “Wow, how are you making your way in the world, you’re barely hanging on here,” and we love those people so much.

To me it’s like they give the greatest opportunity for comedy, because they are idiosyncratic, but in the end, it’s all rooted in a very emotional thing that they are going through.

This is a funny movie, but it is also about a 20 year old kid who is desperately trying to hang on to his mother. Then the mother, she’s trying to figure out if she screwed up her son, and trying to move on, and a guy who feels like “If I don’t find a woman I want to be with, I’m going to be alone the rest of my life.” That stuff is not funny, you know? When you are rooted in those things, you get a cool blend of that comedy and drama that we just like a lot.

Seems like the audience is really with John when he tells Jonah off, and when he asks Catherine what the heck is wrong with her son. Were you expecting those moments to play so well, and how gratifying is it?

JD: No, we were not expecting those moments in particular to play so explosively.

MD: We’re f*&#ed basically, because the movie’s never going to play as well as it played last night.

JD: Yeah, that was a unique experience.

MD: I’m never going to watch it again.

JD: One thing we did sort of have an instinct for was that people would be with John C. Reilly. There is no coincidence as to why the character’s name is John, and I think subconsciously half way through writing it we thought, “We’re writing this for John Reilly, and if he doesn’t play this role, we are not going to make this movie. ”

He’s just got that quality to him. Our characters do a lot of questionable stuff, morally, spiritually, and John Reilly there is something so genuine and pure about him and his intentions underneath it all that we knew he would carry it and that everyone would be with him.

MD: Yeah, basically if you are going to cast a really unlikable character, you should cast somebody who’s really likable.

Did you toy with any different endings?

MD: It was pretty obvious on the second or third cut that this was the appropriate ending.

How much did you coach Jonah in terms of directing him?

MD: Not at all. There were conversations about the character, and people, but Jonah is like us. It’s a corny phrase, but he’s a “student of the human condition.” He loves people, he loves the idiosyncrasies. You can sit in a cafe with him and just watch people walk by, and just have a blast all day talking about the strange little things that they are doing.

So he loved Cyrus. He loved how funny and dark and weird he could be. His instincts were really dead on.

JD: The way we approach it to is not so much “Well, we want this character to be this way.” It really comes down to what’s happening on set, and is it weird, is it interesting, and if it’s not, and there is nothing really special about it, we’ll be like “Hey, let’s throw a wrench into it.”

Let’s create some tension here. Let’s take Jonah aside and tell him a secret, and Mark will take Marisa aside and tell her a secret and they won’t know what’s happening. They’ll come into the scene, and whoa, that was the alchemy that was created this spark of something that we all feel is really real and honest and unpredictable

You guys have an extremely distinctive style. How much of that was based on decisions you made and how much was just necessity when you make films?

MD: It definitely was necessity being the mother of invention. We’ve got a camera, we don’t have a lot of lights…all the sudden your thinking “Wow, this is cool. There is an organic and kind of kinetic energy to this.” Functionally speaking, we are not trying to shake around the cameras. That’s what we’re doing. We are following the actors around. There are no predetermined camera moves. They come directly out of the chaos of what the actors are doing.

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