Long before the influx of no-budget, naturalistic indies was tagged with the “mumblecore” label, Mark Duplass and his brother Jay scored a breakthrough with 2005’s The Puffy Chair, an amiable relationship comedy about a recliner with special significance. Since then, the Duplasses have written and directed four more features that furthered their low-key, accessible arthouse fare, including the genre riff Baghead, the offbeat family dramedies Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives At Home, and now The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, which was shot four years ago—before Cyrus and Jeff—but has only now been cut together for release. In the meantime, Duplass has also become much sought-after as an actor, putting his improvisatory skills to good use in Lynn Shelton’s Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, starring (along with wife Katie Aselton) in three seasons of FX’s The League, and taking prominent roles in several new movies, including Safety Not Guaranteed, Darling Companion, People Like Us, and Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming Osama Bin Laden film.
In the Duplasses’ Do-Deca-Pentathlon, Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly star as middle-aged guys who rekindle a two-decade-old rivalry by competing in the 25-event sporting tournament they staged as children. While Zissis’ disapproving wife (Jennifer Lafleur) makes preparations for his birthday party, Zissis and Kelly sneak away to square off in games ranging from ping-pong to laser tag to holding their breath underwater. Duplass recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the real-life inspiration for Do-Deca, bringing a commercial sensibility to arthouse fare, and inadvertently dominating the early part of the summer movie season.
The A.V. Club: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is based on real-life brothers you knew growing up in New Orleans. What do you remember about their competition? Was it open to spectators?
Mark Duplass: It was not open to spectators. We were never allowed to see any of this. This was a secret event that took place in the cave of these brothers, and that’s what made it so special to me. In particular, the do-deca-pentathlon is not about being good at sports or being the best at any events; it’s only about being better than your flesh and blood. I always said if these guys were competing in a group event and there were 250 people competing, it doesn’t matter where they placed. They could be 249 and 250. It just matters about one being ahead of the other one.
AVC: How did you find out about it?
MD: They’re friends of ours, and they used to tell us about it. It was sort of shrouded in mystery. Jay and I had been fascinated by it for almost 20 years, so it’s part of the soup of which our movies are made: these urban legends from the suburbs and all of these crazy things that we’ve grown up knowing about. And I guess it wasn’t until we thought about what it would be like for these guys to revisit the games 20 years later, during a supposedly pleasant birthday weekend at their mom’s house, that we felt we had the DNA for a movie.
AVC: For adults to enter a competition like this, it seems like a case of arrested adolescence. But the film is at least a little ambiguous on that point. Is there something revitalizing about it, too?
MD: I’ll be very clear that The Do-Deca-Pentathlon first and foremost is a really fun, 80-minute blast—to watch these guys compete in sports they shouldn’t be competing in and examine sibling rivalry. That’s what we wanted to make. But there’s a subtext that’s like, “When there’s a wolf inside of you—and you can be a woman and have a wolf inside of you, but in this case it’s two men—how do you deal with it? Should you let the wolf come out, be your true self, and just be an animal? Or should you try to just keep him quiet and keep him away from the steak so you can just be Bruce Banner instead of the Hulk?” That’s the essential question for our lead character in this movie: I know if I start competing with my brother, I’m going to turn into the Hulk, but the Hulk kind of makes me happy so maybe I am trying too hard to stay in Bruce Banner-land. Maybe I should just allow myself be the fucking Hulk. But when the Hulk comes out, it’s kind of hard to be a dad and a husband at the same time.
AVC: Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly were cast in part because they had some athletic experience. How did they hold up to the physical challenges of making this movie?
MD: It was exactly what we hoped for. Steve Zissis in particular is an overweight, balding Greek man in his late 30s. This is not an athlete, but he once was, and he has the muscle memory to remember how to do all this stuff. So when we put him in a 5K event and he started sprinting, that fucker was fast. [Laughs.] And when we put them on the basketball court, these guys started flipping around and doing backwards dunks. Granted, it was on a 7-foot goal, but they were still making it happen. It was exactly what we wanted, which was the ex-athlete who looks nothing like an athlete, but the muscles still remember how to make those moves.
AVC: Were the winners of the individual events determined in part by how good these actors actually were? Was there a competition between them to some extent?
