Happy Together

Jay Duplass dishes on how, after years of feature work, his hit HBO show Togetherness has finally given him and brother Mark the chance to write the way they’ve always dreamed of.

2015 HBO
Amanda Peet, Mark Duplass, and Steve Zissis in Togetherness.
April 2, 2015 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Melissa Moseley/HBO Jay Duplass

HBO woke us up a little bit because we kept opening storylines and closing them like two episodes later. They were like, Guys, this is television, you don't have to close, you just have to keep opening.

When Jay and Mark Duplass, the sibling creators of the new hit HBO dramedy Togetherness, were in their 20s, their father did something unforgettably kind and potentially ill advised. He offered to pay rent for a year in Los Angeles for the brothers, who were struggling, making short films in Austin, Texas, so that they could make a serious run at their dream of making feature films.

“It was like, ‘Okay, this is our shot basically,’” recalls Jay Duplass, who co-created the show with his younger brother Mark and Steve Zissis, a pal from the Jesuit high school in New Orleans they all attended. “Our parents have always been so supportive,” he says, but, “everyone was always like, ‘you’re so fucking lucky,’ and we were totally lucky but you have to deal with a bunch of self-esteem issues when your parents are giving you a thousand dollars a month. It definitely was hard, honestly, on the ego. But it clearly made it possible for us to make The Puffy Chair [which put them on the feature film map with the ’05 Audience award at Sundance]. It was all about creating a little time and space to stop editing stupid shit and to make a feature film.”

Both Mark and Zissis also star in Togetherness – Mark as Brett, a father of two in his late 30s struggling to find an outlet for his professional passions and a spark in his faltering marriage, and Zissis as Alex, his hard luck best buddy who has seen his dream of becoming a successful actor culminate in a curbside eviction.

Add to the mix Tina, Brett’s wife’s older sister, played fearlessly by Amanda Peet, who’s careening toward middle age on the heels of another empty, cocktail-soaked hook-up she mistook for Mr. Right. Both Tina and Alex wind up crashing on couches at Brett’s house ready to quit or be reborn.

A few weeks ahead of the start for shooting season two, a very slammed, but affable and low-key Jay Duplass took time out to talk to the Writers Guild of America, website about the show’s origins, why TV is closer to real life than features, and how doing a show on HBO has finally taught both of them the power of never closing storylines.

What did you want to do conceptually with Togetherness at the outset?

Around 2004 Mark and I were in Brooklyn, and we had these girlfriends for a while. Everyone our age at the time was trying to figure out if they were going to get married or break up and either option seemed like something we could totally do… We made the feature about that, called The Puffy Chair.

This show was similarly born out of [that] – all of us were in our mid to late 30s, and there were a couple of groups. There were the married people with kids, who were just getting their assess kicked. And then there were the single desperate people who either didn’t have romance and/or didn’t have any traction professionally. And we were all weirdly freaking out about approaching 40 and our lives not being the way that we thought it would be. The married people were jealous of the single people, and the single people were jealous of the married people.

I know Mark is married. Are you married, if you don’t mind me asking?

Yes, we’re both married with kids. And our friend Steve Zissis, who we created the show with, is actually single. We had single friends and a lot of people who would come to L.A. for a month to do work and would sleep on our couches. Sometimes that would be annoying, and sometimes your marriage is in a place where you need someone to sleep on your coach and shake shit up a little bit. Like, “Oh, wow, we get along better when there’s a third person living in our house.” The dynamics of all that were super interesting. And then just the general massive amount of struggle that comes with trying to be a good friend or a good dad or a good wife, and trying to make your own personal dreams come true at the same time. That’s enough conflict to keep you an inch away from drowning in every sector of your life. We started talking about all these stories and it was just – they were so funny, and they were so desperate, it just seemed like it could go on forever. And that’s when we started to realize this is probably more than a movie, this feels like a show.

To use a real estate term, this show is kind of open concept. Other than these two couples essentially being under the same roof, there’s no plot-based construct. It gives you all kinds of freedom to let the characters in the narrative organically develop. Is that something you did by design?

Yeah, we even underestimated how open it was at first. It’s interesting you say open concept because we’ve been calling it open universe. First, HBO woke us up a little bit because we kept opening storylines and closing them like two episodes later. They were like, “Guys, this is television, you don’t have to close, you just have to keep opening.” It took a little while to get used to, and now we’re obsessed with it, because it’s actually very suited to our vérité, documentary-style filmmaking because its way more like real life. The way that you open and you close plot lines happens in life. But in terms of emotional evolution, the whole wrapping up shit emotionally at the end of a feature always involves a significant amount of artifice, which we’ve been really careful about, and I’m proud of how we’ve done that in our features. But that doesn’t really happen in real life and that’s what’s so exciting about this form. This is actually more life-like. Also you get a lot more time in the thick of it, in the struggle of everything, which is where we’ve always thrived and where we’ve always wanted to be. So we’re finding ourselves excited about the forum.

