Interview: Jay and Mark Duplass, Mark Kelly, Steve Zissis & Jennifer LaFleur Power Through “The Do-Deca Pentathlon”

There's no sibling rivalry between the writing/directing duo behind "Cyrus," but they sure have fun with the idea in their new comedy, which they talk about with their cast....
Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis in a scene from Mark and Jay Duplass' film The Do-Deca Pentathlon

Although the Duplass brothers have a personal connection to their latest film “The Do-Deca Pentathlon,” which sets up a 25-event athletic battle of strength, wits and determination between two squabbling siblings, it is not the one you’d instinctively think.

“The [only] conflict in our lives is how do we make a good movie?” says Mark Duplass. “That’s the daily conflict. We end up joining forces together as filmmakers, so we don’t really end up fighting a lot at all.”

Instead, they leave that up to Jeremy (Mark Kelly) and Mark (Steve Zissis), a pair of fiercely contentious brothers based on a fraternal duo they went to high school with in New Orleans whose private olympic-style competitions became the stuff of local legend. Thanks to the filmmakers’ own meteoric rise, “The Do-Deca Pentathalon” itself has become something of a legend as well, being filmed under the radar in 2008 shortly before the Duplasses found mainstream success with the Jonah Hill comedy “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” and Mark’s prolific acting career took off, appearing as a regular on FX’s “The League” and a ubiquitous charmer in films such as “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Safety Not Guaranteed.”

As a result, “Do-Deca” sat unedited until recently, an unanticipated stroke of good timing as it gave the brothers a chance to find an unexpectedly soulful depth behind the fun of their otherwise raucous family comedy and comes at an opportune moment to try something new by releasing it on both the big screen and VOD, where an unusual partnership between the outside-the-box distributor Red Flag Releasing and Fox Searchlight may serve as a template for other indie filmmakers to follow in the years ahead. While in Los Angeles, the Duplasses joined Zissis, Kelly and Jennifer LaFleur, who plays Mark’s increasingly aggravated wife Stephanie, in reflecting on the physically grueling shoot, the DVD extra so good it will force the brothers to retire from filmmaking, and the real winner of “The Do-Deca Pentathlon.”

What was it like to return to this film so long after filming it?

Mark Duplass: Part of us was nervous. We just made these two studio films and we hadn’t looked at the footage in a while and we were like, is this movie going to be good? It had been three years since we had visited it and we were delighted to see that it had that sort of raw, inspired quality that we loved in “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead,” that time in our lives when we were making films with our family and our friends. So it was kind of exciting to us to be able to show people who we are now as filmmakers with movies like “Cyrus” and “Jeff,” but also concurrently to be able to show people where we came from with a movie like “Do-Deca.”

When you went to edit it, did having that space in between change your ideas about what direction the film would go in?

Jay Duplass: That happens with all of our movies. The process of writing is more about getting people onto set, getting people inspired, organizing the shoot. The process of shooting is very much a process of discovery and a flexible process of figuring out who these actors are at this moment in their lives and what they have to offer, what’s special about them and how to find that chemistry. But editorial is really a bit of a rewriting and rediscovery process. It’s truly the process where we kind of start talking actively about what we did capture and what it is that we had set out to do.

A big part of our process in filmmaking is not intellectualizing everything because when we did that, we made bad movies. So when we keep it raw and energetic and just trust that [when] there’s excitement there without having to articulate it, we found we’d get great results. But it does result in having to really decipher it all in editing.

For the actors, what was it like to see it after all this time?

Jennifer LaFleur: We saw it all together. We were sitting in a condo and Mark’s wife was going into labor during the screening. We didn’t know what we were going to see. I didn’t remember a lot of what had happened or what we had tried or I remembered two very different ways that we shot different scenes, so I was curious what we were going to see because I didn’t really know what the movie was going to be. I knew we were going to get from point A to point B. I just had no idea how we were going to get there.

Mark Kelly: It almost felt like we were an audience seeing it for the first time, having that kind of distance from it in a great way, really, just to enjoy the movie.

Steve Zissis: I had one concern. I just felt like wow, four years…something either on the set or something in what we’re showing is going to be dated. I was worried about Mark’s car because it was a Chrysler 300 at the time, which is kind of like appropriate and hip, but now a Chrysler 300? It’s really just not… (laughs)

MK: Would you drive the 300?

JL: You’re offending everybody who’s listening to this interview.

MK: Love that car.

