The writer/star and first-time director discuss their intricately emotional new film.
Mark Duplass is responsible for creating some of the most interesting films in independent cinema’s recent landscape. Most recently, the writer/director/producer/actor completed his HBO series Togetherness, which like his latest film, focuses simply on the relationships of men and women. The latest film penned by Duplass is Blue Jay, in which he also stars. Working with first time director Alex Lehmann, Duplass has crafted a small film with big emotions. Chronicling a single day of reunion for former lovers Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson), is both hilarious yet surprisingly devastating. Following the TIFF premiere, I sat down with Duplass and Lehman to discuss Blue Jay as well as the challenges of making a “small” film in the crowded independent cinema landscape.
Where did the idea for Blue Jay come from?
Mark Duplass: It was like a feeling at first for me, a desire to allow myself to be somewhat of the melancholic, nostalgic person that I am. I guess I’m always cuving that instinct so that I don’t drown my audiences in it. For this one I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to pull the floodgate and just let it happen.” Something kind of interesting happened. I discovered that more people feel that way than I thought. I guess the first love thing is very special to me in the way that you’re learning how to do it, you’re learning about yourself. When we all talk about our first love it’s usually with a sense of like, “those fucking idiots”. 98% of me feels that way, but 2% of me is like, “Oh but it was so sweet and so pure. I’m missing a part of that in my life that I don’t know how to get back and I want some of that.” That sentiment makes it a kind of confusing scenario for people who could run into each other and think, “Maybe my life hasn’t turned out how I thought it would. Maybe I got off track, maybe this person might have been a good fit for me.” All those kinds of feelings just felt really fun.
Why did you choose Alex to direct the film?
Mark Duplass: We knew each other from “The League”. He was a shooter on the league for many seasons. We became friendly on that and then he was working on this documentary called Asperger’s Are Us and we talked about it a little bit. He asked to watch his documentary and I was like, “I don’t want to fucking watch this guy’s documentary. It’s gonna suck, but I have to because we’re friends and I see him everyday” [laughs]. I watched it and I loved it. I came on board as a producer to help him finish it up. As I was thinking about Blue Jay I had a couple criteria. I wanted someone who was a cinematographer and a director so that they could direct from behind the camera, holding the camera, keeping it small and intimate. At the same time I wanted someone who shared that sense of melancholy and had that essential sweetness. This is gross generalization, but generally speaking DPs are a little more concerned with the image than they are with the content of what’s going on. Alex is a DP with a shit ton of ennui, so that was a good fit.
Why shoot the film in black and white?
Alex Lehmann: We were going for a timeless feel, also in not naming the town. We were trying to make it as general as possible to make it more accessible. It was also just to simplify the story really, to make it about the characters. We stripped down so much from the process and we figured we should just take out the color too.
Can you talk about casting Sarah Paulson? She’s one of the best actresses working today yet I can’t think of a single film in which she has a lead role.
Mark Duplass: That was part of our impetus; I mean we got lucky to have her. I’m lucky to be friends with her through Amanda Peet, their best friends; Amanda was in my show “Togetherness”. I think you’re right, even further beyond character roles versus leading roles, it’s the type of role we hadn’t seen her play before. When you get to know Sarah personally she is incredibly vivacious and bubbly and goofy. Because she’s such an amazing actress you see her play things like Marcia Clark and American Horror Story. It’s stern, austere, and I was like, “We need to see Sarah the goofball, we haven’t seen that yet.” So we kind of designed this role for her and invited her into the process very early. We all kind of helped mold that role together.
Speaking of goofy, there are of course many goofy moments in the film. Perhaps the strongest moments come when within thirty seconds you have something that is so funny very quickly become melancholic. I think specifically of Jim’s jokey remark that he wouldn’t be able to finish all the books on his shelf before he died, or Amanda laughing before leaning in to smell Jim’s old shirts. Were those kinds of moments in the script or did they come more naturally?
