From Puffy Chairs to Throw Pillows: 5 Tips From Mark Duplass On Filmmaking
During a Screenwriters Lab at the Sun Valley Film Festival, Mark Duplass was introduced to the stage by a moderator as (what Variety calls) a hyphenated individual: Writer-Director-Actor-Producer. Mark’s story begins as many filmmaker’s do—grabbing his parent’s video camera and “fooling” around with his brother, Jay. Eventually, they shot what Mark calls a “Five Dollar Short,” called This is John, and submitted to festivals. The film was well received, so the two brothers went on to make their first feature, The Puffy Chair, which premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and the rest is history.
Or is it…
Mark Duplass exists—no, thrives—in a realm many indie filmmakers dream to be: making the movies he wants to do (often with his inner-circle of friends). People respect him for it. More importantly (though some in the indie world may disagree) he makes good money doing it. What is the secret? How does he succeed where so many fail? While luck and abilities certainly play in, the real answer is economics and Mark’s ability to make films frequently and on the cheap.
Many filmmakers who grew to fame in the 90’s have been forced to adapt to the model Mark was brought up under. There is a strong parallel between Mark and Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen, Saving Private Ryan). Ed Burns rose as an indie writer-director-writer-producer. He had huge hits in McMullen and She’s The One. He went on to act in studio films—however, production woes forced Ed to make a jump from $3 million films to the world of $125,000 nano-budgets; the world Mark grew up in. Both—after mastering this low budget field—now produce and star in their own network TV shows.
Ed was able to adapt—realizing that if a film can be made on the cheap, but maintain its quality in story and character, there is a stronger likelihood of walking away with a few dollars in the bank and a body of work to be proud of. Afterall, if a film only earns $600,000 on iTunes, but only cost $150,000 to make, that’s about as close to a home run as you can get (as opposed to a $3 million earning $600,000 and suddenly careers are on the line).
This is by no means a new approach. It’s the Roger Corman model, and has allowed Roger to produce over 300 films in his career—with nearly every single one turning a profit. A track record that is almost unheard of in the studio/low budget realm ($1.5-$10 million), but thrives in the micro-budget world.
But in the world of nickel and dime filmmaking, the million dollar question remains: “How do I do it?”
Here are some excerpts (paraphrased and reworded) from Mark’s talk at Sun Valley. You can hear the entirety of his 50-minute talk at the bottom or listen to it here.
#1 Write. Write Anything. Just Write.
We all have that idea in our minds that is sure to be the next big thing. It’s big though, and bound to be expensive. If you are a first time filmmaker (or even a veteran), how can one possibly attain the funding and crew to bring the idea to life? After all, a wartime drama on the new frontier of Mars can’t be made for money in the piggy bank without looking like a poorly executed homage to Ed Wood.
Mark’s solution is to JUST WRITE. Just write it! Get it out and on paper. Give it life—understand what it looks like—and then put it away and write the version of the story that can be shot in your friend’s mom’s kitchen. The root of any story is character, followed closely by conflict. If you understand these two elements within your writing then the story can be produced anywhere. Make it real—make it YOU. Setting is a luxury you can work towards later, but there is a reason Shakespeare can exist anywhere: from the moors of England, to the African safari, to the halls of an American high school; it’s because the characters and conflicts are strong and timeless (and he wrote it instead of thinking about it).
#2 Practice is Cheap
It’s scary to think the words you write can only be tested when executed. Words on a page are very different from words on a screen. Mark’s advice for getting started is to find a scene from your life—something personal that you respond to—and write it. Real moments play out, and provide a means to invest yourself into the words. Write a 3 or 4-minute scene and shoot it on your phone. Show the scene to people you trust for feedback. If it sucks, it’s fine because it cost nothing to do and you are not out anything. Take your notes from the scene, rewrite for the notes, and shoot it again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Practice will never make perfect (there’s no such thing as a perfect film), but it will always may you better. Eventually, understanding how to write for the screen (sometimes known as screenwriting) will come as second nature once you have the chance to see the words performed as often as possible.
#3 Short film or Feature?
Again, this is a matter of economics. Do you have $5 or $10,000? These were the numbers most often referenced by Mark. We live in a world of incredible technology, which truly puts the tools back into the hands of the artists. You can make a film on your phone (or a very good camera for a couple hundred bucks). The road to longevity in this field is through finding a way to stay profitable (which making money is strangely similar to not losing money). If you are going to do a short, don’t spend a lot of money on it. Use the short as an opportunity to hone your storytelling skills.
This is a very bold statement: $10,000 isn’t that hard to get. That can be covered by a credit card, or by borrowing/begging from people you know (or not buying a cup of coffee every day for 5.4 years). IF/WHEN you are able to get that 10 thousand, do a feature, because you can easily earn it back through transactional VOD outlets. A 10k feature will also showcase your abilities as a storyteller and filmmaker much more than a 10k short, plus it offers you the ability to earn it back.
#4 Get Good People
$10,000 for a feature? Really? Yes. The secret to anything—especially film—is to surround yourself with good people. Mark runs in a very tight group. He works with his brother, his wife, his friends. He works with people who believe and support him, and who also strive to do good. Having people like this onboard with you will make a $10,000 feature very do-able.
Another great solution is profit sharing. When the people you work with have a vested interest in the project, they are more willing to be working on the cheap. It is also the right thing to do. Many of Mark’s film have cost peanuts to produce and no one got rich making them; however, when the returns came in and the crew was able to share the profits they all made more than they would have had they been paid a standard wage. When this happens, they will also gladly return for the second round.
Beware of empty promises, though. There is no guarantee in this business, which is why a profit-share model can really only function within a collaborative group of friends—friends who are happy to work together even if the film never sees a dime.
#5 The Cost of Throw Pillows
Mark is a funny guy. So funny he’s a professional at it. He is also very sincere and knows drama. In his talk, Mark shares a story about working with studios. One blessing to making a film for no money is that you have more freedom. The more that is at risk, the more people will work to mitigate that risk, including requesting prettier throw pillows.
On the set of Cyrus, a studio film, costs of production were significantly higher than Mark’s earlier productions. As costs climb, producers understand their need to sell the film. Some producers believed the key to selling Cyrus would be to make it look “prettier” for the trailers. The discussion came around to the throw pillows in a scene, and producers pressured Mark to reshoot for the throw pillows. In a world (no pun intended) where a detail like throw pillows take precedence over performance and scene execution, an independent director and writer is bound to lose their cool. This is the cost of doing business with the studio and playing with other people’s money, which may be reason enough to happily put the “blockbuster in your mind” on the back-burner in favor of that $10,000 feature where throw pillows can live in the trash can.
The point, understand why you want to write and make films. Knowing this of yourself will make the journey much easier.
For filmmakers, Mark is the older brother some hope to be. He is killing it, and is very fortunate to be working under his own terms. He has come a long way and has even further left to go, but at the end of the day—and I take liberty speaking for Mark—if it meant having to bow down to throw pillows, he would still be just as happy stressing out over an answering machine greeting while his brother hits record on their parents video camera.