SZ: But if you were a poker star right now, would you be driving the Chrysler 300?

JL: I just want to state for anybody reading this that has a Chrysler 300, it’s okay. It’s a cool car and you shouldn’t feel bad about that car or feel dated. I think you should rock that out.

SZ: Jen, you don’t have to be PC. I’m just trying to keep it real.

JL: I just don’t want people’s feelings to be hurt.

MK: Don’t worry about it. They’re okay.

You hear so much about the Duplass brothers’ process involving a lot of improvisation, which Mark was new to, but Jennifer and Steve are veterans. How did that play out?

MK: I got to work with Jay on a short film [“Interview”], he was the [cinematographer] of that, so he didn’t work with me as a director, but he really inspired and helped the director in that sense — Jay shot it in a very similar documentary style. So when I did get cast, Jay reminded me of that, “Remember what you did in this short. It’s going to be similar to that, but more of that.” At first when I got the role, I thought oh my God, I’ve got four days to learn 80, 90 pages and he’s like, “No, no, no, it’s going to be fine. Just read it, know the script, but we’re going to work without it a lot.” Once I met this incredible cast, this family, it just became let’s just jump in and have some fun with this.

SZ: This was certainly a homegrown family and friends type of production and that was an intangible quality that translated and got filtered into the movie as well. Mark got dropped into the middle of everything…

MK: They actually had one day of shooting before I got to set, then I remember coming to set just to meet people the night before I actually started shooting. You could feel that family, but it fed my character being sort of estranged — it was able to help not knowing everybody.

SZ: I had never met Mark before and the only thing I could do was go on IMDb and look at pictures of him and then I watched a commercial he was in online…I was just trying to do whatever I could to at least familiarize myself with him. I mean, gosh, he’s going to be playing my brother.

MK: I actually got to see “Intervention,” the famous short that Steve rocked and that was helpful.

Jay and Mark [Duplass], even though this is loosely based on another pair of brothers that you grew up with, did you see your own relationship manifest itself in any way into the film?

MD: It’s hard to say. There’s nothing obvious for us because we’re really not in a lot of conflict together. The conflict in our lives is how do we make a good movie? That’s the daily conflict. What that means is we end up joining forces together as filmmakers, so we don’t really end up fighting a lot at all. But there’s a particular maleness to the brother relationship in this movie that is endlessly fascinating to us — this unga-bunga quality of not being able to express your feelings for men as men unless you’re beating the shit out of each other. I just made a sisters movie called “Your Sister’s Sister” and when sisters work stuff out, they just get out a bottle of wine and they talk or they lay in bed and cry and hug it out. The brothers have to pick up the boxing gloves.

Steve and Mark [Kelly], were you physically prepared to pull out the boxing gloves, among the other physically grueling activities you have to do in the film?

JL: They’re clearly very buff.

SZ: I was not, which is the point.

JL: He’s method. He gained weight for the film.

SZ: I did actually gain some weight for the movie and Mark and Jay wanted me as out of shape as possible. It’s hard for me to watch some of those events, especially…I’m not a strong swimmer at all and you notice when we jump off the diving boards, Mark has this excellent form and I just kind of collapse into the water.

JL: A little belly flop action. (laughs)

I understand [Mark Kelly] came up with the Indian leg wrestling…

MK: Yeah. I don’t remember that, but I do remember certainly having a blast. It’s certainly always a visual laugh to see grown men leg wrestling.

Did the actors actually have input on which events would be done in this?

MK: We did. They had a set of definite events they wanted based on the real brothers’ Olympics that the movie’s based on and then they asked for our feedback. I’m trying to remember did you suggest any that you can remember, Jen?

JL: No. I was just suggesting that Stephanie should also compete in [the games], it didn’t matter what. They would have days where they would just be doing all the sporting competitions and those were my days off. Normally you’re thrilled to have that as an actor on location, but I was at home itching to find out what were they doing, where were they, what competitions were they doing, who won? Would I be able to beat them if I was there? It was good because I believed my character’s viewpoint that they should not be doing this for their well-being, but Jen the actor was desperate to get in on the action.

SZ: (in sing-songy taunt) Only boys allowed. Only boys allowed.

MK: There was a funny competition we did after shooting one night that Jen must tell.

