For the past eight years, HBO has been asking Mark and Jay Duplass to do a TV show for them. But the writer/director/actor brothers, who ascended from low-budget “mumblecore” movies to semi-improvised studio projects like Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, always resisted. Not that they were allergic to TV: Mark stars in the fantasy-football sitcom The League; Jay plays one of the dysfunctional Pfefferman offspring in Amazon’s award-winning series Transparent; and both of them have recurring roles as midwives on The Mindy Project. Now los bros Duplass have delivered their small-screen magnum opus: eight episodes of the domestic drama Togetherness, starring Mark, Amanda Peet, Melanie Lynskey, and co-creator/Duplass regular Steve Zissis.
The show is brutally honest about the compromises that eat away at domestic life, but it’s also sly and funny. The brothers have found that a project that was supposed to be a short-term fling has become a long-term commitment. Sitting in an HBO conference room in Santa Monica, California, Mark confessed, “Our brains are on the beginning of Season Four right now.”
What are the tradeoffs of doing a TV show instead of a movie?
Mark Duplass: With a movie, normally you make no money because you’ve made it independently — or you had to deal with the biggest asshole movie star in the world so you could get the money to do it. We’ve been able to be in this with our peers and friends, and to do it at a place like HBO, which will go out and put a billboard up so people will come see it. On some level, the ignorance with which we approach creating a TV show helped — that’s been the story of our entire career. We jump into things without knowing exactly what it is and make up rules as we go along.
While we were making this, we discovered that the middle of the story is what we are most interested in. It’s where you get to explore all those surprising, funny, sad, interpersonal dynamics. Life happens in the middle of the story. When you’re doing a movie, you spend 30 minutes setting it up, 30 minutes in the middle and 30 minutes closing it out. With TV, you just live in the middle for as long as you want.
Jay Duplass: A TV show is an open universe, whereas a film is more of a closed universe. No disrespect to movies, there’s [just] a lot of artifice in closing out emotional storylines after 90 minutes. In a way, TV weirdly feels more suited to us. Although I’m not sure I want to admit that.
How autobiographical is Brett, the character played by Mark?
JD: Our characters are desperate. They haven’t found their thing — they are kind of caught in between. Mark and I, we have always tried to be a part of Hollywood while also maintaining a sense of ourselves, a sense of living in a real neighborhood that isn’t totally dominated by the industry.
MD: We’ve been scared to show that character. There’s a part of us that’s just like, “Fuck you, dude, get over it, you’re fine” — the middle-class semi-successful malaise. But it’s real for us and we find it very sad.
JD: We’ve never really done cynicism and we’re kind of doing the opposite of malaise. Everyone is…
MD: Desperately trying.
JD: They’re banging their heads against the wall in every possible direction, trying to find something that will work. And they are trying extremely hard to be good to themselves, to their friends, their family, their kids. Mark and I overwork ourselves in every element of our lives because we don’t want to squander a chance at achieving something great or being happy.
In a way, TV weirdly feels more suited to us. Although I’m not sure I want to admit that.
So is work a pathology for you guys?
MD: How much time do you have? I feel like I don’t know any other way.
JD: Our brains will destroy ourselves if we don’t put it outward.
MD: Growing up in the suburbs without any connection to the industry, we had the inherent belief that there is no way in hell you can make it in this business. So if that’s the core understanding, then your job is to work at every possible turn. We used to not be able to go on vacations with our parents and relax because we felt like we should be home, working.
JD: The only thing that has helped is we have kids now and we’re adamant about being good dads and good husbands, so we definitely have to cut stuff out.
MD: It’s like that stupid old proverb of “Women — can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.” That’s bullshit. But it is absolutely true with your kids. I torture myself constantly. Last night, lying in bed, I asked my wife, “Why did I just spend this whole evening trying to get away from my kids?” I know in 10 years when my daughter goes to college I’m gonna kill myself for doing what I did. I would do anything to get those two hours back when she was seven years old and wanted to sit on my lap and watch Back To the Future for the first time. But that’s just what it is.
Was there a lightning-bolt moment when you started filming Togetherness and it all came together?
