Gentlemen both, brothers Jay and Mark Duplass made their names with Sundance indie The Puffy Chair. A family comedy about two brothers (played by Mark and Jay) who suffer indignity and repressed childhood angst while transporting their father's recliner to him states away, the absurd taint of family tension is present in every film the brothers make. Think of Cyrus, their studio breakout starring John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill: it's a movie about understanding family dynamics from the outside—not that they make much more sense on the inside. In their newest, Jeff Who Lives at Home, the brothers process the family cabal of confused animal instinct, but now featuring pursuits that are far loftier. Read below about their take on loafer/hero Jeff (Jason Segel) and how they've cast today's Lancelot (trading chain mail for mesh basketball shorts) and see how our interviewer is left in anti-swoon over this anti-man. She takes the team to task about the popular comic trope of the man-child (a trope they made so popular it wouldn't be wrong to credit them with it) and the conclusion is all about inconclusiveness. But what they serve up in lieu of certitude is sweetness: goofy-earnestness may not be everyone's hope for their romantic interests, but it's mightily interesting in Jeff Who Lives at Home.
What's up with man-children?
Mark Duplass: You can easily look at Jeff as a man-child. He has the form of it: he's living in his mother's basement, smoking pot, watching TV—and he's big.
As in chubby or tall?
Mark: He's a large-sized person. You take a normal person and you add 25 percent and that's Jason Segel right there. You just put him in the oversized microwave and he comes out bigger: shoes, teeth, everything. But there's a big distinction between our character Jeff and what the man-child is. Jeff is a bit of a crackpot philosopher and he believes to his core that the universe has a grand, big and beautiful destiny in store for him. He is less being lazy as much as he's lying in wait like a very vigilant cat, approaching everything as if it is a signal that is leading him towards his destiny. So in many ways, Jeff's days are much more exhausting than ours are because he is watching every single thing.
Jay Duplass: He's a new age philosopher who hasn't read any self-help books. He's just generating it on his own in the privacy of his mom's basement...while aided slightly by marijuana.
Not to sound judgmental, but in practice, he's still not doing anything.
Mark: That's the best part about it. That's how these people are. Jeff certainly is an individual. He is a specific manifestation of anyone who feels in his heart or subconscious that there has to be more to life than what is going on right now.
Jay: We're the last people in the world to say if Jeff is an idiot and a stoner and wrong or whether he's a genius and he's right. We just wanted to take that guy and put him out into the world for a day where the signs are really pinging him and where he really feels like it is coming and see what happens and see how people feel about it.
How can you not say you're neutral about him when you've made him a protagonist?
Jay: Can't you make a movie about someone where you don't judge whether their behavior is right or wrong? I mean that's all we're saying.
We're not talking anti-hero, here. I loved him.
Mark: There have been people who have loved him who have not bought into the fact that he is actually receiving signs from the universe. A lot of people are like, "You know what? You keep looking for enough goddamn signs, you're going to make them up in your own head."
Jay: Audience reactions to this are 50/50 so far. Some people will tell you that Jeff is right and some people will say that Jeff is wrong. Everybody has their theories about him.
Mark: If you get into a conversation with people just about life and about destiny you'll find, at least we do, that people are of two minds. We're all bouncing around, we're not sure if something is guiding us or not, but you know what: if you pay attention hard enough and if you pay attention long enough, you can probably interpret some of your life's events as signs and say that-
Jay: "Yes! This was meant to be!"
Mark: Then there are other people who have a little bit more religion and are just like ‘no my ass was stamped the day I was born with what was going to happen to me and that's exactly what it was supposed to be and that's always what it was supposed to be.' We basically are not saying that we believe one or the other thing, through Jeff. We had no agenda with it. We just love exploring with him because he is an extreme, peculiar, fun example of somebody who believes that his destiny is out there for him.
Does the bad cop/good cop team you have going on as filmmaking brothers and the resemblance bear any resemblance to the brothers in the film? You know what—I'm sorry, I can't let this go. The man-child is very prominent in film today and your features have a lot to do with that. It's a fringe trope from an indie mindset—not a mainstream comic figure.
Jay: Yeah. I know what you're saying, the reason Mark and I make movies in the way we make movies just comes from these very private, almost subconscious conversations that we have about things that we find fascinating and things that also make us laugh so it's hard for me to speak to the man-child ‘movement' but I will say this: Mark and I have gray hairs. I have a beard and we wear jackets and we feel like we're 15-years-old. I mean that's just me personally and we talk to our dad who is 65-years-old and wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror and says, ‘Who the hell is this guy? I still feel like I'm 20.' Maybe that has something to do with it; a lot of people feel like they're kind of making it up as they go along. That's what we find when we talk to people: they say ‘yeah I just got this huge promotion and I have absolutely no business being here, I'm just going to make this thing up.'
But isn't there a difference between being young at heart and being wrong-headed about maturity? You can say you feel 15 inside but you have demonstrated through your body of work that you're not afraid of responsibility.