Mark Duplass: It’s a good question. I’d say about half and half. We promised ourselves we would be really really honest with this movie. It’s a really simple movie; if we don’t chase the honesty and the realism we’re just going to fall on our face. It would be wrong to say that we knew definitely that people would be laughing and then thirty seconds later when she smells the shirt they would go to this moment. We knew that at the core of the film that was what this movie is about, being able to enjoy who you were and then immediately regretting that you’re not that person anymore. Do you want to tap into that; is the connection they’re having real? We wanted all of that to be a big swirling mess of feelings that goes in and out of fun, sweet, funny, sad. As to the actual sign cosign wave of that journey, that was left up to the moment and honestly some editing.
Alex Lehmann: It also comes really naturally because when you’re giving a really genuine performance, that’s what happens in real life. When you’re overwhelmed with a sentiment a lot of times you confuse it with a joke or a moment of laughter. That’s just what came through because they are honest performances.
Mark Duplass: I think once you laugh you get disarmed a little bit and then something falls out. It’s just kind of a natural human rhythm.
The main reference of this movie, if there was one, was to make a movie that plays directly against the current tide of independent film, which is becoming more high-concept and attention grabbing with your titles so that you can stick out in the glut of thousands and thousands of independent films.
Was French New Wave an influence for you while making this film?
Alex Lehmann: I grew up with those movies, so for sure.
Mark Duplass: Yeah, but we never really reference movies. That’s not really how I work. It’s not like, “We’re going to make this movie, or comp this movie.” I know a lot of people do that. They’re like, “Here are our references” and I’m always like, “That’s weird. Why aren’t you just making the movie you want to make?” That was really us. The main reference of this movie, if there was one, was to make a movie that plays directly against the current tide of independent film, which is becoming more high-concept and attention grabbing with your titles so that you can stick out in the glut of thousands and thousands of independent films. If there’s a reference for me, it was like when Miles Davis made Kind of Blue in the end of the 50s, he was playing against Charlie Parker who was just as loud and crazy as possible. He was like, “We can’t go anywhere else, except to reset the bar.” Then he made Kind of Blue and honked his horn maybe like seven times tops over the course of the record. He reset everything. It was like, “Oh this is new now, to be little and be nothing is new somehow.” That’s what we’re trying to do, whether we got there, who knows?
Alex Lehmann: That’s a really good analogy. We only honked our horn seven times [laughs].
That makes me think about what you were doing with Togetherness. With the exception of Togetherness, I can’t think of HBO having a series about a ‘regular’ family in ten years.
Mark Duplass: That’s kind of what we’re doing here. By the way, I love some of those other movies; I don’t mean to denigrate that. I mean The One I Love has a high concept and I liked it. I like doing those things, but for this one, it’s very special to me and I’m still trying to figure out why. It was just a small group of people absconding to a different town, chasing a feeling. We weren’t chasing a heavily plotted movie, we were chasing a very abstract and intangible feeling. It felt like we could fail at any moment. Being at the premiere and watching people lean in to the movie and get it and laugh and cry and all the feedback we’ve gotten on Twitter; it’s just like, “Holy shit, I can’t believe we’ve pulled this thing off.” We had the least amount of material to shoot from going into this movie than I’ve ever had going into a movie. Short outline, short preparation time, let’s go try and make a movie about nostalgia.
Alex Lehmann: Which is why we gave ourselves a whole seven days to shoot.
So what exactly are you getting as a director going into this? It doesn’t sound like you were given a typical screenplay.
Alex Lehmann: Well it started with a couple pages and then we got together with Sarah and our wonderful producers and had a few sessions that were very productive. It was just these great creative sessions where we all brought personal stories that either got into the film or were able to influence other ideas. We kind of built it around what was feeling most natural and honest.
Mark Duplass: Then that thing came to about twenty pages which was every scene of the movie, descriptions of what would happen in those scenes, and then I would write scenes the night before we would shoot. We wouldn’t have enough time to memorize them or look at ourselves in the mirror and get any preconceived notions. That’s this feeling of, it’s hard to describe, but like trying to capture lightening in a bottle. Trying to be shooting when the scene galvanizes for the first time, as opposed to in rehearsal.
