Bringing the camera to the actors

Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in a conference call with Jay and Mark Duplass, whose latest feature, Cyrus, is now playing at Sundance Cinemas (having seen it a couple times, I can assure you that it’s worth a look). Jay and Mark entertained questions from yours truly as well as from a few other bloggers; their responses confirmed much of what I already thought about their style—at once derivative (insofar as it is obviously descended from older traditions of filmmaking, which is, of course, true of pretty much every style) and singular (because no other contemporary films ramble and stutter the way that those of the Duplass brothers do)—and its ends.

First, we discussed the process of casting Cyrus. In their two previous features, The Puffy Chair and Baghead, the Duplass bros. wrote with their friends in mind; heading into Cyrus, they were initially afflicted with the anxiety of writing roles for bonafide movie stars—John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener—without knowing for certain that they’d be able to get said movie stars to participate in the project. They navigated the casting process by seeking out likeminded collaborators who were, amongst other things, pleasant to be around. The Duplasses seem to value on-set morale and chemistry very highly.

One of the things that most excites the Duplasses about making films is the attempt to achieve an affective balance between tragedy and comedy. At times, Cyrus is so uncomfortable that one wants to look away from the screen, indeed, to look at anything else other than whatever brutally awkward situation Reilly and Hill have found themselves in; because this was something the Duplasses deliberately tried to effect, I guess one would be hard-pressed not to consider Cyrus a success.

What most surprised them about the experience of working with famous actors was how quickly they slipped into a creative groove with the actors, whom they were nervous about meeting before the project began in earnest. They were worried that they’d find it more difficult to work with movie stars than it was to work with their friends, but they came to realize that movie stars are movie stars for a reason: they’re very good at their jobs.

From Baghead the Duplasses learned the importance of using multiple cameras rather than just one, thereby streamlining the shooting process. From Cyrus, they learned to trust their creative instincts and not to be deterred by nagging feelings that something about such and such part of the film was a little off. This raggedness accounts for much of the film’s unique charm.

The Duplasses’ recourse to improvisation was supported by a tight narrative structure, that is to say, they used improv and the organic chemistry between their actors to fill in the gaps of the film’s plot. Mark referred to this approach as “shaggy control,” which I think is a rather elegant way to describe whatever it is that holds Cyrus together from behind the camera.

I had the gall to ask them about their now-infamous penchant for near-constant zooming-in and -out. Mark described it as an entirely functional, practical technique that complements their rejection of standard, rigid blocking when composing a shot. The zooming allows their actors to move around spaces freely, thus maximizing the spontaneity of their performances. Mark described the desire underlying the zooming as that of “bringing the camera to our actors instead of bringing the actors to our camera.”

Many scenes didn’t make it into the final cut of Cyrus, which the Duplass bros. decided to do mostly in order to preemptively appease the studio and elide any possible contentiousness when it came time for the studio to decide whether the film was ready for widespread distribution. However, Jay and Mark were also quick to explain that it’s not like anyone from the studio explicitly told them to cut certain scenes; it was all Jay and Mark’s prerogative.

Cyrus wasn’t inspired by any one real life experience, but rather by their more general interest in human relationships and their desire to try to make a “bigger” movie. They also wanted to take a conventional conceit (that of the love triangle) and do it in a different way.

Finally, Jay and Mark stated, somewhat emphatically, that they would definitely work with the cast of Cyrus again because of their consistent willingness to take creative risks and put themselves out there in the interest of developing provocative, provocatively honest art.

Many thanks to the Duplasses and to the bloggers with whom I shared the call. Again, Cyrus is currently playing at Sundance Cinemas; I strongly encourage you to give it a try.

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