Linas Phillips is taking an interesting approach to the release of his upcoming improvisational road trip comedy Bass Ackwards. For the first time in history, a film will bypass its theatrical window and become available nationwide the day after its World Premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Keeping in step with its title, Bass Ackwards will be on the market for purchase and downloading on February 1st, with a more in-depth DVD release to follow in the spring. This is a groundbreaking release strategy, and it could measure how smaller, Independent films find their way into the marketplace in the very near future.
Bass Ackwards is a captivating and consummately human tale. It reminds us that whatever we think the road is about; the trip is probably about something else. Alternating between scripted action, improvisation, and the unpredictable spontaneity of vérité encounters, the film chronicles the semi-autobiographical journey of Linas Phillips, who stars as well as directs. Born of the imagination of Linas and his easy collaboration with old friends, costars, and co-conspirators Davie-Blue, Jim Fletcher, Paul Lazar, and Sean Porter, the film effortlessly and organically crosses the line between reality and fiction, incorporating the people and characters that Linas meets on an unscripted and adventurous ride across America.
Star of FX's The League and all-around awesome guy Mark Duplass is being held responsible for executive producing the project. He, along with his writing/directing partner and brother Jay Duplass, are cited as the forefathers of the Mumblecore movement, which has forever changed the face of Independent and DIY cinema. His work, along with the release strategy on Bass Ackwards is also helping push the evolution of Independent cinema forward in ways we haven't yet imagined. We recently caught up with Mark to find out more about this project. Here's what he had to say:
Are you all set for Sundance?
Mark Duplass: I'm all set in that I have clean underwear, a jacket. And some pump! Otherwise...
Did you say, "Pumps?"
Mark Duplass: No, just "pump". I'm generally pumped! But now that you mention it, I better look into that.
I thought maybe there was a whole different scene going on at Sundance this year. When I last spoke to you and your brother, it was during press for Baghead. You guys explained that you like to pick up stray actors on your own film festival road trips. Was Linas someone you met while out promoting one of your projects?
Mark Duplass: No, I met Linas during the filming of this movie called True Adolescents. He was in that movie with me. He is a true, dreamy, creative spirit. He is all sparks. His creative synapses are always firing with weird and interesting ideas. I think it was in Seattle that a bunch of us met up for beers. He started telling me about shooting footage of himself on an alpaca farm. There was this VW bus. The middle had been cut out, and the front and back had been sewed together. He wanted to buy it, because it was on Craig's List. He had an idea for a strange, dreamy road trip that sounded kind of sad and kind of funny. It was literally an amoeba of an idea at that stage. Getting to know Linas, I just knew that this movie was going to be great. Immediately I started going into my producer brain. I started asking, "How much money do you need to make this? When are you free?' Then he called me the next day. He said he needed just so much. I didn't have enough money to pay for it personally, so I put him in touch with Thomas Woodrow, who is the best Indie producer I know. Especially in terms of getting shit done. He was the one that produced True Adolescents. I put those two guys together. They had a couple of conversations. A year later, I was watching the movie.
As executive producer, was your main job to worry about the financing of the film?
Mark Duplass: Being an executive producer means so many things at this stage of the game. For Bass Ackwards, I was at the front of the movie helping it out. If this were a big budget film, I would have gotten the executive producer credit for finding Linas his money. I brought him to the producer that had the money. But it's also someone that ushers in the project in some sort of shape or form. Whether it's creatively or monetarily. In this case, it was such an Indie movie, I was there to help get it made. I functioned in getting this thing on its feet. Once the movie was up and running, they went off and did their own thing.
What was it about this film that fit into your own sensibilities as a writer and a director?
Mark Duplass: There was no script when I saw it. This was just talking and ideas over beer. I knew there wouldn't be a script from the way it was shot. For me, it was a combination of it being the type of thing I like. But Linas has a way of making things that are exploratory. And not planned. That is half of what Jay and I do with our movies. We improvise all of our dialogue. There are discoveries on set. But Jay and I do work from a script. There is a narrative. We know what our movies are going to be from front to end. Linas was much more exploratory. That was really exciting for me. I don't have the balls to go out and do that myself.
What is the ratio between beer discussions to actual fruition of a project? How often does a project come out of those beer discussions?
Mark Duplass: That's a good question. I have definitely had a bunch of beer discussion projects that have not come to fruition. They aren't all necessarily dead yet. Some will morph into other movies that we will make. You kind of know when it is going to happen. I had a sense when talking to Linas that he was passionate about this. It was time for him to make the movie. If he had the right amount of money, and since he was such a creative, loose brain, if he had someone cracking the whip on him, he was going to get it done. Thomas is great at cracking the whip. We knew it would definitely get made.