MD: There was a discussion about who looked more likely to win what events, and we tried to tailor the script towards their personal abilities. But also some weird magic shit started happening out there. For example, Steve Zissis played basketball his whole life. Mark Kelly was terrible at basketball. So we thought Steve was going to win basketball. Then we got them on the court, and it was like Lee Strasberg method acting showed up and Mark Kelly just started sinking these three-pointers. He had never been good at basketball. The same thing happened with Steve when we were doing putt-putt. He just started sinking these massive 30-foot putts. As you improvise in a scene, you never know what’s going to come, and that’s what happened with our sporting events. You can plan and you can plan, but sometimes somebody has a good day.
AVC: Were the 25 events based entirely on the real-life version or did you make some up?
MD: They are almost all the exact events, however in all honesty and due respect for the brothers, there are certain things that the original brothers can do that no one else can do as well as they can. So we didn’t ask Mark and Steve to do, in particular, their unique style of the pop-a-shot basketball arcade game, which I’ve never seen anything like before in my life. It is this bizarre move, like they put their torsos horizontal to the machine and they scoop the ball with one hand and just elegantly shift it into the other and shoot it up sideways in this quick popping motion. I didn’t even want to try to repeat that because that was just going to look less than the original. So we avoided some of those events in favor of ones that were at least more filmable.
AVC: The events could have gone in a fairly whimsical direction, but most of them are fairly straightforward sports games or games that could be played in an arcade.
MD: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is basically a broad sports comedy, not unlike Blades Of Glory or one of these big Will Ferrell Step Brothers-type movies, but we wanted to approach it in a more documentary-like, organic, and for lack of a better description, “art film” way. So ideally you have a loose, improvisational, relationship-based, sensitive art film that also happens to be in the form of a huge sports comedy.
AVC: Jennifer Lafleur plays the wet blanket, which is the type you see in a lot of comedies about men acting like boys. Were you conscious of that? Were you trying to push against it in some way?
MD: Totally conscious of that. Totally aware now, maybe wasn’t as aware then, that that role was underwritten and underserved, honestly. We were semi-aware of it then, and that’s part of the reason we wanted to cast Jen because not only is she a good improviser, but she really likes Steve a lot personally, and we knew she could bring some love and attention to the role and help us to dimensionalize it. Because the truth of the matter is the movie is meant to be an 80-minute bullet about two dudes competing. There’s not enough room to expand it and do another story, so we purposely had to keep that role in its compartment, but we wanted to make it as dimensional as we could, and Jen was the right choice for that.
AVC: But ultimately you felt like that role was underserved in some way?
MD: Not underserved by how she played it. She very much made it better than what it was on paper, but on the page that role is very much not your perfect, awesome, meaty female role. It is in the form of someone who is there to provide conflict for the boys that are there in the games, and that has the danger of turning into one of those standard, shrew-wife roles that happens in these comedies. We wanted to avoid that as much as possible, and Jen was very helpful with that.
AVC: What took so long to put the film together?
MD: We shot it in 2008 and it was a logistical thing, honestly. We got green-lit to make Cyrus while we were in post-production for Do-Deca, and we wanted to make Cyrus because it was a studio opportunity. And then while we were in post for Cyrus, we got the green light for Jeff, Who Lives At Home and went and made that and then all of a sudden we were like, “Shit, three years have gone by.” So we raced back as soon as we finished Jeff, pulled it out of the closet, and put it together. It was actually kind of fun, like looking at high-school photos of yourself—like, “Oh my god, look how we used to make movies.” It has a very raw, creative spirit to it.
AVC: You imply that you make movies differently now than you did then. How would you say your has style has evolved? Are there things you did on Do-Deca that you don’t really do anymore?
MD: It’s interesting because Jay and I still work in the low-budget sphere and in the studio system. We have one foot in both worlds. The only way I can easily describe the difference between The Do-Deca-Pentathlon and a movie like Jeff, Who Lives At Home is Jeff, Who Lives At Home would be like the Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot record: well-produced, polished, but still hopefully an original, creative impulse. And the Do-Deca-Pentathlon would be like when they released the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot demos, and you’re like, “Oh shit, that snare hit is a little off, that harmony is a little out of key,” but there’s something so raw and pure about those demos that, while they’re flawed, some of them are almost better than the real record because it has that intimacy and that feeling of you being right there while it was being made.
AVC: When you delay putting together a movie like this, do you have to beg for patience from your cast, producers, or anyone who might be expecting it to come out?
