How Mark Duplass and Mel Eslyn Got Creative to Make Progress in a Pandemic

Towards the end of last summer, the cast and crew of “7 Days” were sweating bullets in the desert heat of Palm Springs. With an unforgiving shoot that lasted only one day more than the film’s title, the comedy starring Karan Soni and Geraldine Viswanathan was filming in a house with no central air conditioning as the temperature was pushing past 100 degrees and besides the actors being drenched in sweat before their shots, the threat always loomed of the camera overheating. Yet the one thing that everyone on set had been dreading for months as a global pandemic was still raging on was suddenly out of mind for that one blissful week as producers Mel Eslyn, Ashley Edouard and Maddie Buis of Duplass Brothers Productions, along with Liz Cardenas, had pulled off what appeared seemingly impossible only months before, with COVID-19 only mentioned as part of the story they were telling.

“Well, it helps when your director is a doctor,” Eslyn says, having the good fortune of hiring “The Resident” co-creator Roshan Sethi during a break from his medical practice. “That made our job very easy.”

“Mel and Liz did an incredible job coordinating and figuring out all the finances of all the testing that needed to be done and all the rules that had to be observed,” Sethi said recently at a press conference for the film, which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival (which has made it available to stream through June 23rd). “The fact that it feels like a ‘real’ movie is still a shock.”

Indeed, the fact that “7 Days” was made at all is an achievement enough, but more impressively, it is one of at least three films that Duplass Brothers Productions made during the year of quarantine that are bound to endure, not only individually as poignant and immediate time capsules that capture how people looked for ways to connect during lockdown but creating opportunities for distinctive new voices. The Duplass Brothers have been beating the odds in this regard ever since its principals Jay and Mark loaded up a van to travel cross-country with a camera and a $15,000 budget to make their first feature “The Puffy Chair,” a road that ultimately led to opening up offices in the notably Hollywood-adjacent Highland Park for their production company where a tendency to keep the scale of their operations modest in scale has opened up the ability to take risks on the projects they make and the burgeoning talent they work with.

Typically a hive of activity encompassing animated series (“Animals”), documentaries (“The Lady and the Dale”), anthology series (“Room 104”) and feature films, the studio was closed along with the rest of the world in March of 2020, with the filmmakers working on a variety of projects for the company encouraged to take equipment with them as they went into isolation. Still, that left Eslyn and her staff with idle hands during an emotionally wrenching summer, not only dealing with the spread of the coronavirus and the work they were prevented from doing that could take their mind off it, but having the sudden and unexpected death of Lynn Shelton to grapple with. The company mounted a moving tribute to Shelton and sold “Cinema Toast” to Showtime, an inspired series created by Jeff Baena in which no new frames of film needed to be shot as directors could rework old public domain movies into new narratives (and keep a few more post-production workers employed), but even after Mark Duplass had told Eslyn they should start slowing things down, she knew better than to take him at his word.

“Mark can’t sit still for long, and challenges spark creativity for him, so in many ways I was expecting the call of “let’s make a movie under these constraints,” recalls Eslyn. “I think because of all that was going on in the world, I was happy to have something to creatively put some energy into, so it didn’t really allow much time to question feasibility. [It] didn’t feel any scarier than the time we made a movie in seven-and-half days, or the time we had to replace a lead actor the night before the shoot, or the time I had to VFX two Marks on screen with zero money.”

In an environment when groups of 10 or more were advised against gathering together for any reason, let alone for the purposes of a film, and protocols were still being developed by the guilds for safe shoots, the limitations couldn’t be any more obvious, but all Eslyn and Duplass saw was opportunity. The pair was reminded of the first film they produced together, “The One I Love,” which involved a crew of less than 15 people, three actors and a single location, and as Eslyn says of the many “summer camp film experiences” they’ve made since, “we were having the most fun on those shoots than any other.” Part of that fun likely also came from the fact that it often involved first-time filmmakers, which has been a priority for the company that, like Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY, has used their television deals as a trojan horse for directors and below-the-line talent to notch their first credit in order to build sustainable careers. Having the knowhow and infrastructure already in place to mount a successful production, the two only needed to give themselves the green light to writer/directors who perhaps hadn’t yet made a film but it was clear they had it in them.

