Ever since the Coen brothers burst on the scene in the mid-1980s with “Blood Simple,” sibling filmmakers have become somewhat of a rage. You have the Wachowskis, the Hugheses and the Farrellys, just to name a few. But the bros sharing the closest DNA with the imaginative, freewheeling Coens are Jay and Mark Duplass, brothers who are considered the fathers of a growing film movement called mumblecore.
Ever since the Coen brothers burst on the scene in the mid-1980s with “Blood Simple,” sibling filmmakers have become somewhat of a rage.
You have the Wachowskis, the Hugheses and the Farrellys, just to name a few. But the bros sharing the closest DNA with the imaginative, freewheeling Coens are Jay and Mark Duplass, brothers who are considered the fathers of a growing film movement called mumblecore.
The genre, if you want to call it that, is not unlike Europe’s dogma movement championed by Lars von Trier. It largely involves natural lighting, handheld digital cameras, no-name actors and improvised dialogue aimed at heightening the realism, while also exploring the hopes, fears and loves of single, aimless urbanites in their 20s.
“The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead,” both written and directed by the Duplasses, are universally considered to be the “Gone With the Wind” and “Citizen Kane” of the movement. But that was then, this is now. And today, the brothers are boldly venturing into new territory with their Sundance darling “Cyrus,” a decidedly un-mumblecore movie featuring name actors, like “Superbad’s” Jonah Hill, “Boogie Nights’” John C. Reilly and, their greatest coup, Oscar winner Marisa Tomei. The boys have even hooked up with legendary filmmakers, and fellow brothers, Ridley and Tony Scott, whose Scott Free Productions put up the cash to ensure a much larger budget, and thus a more polished and professional look for their movie.
The higher production values, however, have not diluted the edginess that has been the trademark of the New Orleans natives. In fact, one could make the case they’re going even farther out on a limb by making a movie about a love triangle involving a mother, her son and Mom’s new boyfriend.
What kinds of people come up with such odious and Oedipal ideas? Well, we went to find out when Jay, 37, and Mark, 33, came to Boston a couple weeks back to promote “Cyrus.” Here’s some of what they had to say:
Q: How did you come up with the idea for “Cyrus”?
JAY: It just came out of something we thought would be interesting. We’re always sitting on park benches, sitting on planes watching people and being fascinated by them, and at any point in time we might see something that inspires us.
Q: This movie is a big step up for you in terms of budget and stars. Did you have any quandaries?
MARK: Definitely, a lot of nerves, we were very aware of those horror stories that you hear that involve a lot of voices. “You’ll get diluted.” So we spent a lot of time trying to prepare ourselves for it, trying to set in motion all the things that we needed that would maintain the sense of intimacy and retain all the elements that we thought made our previous movies good, which was shooting with handheld cameras and video, letting our actors improvise and basically maintaining the same ethic. We’re just employing some name actors to attract some more people to the movie and also using some higher resolution cameras to not just make this an art film for the 10 cities in America that watch art films, but to invite everybody.
Q: How did you get involved with the Scott brothers?
JAY: That was just a function of our producer, Michael Costigan. ... During the process of developing the film he ended up running Ridley and Tony’s company. So we automatically came under their umbrella. We didn’t have a lot of contact with them, but it was always in the back of our heads that we have some pretty good guys who have our backs in case things get weird. Luckily, that never happened.
Q: During casting, did Jonah, John and Marisa approach you or did you chase after them?
MARK: We came to them with the project, but John and Jonah specifically knew about us and knew our movies. They were really interested in doing that kind of thing with us. So it was a really good marriage of us really wanting them to be in our movie and them saying “Let’s explore together, we like improvising, so let’s try your style.” Then Marisa was someone we really went after because we thought she would be a perfect fit for these guys. She read the script, loved it, and had a really great take on what to do with the character.
Q: Were you drawn to her because of her performance in “The Wrestler,” or was it her overall body of work?
