EXCLUSIVE: Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis Talk The Do-Deca Pentathlon
Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis Talk The Do-Deca Pentathlon, on Blu-ray and DVD today!
Ahead of venturing off to make the studio features Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home, director brothers Mark and Jay Duplass shot the small indie comedy The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. Before it could be completed, the filmmakers were forced to move onto their other projects, and it sat dormant for a couple of years. The film was eventually completed, and released theatrically to rave reviews in July of this year. Now, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon finally comes home on Blu-ray and DVD this week. To celebrate the release, we caught up with its two stars to find out more about the making of this tale of brotherly love gone awry.
Mark Kelly and Steve Zissis play two estranged siblings who, when they were in high school, competed in the The Do-Deca-Pentathlon to find out "who the better brother is". This tournament of wills and strength was cut short by their concerned parents, and the two have been living separate lives ever since, not knowing who the true winner was. But now, they are back under their mother's roof to celebrate a birthday, and old rivalries have flared back up again in an ugly way.
First up, we talked to Steve Zissis, who plays Mark, a loving husband and father who desperately doesn't want his brother at his birthday party, because he knows the chaos that will ensue, and how it could damage his family.
Here is our conversation.
Because this is about two brothers, and its directed by two brothers, it might be easy to draw the line that this film is about them in some ways. But in speaking with directors Mark and Jay Duplass, they claim they're not the competitive sort. Can you tell us a little about the actual brothers the film is based on? Because we do get to see them in the extras on the DVD, and its not Mark and Jay...
Steve Zissis: (Laughs) Yeah, there has been a misconception in some of the press that I have read. People sometimes assume that this film is about Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass. But it really isn't. Its based on Anton and Mark Solak, two real life brothers that Mark and Jay grew up down the street from in New Orleans, Louisianna. These two brothers did have an epic, Olympic, personal competition. They competed against each other to see who the better brother was. This film is inspired by real brothers that are not Mark and Jay. That being said, I have seen Mark and Jay play ping-pong against each other, and they definitely have a competitive spirit as well.
That competitiveness doesn't ever come through in their interviews, and its hard to see it on display in their work...Does it come through when they are directing you on set?
Steve Zissis: No, it never does. They have a really balanced and complimentary way of working with each other. There is no sense of conflict or competitiveness with them when they are on set, directing. They really share a brain, which makes it great to work with them.
And you've worked with them going all the way back to Baghead, which is the first of their film's that I ever saw. How did you get involved with them, and what is it about your working relationship with the brothers that they've had you back for nearly all of their theatrical features?
Steve Zissis: We all come from the same place. We are all from New Orleans, first of all. We happened to attend the same high school, albeit, we were in different grades. Mark was a year younger than me, and Jay was three years ahead of me. But we all came from the same high school. We knew of each other growing up. When they first started out, experimenting with making movies, they saw me doing some theater. When they were making their first feature, which was kind of an experiment, they held auditions, and they cast me, and we've been working together ever since. I think there is another reason why we work together so much. We have a lot in common. Because we do come from the same place. Our worldview, and our sense of humor...Things like that are very connected and similar.
Watching the film, they certainly put you through some hard ropes. This is a low budget indie, so I can't imagine you had a stunt double. How rigorous was the shooting process of the actual Do-Deca itself? And was the outcome planned, or were you guys really competing?
Steve Zissis: It's a mixture of the two. Certainly, for story purposes, certain events were supposed to be won by me or Mark Kelly. But there are also events where you see us really competing. It's certainly a combination of the two. But interestingly, our egos wanted us to win certain events over others, because of the fact that we played the event in high school. Mark and Jay were like, "Okay, you can win baseball, and you can win basketball..." (Laughs) Some of the events we were competing against each other, though. We were just going for it!
Have you had a chance to watch the DVD?
Steve Zissis: No!
The only special features are these two featurettes of the actual brothers competing in the Do-Deca. Did you get a chance to watch that before you shot the movie? Did you get to pull anything from either brother in bringing your performance to the screen?
Steve Zissis: No, that footage was all shot after the movie. I am very curious to see that. I did not get to see the actual brothers compete. No...