“During the early days of the pandemic, Mark, I and our team were also doing a lot of self-reflection on our futures as storytellers and what voices we wanted to prop up, collaborate with, and encourage,” says Eslyn, who shrewdly seized the moment to elevate Ashley Edouard, her longtime assistant who could be eased into producing by steadily accruing more responsibilities on the trio of films that the company would make. “There was a big blind spot for us as far as the diversity of feature directors we’d worked with. We really prioritized diversity in our director slates on the TV side, but we looked back at our film slate and saw a very clear need for diversity there.”

As Eslyn and crew started to answer all these questions for themselves about how they should be making these movies, the question remained, should they?

“We were already experiencing Zoom fatigue, and then bringing up the pandemic in films, there was the thought, ‘Are we dating the film by doing so [or] re-traumatizing people later when we are clear of this?’ Where we ultimately landed was this is life, and we are all universally experiencing it,” says Eslyn. “We knew even then we’d come out of this one day, the world in a different place, so shouldn’t our art reflect that? Plus, the way Mark, Jay and I work creatively is usually to chase whatever is rolling around inside us at the moment, and in that moment it was the pandemic.”

Adds Edouard, “As much as everyone wants to take 2020 completely off the calendar, it really was a year where we were able to confront our feelings and how stressful it was and being able to talk about it. The way I was able to experience three times around, I think everybody had different perspectives of how they felt during the pandemic and to be part of all of those different unique voices, it was really fun for me personally.”

One of the prevailing principles of Duplass Brothers Productions may be best exemplified by a story Mark likes to tell about how he and Jay ended up as producers on their friend Bryan Poyser’s “Lovers of Hate,” a $17,000 film that had $5,000 of its budget drop out the night before it was set to start shooting, which as relatively small as sum as it was would’ve killed the production. The Duplasses had recently signed a studio script deal, giving them the cash to spare and it was handed to Poyser with no questions asked. Whether it’s been an issue of money or some other hiccup in the process that could be easily remedied, the company has been removing logjams ever since, paving the way for so many projects that would’ve languished otherwise and in turn prevented the career momentum for those involved.

When the pandemic started, Mark had started making calls around to friends and colleagues, offering to help find homes for already finished films that had their distribution hopes pinned on the festivals that they were set to play and had been cancelled as well as seeking out collaborations with people who might be ready to make their first films but didn’t know where to begin. One of those calls was to Priyanka Mattoo, a former agent at UTA and WME who has turned her attention to nurturing promising comic talent, and she wasted no time in recommending Taylor Garron, an associate editor at Reductress whose Twitter feed alone suggested a distinctive voice that deserved to be on the big screen. In fact, Garron had a film waiting inside of her, inspired by the moment to create the sharp satire “As of Yet” in which she’d star as a New Yorker dreading the arrival of her roommate who decamped for Florida at the start of the pandemic and, in spite of race never being an issue in their friendship before, may have a difference in opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement that can’t be overcome. (The film is available online through the duration of the Tribeca Film Festival here.)

As Duplass walked Garron through what might be possible over course of 10 hours of Zoom sessions, even his leisure time was dominated with thoughts of more films to make when after reading about a school in South America in financial trouble, he began busying himself with Spanish classes they offered in order to pitch in a few bucks and pick up a new language in the process. His conversations with his instructor turned personal, finding the ability to confide in a stranger both comforting and the potential nugget for a story idea, which he took to Eslyn. The two worked on developing a pitch that would lend itself to a manageable shoot over Zoom and they soon approached Natalie Morales, with whom they had made two episodes of “Room 104” with and had her planned feature directorial debut “Plan B” stalled by COVID.

Meanwhile, Eslyn was contacted by Karan Soni, who like Morales had been primarily known as an actor but got his first opportunity to direct with an episode of “Room 104.” She had been hoping for years that he might want to write a script, and with his partner Sethi, Soni decided to use the downtime to write a romantic comedy about “the longest first date ever” when a pair set up on a date arranged by their parents is forced to enter lockdown together.