MD: There are always a handful of scenes in our show that we have a hard time scheduling, something between two people where something is coming to a head. We look at it on this calendar and we’re like, “This could take eight hours or this might happen in 20 minutes. How do we schedule this?” For instance, there’s a scene in the fourth episode that has a lot to do with what’s going on with Brett and Michelle’s sex life. We had a lot of opinions about what we thought that scene should be. We had a script and when we got in there, it didn’t feel quite right. Jay and I had a talk, and everybody was sitting around and feeling like, “What the fuck is going on here, the clock is ticking.” And then we had an idea. You’ll see it. It’s a peculiar way of talking about the issue but you can feel that it’s happening in the moment, that the shit that’s coming out of my mouth is in no way scripted. It has an electricity.
Were you consciously trying to do a show that was more about sisters than brothers?
MD: We’ve done a lot of brothers.
JD: And not just the sisters aspect of it, but just equal female leads. Both of our wives have sisters. We have both been with our spouses for over 10 years, 13 years now — we’ve learned some stuff.
How did you pick Amanda Peet and Melanie Lynskey?
MD: We knew Melanie a little bit socially. Without giving away too much about the show, we loved the quiet sweetness but also her ability to be what we call “the mouse that roared.”
JD: She’s also one of the best actors we have ever been around.
MD: Amanda is not the kind of person that you ask to come in and audition. She’s a little beyond that in her career. But she got a hold of the script and pursued us: I love this thing, I wanna do this, will you let me come in the room and read with you?
JD: Within 30 seconds it was so obvious. But we spent like 40 minutes in there with her, just doing scenes, and we learned a ton about the character. We rewrote Tina based on what Amanda was doing. The whole time she was there, Mark and I were just like psychically high-fiving the shit out of each other.
Was Steve Zissis, like his character, actually the golden boy in high school?
MD: Yes. He was president of the student council and he was in all the plays in our school. Everyone was just like this fucking guy, he will be the President. If he’s not the President, he’ll be Tom Hanks. Or he might be Tom Hanks and then become the President. But it didn’t turn out that way. One of the main reasons we made this show was to bring Steve Zissis to the world, let them worship him the way we do.
JD: We’ve put him in movies — he has small roles in like Jeff, Who Lives At Home and Cyrus. Great talents will work with him and they’ll come up to us afterwards and be like, “Who the fuck is that guy and why don’t I know about him?”
MD: Steve Zissis is that weird early Seventies record that only you know about and you’re dying to show all your friends.
What haven’t you done yet that you would like to?
JD: This is slightly embarrassing to say, but after Transparent, I would love to act in more good stuff. I mostly acted in that show because Jill [Soloway] is a very powerful person and she would not take no for an answer. She said, “You are going to be incredible in this and you are going to love it. I am going to help you through the whole thing.” It’s weird to be 40 years old and to do something for the first time that is so fun and so natural. Acting to me feels like playing drums with Mark when I was 13. It’s very in the moment.
Amanda Peet’s character has a bouncy-castle business. Why bouncy castles?
JD: We knew someone who was wholesaling bounce houses on the side. The whole concept of a bouncy-castle empire is the most fucking absurd thing in the world. Tina is a hustler. We believed that she would do this and that she would show up at a nasty place behind the train tracks, wearing white leather pants and high heels, forcing someone to do all the heavy lifting for her.
MD: The two words that I feel like are important to our work and the show are “earnest” and “goofy.” That sort of goofy earnestness is something I really love about the way we see the world and I don’t often see in movies and TV — people who are raising their fists and actively fighting for the things they want, that usually comes with a very overly serious tone to it.
Bouncy castles are also a great metaphorical version of domestic life, the notion of this fake little house…
MD: Yes! And you have to constantly pump air into this thing or else it will deflate.
All parents have the moment of thinking they could just buy a bouncy house and…
JD: Every parent has had that discussion. “You know you could buy this for $250.” Yeah, but then the bouncy castle breaks and you’ve gotta patch the bouncy castle. You start realizing the value of the guy who comes and sets up and breaks down your bouncy castle.
MD: Jay and I totally think that way. When we were building the stages for the first season of Togetherness, we’re like, “Maybe we should buy a warehouse and have HBO rent from us.” Wait a minute, we don’t want to be warehouse owners. We are filmmakers. Stop it, stop it.