The comedy here, not to diminish it, is kind of a no-brainer, but the depth and drama as these things unfold, has that been surprising to you?

Yeah, specifically the dramatic punch you can get from a really subtle thing. When you know your characters so well, you’re allowed to in this kind of storytelling [where] you get to do it in a really subtle way. When you have a breakup with your spouse or whatever, it’s probably not going to probably end up in a big ass dramatic argument that’s well lit down by the beach, you know? It happens at CVS, in aisle six when you’re fighting over his and her toothbrushes. The concept of being able to know your character so well – I don’t know, it’s kind of like everything we’ve been trying to do with features all this time, and now we’re sitting in a forum where we’re so much more empowered to do it.

How fortunate do you feel to be working during this era of cable TV?

Yeah, it’s perfect. I mean, our experience of working with HBO was like what we thought studio filmmaking was going to be. We came [to Hollywood] and got all these hopes and dreams kind of beat out of us. And then it happened – the level of support, the level of appreciation that they have for what we’re trying to do. The fact that it’s being really well received by press and by audiences, it’s like I kind of convinced myself that doesn’t happen, and it’s happening right now. It’s impossible to overstate how amazing it feels.

Give me a thumbnail of how you guys write together. What’s interesting or unique about your actual routine?

The most interesting part about how we do stuff – and it’s all on a case by case basis – is that our storytelling starts in the private conversations that Mark and I have with each other and have always had with each other. We’ll be in an airport. and we’ll notice something unique and specific going on. Like a man and a woman walking, and she tells him where to sit. And it raises a question and we start – that can be it. It can be observation, it can be something that’s from our lives, something usually personal and embarrassing, and we’d just cringe. Then we’ll start giggling uncontrollably about it. When we hit on something like that, we know that there’s a scenario or a character or both, and that becomes part of like this suit that we’re always sitting in and talking about. Honestly, we don’t create the suit so we can make movies and TV. This suit exists because of what we’re obsessed with, but now we know that it also exists to make movies. But, you know, if we were in prison, we’d still be doing it.

You’re observational dudes.

Yeah. We’re obsessed with human beings and what they’re doing and why and giggling about it. And so that evolves into storytelling. Mark will call me and say, “Remember that dude in the airport, that, like, Richard Jenkins-y kind of dude? What if that guy…” And he’ll just tell me a five-minute story. I will probably call him back and then continue that story, and that story may go away, or it may grow. By the time we’re in a realm of feature film, probably we have our heads around it, and either Mark or I am leading it, where we’re like, “Ok, I got the feature for the guy at the airport.” So I’ll tell him the story, and it’s immediately evident whether I’m igniting that fire within him – he doesn’t even really have to say it, I can tell when he’s listening to me. Usually while I’m telling the story he’ll start telling it with me, and we’ll go back and forth. So in general our writing comes from telling each other stories, which we’ve done since we were kids. Once we start writing, I’ll say the most common form that we do is one of us writes a draft, and then we trade drafts back and forth. We don’t sit in a room with each other and figure things out.

So based on these conversations, one guy will draft it and then…?

Yeah, whoever’s leading at the time, and the leadership of the project changes at any moment. Our taste is so specific, and that’s the thing about siblings. Everyone has a very specific sense of humor and taste that they share with their siblings, and that’s why there are a lot of teams. It gives you the confidence to come forth with that.

Yeah, but how do you get along so well? Can you explain it?

I will say, it’s not easy. It doesn’t just happen. We work very hard, and we’re very careful of how we talk to each other and treat each other – it’s a marriage, you know? But when we were kids we didn’t have that rough, fighting relationship. I don’t know. I didn’t have the desire to. I always included Mark. I was the big brother, and I always included him on stuff. It was natural to do it. It has always been this way.

You never had the desire to destroy him, like some older siblings do?

No, I didn’t. A lot of people talk about our spread of age as being ideal, we’re three and a half years apart. The three year realm being, you’re far enough apart where there is no competition. There was never any competition between me and Mark because I always clearly better at everything when we were growing up. But we were close in age enough to share things, to collaborate and to share things. So in a weird way, we got lucky with that stuff.

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