A quartet of unemployed actors — inspired by the latest lo-fi film festival winner and retreating to a cabin in the country to plot out their own career-building debut — have the course of their project and, possibly, their lives turned around when one of them espies a mysterious, paper bag shrouded stranger in the woods. Yes, BAGHEAD is SCREAM for the brainy set: a mumblecore horror film about people making a mumblecore horror film, perpetrated by two masters of the form: Mark and Jay Duplass. Cinetantastique Online’s Dan Persons sat down with the directors:
Dan Persons: Usually, when break-out directors follow up their debuts, it’s either doing the same thing with a bigger budget, or getting recruited by the Weinsteins or Fox to do the horror film du jour. This is sort of an unexpected career vector, isn’t it?
Mark Duplass: Jay and I were talking about this. It’s funny the places we find ourselves making movies right now. Usually people make one movie that goes to Sundance. We made THE PUFFY CHAIR in 2005 — that breaks out, and then you go on and direct big movies from there. We find ourselves just loving the format of making movies, taking them to Sundance and selling them — they’re completely self-financed with full control. We did that same thing with BAGHEAD, and we just shot another film that’s taking the same route.
Jay Duplass: At the same time, we are developing movies that are in the studio system and whatnot, but BAGHEAD didn’t feel like it was the right fit to go into the studio system. There was a lot of interest, and there was a ton of people who wanted to make the next Duplass movie. I think they saw horror franchise a little bit in this movie.
MD: “Well you’ve got all this comedy and relationship stuff going on there. If you could just streamline it a little bit more into the horror thing.” We were very resistant to that — first of all, we’re not horror filmmakers, we wouldn’t know what to do if we tried to make a straight one. Secondly, it just… I don’t know… it just felt like, on a basic level, less about us sticking to our guns, and more about…
JD: Everyone in Hollywood tells you, “If you’ve got a movie to make that’s appropriate at a small budget level and you’ve got that money, what the hell are you doing talking to us?”
MD: Some of the people who actually wanted to give us money, when they figured out we had the ways and means to make it, they were going, “Well, you should just go make it.” There was this inherent understanding that [shooting within the studio system] was going to be slower, and it was going to be a movie by committee of sorts in terms of how it got written and made.
JD: And it was going to have to fulfill financial needs.
MD: Yeah. And this movie is a delicate, weird little thing. It’s a comedy, a relationship movie, and it’s got some horror elements. That is a fucking marketing nightmare, quite frankly. I don’t think any studio wants to make that, per se. So it just made sense: Let’s just make this thing.
When did it dawn on you how meta this film had become?
MD: Pretty early.
JD: Our thing is we didn’t want our audiences thinking about what we as filmmakers were doing to them. We just want them to engage with the characters. As you can imagine, we probably could’ve gone a lot more meta with it — we did consider turning the elements more on themselves, but in the end we decided to just back off a bit, as much as possible. You have to honor it on some level, but our main concern was that the audience was engaging with the characters and getting concerned with what they were doing.
MD: It’s interesting, because we didn’t want this to be an intellectual experience, like, “Wow, this reflects what [the filmmakers] are going through.” We wanted it to be an eighty minute, fuckin’ ride. Enjoying the characters, laughing and screaming.
JD: Not knowing what was going to happen.
MD: This thing is not supposed to be a Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo novel, by any means. We really want this thing to ride. I think we shied away from the fact that there’s a film within a film. Even though these characters do reflect some of our experiences in the last year, the only reason we made a movie about actors trying to be filmmakers and that whole world is that that’s our experience, and has been our experience for the last few years. We’re around these people and happen to know them down to the last, intimate detail. That’s the main focus of why we make movies: What do we know the most about?
The audience gets the sense watching this that your shooting process is at least a little more relaxed and pleasurable. Is that the case?
MD: There’s a yes and a no to that. We sometimes oversell how hard our shooting is. It is taxing, long hours, because there is improvisation combined with plot, and the directing of the narrative towards its climax. You can’t be like, “Hey, whatever’s good, let’s just throw it in there.” We’re constantly looking for new and inspired things in the moment, but that also has to fit in with the greater scheme of the film. That taxes the brain — Jay and I get burning tired during the shoot.
JD: I get physically tired because I’m holding the camera.
MD: The actual process of shooting a camera in this format is definitely tiring.
JD: Very tiring. And especially with four actors where they’re all ostensibly leads, where you’re trying to capture all these things that are happening. I don’t know necessarily exactly where they’re going to go or when they’re going to say what they’re going to say. It’s all about trying to catch up to it and capture the focus and make sure that things are watchable. That being said, when we hit the pillow at night, we’re exhausted and we’re smiling, because it was a day well spent.
MD: The things that have been described to us by people who have had negative filmmaking experiences, negative studio filmmaking experiences…
JD: A lot of waiting around for seven hours. There’s no waiting around on our movies.
MD: Or a lot of working on it and not getting the movie they want. The only thing impeding Jay and I from getting the movie we want is our own ability. We fight with that a lot, but it’s really our only obstacle.
Who was it who said, “We have to have the EVIL DEAD tracking shot to the cabin?”
MD: Funny, we didn’t even think of that until it was pointed out to us.
JD: It is that, isn’t it?
MD: Yeah. Jay is really good at… When we made PUFFY CHAIR, he was like, “We need a lot of travel stuff, Mark.” And I said, “No, we don’t. We’ll be fine” “We need travel stuff. We need space.” And on BAGHEAD, it was like, “I need more tracking footage.” “No, it’s fine.” “Lemme get it.” And he’s always right, all the time. He’s very good at creating spaces between our sequences, setting up a movie. For us it was just like, “Let’s do those ten minutes where we set things up, heeeeere we go, lighting it up.” Just some time to approach it. Jay and I are really not trying to reinvent anything here, by any means. We want to lean on classic movie structure. We just like it to be a little shaggy and specific in between.
Is this a mumblecore film sending up horror, or a horror film sending up mumblecore?
JD: Definitely not a horror film.
MD: Not a horror film, by any means straight, and we don’t feel like it’s necessarily a mumblecore film. These people are in their thirties and…
JD: The main difference is that we understand that us being grouped with mumblecore makes total sense. But this movie in particular, at least the way Mark and I created it, plot was like our first and foremost obsession. Of course when we’re in there and we’re shooting we’re going for those details — it’s shaggy and it’s messy and the people are just, like, gross and hilarious and lovable.
MD: Yeah. But we’re like mumblecore plus plot.
JD: Yeah. Mumblecore, one of the key elements is a lack of strong plot, strong spine. And this movie in particular, we were constantly ruminating over, “Where is the audience right now, and how can we toe this line? And, hey, look over here!”
MD: In that way, it is like a genre piece.
JD: It probably feels like a mumblecore movie.
MD: We share the aesthetics, but the spine is different.