“Karan and Roshan approached the film in a very Duplass-ian way,” says Eslyn. “They wrote it to shoot in a bubble, were smart about the number of locations and actors, but maintained that authenticity, humanity and comedy that helps the audience fall in love with the characters and not feel claustrophobic being largely in one location. I called Mark right away, pitched him the scenario…and we both greenlit it within the hour. Suddenly, we were making three films in quarantine back-to-back, but all felt appropriate and right to make in our guts.”

“Language Lessons” required the least amount of preparation when Duplass and Morales were both the film’s only two stars and its driving creative forces, handling most of the usual responsibilities such as set dressing and makeup by themselves. But director of photography Jeremy Mackie was brought in to work out the logistics of capturing high-quality audio and rigging cameras that could be controlled remotely and producers would sit in on the Zoom calls that would become the foundation for the film, blacked out on screen making sure everything was up to snuff. A knowledge of the set-up would come in handy weeks later when Edouard was dispatched to oversee “As Of Yet.” It may have been Garron’s first time directing, yet she was making strong choices from the jump, enlisting her friend Chanel James as co-director whose experience in digital production management helped facilitate a shoot bursting with personality but few people around as cast or crew. While no one could gather, the two found that it was actually easier to get everyone involved on the same page by sharing shotlists and schedules over the screen share they devised and set up separate laptops to rig one computer to control the Canon they had on set and another to work as a monitor. The only thing they couldn’t figure out was how to create a more compassionate call time for Edouard on the West Coast while they were back east.

“We were up at 7 o’clock in the morning, like ‘oh my God, it’s so early,’” Garron recalls with a laugh. “And it was four a.m. in L.A. and [Ashley] was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready with a schedule, ready to do it. She was so amazing.”

Ironically, “7 Days,” which under typical conditions would be the most traditional shoot, was the most complicated when it involved a cast and crew sharing the same space on location, but even without a roadmap to operate in the new normal, Eslyn had a foundation of trust to build on. Soni reached out to his “Miracle Workers” co-star Viswanathan to play the free-spirited quarantine partner in the film and Eslyn dispatched Mackie, the cinematographer that had worked on “Language Lessons,” to work with Sethi behind the camera. With so many projects going on at the same time, she also sought out the help of Liz Cardenas to oversee the eight-day shoot and its post-production, a real blessing when she not only brought a steady hand to make sure things ran smoothly on set, but the “Never Goin’ Back” producer could reach out to friends to supply the film’s boisterous Bollywood-tinged soundtrack. (“Filming during Covid was challenging and even scary at times, but making “7 Days” was a truly magical experience,” Cardenas told me.)

For all the additional precautions and workarounds required by the times, it was creating connections in a time of isolation that saved the day and in each of the three Duplass Brothers’ lockdown productions, there isn’t only the running theme of taking control of your own destiny at a time of feeling helpless, but a galvanizing energy from how that may have been happening behind the scenes as well. While Eslyn and Duplass laid the groundwork for what became three accomplished films — with “Language Lessons” already set to be distributed later this year by Shout Studios and “As of Yet” and “7 Days” launching this week at Tribeca, they could already consider them a success when it allowed the filmmakers who made them to see their own potential to broaden their career horizons with only the slightest bit of encouragement and support around them.

“Mark empowered me a long time ago, I rose to the challenge and now I run his company,” says Eslyn. “I turned around and started reaching out and pulling others along with me. We will forever be doing that. When you empower someone, it pushes them to do their best. It’s a win-win. The best school for making films is just doing it and learning from your mistakes. And it’s easier to not get bogged down by your mistakes when you’ve got someone saying, ‘You are good, keep going, I’ve been there and the mistakes make you better.’”

And at a time when everyone was learning as they went, Garron, for one, believes there may be some lessons for the film business as a whole.

“There was a really cool and exciting factor in that when you’re on a typical film set, you’re like, ‘ This is how things are done normally,’ and because this was a version of filmmaking that was so brand new, we didn’t have those traditions and conventions, [so] we got to be incredibly creative,” says Garron. “It feels like it’s opening a door to people to do this in the future when we’re not in a global pandemic where you can collaborate with people from coast to coast — we’ve figured out how. Here’s a budget, here’s your crew and your cast, figure it out. And also make shit up. I think that is exciting in terms of what the future of the film industry could look like.”

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