Mark Duplass pelts his brother Jay with popcorn as Jay bowls a strike from between his legs at Brooklyn Bowl, a popular haunt in Williamsburg. The neighborhood is one of the few places the indie filmmakers might actually be recognized, but fellow keglers take no notice. “We’re in the best spot right now. We can walk the streets of any city, and nobody knows who the hell we are. But Quentin Tarantino–Tarantino!–comes up to us at a party and for 30 minutes is telling us why he thinks our movies are great,” says Mark, the younger half of the duo that has directed, written or produced 24 films and television shows over the past 13 years, including HBO’s Togetherness, which started its second season on Feb. 21. Actors love them too: Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel have all worked with the pair, usually at a deep discount.
In Hollywood, the Duplass brothers are known as the guys who rewrote the rules on how to make small films in a town that craves blockbusters. And after years of rejecting huge paychecks in favor of working on quieter, quirkier fare, they recently cut major deals to develop several projects with HBO and four movies with Netflix–not to mention a book deal with Random House.
If you recognize either of the Duplasses, it’s most likely from their acting roles. With the charisma of a former high school athlete, Mark, 39, has been the face of their movies, such as Safety Not Guaranteed and The One I Love, and starred on FX’s The League. After years behind the camera, Jay, who turns 43 on March 7, was recruited by Jill Soloway for her Emmy-winning Amazon series Transparent. Off camera they’re rarely apart.
“Jay and I were an inseparable unit–basically married–from a very early age,” Mark says. “And then we got actually married and it was like, ‘Now we’re in two marriages, how does that work?’ It’s the stuff that birthed Togetherness.” In the dramedy, married man Brett (Mark) struggles to prioritize his wife Michelle over his best friend. The Duplasses pride themselves on being deeply honest, to the point of discomfort. One episode features a grimace-worthy attempt by Brett and Michelle to spice up their sex life, ending in Brett nursing his gonads with an ice pack. “We’re the guys you avoid at a party if you don’t want to go deep,” Jay says. “We hate small talk.”
They began making movies while growing up in the Metairie suburb of New Orleans, with Jay holding the camera because he was older and stronger. “It was like, ‘We have two hours until dinner. We’ve got Mark, a keyboard and a magic set where half the crap is missing. What can we make?'” Jay recalls. The scrappy approach earned them their first break. Obsessed with Raising Arizona and Fargo, the Duplasses initially dreamed of becoming the next Coen brothers. In 2001 they invested everything they had to make a film about an aspiring Olympic runner. They now deem this unfinished work “dog sh-t.” “We failed terribly,” Mark says. The Coens “see every frame the minute they start writing a movie. We’re not capable of that. We’re discovery guys. We like to improvise.” Desperate and out of cash, they filmed a seven-minute short, This Is John, about a man who suffers a breakdown while trying to leave his outgoing answering machine message. Made for $3 (the cost of the MiniDV tape), it was accepted at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
The plot of their first feature film, The Puffy Chair, was reverse engineered from materials at hand: Mark’s van, two cheap overstuffed chairs and a Home Depot policy that allowed them to buy equipment and return it within 30 days for a full refund. The Puffy Chair became the first purchase of Netflix’s then nascent production company. It also caught the attention of Hill, who offered to star in their next movie, Cyrus. The brothers kept their budgets small by using cheap digital technology and courting artistically starved actors with the kinds of roles nobody else would offer them. Their work struggled in theaters but flourished on streaming services. Even now, their films rarely cost more than $1 million, but they maintain creative control of what they make.
That’s a rarity in Hollywood, where success usually means being tapped for a blockbuster franchise. But the Duplasses have refused such offers. “It would hurt our soul and hurt our reputations,” says Mark. “I think it’s possible to make a movie at that level with some integrity. But it’s so blatantly obvious to us that those movies are a commodity first.” That’s an untenable position for most filmmakers, which is why the brothers fund a host of emerging talent. For their second HBO project, Animals, an adult cartoon that premiered Feb. 5, they hooked up creative team Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese with comedians such as Aziz Ansari and Jon Lovitz to provide voice acting.
Many of the projects the Duplasses produce have the same sensibility as Togetherness–white, upper-middle-class people dealing with privileged problems. Acutely aware of their limited worldview, they’ve sought to produce films with different perspectives, like last year’s Sundance favorite Tangerine, about two trans women of color. (In typical Duplass form, it was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S.) Producing will increasingly be their focus as diverging interests drive them apart. But they’ll continue co-writing and directing Togetherness, along with writing films like the upcoming Table 19, starring Anna Kendrick. Because their success is premised on an us-against-the-world mentality, “there’s the feeling of, f-ck this band. I want to make my solo record,” Mark says. “But that tends to get rubbed out because we’re a little anxious in the world and need each other.”
This appears in the March 07, 2016 issue of TIME.
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