There was a time, before they became the poster children for independent film, that directors like Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino were just a bunch of guys struggling to make movies. Short of their friends and family, nobody knew who they were, and, more significantly, nobody cared what they were doing.
Most aspiring filmmakers dream of the day when they go from being a broke film-school graduate to being the guy who made She's Gotta Have It, when they stop being a videostore clerk and become the person who made Reservoir Dogs. But that kind of success is rare, which makes it all the more exciting to see filmmakers who, to borrow a phrase from P-Funk, are standing on the verge of gettin' it on. The filmmaking duo of brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, whose movie The Puffy Chair opens this week, are standing on the verge, poised precariously on the edge of becoming the new faces of indie filmmaking, the champions of every wannabe director armed with a digital video camera.
The Puffy Chair premiered last year at Sundance before going on to become a critically acclaimed hit on the festival circuit. The bare-bones plot is simple enough: Twentysomething slacker Josh (Mark Duplass) embarks on a road trip to pick up a vintage purple La-Z-Boy recliner that he's won on eBay, which he plans to give to his father as a birthday present. Along for the ride is Josh's girlfriend, Emily (Kathryn Aselton), who seems to have problems with where the relationship is headed. For Emily, the trip is an opportunity to spend time alone with her boyfriend, but those plans fall apart when Josh's spacey younger brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) decides to tag along.
Although Puffy Chair was a hit at festivals, a lot has changed in the indie film world since the days of breakout hits like Clerks and Slacker. Nowadays "small film" can mean something that cost under $20 million, with a cast of recognizable stars. Films like Friends with Money and Upside of Anger have squeezed out the under-a-million movies that have no recognizable stars. Films like The Puffy Chair, which cost in the neighborhood of $15,000 to produce and stars no one you've ever heard of, are a risk that distributors are seldom willing to take.
The theatrical distribution of Puffy Chair represents a grassroots approach to a business model dominated by big-budget fare like X-Men: The Last Stand and Da Vinci Code. Rather than open all over the country on thousands of screens, Puffy Chair is only opening in five cities. "Portland's in the first wave of five cities that we're opening in," said Jay Duplass during a recent phone interview. "We hand-picked the markets: young, smart, film-savvy kind of markets."
As The Puffy Chair makes its way to various cities, it will have to go toe-to-toe with the biggest films of the summer just to find its audience. And even though it is one of the best films of the summer, the struggle will be difficult. What the film has going for it is Jay's direction and cinematography, which give the film a voyeuristic, documentary feel, and Mark's writing and acting, which work in tandem with his brother's behind-the-camera technique to create a sense of reality. In fact, the film has more honesty and a greater sense of reality than so-called reality television. Unfortunately, what the film doesn't have is a multimillion-dollar marketing push behind it. Instead of commercials on every channel, Puffy Chair has a MySpace account. But when a film is as good as this—and make no mistake, this film is great—maybe that's all it needs.
Mark and Jay are aware of the dangers they face in the treacherous waters of film distribution, yet they remain optimistic. "Our responsibility is to make a good movie," says Mark. "And if you make a great movie, things will take care of themselves."
Mark Duplass will present
at a special advance screening 7 pm Thursday, June 1, at the Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave. Opens Friday, June 2, at Fox Tower.