MARK: We’ve loved her for years and our decision was based upon how strong she is as a woman. ... In a movie where two guys are duking it out, you gotta make sure there’s enough going on for the female role. We felt she would be good for picking up a lot of that responsibility.
Q: Some circles have criticized your movies as being sexist because your women tend to be snide and diva-like. Do you think there’s any validity to that?
MARK: All of our characters are completely flawed. I think that when you make flawed men, it’s not a big deal because they’re the majority. But if you make a flawed African-American person or a flawed woman or something like that, then there’s sensitivity to it because, “oh, we need to do that in a certain way.”
JAY: The feedback we get in general from audience members regarding women is surprisingly positive. We’re aware that we primarily write for men. That’s what we are, that’s what we know. ... All we can do is represent how we see the world. And like Mark said, we are going for flawed characters.
MARK: That’s just the thing. We’re not saying that women are snide or women are bitc***, we’re saying we love characters with problems and questionable motivations. And a lot of the guys we write are narrow-minded as*****s, but to us they’re all coming from a place of desperation to get their lives in order.
Q: How do you guys feel about Greta Gerwig (the star of the brothers’ last film, “Baghead”) going on to bigger things and receiving the acclaim like she did in “Greenberg,” a film you also had a role in, Mark?
MARK: Not a surprise to us. And it’s not because of “Baghead,” it’s because of her. She’s an enormous talent and a great person. To us, it always felt like it would just be a matter of time. That being said, we’re just as surprised that it hasn’t happened to Steve Zissis, who we also used in “Baghead.”
JAY: He’s not as pretty as Greta. I mean he’s right there, but ...
MARK: Right there, but almost, not quite. But I want to snuggle with Steve more.
JAY: Yeah, that’s true.
Q: How do you feel about the mumblecore tag? “Cyrus” sort of takes you beyond it.
MARK: We’re glad you feel that way, because we feel that. This isn’t a mumblecore movie. And we’d hate to feel that any movie we make is exclusionary. We’re not saying, “We’re part of this club and unless you like this club, stay home.” While some of the aesthetics of our movie are similar to that movement it’s never something we consciously try to be a part of – or not be a part of. We’d like to feel that we’ve graduated from that term for this movie.
Q: I thought “Cyrus” represented an exponential jump for you guys. What do you attribute that to?
JAY: We feel we’re making the same types of movies; we’re just making them with movie stars now. For us, it’s always just a matter of telling the best story we can tell. ... And maybe we just got better at what we do by growing and trying new things.
Q: Let’s talk about Jonah. He amazed me in this movie, especially with his maturity.
JAY: We were really struck by that very thing. We were blown away and proud and want the world to see what he’s capable of and the new ways (filmmakers) can take him.
Q: And John ... does anyone play a better sad sack?
MARK: We like the peculiar brand of sad sack that John C. Reilly is. Sure, he’s playing a lonely, desperate guy, but we know John as a very intelligent, sensitive and emotionally self-aware person. And so we tried to bring that side of him out more. And in particular, we love the idea that the hero is failing not just because he’s not aware, it’s because life is messy, and life has problems. Just because you’ve gone to therapy and you know all your faults and problems doesn’t mean that solves them.
Q: Would you say “Cyrus” is more a story about love, or jealousy?
JAY: That’s interesting. I definitely would say love first. It’s the basis of everything because we have love for our characters; we never judge them. At the core of it, John is a guy in his mid-40s who wants to find somebody. He doesn’t want to go it alone. And Cyrus is a character who loves his mom and is terrified of losing that relationship. Molly is a character who is desperately in love with her son, but doesn’t want to be totally limited by that singular relationship. That’s at the heart of all our characters – that need and want to belong.
Q: Now that you’re entering more into the mainstream, does the prospect of fame worry you?
JAY: Our goal is not to get big or not get big; it’s just to reach as many people as possible. When you sit in a movie theater, people have these amazing experiences. And Mark and I are desperate to give that experience to as many people as possible. And the more people able to receive it, it’s all the better for us.
Reach Al Alexander at email@example.com.