After breaking out at Sundance with their 2003 short “This Is John,” brother filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass went on a nearly decade-long tear in the feature world, which cemented their reputation as figures at the vanguard of independent cinema. It seemed for a time that their run would never end, but remarkably, it’s now been over a decade since the duo joined forces on a project for the big screen.
During a sit-down today at Deadline’s Sundance Studio, Mark Duplass explained that there have been a number of factors behind the Duplass Brothers’ absence from theaters. “I decided to stop directing about 10 years ago so I could spend more time with my kids, and so I could have these wonderful partnerships with someone like Mel [Eslyn],” he said, “who’s going to work harder, and I’m not just saying this, I honestly believe is a better director than I am.”
Duplass said he’s identified at this point that while he’s known for wearing many hats — writing, directing, producing and starring in his own features, while appearing in the projects of others — his primary skillset is as “a writer and a team builder and producer.”
This “doesn’t mean,” he explained, that he’s “not going to direct again,” though “it felt like that for a while.” Meanwhile, Duplass said, “Jay’s just starting to embark on his own journey as a solo director, which is really wonderful, exciting, heartbreaking for both of us, all the things you’d imagine it is.”
Duplass clarified that there’s “no doubt” in his mind that he and Jay will be directing films together again at some point. “It’s a long road. I don’t know when that’s going to be,” he said, “but I have a little heat lamp in my heart for it.”
In any case, it’s not as if either of the Duplasses has had too much time on their hands while taking a break from helming features. In recent years, Mark has alone co-written, starred in and produced (or EP’d) such acclaimed indies as Biosphere, Language Lessons and Paddleton. While producing those films alongside his brother, Jay has put in appearances on shows like Industry and The Chair, as well as in such recent features as Pain Hustlers and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.
While Mark and Jay Duplass have also collaborated recently on numerous acclaimed docs, they’re perhaps most prolific at this point in the arena of prestige TV. After co-creating such acclaimed HBO series as Togetherness and anthology Room 104, the pair have gone on to produce the beloved Max dramedy Somebody Somewhere, as well as award-winning docuseries like Wild Wild Country.
Most recent for the Duplass Brothers on the TV front is Penelope, a coming-of-age drama series starring Megan Stott and Austin Abrams, which is currently in the spotlight as part of Sundance’s Episodic Pilot Showcase. Co-written by Mark Duplass and Eslyn, who heads up Duplass Brothers Productions as President, the show centers on Penelope (Stott), a 16-year-old who finds herself almost cosmically drawn to nature, in a moment when she’s come to feel entirely out of place in the modern world. With no plan in place, she leaves her family behind for the beguiling wilderness, where she begins to establish a different kind of life for herself.
Mark began writing the show during the pandemic, as he found himself “spending a lot of time alone…thinking about what had gone on in my life that had led me to a place that I just don’t feel myself anymore.” After conjuring the character of Penelope as an avatar for himself, he approached Eslyn about collaborating on the project, ultimately seeing her come to direct and showrun all eight episodes.
By the time she was approached, Eslyn says, Duplass had established “a pretty good base” for the storytelling, to which she would bring much of her “16-year-old self,” as well as a female POV.
Similarly to the Duplass brothers’ HBO shows Animals and Room 104, Penelope was self-financed — in this case, at least, out of necessity. While there was a time, Duplass says, when he’d develop a show, write out a set of episodes and sell it in a bidding war with ease, the culture in Hollywood has changed to the point that it can seem like there’s only room for smash hits like Euphoria, with beautiful little gems of stories more often getting overlooked.
Emptying the bank account to produce the show was “very scary,” Duplass admits, but at the same time necessary to preserve the vision at hand. Beyond any one project, he says, what’s become most important to him is the tenacious “fight” to preserve a mode of storytelling that might otherwise go missing from the world. “I kind of feel a little Norma Rae-ish where we’re just like, ‘We have to not let these stories die,’” Duplass said. “There is a system in place for independent film, but there is not in television, and so I kind of want to beat the drum of, ‘We’re going to have to do this in TV, or else this stuff’s going to die.’”
Currently in search of a distributor, Penelope has CAA handling sales.