While the Duplass Brothers were shooting their last feature film The Puffy Chair, a crew member raised the question “what’s the scariest thing you can think of?” Someone immediately said “a guy with a bag on his head staring into your window.” Some agreed, but some thought it was downright ridiculous and, if anything, funny (but definitely not scary). Thus, BAGHEAD was born, an attempt to take the absurdly low-concept idea of a “guy with a bag on his head” and make a funny, truthful, endearing film that, maybe, just maybe, was a little bit scary, too.
MARK AND JAY DUPLASS first made a name for themselves with a string of award-winning short films, including This is John and Scrapple, which each premiered at Sundance, in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Recently, they made The Puffy Chair one of the breakout hits from the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The film won the Audience Award at SXSW 2005 and was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards.
It was released theatrically by Roadside Attractions and Netflix in 2006 and is now available on DVD and Showtime. The Duplass Brothers are currently writing and directing a slate of films for both Universal and Fox Searchlight and have sold a television show co-produced with The Weitz Brothers to NBC.
Bijan Tehrani: Watching your film, I was reminded of the work of Goddard and the French new wave. What do you think about that?
Jay Duplass: Well, it’s amazing to be compared to Goddard and the French new wave. For us, our sensibility evolved out of not having any money, and having to make things cheaply, on the fly, and with digital technology. The way that began was setting scenarios up as if they were really happening, and then capturing them with a camera secondarily, as opposed to bringing the actors to the cameras, we decided to bring the cameras to the actors, so to speak. We do have a lot of looseness and shagginess about our films, but we are very obsessed with things looking and feeling very real, and finding inspiration, as opposed to the perfect, exacting vision of something we thought of before and put into script form. We are much more interested in capturing the most inspiring and fascinating interpretation we can come up with on this particular day, given all the elements involved.
BT: There are many scenes in the film shot with a handheld camera. Was that used to get that kind of documentary feel to the film?
JD: Yea. It started first as a budgetary requirement, but since we have made a few films the press has commented on how it does feel more real and documentary like. It would be almost impossible to get the same performances if we set down marks and locked down the cameras down on tripods, and made the actors come to very specific geographical locations and say specific lines. We would never be able to get the freshness in the performances that they give us.
BT: In “Baghead” you can easily see that when the characters are surprised, it is like the actors themselves are surprised; it is so real. How did you manage to give that feel to the film?
JD: Well, we don’t do setups in the way that traditional that films are done, in terms of a lighting setup for every shot. We kind of light the whole area and do the entire scene all at once, so the actors don’t know if and when a Baghead might show up, and even in that matter, they don’t know exactly what is going to be said to them, so they have to be on their toes. And we throw them some curveballs. We will change things up on them to make sure that what they are experiencing will be for the first time or in a unique way, so it won’t become a repetitive, mechanical process for them.
BT: How did the idea of the Baghead come about?
JD: When we were making our last film, “The Puffy Chair”, we were driving around and it was a little bit scary-we were out in rural Maine. We were talking about horror films, and how horror films today are all about torture–someone used the term torture porn–because it is not really scary, it is more about people ripping each others limbs off and showing the gore and the nastiness of it. We were just asking the question, ‘what is scary, and what is the scariest thing to you’? Someone on the crew said, ‘well, it is a guy looking at you from outside of his window with a bag on his head while you are watching TV’, or something stupid like that. We all giggled about it because it was so low-fi, low concept, if anything. But that night a lot of people got really freaked out about it when they went back to their respective rooms. My brother and I got really excited about having a concept that is both laughable and ridiculous, but also so scary for some weird reason; just the whole concept of having the villain of your movie be comprised of a grocery bag that you can pick up at your local Albertson’s.
BT: It also reminds me of the way that Hitchcock looked at fear. He once said that a half shut door is scarier than 100 corpses.
JD: Yea, absolutely. I totally agree. It is definitely more about what you don’t see. We spent a lot of time on set not quite showing our audience what they want to see.
BT: Hitchcock always brought humor to his films. There is something in your film that makes humor and horror undividable.
JD: Yea, they are undividable, especially this type of humor, which comes from discomfort. Being uncomfortable, and being placed in a position that is challenging and not sure what is going on. One of our favorite reactions is when people scream and then laugh.
BT: How did you pick the cast for “Baghead”?
JD: Most of them are our friends. They are professional actors but we have become friends. We have a very homey, intimate, creative process. A big part of our casting criteria is, do we want to really spend d three weeks in a cabin with this person. I think that having a good relationship and being in the same mindset definitely makes that piece of art more cohesive.
BT: How do you and your brother, Mark, work together in the film? Everybody says that the movie, as far as directing, is one man’s work. How do you manage to make a film as two directors?
JD: Two main reasons; One is that we are brothers, and we grew up talking and laughing at the same things, and being obsessed with the same things. We have a very similar way of looking at the world. That is something that we share in our everyday lives; we are basically best friends. The other side of the coin is that we see it as aligning against the bigger enemy of the film itself. We feel like it is really hard to make a compelling film that people want to watch. There is a third side to it too. We don’t walk into our movies with a specific vision that we are trying to exact. We are not trying to put people in a box and make it look exactly like the script. The script is a blueprint, but when you show up on set the set is different, the weather is different, people’s attitudes are different, and the actors are different. We just try to collect the most inspiring moments we can gather, as opposed to having it be one thing. In that format we are both working towards the same goal of finding that special thing.
BT: How much is “Baghead” formed during the editing process?
JD: Editing is a huge part of the process. One of our best friends in our editor, and he is sort of the third and unofficial brother. His name is Jay Deuby. Our editorial takes a long time because we shoot documentary style and there are a lot of different types of takes that we do. There are no slates, so organizing the footage is basically doing a documentary edit, where you basically rewrite the script and experiment with different footage. It is the place where we really finish writing the film.
BT: Any future projects?
JD: Yea. We just finished shooting another movie about two overly competitive brothers who compete in the own personal Olympics that no one else is invited to.
BT: When should we expect to see that in theaters?
JD: Well, we just finished it, so we still have to edit. Hopefully we will finish in time to premier at Sundance 2009, but that remains to be seen.