PARK CITY, Utah — For years, amid grumbling over the length of the Oscars ceremony, there have been cries to remove prizes for short films from the telecast. It’s valid. To most of the general public, short films are just the spanner that’ll always mess up your Oscars pool.
But if you love a filmmaker, chances are, he or she got started making shorts. Think: Sofia Coppola, Michel Gondry, Paul Thomas Anderson, Lynne Ramsay, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and Martin McDonagh, whose “Six Shooter” is considered one of the best Oscar-winning shorts of all time. Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” actually started as a 13-minute live-action short that premiered at Sundance in 1993, and he’s coming full circle this year as the likely front-runner for “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” available on Netflix. (You can catch Oscar-nominated shorts in theaters starting Feb. 16.)
Recently, director-writer-actors Mark and Jay Duplass returned to the Sundance Film Festival to celebrate 40 years of short films at the festival, and to screen the 2003 short that started their career, “This Is John,” as well as the pilot for their new TV show “Penelope,” about a 16-year-old (Megan Stott) who absconds into the woods to escape the modern world. (It doesn’t have distribution yet.) We spoke with the Duplass brothers about how a single short — made just as Jay was ready to quit trying to be an artist and look for a real job — led to a long career of directing movies like “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” and “Baghead”; producing and creating TV shows like “Togetherness” and “Somebody Somewhere”; and starring in series like “Transparent” (Jay) and “The League” and “The Morning Show” (Mark).
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Q. What do you remember about “This Is John” getting into Sundance?
Jay Duplass: I was 28 and Mark was 25, and it was a huge deal. We rented a condo, and we brought our family and our friends. There were 55-year-old men sleeping on floors.
Not only do we have like the cheapest movie ever to go to Sundance to that point, but I think we did Sundance as cheaply as possible. We had, like, 15 people in a two-bedroom condo on the freeway, not even in Park City. And we rented two tiny little cars, and we would shuttle back and forth between the festival and the condo. And then when we got to Sundance, no one could get into anything. No one could get into any parties. No one could get into any screenings.
You said the short was the cheapest ever to make it into Sundance. How much did it cost?
Jay: It genuinely was like a $3 tape that we had bought because we were using our home video camera at that point in time. But in 2003 you still had to exhibit on a 35-millimeter print. So like the video-to-film transfer was $1,000. To get it in the can was $3, and to show it at Sundance was $1,003.
Mark Duplass: But don’t forget you have to add $100 to the budget, because we printed up a thousand business cards that we handed out.
Jay: They said Duplass Brothers. And I think it had some of that s— that we were still doing at the time in Austin, like we were editing and renting out our 16mm camera for other filmmakers.
What can you tell me about “This Is John”?
Mark: It’s about a young man who tries to perfect the personal greeting of his answering machine and proceeds to have a bit of a nervous breakdown. And Jay wasn’t kidding: It really was just Jay and I who shot it on our parents’ video camera with a dead pixel in the center of it. It was the ugliest and worst-sounding movie, I think, that had ever been exhibited at Sundance, just before the technology had arrived to make good-looking stuff on HD or even DV [digital video].
So, we were feeling very insecure going in, but it ended up playing really, really well. I think there was something about just the inherent humility of it that was refreshing for people. And I think that Sundance validating us and those audiences confirming that they liked what we had to offer — which was just kind of making fun of ourselves on camera at that point — was a huge part of who we became as artists. And I think we modeled our whole career from there. We’ve said this a lot, but it’s true: If not for Sundance 2003 and them picking us at that time, there’s no way we’re having this conversation right now. Jay and I are off doing some other career.
Renting video cameras.
Mark: If we’re lucky!
Jay: The biggest thing was just meeting other filmmakers that we like. I mean, we literally went to every single event that we could get into. We were wearing out our welcome super hard, but we met a ton of people we still know and hang out with and collaborate with today. And we also did get an agent and a lawyer off of that short film, which was absurd. Honestly, when we submitted the film, it was on a lark. You need to understand that in 2003, a cheap short film was, like, $10,000 because people were shooting on film. They were editing on Steenbecks [a flatbed editing suite]. So the idea that we would submit this $3 …
Mark: … Micro-budget, yeah, it was not happening. And I think 2004 [the next year, when they came back with another short] was the year we met Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden and they were in the shorts program [with “Gowanus, Brookyn”]. We all felt very young relative to the other filmmakers and definitely bonded over that. And then they [got into the Sundance labs] for “Half Nelson” and that like really inspired us to go out and make our own feature [2005’s “The Puffy Chair]. And we would not only help each other in terms of reading each other’s scripts and watching each other’s cuts, but we would even ship equipment to each other. We would send our camera to Joe Swanberg [“Drinking Buddies”] so he could use it. It was definitely the beginning of a community across Austin, New York, Chicago. It kind of widened that for us.
What did you take from that as you built your careers?
Jay: We had so many failures earlier in our 20s because at that time we were trying to be the Coen brothers and we weren’t the Coen brothers. I think the truth is, it’s hard to know who you are as an artist or a filmmaker in your 20s. And when we saw audiences watch what Mark was doing on-screen, and to see them laugh and be shocked by our pathetic desperation to be somebody, to make something that mattered — it solidified our core ethic [of making fun of ourselves], and that’s what we’ve been doing this whole time.
And what were the tangible results of that as you went into making “The Puffy Chair”?
Mark: I think at that point, we were gaining some momentum and there was this feeling of like, Well, let’s go make the next “Garden State.” You guys look like that. That could be it. And your agents would get you $4 million to make a movie and break out of Sundance. And our deep gut was just telling us, “We should just take a few pennies and make “The Puffy Chair” the way we’ve made our shorts. We should just keep doing this very thing that Sundance sort of validated, in-house.
What do you remember about that screening?
Jay: That’s the best screening of my life, still.
Mark: We got a bunch of giggles before the first laugh for stuff that was funny to us but we didn’t know if it would connect. And right at that moment, we were like, “Oh, this is going to be one of those screenings.” And it did turn into one of those rocket screenings.
Beyond your personal history, why do you think shorts are so important?
Mark: These days, what it takes to put together a really well-curated, 90-minute-plus feature film and get it into Sundance, it’s a really siloed and tiny group of people. But the ability, like us, to maybe get a little lucky and strike into inspiration on a six-minute piece and then get into a community that can nurture you and help curate you and move you forward is really special. That’s a more wide-open funnel for who can get into that. And in film — which we know requires such an experience level and synthesis of skill sets that is hard to put together — shorts are the one place that kind of feel like a pop song still. If you get at the right moment of inspiration, you can nail that and then grow from there.