Is there a particular beer that gets the creative juices flowing at these meetings?
Mark Duplass: It's usually PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon). Because that's what's on special at the bar. On draft.
No doubt. We just did that the other night. It was $3 a tall boy.
Mark Duplass: That's why you do it. It is the international beer of micro-budget films.
How much influence did you have on the film's rather unique release platform?
Mark Duplass: I would like to take a lot of credit for this. But it's really the brainchild of Tom Woodrow. He's how it happened. I was involved in two of the bigger micro-budget sales that came out of Sundance in the last couple years. With Baghead in 2008. And Humpday in 2009. You watch those movies. And all the hopes and dreams put into them. Granted, they were huge successes. They were tiny movies that got purchased. Everybody made some money, and they went into the world. But when these movies get into theaters, you spend a lot of money trying to move them. They don't usually make their money back. It got me thinking. There has got to be a better way to create a healthy, Independent film community. They creators did okay, but it's going to take the distributors awhile before they recoup their money. We want those distributors to be healthy and stick around, so they can buy up our movies. When we started thinking about that, we realized that it's all about the free promotion. Sundance is the place for a ton of great, free PR. That is essentially the marketing campaign for the release of Bass Ackwards. What's so great is that no one has to put a lot of money into it. There is no risk of losing all that money. That makes it fun again. Suddenly, you feel like there is something to be gained from this. And it's not a huge risk. If you can get that feeling back into Independent film, it reinvigorates the filmmakers. They feel more comfortable in taking a risk in what they are making. And the buyers don't have to feel like they are taking a risk on what they are buying. Because, hey, its not too expensive. They can put a little bit of money into this and go for it. I feel like Independent filmmaking needs a little shot of energy right now.
Does an audience's enthusiasm for a project ever change your mind that it could do well in a theater setting?
Mark Duplass: I've seen films do both. I've seen movies like Napoleon Dynamite gain popularity at a film festival. It blows up. It goes into theaters. And it works. Its great. On that same note, I saw both Baghead and Humpday get a response that I have never really seen at a festival. The press, the audiences, they were in love. When those films hit the theater, they didn't do so well. It's always a crapshoot as to why some movies work in a theater setting, and some don't. Independent cinema is suffering right now. Especially theatrically. We could get into a three-hour discussion as to why. Maybe we are flooding the market with too many Indies. Maybe the star system has gotten to blown out of proportion. Blah, blah blah, blah blah. The fact of the matter is, if a film like The Brothers McMullen came out today, it wouldn't make the money it did back in 1995. When you have a little relationship movie with no stars in it, its smart to start looking into more interesting and avant-garde release options.
There are three movies premiering on VOD while they also premier at Sundance, then we have your film coming out immediately afterwards. How do you think this type of release strategy will change the way future films are put into the market place? Do you feel that bigger releases might soon jump on this bandwagon? And do you think it will change how people attend film festivals?
Mark Duplass: There are two questions there. I don't believe that releasing films on VOD will discourage people from coming to Sundance. Even if they can watch them at home. If this is a success, and people decide to premiere films on VOD more often, I don't think it will have an effect on the festival. People come to Sundance for a lot more than watching movies. They go there to launch their careers. They go there to be near the movie and the town. Sundance screenings are sold out. Three times as many people want to get into those theaters as there are tickets for. I am not worried about the health of Sundance. Maybe a guy in Ann Arbor, Michigan is thinking that he really wants to come to Sundance, but he can't. And he's really glad it's available on VOD. That is conjecture at this moment. We don't know if that guy is going to actually buy the movie. We will find out in the coming weeks.
If this sort of experiment is successful, do you think it will eventually lead to the downfall of the Cineplex?
Mark Duplass: I am not smart enough to guess that type of thing. I don't know how that is going to play out. I am super interested in these types of protectoral questions when it comes to the micro-budget film level. Because I am always looking for ways to make weird, little pieces of art. I just want them to make their money back and exist. We are going to want these things on DVD and Blu-ray thirty years from now. Even if they don't make their money back. When it comes to bigger things, like the Cineplexes? I just made my first studio movie, and I am trying to focus more of my energy on being a director. I am taking the old approach that it's my job to make this movie. It's their job to figure out how to get it to the world. Our movie is through Searchlight. They are very successful at getting more accessible Indie films with stars in them out to the people of the world. I don't know how they do that. They know how they do that. I am going to let them do it.
