“You know, Hollywood has us convinced that it takes a hundred million dollars to make a quality piece of art, and that’s a piece of crap statement. I think you just saw that, right?”
As labels for filmmaking styles, movements, or sub-genres go, it’s hard to name one more patronizing than “mumblecore.” Jokingly coined in 2005 to describe such disparate films as Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, Jay and Mark Duplass’ The Puffy Chair, and Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth, which were making the festival rounds together, the catch-all term was quickly adopted by the press and applied to any short feature (it’s rare for one to stretch beyond 90 minutes) shot on a minuscule budget with a consumer-grade DV camera and (frequently) starring the director’s friends and family.
By the time the Duplass Brothers arrived at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival with their sophomore feature, Baghead, it seemed like everybody and their brother had made their own mumblecore movie, quite often with their brother. This even informs Baghead’s plot, which revolves around a quartet of unemployed actors who head out to the proverbial cabin in the woods to write a script for the four of them to act in. Their inspiration: a festival screening of a pretentious, mumblecore-like drama entitled We Are Naked directed by and starring an acquaintance who reveals during the Q&A that he made it for slightly under $1,000. (Unsurprisingly, “What was your budget?” is the very first question he’s asked.) The way they see it, if Jett Garner can get it together to make a movie and get it in the Los Angeles Underground Film Festival, why can’t they?
The one who hatches the plan after failing to get into the We Are Naked after-party with his “wallet phone” (the kind of cringe-comedy set-piece that would have been right at home in The Puffy Chair) is Matt, not coincidentally the role Mark Duplass intended to play before the brothers cast Ross Partridge. Matt’s longstanding on-again off-again relationship with B-movie vet Catherine (Elise Muller) is put to the test over the course of the ensuing weekend, as is the ill-defined one between Matt’s schlubby friend Chad (Duplass regular Steve Zissis) and Michelle (then-“mumblecore princess” – as she’s called on the commentary – Greta Gerwig, with whom Mark had acted in Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs), who doesn’t lead Chad on so much as she tries to let him down as gently and humanely as possible.
That’s it as far as the cast goes, making Baghead an even more stripped-down affair than their first film. While The Puffy Chair had only three principals, they were constantly on the move, encountering plenty of other characters on their journey. In contrast, once Baghead’s foursome install themselves at Chad’s uncle’s cabin on Big Bear Lake, that is where they stay, and their only encounters are with the titular bag-headed menace.
“A guy running around the woods with a bag over his head. He’s killing people.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s our f***ing movie!”
One reason Baghead’s scares are so effective is that it doesn’t behave like a horror film for a sizable chunk of its running time. This allows the viewer to get to know Matt, Catherine, Chad, and Michelle, and maybe even care about them a little before their uninvited guest makes his first, fleeting appearance in what Michelle takes to be a dream. That follows the group’s first, inconclusive brainstorming session, after which the social dynamics are established by parallel scenes where Catherine tells Matt he “can get some if you play your cards right,” and Chad makes an awkward pass at an inebriated Michelle, who deftly deflects his advances by telling him, “You’re like my best friend, but also like my brother.” She then emasculates him further by putting clips in his hair and saying he looks “like a little toddler.”
A defeated Chad withdraws – which is probably for the best since he was contemplating taking advantage of someone who was clearly drunk – but he regroups the next night by getting Matt to suggest that Chad and Michelle be boyfriend and girlfriend in their script instead of siblings. (I wonder who proposed that.) Once the gang starts donning paper bags to scare each other, though, and the misunderstandings and recriminations start piling up, it comes as no surprise when the writing sessions get put on the back burner. (Throughout, Greta Gerwig improvises some of the film’s best dialogue, but her funniest delivery by far is her tossed-off “Are we still making a movie?”)
Appropriately, the moment everyone (save for Matt) gives up on the idea of writing a horror movie is also when they’re plunged into a real one by the unambiguous appearance of the masked psycho they thought they had made up. There’s no time to worry about who’s into whom or who wants to hop into whose bed when a stranger who has disabled your car and cut the phone lines is coming at you with a knife. Similarly, the moment Baghead chooses to demonstrate that he’s a genuine threat is when the Duplasses fully embrace the genre trappings they’ve been flirting with up to that point, giving them a springboard to escape from the mumblecore ghetto if they choose.
“I didn’t want this to happen. This is not what I planned to happen.”
Baghead was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, and the filmmakers inked deals with a couple of other mini-majors, resulting in 2010’s Cyrus (Fox Searchlight) and 2011’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Paramount Vantage).
But in spite of these strides in the direction of mainstream Hollywood, Jay and Mark Duplass were back at it mere months after Baghead’s Sundance bow, filming The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (again with Steve Zissis) on a super-tight budget. That wound up sitting on the shelf for a few years, though, while they went off and made bigger movies with actual stars (John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, and Catherine Keener in Cyrus; Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, and Judy Greer in Jeff). Eventually dusted off and released by Fox Searchlight in 2012, The Do-Deca is, to date, the last film the two of them have written and directed together. Since then, they’ve focused their energies on the small screen, co-creating the series Togetherness in 2015 and Room 104 in 2017.
Meanwhile, Mark has actively pursued a career in front of the camera, most visibly on the FX series The League, but also in Zero Dark Thirty and smaller-scale films like Safety Not Guaranteed and The One I Love, both of which he executive produced with Jay, a sideline that has also seen them backing Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, among others. Mark’s most fruitful collaboration of late, in fact, has been with Brice, with whom he wrote and starred in 2014’s Creep and its 2017 sequel, both of which bypassed theaters and went straight to Netflix.
In a way, that was a homecoming of sorts since The Puffy Chair was put out by Red Envelope Entertainment, Netflix’s distribution arm back when it was solely a disc-by-mail company. (It launched its streaming service not long after, in 2007.) The Creep films also represent a return to Baghead territory, only even more slimmed down as both are essentially two-handers where one of the characters (played by Brice in the first film and Appropriate Behavior writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan in the second) is primarily behind the camera and the other (Mark Duplass’s genial serial killer) is in front of it. Largely improvised and employing the “found footage” format that has become more ubiquitous in micro-budget circles than mumblecore ever was, Creep and Creep 2 are proof positive that all you need to make a movie is a cabin, a camera, and a guy running around in a scary mask. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Craig J. Clark lives and mumbles in Bloomington, Ind.