They play Rock, Paper, Scissors, and you wouldn't think that would make a compelling televised sport. But the way these two guys go at it, you're literally on the edge of your seat. And it goes on for a good twenty minutes...
Steve Zissis: (Laughs...) That is funny! The Rock, Paper Scissors...That's one of the events?
Yes! But you don't understand...Its intense, this game they engage in...
Steve Zissis: (Laughs) That is amazing. I can't wait to see it!
Watching this battle, you quickly understand that both brothers have a process in figuring out and determining what the other brother is going to do. Did the Duplass Brothers explain their methods of madness to you? We do kind of see that back and forth between you and Mark Kelly throughout the movie...
Steve Zissis: Certainly. Mark and Jay guided us in terms of that. Ultimately, it was just "inspired" by those guys. The movie became its own thing. Mark Kelly and I both have siblings in real life. I know that we were both drawing upon our past experiences with our own siblings. We were putting that into our performances. For example, I'm sure you know that the movie is largely improvised, which is how Mark and Jay shoot. The opening scene of the movie, I am in the bathtub. I am talking about my fictional brother, talking about defecating in the bathtub, but that actually happened to me in real life. It was done to me by my real life brother. So, you know, the lines between fact and fiction were definitely blurred during parts of that movie. Which I think makes the movie interesting.
In bringing up the improvisational nature of the film, when Baghead came out, everyone was talking about Mumblecore. It was a fad that people quickly turned against. It became a negative term quite fast, and directors sprinted to get away from it. When you come to this movie, its clearly not "Mumblecore" in terms of the definition of that technique in cinema, but it also clearly came out of that short-lived movement in film. What was the transition? Looking at it from an actor's viewpoint, how did we get from Mumblecore to Do-Deca?
Steve Zissis: I'm not totally sure of the evolution and devolution of Mumblecore. I think, Mark and Jay...I really don't want to answer this...Because I'm not sure at what point, and how they sort of separated themselves from that term, which seemed to be a little movement. The thing is, Mark and Jay never subscribed to the movement, or claimed to be a part of Mumblecore. It's just something someone outside of the circle noticed. They started lumping some of these directors and filmmakers together, because there were thematic and stylistic similarities between these films that were being made. Mark and Jay just happened to be in that group. It wasn't like Dogma, where you have Lars von Trier having a manifesto, and laying out these stylistic ways of making a film. Filmmakers subscribing to that, and following these sort of benchmarks of style. It just wasn't like that. Mumblecore was a term that came from someone else. Look, no one is mumbling in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. I think it did become a negative term. People got tired of it, and annoyed. What I think it was, Mumblecore...It was just people in their twenties, talking in improvisational ways about their relationships with each other. It was shot really low-fi, and it had a meandering feel. I think it was what it was. It was interesting at first, but I think people got tired of it. Again, I don't think Mark and Jay set out to make movies that were in a particular movement. They just happened to be there. It was just something that happened. All of their movies have been different. They have all evolved. Certainly, when they made Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home, these studio movies with big stars, none of the aspects of Mumblecore showed up at all...Except for the improvisation. Curb Your Enthusiasm is improvised. I don't think you'd consider that Mumblecore. Or Christopher Guest movies. I don't know if that makes sense.
That all makes perfect sense. I couldn't have asked for a better answer. Now, before my time runs out, I want to know what you thought about the end of this movie? Is this how it ended in the script? Did things change through improvisation? They end the special extras with the real brothers in the same way. Abruptly. We never know the outcome...
Steve Zissis: (Laughs...) Um, yeah. In terms of the end of the movie...In terms of the very end of the movie? It was planned to go a certain way, but ended up not happening when we improvised it in the moment. At the end of the movie, my character was supposed to have this emotional breakdown on the lawn, outside of the house. We shot it that way. But tonally, it wasn't working. On one of the takes, I saw the basketball pole nearby. So I just started playing with the basketball, and dunking them on this little pole. It was just something spontaneous that happened in the moment. They captured it, and Mark and Jay ended up loving it more than what we had planned, and what we had shot. That is just an example of how Mark and Jay are on set. They are spontaneous and open to an improvised moment. Sometimes that will change the course of what was planned, and they will go with that instead. That's what I think makes them such exciting filmmakers, and that comes through when you are watching them as an audience member. There is this sense of, "What is going to happen next?" You never know what is going to go down. I feel this tension, I feel this awfulness, and I feel like anything can happen. (Laughs) As opposed to very formulaic Hollywood movies, which may be very satisfying, but still...They are very predictable.
