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Cyrus – A Q&A With The Duplass Brothers

June 14, 2010

By John C.

People’s initial feelings for the film Cyrus, opening June 25th from Fox Searchlight, will likely be mixed, feeling that the film walks a fine line between funny and creepy.  And that is true.  These are the feelings I had throughout the first part of the film.  But there is a certain sweetness to its strangeness that makes it always interesting, and never obnoxious or cloying.  And once we find out more about the characters, it’s not creepy either.  As it reached it’s conclusion, I found myself moved by these characters’ journey, in a way that I could have only hoped to be.

Cyrus is the latest film from sibling-directors Jay and Mark Duplass.  Their first feature was a quirky road-trip movie, The Puffy Chair (2006), that looked at romantic relationships.  Their second feature, Baghead (2008), was an alt-horror film.  Their latest, Cyrus, is a love triangle with a twist.  The Duplass brothers, (33-year old Mark and 37-year old Jay), were in Toronto last Tuesday for a screening of Cyrus at the Varsity.  It was directly followed by a Q&A, hosted by Canada AM’s Richard Crouse.

John (John C. Reily) has been divorced for 7 years, has never found a new partner, and still keeps in touch with his ex-wife.  When he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) at a party, what starts as a one-night-stand, develops into a complicated love triangle of sorts between John, Molly and Molly’s young adult son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill).  Cyrus, though intellectually mature, is emotionally immature, and shares a rather juvenile relationship with his mom.

Although the characters aren’t always likable, and their personalities are sometimes confusing, it takes an indirect route in introducing a universal theme.  It’s completely natural and believable, and though there are stretches that would feel mundane in the wrong hands, the Duplass brothers’ handle these scenes with an expert skill that makes every moment interesting.

The film was scripted, but improvisation from the very talented cast was encouraged, and Jay was on hand to capture every moment.  Using handheld digital cameras, he likened the filming style to that of a documentary.  As limited sets and actors were used, Cyrus was also filmed in sequential order, allowing for further improvisation and natural progression of the characters.

During the Q&A, one audience member asked, after stating that he understood it perfectly, “what was the symbolism of the shoes?”  He was referring to the fact that John’s white Adidas play a role in the script.  Mark replied, ever graciously, “there was symbolism?  I’d love to hear your take on that.  They’re just shoes.  It was actually just something small, epically small, introduced later on in the script, that we thought just tied in nicely to the story.”

After speaking with the Duplass brothers directly following the presentation, I’ve been thinking a lot about how their work would compare to Noah Baumbach’s recent film Greenberg.  When I asked them, Mark, who had a brief part in Greenberg, replied jokingly, “well, obviously our film is better, but no, Greenberg was more misanthropic than our movie and a little more serious.”

I can think of many arguments for both, but the only comparison I can think of between their most recent work – Baumbach’s Greenberg, and the Duplass’ Cyrus – is that both movies, in tone and style, capture their characters perfectly.  Greenberg is more misanthropic, offering a bleaker view of the people it portrays.  The character and movie of Greenberg was a little more sure of itself, yet at the same time unsure.  Each line of scripted dialogue, was put forth with the same intelligent thought that Greenberg had before he would speak.  And like it’s central character, it was a little depressed, and not entirely likable.

The tone of Cyrus, like the characters, is more casual and laid back.  It captures perfectly the tone of these very ordinary people, who are all involved in a relationship that is a little unsettling, but rarely hard to watch.  The way they speak is nothing extraordinary, but the topics they discuss are in central focus of moving a very interesting character study forward.

The advice the Duplass brothers’ would give to aspiring filmmakers is “to keep making movies.”  As Mark said, “even if you have to make 20 shorts before you make a good one.”  To which Jay added, “Now with digital cameras, film making has gotten really affordable.  One of our first short films was made for only 3 dollars.”  He was referring to their first collaborative effort, This is John, a short that played at Sundance in 2003.

Money was another problem that the brothers faced on Cyrus, and not in the way you might think.  Their first feature, The Puffy Chair, was made for 15,000 dollars, graciously donated by their parents.  On Cyrus, working with a studio budget, they had to strictly follow union rules, which meant that at times there were upwards of 70 people on their small sets.  Certainly not something they were used to when filming their smaller “mumblecore” films.

But that doesn’t mean they didn’t keep the style of their other films.  One complaint from a nauseated audience member was that the shaky camera work was the only thing wrong with an otherwise good movie.  The way the camera is constantly zooming in and out could be seen as a distraction.  But as Jay explained, because the actors are given so much improvisational room, they use handhelds, so that as the actors move around at their own pace, they can follow them and use the zoom to try to quickly capture a particular emotion that an actor is portraying in the moment.

Obviously there was a different enthusiasm in the air, seeing the film with the crew in attendance, but the audience reactions seemed to be mostly positive.  Hopefully people will give Cyrus a chance when it opens in select theatres in Toronto on 25th of June.  I think the key to enjoying it is to go in with a clean-slate, and just accept the paths these characters take.  And perhaps come prepared if shaky-cam usually gets to you.

You can listen to the Q&A, from Richard Crouse’s YouTube channel, here & here.

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