Mark Duplass is a creative guy. With hands in many media pots (actor, writer, director, producer, even one-time musician), he has achieved a commendable level of acclaim and success, most recently with the Certified Fresh premiere of HBO’s Togetherness (co-produced with his brother and partner-in-crime, Jay Duplass). Now starring in horror film The Lazarus Effect opening this weekend, we chatted with the media arts mogul about the film, his career, and of course, the customary methods of raising the dead.
Kerr Lordygan for Rotten Tomatoes: You are normally a show creator, you’re a creative person and you write and direct and star in projects of your own. What’s it like to give up the reigns and just be an actor?
Mark Duplass: I love it. I think that there’s a tremendous amount of responsibility and pressure helming a project, and nothing is more rewarding, but nothing is more stressful. And so the opportunity to show up and be an actor is the equivalent of being an uncle to children as opposed to being a parent. You get to have a lot of the fun but none of the responsibility.
RT: The Lazarus Effect is a bit of a zombie film. Are you a horror fan?
Duplass: I wouldn’t say that I’m a horror aficionado. I was a gore hound in the late 1980s when I was going through puberty as most boys do, and loved the Halloweens and the Nightmare on Elm Streets but I don’t go out and see every horror move that’s made. I thought this one was unique and special due to the fact that it was going to be directed by a documentary filmmaker David Gelb and have a cast of non-horror film regulars, and that made it interesting to me.
RT: How did you get involved in this one?
Duplass: I’m friends with Jason Blum who is the producer, and he and I talked about doing a movie together where I would play one of the leads, and he sent this to me. I not only liked the script but I really liked the people involved.
RT: Jason Blum was saying how Gelb wasn’t his first choice for director, someone who’s known for documentaries.
Duplass: He’s very blunt about that, and that’s part of what I love about Jason. But he’s the first one to admit when he was wrong and he was wrong about David.
RT: How much of the process did you have a stake in as far as character development?
Duplass: There was some improvisation on set in terms of establishing chemistry with me and Olivia and the group, making it feel natural, and my idea for the role was very much in line with David’s idea for the role where Frank was not going to be a hunky, superhero-esque scientist, he was going to be kind of an everyman, you know with not great hair and bad sweaters and that’s what he is. That was exciting to me to play maybe more the truthfulness of that.
RT: You brought some comedy into it too, so that draws us in. Do you feel that there are similarities between comedy, drama and horror?
Duplass: They all have their nuances, of course, but the one thing that is trickier about horror films is that there are so many tropes and traps to fall into — I find more so than other genres — to make your yell or your scream or your scared face look like everything else. And you have to work really hard to make it unique, but you don’t want to work so hard that you make it unnatural. I thought Olivia [Wilde] in particular did a fantastic job not falling into the standard traps.
RT: It’s a very scientific role. How did you do the research to get into that character?
Duplass: The interesting part about this is that you do research, and then you’re like, “Wait, what am I researching?” No one knows how to really get people back from the dead, and no one knows what it’s like once you’re dead and when you come back. So you read a lot of things and then what it confirms is that nobody knows anything. So the one sort of piece of homework I did for this was trying to make these scientific speeches feel a little bit more human and a little bit more natural. I think that another one of the traps that people fall into with these things is they start speaking in this sort of Standard American dialect, and this sort of robotic tirade of technical adjectives to make it seem like it’s well researched and I think that’s a mistake. I think humanizing it and making it feel fumbly is more the thing that I’m interested in.
RT: If you could being someone back from the dead to talk to, who would it be?
Duplass: I would want to sit down and have breakfast with John Cassavetes because he’s my hero.
RT: What would you say?
Duplass: I wouldn’t say anything to him, I would listen to him.
RT: What was it about the script when you read it that drew you in?
Duplass: It was a good solid 80-minute bullet of a genre film and there wasn’t a lot of gore and a lot of the scares were intended to be psychological. I like that it mostly took place in one location. In that way it reminded me of Alien and — not that I thought we were going to make something as iconic as Alien — but I like the minimalism to it. And it was the people. I love David Gelb, I love his movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi and I love Jason Blum. And then when Olivia came on with me I was like this is going to be worth taking a shot at. Most horror movies will turn out to be pretty pat and not interesting, I have resisted acting in them for that reason, and I felt like this one had a chance to reach a big audience but also still have something unique in it.
RT: What do you think will surprise your fans about this film?
Duplass: I don’t know. It’s not like I’ve never played a more serious role, and I wouldn’t say I’m doing something here that’s drastically different. Certainly people who know me from The League have a hard time divorcing the truly slacker comedic persona I play on that show, so I’m sure the League fans will have a little bit of an adjustment period with it. But otherwise it feels like I’m doing what I’m doing just in a different kind of movie.
RT: Togetherness is Certified Fresh!
Duplass: I love that. I love Rotten Tomatoes percentages. I put more stock in them than I probably should but I’m really happy about that.
RT: You work a lot with your brother. Is that a good thing? Do you sometimes get frustrated?
Duplass: How much time do you have? [laughing] As you’d imagine, it’s complex, and incredibly rewarding, and at times frustrating. The reason we keep working together is because we see the world in a similar way and we are united, I guess, in what we want to say and what we want to do. And we’re very close friends and I guess we feel like two heads are better than one, and any problems that come up are quickly dwarfed by the benefits that we get with working together.
RT: How did you start making film together?
Duplass: We were two kids in the suburbs of New Orleans and our dad had a video camera, and we picked it up and started farting around. As we got into our teens we started discovering what independent film was, and started having this crazy idea that maybe we could make our own movies. But we still didn’t think that could actually be a career and then we were really inspired by guys like Richard Linklater. They were just guys in t-shirts and jeans making movies and they felt like us. So we struggled and toiled for many years, like most indie filmmakers do, until we kind of eventually found our voice and started to break through, you know, 10-12 years ago.
RT: You’re also a musician, right?
Duplass: That’s my previous life. I don’t currently play in bands because I have children and one unreliable entertainment career is enough for me. I don’t need two of them. It’s not something I do currently.
RT: What’s your favorite format that you’ve worked in? You’ve done TV, sitcom, film, music?
Duplass: I have to say, running Togetherness with my brother has been one of the more rewarding things that we’ve done. Part of it is how huge the work load is — but how much of a payoff it is — when we’ve written and directed a whole season of a show. And I’m loving my experience with HBO and how supportive they are of this kind of content. That doesn’t happen everywhere. And it doesn’t happen as much in film right now, to have someone throw that kind of advertising budget and support behind quite frankly a show that’s about nothing but people and their feelings. So I’m really feeling the love in the TV world right now for sure.
RT: Do you think cable is influencing network TV yet?
Duplass: I don’t know, and I’ll be perfectly honest, I’m terrified of network television, and how ruthless they are in canceling things when they don’t work right away. I feel no affinity with their taste level and what is successful there, so I am just steering vastly clear of network television because I don’t feel like we’re going to get along.
RT: What’s next for you?
Duplass: Season two of Togetherness, I have a final season of The League that we’ll shoot this summer, and my brother and I are producing a slew of movies for Netflix which we’re really excited about. Then hanging out with my children and then going to sleep because that’s really all I do.
RT: How many movies for Netflix?
Duplass: Four movies over the next couple of years.
RT: All different genres?
Duplass: Yes. It’s up to us what we want to make, they’re being really supportive and they just want to see us do more in what we’ve done in the independent model of Your Sister’s Sister, or The One I Love, or Safety Not Guaranteed, and they want to support what we’ve done there.
The Lazarus Effect opens in wide release Friday, Feb. 27.