Is Mark Duplass the busiest man to emerge from the Austin film community? "Er, I don't know," he said. "I never thought of it that way." Yet considering he's wrapping one TV show, shooting another, and his latest film, Creep, debuts on Netflix today, he might want to reconsider.
UT grad and SXSW regular Duplass calls found-footage psychological horror Creep "a Craigslist adventure that goes wrong." Aaron (Patrick Brice, who pulls triple duty as actor, director, and co-writer) is a struggling filmmaker who responds to a Craigslist posting from Josef (Duplass). It's an easy $1,000: just follow Josef around for a day, and film what he does. The scenario immediately solves the inherent conundrum of found footage: Why don't people just put the camera down and run away? Instead, he said, it provides "a nice justification for the camera to be there. He was hired to film him, and secondarily there's a moment where he starts realizing, 'I should probably keep filming this in case something weird happens, and we need a trail.'"
Duplass explained the story was inspired by character-driven dramas that are, at their heart, two-handers: My Dinner With Andre, Misery, and Fatal Attraction. At the same time, he attributed some of the narrative to "my myriad of strange Craigslist experiences over the years." For example, a few years ago he was buying a loft bed "deep in one of the buroughs of New York City, and there was a guy whose personal space was a little too close to mine." The two started taking apart the bed, and within half an hour, the seller was telling Duplass all about his divorce. Within an hour "he was crying, and I remember thinking, this is so amazing. Craigslist has brought two disparate strangers together, and allowed him to have the chance to emote to me, and for me to listen to him. At the same time, if I don't leave here soon, something terrible might happen."
Experiences like that helped forge the push and pull between Aaron and Josef. "I loved the idea of putting these two guys in a room. One who would do whatever he could to get love and attention, and the other who needs to have someone need his love."
However, Duplass didn't want to do the simple reveal that one of the two men isn't what they seem. He said, "I feel like if I have anything to offer to the horror genre, I've built my whole career on trying to get performances that feel somewhat naturalistic and more real than your average film." By contrast, he said, "Horror movies tend to focus on that less than your average genre, because they're focusing on getting their scares down and getting their pacing down. ... If your average horror filmmaker made a movie about a Craigslist adventure gone wrong, within the first 10 minutes someone's going to get killed. We were very interested in making a movie where the central question is, 'Is this guy just a little off, or is he really dangerous?'"
Just like an Aaron needs a Josef, Duplass needed someone like Brice. The collaboration came about for the best possible reason. "I really loved Patrick as a person," said Duplass. Fresh out of film school, Brice was actually Duplass' nanny's boyfriend, and Duplass immediately knew they should work together. He said, "We wanted to make it small and arts-and-craftsy and handmade."
The pair first put together a five page outline under the title Peachfuzz, shot for a week, and showed the end result to friends. Duplass said, "Half of it was interesting, half of it just kinda sucked, and everyone who watched that cut was zeroing in on the crazy energy of Josef, and what that did to Aaron." They then spent a year shooting, reshooting, showing the footage to friends, and refining the story. "In many ways, we discovered the film through making it, as opposed to exacting a preconceived notion of what we wanted it to be."
That process was further honed when a potentially unexpected name entered the picture. Jason Blum, founder of the Blumhouse horror empire, the distributor behind box office leviathan franchises like Insidious, Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and Sinister, may not seem like the obvious collaborator for one of the original figures in the Mumblecore movement. However, Duplass felt he had found another suitable collaborator: "What if I could marry the Blumhouse label with the Duplass label, and see what that could bring in?" However, Duplass credits Blum with giving the movie focus. "He really helped us shape the thing more clearly into something we could call a horror movie."
Not that Duplass is a complete stranger to horror. While best known as a director for deft character studies like Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and as an actor on comedy-tinged TV like The League and his new HBO series Togetherness, his sophomore feature Baghead played with slasher flick conventions. Genre-bending titles like Safety Not Guaranteed and The One I Love dot his resume, and earlier this year, he appeared in a more traditional Blumhouse release, resurrection shocker The Lazarus Effect.
Yet while Blum gets criticized for lowest common denominator multiplex horror, Duplass praised him as a collaborator who understood the nature of his film. It's also why it's going straight to Netflix. "Every film needs the proper place," said Duplass, "so a movie like The Lazarus Effect was a highly curated Blumhouse thriller that was designed to go on 3,000 screens, was edited to go on 3,000 screens." Early on, there were discussions about a similar release for Creep through Universal, "but when we tested the film, and we realized what people connected with, what people were comfortable with, and what people were not comfortable with, we realized we were going to have to do X, Y, and Z to this movie to make it palatable to a larger audience. They weren't terrible things, they wouldn't have made a bad movie out of it, but it definitely would have rubbed a lot of the especially unique and frankly weird edges off it, and Jason Blum felt the same way."
Time for a reality check from Duplass. "The truth is, you need to rub those edges out if you want to spend $20 million promoting a movie. They need to get their money back. That's just the way it is."
By contrast, he said, "Netflix was a way for me to take this movie out, worldwide, day and date, accompanied by tremendous promotional money and muscle and power, and still make the movie exactly the way I wanted to make it. And, if I'm being totally candid, in a summer where we've got Jurassic World and Ant-Man and Inside-Out and all these really powerful movie-theatre films, I kinda think that you should spend your $12 on that movie instead of Creep."
It's not that Duplass doesn't want you to watch his film. He just understands that some films work better on the small screen, and he's currently working on another four Netflix exclusives. He said, "I don't need to measure my dick against big theatrical releases anymore. I'm in the place in my career where I'm just like, 'This is a really great and appropriate way for this movie to go out.'" For Duplass, this is a perfect opportunity to get creeped out in the discomfort of your own home. He said, "This movie is best played at one in the morning with the lights out."
Creep starts streaming on Netflix today, and is available on iTunes for digital purchase.
Read our SXSW review of the film here.
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