The "Sweet Spot" of Fame
There aren't many artists who walk the line the way Mark Duplass does. He has directed six films, written a dozen, and currently stars on a beloved sitcom that just began its fourth season. Yet even though his face is recognizable in a what's-that-guy-been-in way, his work plays mainly to small, devoted audiences.
Duplass takes pleasure existing in what he calls the "sweet spot" of fame. Through a unique mixture of low-budget filmmaking, big-star admirers and clever improv, he has crafted a career successful enough to get projects made, but obscure enough to avoid getting mobbed when he walks down the street — and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans, in a little town called Metairie, right off of Lake Pontchartrain," Duplass says when describing the unlikely background of himself and his filmmaker brother, Jay. "It was a place where you play in the street. When the streetlights come on, you have to come inside.
"It was very safe," observes the director of "Cyrus" and star of the FX sitcom "The League." "Considering we were only four miles outside of the murderous and debaucherous environment of downtown New Orleans."
Over the years, there have been many inspiring Hollywood success stories, dating all the way back to Lana Turner being discovered at a drugstore at age 16. Decades later, two boys from Metairie would invade Hollywood and become successful because they were also in the right place at the right time. And that place was … the family couch?
"It was not a quote-unquote 'creative household,'" Mark remembers of his upbringing with Jay. "It wasn't like our parents were in the industry or musicians or filmmakers or anything … but something major happened [when] HBO arrived in our home in 1983.
"They were not curating things at all back then," he explains. "I would get up on Sunday morning, turn on the TV and 'Ordinary People' was on, and then 'Kramer vs. Kramer' and then 'Midnight Express' and then 'Annie Hall.' At 6 years old, I was just like, 'What is this?'"
The brothers grew up close, shared their love for talky dramas and the power of the movies, then realized they wanted to become writer-directors. And although their parents never instilled in them a desire to become artists, Duplass says his folks gave them something even more valuable: a safety net.
"The one thing that Jay and I were raised on — which [can have] its own set of perils — was, 'You're amazing, and you can do anything.' My parents were big into confidence building," he says. "Through my early 20s, when a lot of my friends would get out of college and work crappy day jobs to get by … [My dad said], 'I'll give you $1,000 a month for the next few years, so that you can live really cheaply but you won't have to have a day job and you can make your stuff.' And that is the sole reason I have whatever success I have as an artist.
"From 22 to 25," he remembers, "I got to screw up and make tons of bad art and figure it out."
After those "bad art" films came the Duplass brothers' breakthrough in 2005 with "The Puffy Chair," followed by indie hits "Baghead," "Cyrus" and "Jeff, Who Lives at Home." He also acted in the critically acclaimed films "Greenberg" and "Humpday," and over the summer released "The Do-Deca-Pentathlon," the latest Duplass brothers comedy.
"I see so many young filmmakers who get so down on themselves. They'll save $15,000 their whole life and go blow it all on their first movie, it's not good, and then they give up," Duplass says when asked if he has advice for those who hope to follow in his footsteps. "I say, you should be making 20 to 25 really crappy $5 movies on your iPhone.
"Then," he explains, "once you get that down, it's time to buy one of these nicer cameras and try something else."