You've obviously seen the film. What can you tell us about Bass Ackwards that would make us want to invest our time and money in it? There are so many little films floating around out there. What makes this one so special?
Mark Duplass: This year, you only have the option to see four movies if you're not at the Sundance Film Festival. That, to me, means that you should watch all four of these movies if you are a cinephile. If you are into independent film. Not only to support this system. But you are also getting to see four Sundance movies right on the heels of Sundance. In terms of Bass Ackwards, it's a very particular blend of the absurdist improvisational comedy that you got out of Bruno and Borat. We are sending this actor into a real space. And watching real people react to him. At the same time, it has a real poetry, and a dreaminess that films like Old Joy have. It is a very cool hybrid of a wacky comedy, and something that is sweet and kind of dreamy.
Having worked with Linas on this film, what do you see for him in the future? Have you guys discussed working in any capacity past this stage?
Mark Duplass: I think he wants to make movies. My sense from Linas is that he loves making movies. He has a lot of ideas. He and I are actually talking about starring in a movie together somewhere down the line. Its something we are developing right now. Whether he becomes successful is up to the Gods. My gut instinct for Linas is that he will be working in a truly creative space with not a lot of money, and not a lot of people breathing down his neck trying to make it commercial and turn it into a commodity. He needs to have the space to make a piece of art. If he makes money, and his films become successful? Great. But the pressure to monetize could ruin a lot of what is spontaneous and unique about him.
Now that you've found success with your own films, how rewarding is it to give other people a hand in seeing their visions into reality?
Mark Duplass: It's great. Honestly, I don't know how much my success helped Bass Ackwards. In the case of Lovers of Hate, our friend Bryan Poser was broke. He needed some money. Jay and I had just done a studio job. We had some money, so we could give him that to finish the film. That was so tremendously satisfying, I can't even explain it to you. Its tough making a studio movie. It was awesome to do something with that money that was supporting another artist.
At this point, do you look at Mumblecore as a true movement in film, or was it just some buzz word that doesn't really affect your artistic thought process?
Mark Duplass: That word came from the press. I don't think it was meant as a marketing idea. It was a way of defining the low budget movement that was happening. Especially around 2004 and 2005. I am so glad that happened. Because back then, little $15,000 movies like Funny Ha Ha and The Puffy Chair, and Kissing on the Mouth needed that attention. I didn't care what you called it. If you were going to write about my little movie in the New York Times, I needed that. You know? Right now I feel that term is dead. We've all sprung forward and have our own way of doing things. Some people are making very avant-garde movies. Other people are making more traditional movies. We are all very, very different. The thing that tied us all together in 2005 was a DIY aesthetic that had us using a cheap video camera. We could make cheap movies. That is what brought us all together. And we are all still friends. We are still trying to help each other out as much as we can.
When you see a half-hour TV series, and its purporting itself to be a "Mumblecore" show, do you look at that in the same way you might look at a Sears Catalogue running an ad for a "grunge" clothing line after the movement in Seattle has passed?
Mark Duplass: I have no ownership of "Mumblecore". There is no preciousness about what it was. There is no nostalgia about the purity of it. It was a functional term for the press, and for nomenclature. It was helpful at the time. Now, it's almost a detriment more than a help if someone is using that term to describe you or your work. It served its purpose four or five years ago. I think its time to put that to bed.
Your upcoming film Cyrus has a pretty impressive cast. Did the actors at all influence or change the subject matter that you brought to them? Do you feel having a slightly bigger budget to work with has at all altered your own personal vision?
Mark Duplass: Jay and I were so scared throughout the process that we were going to lose ourselves. That we were going to get studio-ized on some level. It's a hard thing to quantify. You can't tell when or if it is happening to you while you are making a film. You are busy and moving forward. We would have these mornings and nights where we were like, "God, what is going on here? Is this one of our movies?" Now I look back and realize I was being totally paranoid. We were Nazis about keeping our aesthetic the same. Every set was a closed set. Jay was on set shooting the actors. We were improvising. We shot on video. It was the same thing. Only, we shot on higher quality video. And there are some famous people in it. As far as the casting goes, John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill were fans before. We knew them well. Marisa Tomei and Catherine Keener were not. They didn't know who we were. They watched our movies and were immediately like, "Yes! We want to do something like this." That was the key: Finding people that were excited to improvise and explore. We fuck up so much on our sets improvising. We get garbage. You have to find the right actor that is comfortable with that. Jay and I are not "Captain of the Ship" type directors who are always saying, "Do this and do this!" We bring our cameras to our actors, and we guide them a little bit. But we mostly wait for lightening to strike. They were so down for it. It was a healthy environment, especially with John and Jonah, and the specialness of their relationship. Those guys were really down for it.
