interview – BAGHEAD creators Jay and Mark Duplass

Sibling filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass made an impressive feature film debut in 2005 with The Puffy Chair. Critically acclaimed, The Puffy Chair possessed a low tech, naturalistic cinema verite style that has since become labeled “mumblecore,” and helped establish the Duplass Brothers as two rising talents in the world of indie filmmaking. Their sophomore film, the oddly titled Baghead, finds the Duplass Brothers returning the same aesthetic that defined The Puffy Chair, with both Jay and Mark serving as directors.

An odd, yet seamless mix of cinematic genres, Baghead finds four friends venturing to a cabin in the woods, where they plan to write a low budget screenplay. The quartet includes Matt (Ross Partridge), his girlfriend Catherine (Elise Muller), Chad (Steve Zissis) and the object of his desire, Michelle (Greta Gerwig). After kicking around several ideas, the group decides to write a horror film in which the killer wears a bag over his head. But when a stranger shows up at the cabin, wearing a bag over their head, it seems as if the horror film the friends have dreamed up may be coming true.

Though it is difficult to clearly define exactly what sort of film it is—is it a comedy, a horror, or a dysfunctional romance?—Baghead succeeds despite the blurred lines between genres. In fact, the film works primarily because of this, keeping the audience guessing as to exactly what is going on, and how it will unfold next. Most important, the film works on all its levels, moving effortlessly from naturalistic comedy to unsettling scary movie all within the same scene. And while the film may be lost on diehard horror fans, those that enjoyed The Puffy Chair will also appreciate Baghead.

Jay and Mark Duplass (pictured above) recently sat down with BAMF to discuss Baghead, which opens on Friday, July 4, 2008.

Baghead is an ambitious and can be a bit hard to describe, because it seems like its three movies in one—a comedy, a horror, and a relationship film. Is that what you were going for?

MARK DUPLASS: It’s weird that you used those three words, because those are the exact three words that we used. The goal was—as we shat ourselves throughout the entire filmmaking process—how are we going to marry these three things, and create something that is tonally consistent and actually works? That was the stressful bane of our existence until we actually delivered the movie to Sundance. We were like, “Why are we trying to do this?”

JAY DUPLASS: You’re supposed to be a little bit careful with your sophomore effort, and we’re marrying these crazy tones together and trying to make it cohesive. It was pretty stressful, but overall we knew that all of our films—all of our shorts and The Puffy Chair included—have been relationship films. We knew at the heart of it, we wanted people to care about the characters. That was going to be the core of the film. The comedy and the thriller and the scary elements of it, we were really happy to get those, but we knew that as long as people cared, we would have a movie.

Baghead and The Puffy Chair have a cinema verite quality, and at times both films feel like documentaries.

MD: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We would make documentaries if we were patient, but we just aren’t. But we take the documentary approach to narrative.

JD: We also like to have money to buy food. That’s important. Documentarians apparently don’t have that.

There is a very loose, almost improv style to Baghead. How much of the film was actually rehearsed?

MD: We didn’t do any rehearsal at all for this movie. We don’t do rehearsals, we’ve never done them. Sometimes that first take is a very special, spontaneous, frightening, unexpected thing for actors. I would say Baghead might be comprised of thirty-percent of some first take stuff. Since the plot stacking and the house-of-cards that Baghead is, as opposed to The Puffy Chair, we had to shoot tons and tons of stuff, and also shoot certain scenes different ways, because we weren’t sure how everything was going to add up in the end in editing. One thing we learned in The Puffy Chair is give yourself as many possible options in the edit as you can, because your vision doesn’t mean shit. In the end, you gotta make a movie that works, and you’ll take whatever works. Jay and I got into this joke in Baghead, we were calling it a choose-your-own adventure theme. We literally shot one scene two different ways. There were a lot of alternate versions of certain scenes, depending on what the tone needed at the time or what would happen. So we had shitloads of footage and different scene options to help us out in post.

The natural style of Baghead makes the characters seem very real, and also makes it easy to become invested in what’s going on with them. But at the same time, are you concerned that the shifts in tone—from comedy to drama to scary—might confuse audiences, and leave them unsure of what genre they are watching?

JD: That’s the way we want our audience to be. We just want people to feel that its real, to get caught up in it, and then things start happening and you don’t know what’s going on. that’s one of our biggest challenges, we’ve just realized that the less people know going into this movie, the more fulfilling the experience tends to be—the more exciting it tends to be. We didn’t want to present the film as a horror movie, because I don’t think it’s a horror movie at the heart of it. It’s a relationship movie.

The aesthetic of Baghead that is very similar to The Puffy Chair—both are shot handheld with performances that come across as very natural—but are you concerned that you will be identified as filmmakers who only have one stylistic vision?

MD: Jay and I are very fearful of making a bad movie. For some reason it’s the worst thing we can imagine.

JD: Because we’ve done it, and it’s really painful.

MD: You put all that time into it, and it sucks and it hurts. So there’s definitely a feeling of “don’t fix it if it ain’t broken.” But Jay and I have been offered to direct a lot of big movies since we’ve been in LA, and we’ve turned them all down. And everybody is like, “those guys have so much integrity.” But it’s really just because we know we wouldn’t be able to do them well. We know how to do this type of film really, really well.

JD: We know other guys that could make those big films better than we could.

MD: For us to get behind a super well-rehearsed, 35 millimeter film on sticks, with actors from the theater who are ready to pound out those well-rehearsed lines, we would make the biggest steaming turd around. It’s not what we know how to do. We lucked into this aesthetic. We started scrambling around making shorts on our own for cheap, and then all of a sudden, the function of making cheap movies became our aesthetic.

JD: But that being said, it is married to our obsession with documentaries, our obsession with people in general, and seeing naturalistic behavior play out on camera. One of the things that we’re really excited about is bringing this verite style, this documentary style of narrative filmmaking to touches of different genres. We’re realizing that we can explore all different types of films with this new perspective. That’s so exciting, because when you start shooting in a documentary style, everything changes. Everything can be toned down. Everything can be much more subtle, because when you’re watching behavior and interactions that feel real, smaller moments all of a sudden mean a lot more.

MD: When the audience implicitly feels that anything might happen in the moment, you don’t need much to surprise them and keep them on their toes.

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