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Duplass Brothers On Filmmaking, Siblings And Parenting's 'Fugue State'

Jay and Mark Duplass are the co-creators of the HBO series <em>Togetherness</em>, which begins its second season later this month.
Prashant Gupta
Jay and Mark Duplass are the co-creators of the HBO series Togetherness, which begins its second season later this month.

Growing up in the 1980s, brothers Jay and Mark Duplass weren't into typical family movies. Their friends were enthralled by Star Wars, but Jay tells Fresh Air's Ann Marie Baldonado that he and his brother were more interested in "whatever showed up on HBO," including Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie's Choice and Hannah and Her Sisters.

"I think if you cornered me and Jay somewhere around 1983 and said, 'Would you like to go see The Empire Strikes Back with us?' We would say something like, 'Why do we need a light saber when we have this wealth of early 40s adult divorce malaise coming through the TV on HBO?' " Mark jokes.

Using their father's VHS camera, the brothers began to create their own movies together. Now, decades later, they have written and directed five feature films, including Jeff, Who Lives at Home and Cyrus.

Their latest project, the HBO series Togetherness,is about four people in their late 30s who live in Los Angeles. Two are single, looking for love and careers; the other two are married and coping with their relationship, the stresses of parenthood and work. All four struggle with a general sense of feeling lost. Mark describes it as a "deeply personal television show" that draws from real life.

"Mark and I both have kids the same age — they're now roughly 7 and 3," Jay says. "There's something really amazing about when that last baby starts sleeping where you come out of this fuguestate of parenting."

In Jay's case, and in the case of the family on Togetherness, getting out of the "fugue state" took seven years. The end of that stage felt wonderful, he says, but: "Now it's been seven years. I don't really know who I am. And you're looking at your spouse and you're like, I don't know who you are. I don't really know what I like any more because all of my needs have been subjugated for the good of these babies and our family unit. And you kind of have to re-figure everything out. "

Interview Highlights

On why they wanted to make Togetherness

Mark Duplass: Our first feature we made was calledThe Puffy Chair,and it was sort of about what our life really felt like in our 20s when we were all kind of dating people for a year or two. And when we came to make Togetherness we thought, "We're hearing lots of conversations about people who are either in their late 30s and married, and they're just an inch from drowning in the sea of their children and their jobs and make everything work. Or they haven't found that person yet. Or haven't even found that traction in their work life.

On their relationship to each other growing up

Mark: I was extremely dependent on Jay. He was my spiritual leader. He was my god. He was everything to me. And he was sweet enough to let me play with him, because what brother who has a four years ... younger little brother wants to hang out with him?

I was really lucky to have that, and we would spend the night in the same bed together. I was scared of the dark. Jay would hang out with me. We would talk about how when we grew up we were going to get a house together and kind of thought that our wives would just move into the house with us, which is emotionally still how it kind of is to a certain degree.

And then something really interesting happened, which was when I was, like, 14 and Jay was 18, he went to college and had a really hard year and felt very disconnected from home. And then the tables kind of shifted a little bit, where I was able for the first time to be strong for Jay and exhibit some level of leadership by just being young and naive enough to just say: "It's going to be OK. You're awesome. It's going to be OK." And then we built, during those years I think, a truly impenetrable bond.

On Jay deciding to be in front of the camera as Josh Pfefferman in Transparent

Jay: I wasn't necessarily reluctant to be an actor, it just never occurred to me, honestly. ... I was our primary camera operator on everything that we've made except for Togetherness.

And so I basically met Jill Soloway [creator of Transparent] at a party for directors ... [and] she was telling me that she had this TV show ready to go and she had the whole family, but she couldn't find the son. It was really troubling her.

She needed a mid-30s wildly insecure/charismatic Jewish guy, and I was like, "Oh man, those are all Mark's and my friends. We know all the actors in town who fit that bill." And I went through a laundry list of guys and she had considered them all and she stopped me after about a half an hour of talking and she said, "It's you. I think you're him and I would like you to come in and read."

On the sibling dynamic on Transparent

Jay: One thing that you do with your siblings when you love them more than life itself is your cruelty can often come from trying to force them to be who they truly are. Sometimes that's nefarious because you may be mistaken about who they are, but you also want them to be the best version of themselves and so that drives a lot.

So I think particularly for Josh, a lot of his difficulty and confusion in life comes from the fact that he did come up in a household full of incredibly strong women, and I think it was hard for him to find his identity. But also it's probably why he has so much trouble dating is that he holds everyone to the candle of his sisters who he worships.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.