Alex Lehmann: We were capturing the process.
Mark Duplass: It’s like if you were listening to the demo recording of a band that is recording the song while they’re writing it. It’s like aberrant performances, shitty signal to noise ratio because it’s recorded on a small mic, but impeccable energy because it’s all happening right there. That’s something we’re trying to capture; those little surprises that happen because you didn’t prepare. Sometimes it works really really well. Sometimes after the first take you’re like, “Oh my god, that was magic!” and then sometimes thr first take just fucking falls apart because you’re not prepared. Then you have to build it back up again. That chase is part of what makes the movie vital and fun.
Alex Lehmann: What’s odd to me about how we went in without a full script or a whole plan is that it still felt like by the time we got through day one of shooting that we all really were on the same page as to what we were doing; for it to be so abstract and yet be linked.
Mark Duplass: It was those conversations we had. We couldn’t have all sat down and verbally explained what it was but it was this very distinct feeling we were chasing.
Alex Lehmann: But there were movies I’ve shot as a DOP where there were storyboard and look boards and everything but it two weeks in people are making a different movie.
Based on what we’ve discussed, I wonder if both these character were from you. Could you talk a little more about if or how Amanda changed when Sarah boarded the film?
Mark Duplass: Well we wanted that specifically. We had some ideas and the basics of who Jim and Amanda were was on paper. The specifics and the elements, quite frankly we would ask Sarah, “What’s going to make you great? What’s going on in your life now that when you’re talking about these kinds of things, you’re going to be impeccably interesting on camera?” For instance, I knew Sarah loves animals, so I was like, “I’m going to write something about animals in here” because when she talks about animals something happens to her eyes that is unbelievable to watch. So we would lean into some personal elements. I would take some personal stories of both of ours and then I would veil them into different plot points so that they’re not actual stories from our lives but they are rooted to the core emotion of what’s going on. I really believe in that. Being able to lean into what’s going on with you shows, particularly for a movie like this that is all about nuance. There are three or four moments in the movie where Sarah is talking for a while and those are designed with things that she and we all knew she would be great at talking about at that moment in her life.
I wonder what the dynamic is between the two of you on set. Alex, this is your first time directing a feature. Mark, you’ve directed before and written the script…
Mark Duplass: I just scream at him. Like, “You son of a bitch!”
Alex Lehmann: It’s a fear-based relationship.
Mark Duplass: We can both probably chime in on it. To me it’s something I’ve done alot, producing and writing for a first time filmmaker. I did it with Patrick Brice with Creep and The Overnight, I did it with Charlie McDowell for The One I Love, and with Lynn Shelton with Humpday. It’s one of my favorite parts of the process. I try not to come on too strong as a person who is a director to like overwhelm and leave room for Alex to do his thing. What I think the best part of the process is, is like if he has any gaps because he’s a first time filmmaker and needs me, I’m there, but because I’m not leading the process I’m discovering all these things that I never would have as a director that he is doing. So it ends up being this really great mix and collaboration. We end up leaning on each other at different times. I love it, but maybe you…
Alex Lehmann: Worst experience. Terrible [laughs]. No, it’s incredibly liberating. Mark does amazing work, so to know that I have the freedom to try stuff and at the same time know that there’s room for me to not be afraid to try stuff because there’s this really brilliant producer/writer there. If I got hit by a car the next day a director would be there. I learned a ton. They are very few people that are not collaborating as directors anyways.
Just to wrap things up, I have to ask what is going on with Creep 2.
Mark Duplass: Creep 2 is happening! Desiree Akhavan has joined our cast. If you haven’t seen her movie Appropriate Behavior, see it. She is a writer/director/actress and that way the perfect fit because you really need a collaborative person to make that. Same team, Patrick Brice is directing, Blum House is with us. God help us all because I’m terrified to make a shitty movie and sequels are normally shitty. We’re going to do our best to make something interesting. It will probably be out in the next year, I don’t have a date yet.
Blue Jay expands theatrically this week. It is currently available on-demand and will be available on Netflix later this year.