Who did you want to see win the Do-Deca? At first I was pulling for you, but by the end, I have to say, I was pulling for Mark...
Steve Zissis: (Laughs) I think I would have liked a tie. I think a tie is the way to go. That way, there is no winner and no loser. Of course, if you put a gun to my head, I would say, "Of Course, I want to win!" I wanted to see my character win.
They never let you know which brother won the real Do-Deca rematch?
Steve Zissis: I don't know! I am very curious to find out myself!
Next up, we talked with Mark Kelly, who plays Jeremy. Jeremy is a lonely, single guy who fashions himself a pro Poker player. He desperately wants to reinstate the The Do-Deca-Pentathlon so that he can finally win, proving that, despite the happy family life that Mark has, Jeremy is a better human being.
Here is our conversation with Mark Kelly.
I see that you are Oregon raised. That begs the question, how soon are you going to be on Portlandia?
I love Do-Deca, and while the ending is frustrating, it's the type of ending that makes you keep thinking about the movie, and people in it, long after its over. I want to know your thoughts on the ending. Who do you think should have won?
Mark Kelly: Well, this subject comes up a couple of times in the movie, and they say, "It's always a tie at grandma's house." I think, truly, they both win. In a sense, in terms of what comes out of the overall message of the movie. It's about rediscovering each other, and finding the love and respect for one another that was so difficult for them through their childhood and most of their lives. Though, the competitive side of me? I think that I win. Because I am able to make that move first, and certainly I throw in the towel to save his family. I also think I win, because ultimately, what I want is to be invited to his house. And that's what he does at the end. But again, on that note, I have so much love for Steve Zissis' work, and his character in the movie, that there is no question that I will at least give it a tie.
Through about half the movie, I wanted to see Steve win. But by the end, I was on your side. You're set up as the bad guy at the beginning, but the remarkable thing about your performance is that you pull that back, and give us a reverse, and your able to gain our sympathy without losing any of who this guy truly is...
Mark Kelly: Wow, that is great. That is flattering. I appreciate the things you just said...But it was by design for me to be the antagonist. I was meant to be the guy pushing buttons. It was an interesting journey, the way we were able to shoot in sequence for the most part, and build these characters. Even in scenes that were dying to be comedic, those brothers, sort of on the fly, would decide, "Why don't we take this in a more dramatic turn?" So, there came the opportunity to really explore beyond what was on the page. Also, my instincts from a storytelling point of view, I didn't want Jeremy to be hated by the audience. So I tried to stick to the core of what he was missing in life. It coincidently coincided with my own life. I have two older brothers that have settled down, and they have wonderful, beautiful families. At the time, I was single and lonely in that way. I was missing being apart from my nieces and nephews in real life. It was the chance to really express what that can be, and I had that parallel a little bit. The difference being, in real life, I have two older brothers, and we don't have a competitive thing with each other. In our adult lives, that is. Its fun to be able to portray what I think is very common in American families. It's a universal structure.
Knowing that a great deal of the movie is improvised, how does that generally work for you as an actor? Do you take your ideas to the directors before you start shooting? Or do you just let it out in front of the camera, even when it is premeditated in the moments leading up to the slate?
Mark Kelly: It is a little of everything. That is the incredible approach that Mark and Jay have, and their gift in storytelling. They really set the page with this really well written script, that as an actor, you'd be more than happy to perform. Shooting it in sequence, which is a complete rarity in Hollywood...I think they develop it, and they are improvising as they go as well. They have thought about who they are working with, and they get what they want in the initial few takes. Then they will see where it needs to go, and they will take breaks to talk amongst themselves. Then they will approach us based on our energy, and if we are going in a unique direction, they will change it up and say, "Let's go for more of a dramatic version." There is a method to their madness. People misunderstand them. They think they must burn a lot of tape and go wild. Not at all! It's very specific. They have a gift in going with the flow, and they find the honesty they are looking for.
