[The movie theater] was like church for our family. That was where we went on Christmas Day. That was where we went on Friday nights. We would go to the mall, eat some bad suburban food and go see a movie together. It was always a place that we could sit and just share space together quietly. It’s the only thing I can attribute to a religious element that worked for all four of us in my upbringing, even though we were Catholic, officially. We just loved them.
But it never felt like something I could attain. It always felt so far away. I always felt, “How can you do that?” And it really wasn’t until I saw My Own Private Idaho. That same year, Jay [Duplass, Mark’s brother] goes off to Austin. We see Slacker in the midnight theater. And we’re like, “Oh, wait a minute. There’s a North Star that’s much closer to us, that is attainable. There are people making these things that are smaller and doable.” And that was the link that bridged it.
Mark Duplass is a writer, director and actor whose latest film, Language Lessons, debuts Sept. 10. (Read about the making of the film here.) Below, he shares five formative movies that shaped his career.
I went to see that when I was 14. Didn’t know anything about it. It was River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, so I was like, “Cool.” I like Bill & Ted. And I liked Stand by Me. This could be interesting. I had no idea what independent film was. And it blew my mind completely open and really introduced me to alternative cinema and what that could be and, from there, there was no looking back for me.
There was no internet then, but I was going to every movie rental store in town, being like, “I fell in love with this movie. What else is there that’s like it?” And people were like, “Oh, well, here’s Jim Jarmusch, here’s Spike Lee.” And I was off and running.
Kramer vs. Kramer played a lot on HBO when it first came out, in the afternoons after school. So Jay and I were like, “All right. We’ll just watch this, I guess.” I was watching this hard-hitting late ’70s divorce drama from a very early age and it sort of seeped into my subconscious and my storytelling. I was writing these one-act plays about all this stuff.
A lot of people ask me, “Why were you so into the ennui of human interaction as a 16-year-old?” And I think it had something to do with watching that movie, and a lot of others like it, on HBO in the early-to-mid ’80s when they first started programming it. Because they weren’t programming it the way they do now, thinking, “Oh, let’s put something for kids on at 3:00.” It was just: Nope, you get home at 3:00, and Sophie’s Choice is on. All right, we’re just going to watch it. Here we go.
Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks colossal failure that came out in 1990. They gave John Patrick Shanley $25 million to make this movie after he won the Oscar for Moonstruck. And they didn’t realize how weird he was. He went and made an adult fairy tale that was super strange, but really interesting.
Joe Versus the Volcano was very formative for me. It is not a perfect movie by any means, but there was a sense of whimsy, and fable, and a freedom in the making of that movie that I just felt deeply. There’s a positivity to it that really struck me at the time, and I find myself coming back to it a lot. It’s one of the things that would never show up on my favorite movie list, probably, but it’s definitely formative for me.
American Movie, the documentary, is one of my top movies and also formative for me. I saw it in 1999 when it came out. And that cemented for me that these are the types of characters I want to try and portray inside narrative cinema. I was seeing how it was happening in documentary form. All those plot points in dramatic terms were happening offhanded, out of focus, in poorly lit ways. And the character himself was such a … lovable loser type, this American antihero failure who’s still pumping his fist looking for greatness. And you find yourself rooting for him despite the fact that you kind of despise him. I was really struck by that. If I look at some of my protagonists, I think that was very formative.
I’m kind of sad to admit it, but Lethal Weapon 2 changed the course of my life. We’d just shot The Puffy Chair, our first feature film, and the first act was a disaster. We had screened it for people, and some people were saying: “You’ll never fix this thing.”
But we knew the second and third act were good. So we knew we had to rewrite, reconceive and reshoot the entire first act of the film—and couldn’t figure out how to do it. One night, Lethal Weapon 2 came on TV. And they opened that movie up with this cold open on a car chase scene that has very little to do with the actual plot of the movie, but it’s totally indicative of the dynamic between the two leads, the types of scenes and energy that you’re going to come to enjoy in the movie. They rock it out for like eight minutes, and then they give you your exposition. And you’re patient because you know it’s coming.
A light bulb just went off in my head. I was like, “Oh, shit! My movie The Puffy Chair is about couples fighting and whether they’re going to get married or break up. And I don’t get to it until minute 25. I’ve got to cold-open them on an action fight scene, just like Lethal Weapon 2 did.” I turned the movie off right there, went in my room, rewrote the opening of the movie, brought it to Jay, and he’s like, “That’s it. You cracked it. How did you figure that out?” I was like, “I don’t want to say. It’s Lethal Weapon 2.”