My favorite film of yours is Baghead. I like that it has horror elements to it, and as a viewer, you're never really sure what you are watching. Do you plan to make another horror-themed film in the near future?
Mark Duplass: We love genre. That is the key for us. The Puffy Chair dips into a road trip movie. AndBaghead dips into horror. Our new one, Cyrus, even though its about a guy, his girlfriend, and her son, its really dipping into the love triangle genre. You realize that as you watch these people tug on each other for affection control. Our next movie is called Jeff Who Lives at Home. It's our take on a quest movie. It's like a Sword in the Stone movie. But it's starring a stoner who is looking for wood glue. We are always going to mess with genre and use it to our favor. I am sure we will stumble back to horror or thriller at some point.
I have to ask more about this stoner looking for wood glue. That sounds right up my alley. What else can you tell me about that film?
Mark Duplass: I can't say too much, because my press team will maul me. We haven't had a release about it yet. It's a film called Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jason Reitman is producing for us. We are shooting in the spring. This is the movie we were born to make. We are more than ready to jump into this one.
Who plays Jeffery?
Mark Duplass: I can't tell you yet. Because the deal is not closed.
Is it someone that hasn't ever really dipped into that type of role? Or is it someone we will recognize as being part of that culture? Like Seth Rogen or Jonah Hill?
Mark Duplass: The casting is half inside of that world and half not. It's a hybrid.
I am not even going to sit here and try to guess. I want to congratulate you on the success of The League. The show is awesome.
Mark Duplass: Thanks, man.
I have to tell you, I fall more in line with Leslie Bibb's character, because all of my friends play Fantasy Football. I, myself, have no interest in the game. And because of that, I had no interest in watching the show. That's in no way a dig on you. My girlfriend said, "We have to watch this." So I did, and I quickly fell in love with it. I'm wondering, how did you guys find the balance between alienating people who have no interest in Fantasy Football, and making the show appealing to them at the same time?
Mark Duplass: Its luck, honestly. I don't know how you craft that. All my wife, Katie Aselton, and I tried to do was be natural. We just wanted to keep it real. It's a very low-pressure thing for us to do. We improvise, and then we go home. The shows creators Jeff and Jackie Marcus Schaffer, who have worked on Curb Your Enthusiasm, know what they are doing. They are able to take this specific section of society and make it accessible to people that wouldn't normally be interested in it. They are fucking awesome at that, and its great to be a part of that. Honestly.
What do you have in store for The League Season 2? Or is it too far away?
Mark Duplass: We honestly don't know yet. We got renewed for a second season. I have been finishing my movie. They have been working on Curb Your Enthusiasm, finishing that up. The second season is on little scraps of paper that are being floated around right now. No one knows what it's going to be yet.
Do you float your own little scraps of paper about what you might want to see your character go on to do next season?
Mark Duplass: I have a good relationship with Jeff, the show's creator. He directs all of the episodes. He and I ping-pong ideas off each other. I am by no means looking to be a creative force on the show. I am not looking to direct it. I get enough of that working with Jay. I try really hard just to be an actor on that set. Because it keeps it low-key, rewarding, and fun for me.
Was there any pressure felt in having to follow It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Or did you guys always suspect that it would be a good fit?
Mark Duplass: We hoped that it would be a good companion piece. Stylistically, we knew it would fit in. In terms of sensibility. But it is a different demographic. Especially with the football. We didn't have a clue how it was going to go over. But it worked a lot better than we hoped it could.
I've read that USA's Night Flight and Showtime Shorts influenced your own creative sensibilities as a young artist. That sort of avenue for unique and interesting short films and Independent film clips is absent from the market today. Have you ever considered producing a show that is in a similar vein to those programs?
Mark Duplass: Man, that is essentially what we're trying to do right now. We're just doing it with low budget, indie features. It's just a different format. I am putting a lot of my time and energy into finding ways on a broad scale to get weird and inspired art made. And get it done at cheap prices so that no one goes broke trying to do it. Thirty or forty years from now, I want us to be able to look back and be like, "I am so glad that got made! How did it even get made? Its in no way commercial." That's what the producer side of me is really interested in. Any form that takes, I am down for it. We need a little shot in the arm.
Bass Ackwards arrives on DVD and VOD February 1st, 2010.