Ed Helms discovers where the Duplass brothers live

March 16, 2012

Ed Helms understands comedy. But the kind of improv that writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass do made him a little nervous.

“I’ve done a lot of comedy improvisation and this was nothing like that,” says Helms of his role in the Duplass brothers’ new film, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” “It was very different. Mark and Jay wrote a wonderful script and if we’d done it, word for word, it would have been a fantastic movie. But that’s not how they operate. They put their faith in the cast to internalize the scene and make it their own.

“So you have these mundane moments with damaged, arguably dull characters. Yet even the smallest moments were exciting if we felt like we got it right. It’s different from trying to get a laugh. There’s something beautiful in the smallness of it. Once you put the microscope on the little universe of this family, it keeps exploding, like fractals. It’s sort of intense and beautiful.”

Helms stars with Jason Segel in “Jeff,” which opens Friday (3/16/12). Segel is the title character, a 30-something stoner who lives in his mother’s basement and is searching for his place in the world. Helms plays his brother, a paint salesman in a failing marriage (to Judy Greer) – and their worlds collide one day when Jeff is forced to leave the house on an errand for his mother, even as he searches for a sign from the universe about a direction for his life.

The film is the next step upward for the Duplass brothers, their second studio movie (after 2010’s “Cyrus”). But they maintain the same hands-on, hand-made approach no matter what the budget.

“Jay and I are really excited about the place we’re trying to inhabit in the studio world,” Duplass says. “We’re making what we call mainstream-adjacent art films, and putting bigger stars and more stars in them. So you’ve got a film with Ed Helms, Jason Segel and Susan Sarandon at a fraction of what it would normally cost. They want to work with us because they know we’re obsessed with performance. They know that, if they have a great take but it’s not the one with perfect lighting, well, that’s still the one we’re going to use.

“And we do it at a fraction of the cost. For doing that, we’re getting unofficial tenure. We’ve never made a movie that has not made money. So, for the studios, it’s a lottery ticket: Even if it sucks at the box office, they’ll still make their money from HBO or DVDs or any of the other ancillary markets. So the movies don’t have to be mainstream.”

Indeed, Helms was surprised at what he’d signed on for, in a good way.

“It didn’t seem to be as big a change of pace to me as it turned out to be,” Helms says. “”I thought what a lot of potential movie-goers will probably think: Here’s Jason Segel and Ed Helms so it will be pretty silly. But that’s not how Mark and Jay Duplass roll. And God bless them for it. I was surprised and thrilled at what the whole experience has been.”

Indeed, Helms had never met Segel until the first day they worked together on the set: “We instantly found this fraternal vibe that informed our relationship for the rest of the production, on and off the set,” he says. “In comedy improv, you’re usually trying to find something to hook into that will inform all your choices moving forward in the scene. This was about trying to find the most real execution you could. Jason says he saw his job as doing nothing. It was a real learning experience for me – and what I learned is that less is definitely more.

“Like, just because the story tells you that you’re upset in a moment doesn’t mean you necessarily telegraph it. I thought of it this way: You can be standing in line at a theater and maybe the guy in front of you is going through a divorce and is completely broken inside. But you couldn’t necessarily tell it by looking at him. It’s the idea that we aren’t always emoting. What I felt trying to be real is like is about trying to be normal.”

It’s the way the Duplass brothers have always worked, beginning with the first short film they got into Sundance: “It started with us coming out of film school, obeying the rules, writing scripts we felt were like the Coen brothers and executing them – and realizing that we were making mediocre art, which was very frustrating,” Duplass says.

“One day we were sitting on Jay’s couch in 2002, really depressed. And Jay said, ‘What if we made a movie like we did when we were kids, shooting with our mom’s video camera? Just do what we used to do.’ So we decided to improv some relatable concept – and Jay said, ‘Last week, I tried to rerecord my answering machine message and it took me and hour and a half and I almost had an emotional breakdown.’ And I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was the worst-looking and sounding film you’ll ever see, just using a video camera with the microphone on the camera. There were two dead pixels in the image – and it was the first movie of ours to get into Sundance.”

When they took their first feature, “The Puffy Chair,” to Sundance and South by Southwest, they found themselves part of a movement that became known as “mumblecore”: do-it-yourself filmmakers who had crafted feature films on shoestring budgets using unknown and amateur actors.

The key to the movement, such as it was, was the advent of an affordable Panasonic digital video camera that came out in 2002, which shot video at 24 frames-per-second (the same as film) that could be transferred to film without noticeable degradation of the image.

“Suddenly you could make a great-looking film for no money,” Duplass says. “The term ‘mumblecore’ came to broadly define anything that was micro-budget. You no longer needed $50,000 to make a feature in 16mm. So there was nothing stopping a 22-year-old from making a feature film.”

While some filmmakers have rejected the “mumblecore” tag, Duplass found the label handy: “It was certainly valuable to us in 2005,” he says. “We were making $10,000 movies and the New York Times was writing about us.”

For Helms, who grew up in Atlanta, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is the latest in a rising career that has seen him go from being a struggling stand-up comic to a correspondent on “The Daily Show” to a regular on “The Office” to the star of the comedy mega-hit “The Hangover.” Helms has written a couple of films he would like to act in – and is hopeful that there will be at least one more season of “The Office.”

“I was a comedy nerd who was hooked on ‘Saturday Night Live’ at a young age,” he says. “When I first started, my parents thought it was just a phase for a long time but they were remarkably supportive. Still, I think they were a little bewildered for a few years. But my dad was a huge ‘Daily Show’ fan so when I got that, he felt, alright, this is working. My parents came to Los Angeles for the ‘Hangover’ premiere and afterward, my mom was tearing up and I thought, oh no, she’s really offended. But she said through the tears, ‘That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.’”

The exceptionally prolific Duplass has no fewer than four other films in the pipeline, including “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Safety Not Guaranteed,” both of which he acted in, and “The Do-Deca-Pentathalon,” which he and his brother wrote and directed, set for summer release. Another film, “Black Rock,” which he wrote and produced and which was directed by wife Katie Aselton, played at Sundance. Plus he continues to star in the FX comedy series, “The League.”

“Yeah, I’m a bit of a workaholic – definitely Type A,” he says. “But at this point, we’re out of scripts. We were able to make five movies in six years because we kind of stockpiled them. Now the drawer is almost empty. My wife is having a baby in a couple months, so I guess we’ll do some incubating this year.”

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