Mark Duplass on Why His Sports Movie was a Big Mistake

Jay Duplass and brother Mark Duplass
Brothers and collaborators Jay and Mark Duplass. Art Streiber / August

In the late ’90s, when I was 19 and my brother, Jay, was 22, we thought we were hot shit because we had made a couple hundred thousand dollars filming a bad corporate documentary for a now defunct Fortune 500 company. I remember saying, “Holy shit, we’ve never seen this much money.”

So then we decided to be the next Richard Linklater or Robert Rodriguez and go make the next great independent film. With our editing partner Jay Deuby, we wrote a movie called Vince Del Rio. It was about a runner from South Texas who makes his way through trials and tribulations to achieve sporting glory. In hindsight, it was a rip-off of Rocky.

We blew everything we had making this film. And it was terrible. There was nothing we could do. We made a pile of steaming elephant dung.

Depressed, we moved into a little apartment together in south Austin and proceeded to watch movies and be jealous of all of our favorite filmmakers and wonder why we sucked and wasted our lives trying to become filmmakers.

One day as we were sitting on our dilapidated couch, watching Fargo, and wondering why we couldn’t be as cool as the Coen brothers, we realized something—we were trying to be like other filmmakers. We were completely denying our own instincts. And we realized we’re actually kind of funny people at parties and in conversations. Why did we try to make an overly serious sports movie that we knew nothing about?

I looked at Jay and said, “We need to make a movie like we did when were little.” Our dad had bought us this video camera when I was 6, and we would make these little weird movies together about familiar subjects.

Jay cracked it right there. He said, “Last week I spent about an hour trying to perfect the outgoing greeting on my cellphone answering message. And I almost had a nervous breakdown doing it.” It was perfect.

Here we were with our lives in hilarious desperation, and there was going to be no lighting crew, no sound guy, no nothing. It’s going to look and sound like shit, but we were going to make a movie.

Maybe it had something to do with how broken down we were, but it was simultaneously tragic and hilarious to watch. We shot one 20-minute take of me trying to perfect the personal greeting on my answering machine, then edited it down to a seven-minute short called This Is John. It cost $3 to make and was the first movie we made that got into Sundance. It was the worst-looking and worst-sounding film ever to play at the festival. There was a dead pixel in the middle of it. It looked like a home movie, but it won pretty much all the awards that year, and it signed us to our big agencies and got us our first major script deal.

We still make movies with that ethic: you need to learn who you are. And the most important thing in the whole world is your story and your performance. You can spend a ton of money, and what you will end up with if you’re not careful is an extremely well-polished turd.

Interview by Sujay Kumar

Career Arc

2002

Attempts to make 
a captivating 
sports movie with Vince Del Rio.

2003

Enters Sundance Film Festival 
with short film 
This Is John.

2005

Writes and directs The Puffy Chair, 
a staple of the mumblecore genre.

2009

Stars in the FX sitcom The League, about a fantasy-football league.

2012

Appears as a CIA analyst in the Osama bin Laden manhunt film Zero Dark Thirty.

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