From what I understand, the ending of the movie now is different than how it was originally written. How much did it change for your character in particular?
Mark Kelly: The core of the idea that inspired the movie stayed the same. But there were a lot of dramatic changes, especially at the beginning of the movie. It was just going to be a hidden phone call of me telling my mom that I was crashing the party. Don't tell my brother. They realized that is just a boring beginning for a movie. They realized they needed to change that up. So, that's where the story went from me making a phone call to opening with Steve Zissis talking about defecating in the bathtub. Which made for a fantastic opener. The ending was supposed to me more, "All is well that ends well." We have a BBQ at Steve's house. You see me getting invited out there. I have a girlfriend. Life is good all the way around. I think Mark and Jay fell in love with...The ending was always meant to have feeling, but I think more conflict and drama started to take shape in the story, so they wanted an ending that certainly gives the audience a sigh of relief, that these guys are on the way to a new beginning. Its not totally fixed, and they still have a long road ahead. I know a huge scene, that is an audience favorite, with Steve Zissis and Jennifer Lafleur, where he starts talking about letting himself go. He is fat. That was an incredible evolution of Steve being able to redeem himself, after treating himself and his wife poorly in the beginning of the movie.
What about the relationship between your character, Jeremy, and his nephew? How much of that was in the script, and how much of that is two actors finding the relationship as it plays out on screen?
Mark Kelly: Its funny. I was thinking about my character being a poker player. That is the one thing I was dead honest with Mark and Jay about, when they asked me. I said, "I'm a terrible poker player. I don't know how much you need to see me shuffling decks, and calling shots. But we'll have to do something different." That's when they started asking me about my own life, which ties into the question you asked earlier, a little bit. I told them that I was very close with my nephews back in Oregon. We bond in certain ways. Being the cool uncle, I don't have to be the total disciplinarian. That scene where we are making prank phone calls was a change in the story, from when I was originally teaching him how to play cards. We got enough of that with the online poker that you see us playing through in the kitchen. It might be nice to show them having a good time together. Also, I think it was important to show that, because it was Jeremy showing his love for his older brother, because that was something they did, and actually enjoyed doing, when they were younger. He's kind of sad, now. But he used to be the coolest. Its that kind of thing. I really love this story. Because there are certain things I am able to bring from my own childhood and life. It was fun to tell that with a brother filmmaking team, and the brothers that inspired the movie. Steve Zissis has brothers. So we all knew what we were bringing to the table in that regard.
Did you get to watch the actually brothers?
Mark Kelly: On the DVD extras? I haven't seen that. But I hear it's hilarious. They did a redo of the Do-Deca, and it came down to the final event. I'm dying to see it. We did get to meet them in person when we were shooting in New Orleans. They came over for a crawfish broil that we had halfway through principle photography. They were great guys. Although they are in very profound athletic shape. It was a fly in the ointment in terms of the shape that Steve Zissis and I were in, in the story.
Meeting someone your character is based on halfway through a shoot...Does that at all change how you want to approach what you are doing? Or do you have to toss all of that new knowledge of this person aside?
Mark Kelly: Ordinarily, I like to create a biography of someone. That would be me following them around, almost like a freak. But we were told immediately that this was "inspired" by these guys and what they did in high school. The only similarities would be their competitive streak, but by no means are we to follow them. They let us off the hook right away, telling us to explore our own relationship. Just have fun meeting the guys, and celebrate the fact that this was part of their life. It inspired the movie, but it was never an issue at all. We were all able to just hang out and laugh. The only thing being made into a movie was the competition part. A lot of the drama is complete fiction. They grew up in New Orleans, and now these two brothers live miles apart from each other in Buffalo, New York. They have always been super close. There was never an issue of estrangement between the guys.
The brothers doing the Do-Deca on the DVD extras...That ends the same way the movie does. It cuts before we find out who won. Do you know which of the two brothers won?
Mark Kelly: (Laughs...) I know one of the brothers did win. It came down to a four hundred meter race, or something. Someone barely edged out the other. I think the final score was 13 to 12. I don't personally know. Jay Duplass might have to be the one to reveal that to you. Or not. It might be an intentional secret. I'm actually glad I don't know. I might have told you!