Mark Duplass on the Books That Made Him Laugh and Cry
by Katie Lucas
The prolific series creator and filmmaker discusses the books that matter most to him, and the process of becoming an author himself.
Mark Duplass, alongside his brother Jay, is one half of the prolific creative duo behind HBO shows Room 104, Animals. and Togetherness. Further diversifying their resumes, Mark and Jay just co-authored their first book, Like Brothers. In the spirit of #ReadingIsLit, Mark offers insight into his creative process, his favorite books, and shares reading recommendations for his fans.
HBO: How did you decide to write a book?
Mark Duplass: It was a surprise; we didn’t really plan on it. We realized that we have such a unique journey to becoming filmmakers — we came from nowhere with no connections and figured out how to make movies without anybody’s permission. I never thought that was unique until I started to hear from young filmmakers who said, “Oh my God, how did you guys do this?!” We don’t have time to get coffee with every one of those young filmmakers, but we do have time to write a book that shares our journey. Our way isn’t the only way to become a successful filmmaker, but if you’re like us — lost and a genetic B minus — we’ll show you how to do it. That felt important because film school is expensive. I’m really excited about public libraries that are redefining themselves as free learning centers. You can get your high school degree at a public library. I want Like Brothers to answer young kids who ask, “How could I possibly become a filmmaker?” This book will step that out for you.
It’s also about how to work closely with someone, get the best out of each other, and check your ego at the door. It’s about how to be a filmmaker, but also how to be a better business partner or friend. It’s all about the delicate art of truly being intimate with someone, joining forces with their spirits, but also respecting their space. It’s a delicate art navigating that, which Jay and I have been doing for literally 40 years.
HBO: What was the writing process like for the book? How is was it different than writing for TV or film?
Mark Duplass: It was hard for us because we’re not authors. We didn’t know what we were doing. We had to forgive ourselves for writing a lot of trash at first, so we threw away quite a bit. The learning curve was very steep and exciting, so we were thrilled by that to a certain degree.
In terms of the difference in writing a book versus writing for TV, the biggest difference for us is that we can go into production on a script that is not perfect because we know we have time to improvise the dialogue, re-edit it in post [production], add the right music — all those future changes. But when you’re writing a book, once you put it out there — it’s done. So it was a process of learning when to say, “OK, it’s finished.”
HBO: Did any authors or filmmakers inspire the subject or tone of the book?
Mark Duplass: No. We found that when we try to look to people for either inspiration or to show us how to do things, we end up inherently making things that are derivative or half-assed. If we quiet our minds, we tend to do better. It’s not the same for everyone, but we’re very caveman-like and instinctual with the process.
HBO: What advice would you give for someone having trouble getting in touch with their gut instincts?
Mark Duplass: I would say that what you uniquely have to offer as an artist, or even as a person in the world, is very hard to tap into and it took us a long time. Be easy on yourself and don’t be upset if you can’t find it; you definitely will. The first place to look is in those extremely unique, embarrassing conversations you have at 2 in the morning with a loved one where you’re admitting something cringeworthy. When you learn how to communicate those to an audience — to splay yourself open and offer yourself — you’re probably getting close to what you’re good at.
HBO: What book would you recommend for fans of Togetherness?
Mark Duplass: Togetherness was, at its core, a show about intimacy:bout trying to be close to the ones you love, while also getting enough space to breathe on your own. Maybe The Corrections [by Jonathan Franzen]?
HBO: What book would you recommend for fans of Room 104?
Mark Duplass: Room 104 is all about showing up in a random motel room and not knowing what kind of story you might get. Is this going to get funny? Sad? Horrifying? That’s the fun of the show. The unexpected. So… Tenth of December, a collection of short stories by George Saunders, that’s wildly disparate stories in one book.
George Saunders is the funniest. He makes me laugh in the way I want to laugh — with so much empathy and deep understanding of people. He illuminates things and people I’ve never thought about — and I’ve dedicated my life to the study of people and their idiosyncrasies. He is light years ahead. I’m constantly reading his stuff and just giggling at, “How have I not noticed that before? Thank God he showed that to me.” It’s that empathetic giggling thing that I really cherish.
HBO: What book would you recommend for fans of Animals.?
Mark Duplass: There is no book like Animals. There is nothing like Animals. That said, there’s a great book with some talking bunnies in it. It’s called Watership Down [by Richard Adams].
HBO: What are you reading right now?
Mark Duplass: I’m reading a young adult book called The Someday Suitcase [by Corey Ann Haydu] because I read all the books that my 10-year-old daughter reads, so we can share things. I am reading B.J. Novak’s short story collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, which are frighteningly well-written. The dude is very intelligent and understands story in a way that I don’t yet, so I’m learning a lot from him. And then I’m reading a book called Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright, and it’s great. It’s a Western Buddhist’s introduction to how you can incorporate the principles of Buddhism to add some peace and centeredness to your life. Really practical, humble self-help.
HBO: Do you have a favorite literary character?
Mark Duplass: The character that moved me the most out of any character is Owen Meany from A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. When I read it, I was 18 years old, heading into the world and I knew I was ready to make a change. I was thinking, “Who am I going to be? What elements of myself am I going to focus on and become?” That story of his destiny hit me at a perfect time. I cried for a month after finishing that book.
One of my favorite characters of all time is Don Gately from Infinite Jest [by David Foster Wallace]. He’s overweight, average intelligence and he works as a counselor at a drug and recovery house — quite the unexpected version of a hero. It took me three times to finish Infinite Jest. I finally got through it and I think that is my favorite book of all time. I don’t think I’ll be able to beat that.