MD: That was the biggest bummer about putting it on hold, because I wanted these guys to get out into the world and have people see them. The benefit is that now Jay and I are more popular filmmakers than we were in 2008, and so a movie like Do-Deca-Pentathlon, which doesn’t have big movie stars in it, gets a lot more attention than it would have back then. So [the cast] traded speed for a few more eyes on the movie, which they were bummed about for a little while, but I think they’re happy now that all these people are going to get to see it.
AVC: You talked a little bit about this before, but Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives At Home have gotten major or semi-major studio distribution. Is that a case of your sensibility being more naturally commercial than other low-budget filmmakers?
MD: I think you’re right that our instincts tend to skew a little more commercial and, again, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is a high-concept, Hollywood-type idea when you hear it. We just tend to execute it in a little rougher, arthouse way. I think that’s just luck on our part that our sensibilities align with the mainstream a little bit, but I guess it’s a little bit more of a shaggy mainstream.
AVC: Since Humpday and The League, your work strictly as actor has increased substantially. How have you adjusted to that? Have you become more invested in acting as a craft?
MD: Yeah, I am becoming more invested in it. I’m not an active auditioning actor. I don’t go out and do that every day. And it used to be if a director wanted me and I knew them, I’d go do part in their movie. Like [Noah] Baumbach: We know each other, and I’ll go do a role in Greenberg. But now I’ve started to appreciate it more and more, and particularly as my profile has risen, I get invited to do more higher quality projects. That’s my honest answer. And so when Kathryn Bigelow comes and asks me if I want to do a part her [Bin Laden] movie, I’m always going to say yes to a great director.
AVC: Do the roles require tools that you either haven’t used or have been underdeveloped? What you’re asked to do in a Lynn Shelton movie has to be quite different than something you’re asked to do in a Kathryn Bigelow movie.
MD: They are a different set of skills, but a lot of times it boils down to the core of what I think I have to offer, which is a naturalism and presenting a character that people can connect with and feel in a way that hopefully feels like a normal person. I don’t really have movie-star looks. That’s not what I’m about. So while I’m doing something very different in a Lynn Shelton movie, the quality that both the directors wanted from me is very similar.
AVC: So you don’t feel like you’re going to be called on to do accents or period material and that sort of acting?
MD: You know, it’s funny. I thought about that and I would really love to do something like that because it would be a huge challenge for me. And I don’t know that I would be good at it. I have insecurities about it, but I’m definitely fascinated by it.
AVC: Through some accident of timing, you have about five movies out right now. Do you feel like this has become some sort of referendum on you?
MD: I didn’t really plan on this at all. But four or five small movies equals one big movie, in terms of people paying attention to you. And this is the first time the mainstream press have kind of tapped into what Jay and I are doing, to a certain degree. So it’s been a nice surprise to see our audience broaden, and I’m really psyched for the smaller movies we’re doing like Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister's Sister, and Do-Deca-Pentathlon to get more attention because of that. So I’m very happy that things have happened the way they have happened, even though it wasn’t something we planned on.
AVC: How would you compare the process on you and your brother’s movies with the improvisatory framework of a Lynn Shelton movie?
MD: The basic difference is that Lynn’s movies come from an outline and ours comes from a script. So you have to be much more aware of the crafting of the story when you’re improvising in one of Lynn’s movies. And I function much more as the ringleader inside of that cast, because Lynn and I have done Humpday together, and I bear a little bit more of the responsibility in keeping the narrative on track with improvisation. Whereas in the movies that Jay and I direct, the script is already laid out so everybody very clearly knows the trajectory and a suggestion of words that they can use. The actors in the Duplass movies are called upon a little bit less to have their writing brains turned on.
AVC: With a process like Lynn Shelton’s, where can things go awry?
MD: The only caveat is that you have to have enough time to really explore the interpersonal dynamics, because there’s no real production value in those movies other than what’s going on between the characters. They really live and die by the performances, so if you don’t get that right, you basically have nothing. So you have to hold the utmost confidence in how you feel about the performances.
AVC: What is the division of labor between you and you brother? Do you feel like you have certain individual strengths and weaknesses?
MD: It’s a little hard to say. Basically, I’m a little heavier on the writing front and Jay is a little heavier on the post-production front. And that’s due to our natural skill set. Jay has much more patience than I do and much more fortitude to really see a movie though to the end and make it great. And I’m a little bit faster at getting a movie up on its feet and producing it and getting it together. But while we’re directing, it’s a complete 50/50, and we all try to make it work.