Mark: Yeah. In terms of how that relates to Jeff or the man-child thing, we can't speak of the bevy of man-child movies, we're just not making them, but how that relates to Jeff, I think if you ask Jeff that question, it would be ‘well I'm carrying the greatest responsibility that there is. I have given up everything in my life so that I can be monk-like in my approach to finding out what my destiny is. The easiest thing in the world for me would be to go out and get a job and join the ranks like my brother Pat. Everybody did that, but you know what? If I do that I'm gonna miss out on the greatness. So why would I settle for a B+ when I know the A+ is out there? And while I have had to give up romance and I've had to give up financial stability and everything, I just feel compelled.' Our hope is to raise the question in the audience, ‘What the f**k is wrong with this guy? Why is he so compelled?' And we hope to answer that question a little bit later in the movie and provide a really fun but at times a kind of beautiful journey through what we call the ‘epically small.' You know, these tiny little things-like what sign might be contained in the package of powdered donuts at the 7-11—that's exciting to us. You can have a grand adventure story inside of the tiniest and most banal things.
It seems like there are ways to bring out the ‘epically small' so the pronounced are more noticeable. Is that part of why you pose a Lethal Weapon dynamic between Pat, who doesn't believe there's more out there, and Jeff who thinks there is and I don't know how to attain it?
Mark: Yeah. I think if you intellectualize it, that's certainly why we created that dynamic, but we don't think of it-
Jay: Also it's good for conflict and we're trying to create good conflicts.
Mark: We're trying to elucidate what we find most interesting about those people in particular and the conflict certainly brings it out, but it also brings out the comedy of how they bounce against each other. Watching two brothers stuck in the same car but going about things very differently, is really painful while you're in it and really funny after the fact. We don't think of it in terms of ‘how do we elicit this,' we really just thought wouldn't it be funny if Pat puts Jeff in a headlock and makes him ride around his stupid-ass Porsche with him all day?
Jay: There has to be a visceral and caveman element to our art.
Caveman! I love that. The primitive always wins.
Jay: There's a combination: we're going to make this movie about destiny and signs and fate and those are big ideas and they're lofty and that's what happens when you're in a conversation. But for us, when we're making a movie, there is also a much more unspoken brute and visceral element to it.
Jay: Yeah it's instinct.
Did you guys have a Napoleon Dynamite-esque inspiration? You just said you can walk around Austin and find people that exist in this structure-did you have a person in mind?
Mark: You know it's weird. The script came to us as a short film in like 2003 or 2004 we wrote it as a short and it was near to us having seen Signs and seeing how that movie takes itself so seriously—as well it should because destiny, fate and purpose are huge things—but Jay and I, again, like the goofy-earnestness that doesn't demand respect. You should be sincere about these things because they're very, very big, but that doesn't mean it's not funny.
Jay: That doesn't mean it's not funny and there's another way into that stuff.
That's a lovely way around irony.
Jay: Yeah. To us it's very appropriate that Jeff would be on a toilet talking about the movie Signs with a Dictaphone at the front of this movie. Taking it all so seriously and we love—
Mark: Recording his thoughts. For later.
Both: For posterity. In case he forgot the brilliance he was creating.
Jay: And also for us, when we made this short film there was one particular image that really stuck out. We played it very, very small so I don't know if anyone gets it and maybe it's just a subconscious thing, but when Jeff is looking for signs in his basement and he pulls a knife out, he wields it in front of his eyes. For us that's like a Sword in the Stone moment. I mean it's tiny but we don't need people to consciously take this in, this is stuff that me and Mark are doing where—
Mark: He's a freakin' knight. He's a goddamn knight. He's pulling a goddamn knife out of a Cutco block and he thinks that this is the key to not only his destiny, but potentially the destiny of his family and maybe even the city. Who the hell knows?! That's the level we're working on.
Jay: And this, what he is doing while stoned, wearing a hoodie and basketball shorts, is the key to Jeff. He has traded in his chain mail for the mesh of basketball shorts.
Do you think he traded it in? Do you think there is some guy who's naked—
Jay: No, no. We as the story tellers-
Mark: We traded it in and created your new Lancelot, and his name is Jeff.
Dear God. I don't know how to feel.
Mark: You should feel great.
As a woman I am really conflicted about this.
Mark: You want the chain mail don't you?
I don't need chain mail but I do need a little more motivation than that, just from my perspective but you know my perspective is-
Jay: Jeff doesn't give a shit about romance.
Jeff totally gives a shit about romance; it's romantic to look upon everything as precious. I think it's the standing up thing.
Mark: Standing up?
Standing up, yeah.
Mark: For what?
ANYTHING! Jeff's character is built on inaction and I get that he's stuck and waiting for a key to something from a bigger authority than him—but that's exactly where the conflict lies. He's not his own authority. His humility is great but Jeff suggests someone-anyone, including donut packages—has more authority than he.
Mark: Right. So you're not into—
Jay: I don't blame you for not being romantically interested in Jeff. That's very, very fair.