JL: We did a beer chugging contest. I was desperate to be involved in any competition, so one night after having a big family dinner, maybe a couple daiquiris from the drive-through place down the street, I was trying to see if anybody would do a beer chugging contest with me. Nobody would really partake except for Mark Kelly and Mark Kelly’s like “Phhhht, I got this.” So we shotgunned beers and it’s caught on camera, that I won.

MK: The most historically testosterone event there is — shotgunning a beer — she won.

JL: Well, you’ve got some very sensitive, estrogen filled men and one insanely competitive testosterone-filled chick on set.

Steve, Jay and Mark, you went to high school with these guys. Does this movie live up to the legend?

SZ: They grew up down the street from Mark and Jay. I did not know them personally in high school, but what I am interested in seeing is the Do-Deca Redux, which is going to be a DVD extra where the real brothers that this movie is based on get back together and compete in all these events.

Did you feel an allegiance to depict them or at least their feats with some accuracy? I’ve heard you didn’t include Pop-a-Shot Basketball as an event because no one could play it better than them.

JD: There was some allegiance there. Usually, it’s all function, but there was a little bit of allegiance.

MD: Some things have to be sacred. Pop-a-Shot is sacred.

JD: In particular, Anton had figured out a way very specific to the Pop-a-Shot machine that they had in the basement of their house, literally. He had a side-arm approach where the balls would roll right into his left hand and he would side-arm the ball with his right arm. [His brother] literally said, “I’ve never quite seen anything like it.” I think his quote was, “I think he fit as many balls as physically could go through the hoop in the course of one minute.”

MD: He maxed out the physics of the Pop-a-Shot machine.

JM: He maxed out the physics of Pop-a-Shot!

MD: All you can do at that point is just die because there’s just nothing left to achieve.

JD: The only sadness about it is that we now know that we’re never going to make a better DVD extra than the one that we just made.

MD: Yeah, as Anton maxed out the physics of the Pop-a-Shot machine, we have maxed out the physics of the DVD extra, covering these dudes. It’s very special.

JD: And what we’ll say is the competition came down to the final event. They each won 12 events. They’re insanely competitive, they’re insanely well-matched and it came down to the final event.

For Jay and Mark, this seems to mark the end of a more innocent time when you could sneak off to make a movie without anyone noticing. Do you see it as a signpost?

MD: No, we definitely plan on doing stuff like this. We love this form and in particular, the distribution models are changing. We’re excited to take this movie out on VOD ahead of time and let a lot of people see this movie, which doesn’t always happen. We released “Cyrus” on four screens and everybody’s like, “Where’s the movie?” The concept of taking the shame off the VOD platform a little bit and saying like, we might make a movie that’s built just for that because you can go out and make movies cheaply and quickly — that’s fun.

It’s such an unusual partnership between Fox Searchlight and Red Flag. How did it come about?

MD: It really was an open conversation with Fox Searchlight, who we brought the movie to first because we love them. We just said, “You guys blazed a trail with independent films in theaters 20 years ago. This movie should be in theaters a little bit, but ultimately, it’s a smaller movie with no stars and we think VOD is the life. So how can we try to blaze a trail together on VOD?” With this great partnership with Red Flag and Fox Home Video and Searchlight as a grandfather of it all, we found a way to use the power of Fox to really take this movie out on VOD and then have a really smart indie film releasing company like Red Flag to take care of the theatrical portion in those cities where people will go see this movie in the theater. In the cities that won’t, we want it to be on VOD for them. So it’s kind of a perfect marriage.

You obviously keep quite an open mind about these things as well as the subjects you tackle – Jay’s documentary “Kevin” on musician Kevin Grant was a really interesting detour. What interests you as filmmakers now?

JD: A great variety of stuff. Mark and I are both obsessed with documentary. We were very referential filmmakers in film school. We tried to be the Coen Brothers and we sucked at it. And people always ask us our influences and honestly our strongest influence is documentary. It influences what we like to see onscreen, our obsession with truthful things and our revelation that when things are truthful, they don’t have to be extra dramatic. They can retain the true drama of what normal people like us go through on a daily basis in life. That’s something that both of us share, but I’m particularly obsessed with actually shooting docs and it’s something that I will do in the future. But Mark and I are interested in all kinds of films and all kinds of levels of production. Variety is important to us, so the most important thing for us is to be inspired about what we’re making and not knowing what that is is as exciting as knowing.

“The Do-Deca Pentathlon” is now available nationwide on VOD and opens today in New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Denver, Austin, Chicago and Phoenix. A full schedule is here, including the ability to start a Tugg screening in your town.

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