“Togetherness” finished up a terrific first season last night, with an episode that left several core relationships in uncertain places, and with a final scene that featured dynamite work from Melanie Lynskey and John Ortiz. Last week, I had a chance to speak with two of the show's three creators, brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, about the season. (I spoke with the other creator and co-star, Steve Zissis, back in February.) Various thoughts from them on the season, the experience of the longtime indie filmmakers producing their first TV show (after stints acting in other people's shows), plans for the future, and more, coming up just as soon as the movers are not a taxi service…
You ended the season on several cliffhangers, including Michelle and David kissing while Brett is still driving up to see her. Why did you want to do that instead of bringing various stories to a temporary stopping place?
Mark Duplass: Well, we really are a fan of raising questions as opposed to giving answers on all fronts, I would say. That not only applies to plot, but applies to our general theory. We're not really trying to say how a marriage should be done. We're just trying to show you a couple that we know and feel like is out there right now and you haven't seen on TV just yet. And maybe more importantly for us, we always believed that we were going to make this show for six seasons, and we didn't really want to make a show where if we got canceled, it would stand on its own. We really wanted to bring people into a second season.
So in six or however many seasons HBO winds up giving you, what story do you feel you want to tell with these characters?
Jay Duplass: The central question of the show for Mark and me is, I guess, the central question of our lives and pretty much everyone we know, which is, when you're trying to be a good husband, or mother, or friend, and you're also trying to make your own personal dreams come true, that is a very very tall order. For better or for worse, for people who are not on the poverty line or struggling to survive, finding that balance is very very tricky. Mark and I find it funny and tragic on a daily basis as to how we're supposed to make an HBO show and be good dads, and how much ultimately comedy that creates, and how much pain that creates, and how much that makes us suffer. That's really at the heart of the show, the struggles of all of these people. So whatever form that takes, we're not sure exactly how it's going to unfold, but that's really the core.
When I spoke with Steve Zissis last month, he said he has no idea how you guys do all the different jobs you have, and said he wished he had that gene. How do you fit it all in?
Mark Duplass: I don't know. It doesn't feel like a tremendous amount to me and Jay. I think we're aware that it's maybe more than the average person does. But we sleep eight hours a night, and we have breakfast with our kids and take them to school, and have dinner with our kids, at least when we're not shooting. I would just say that we're ruthlessly efficient with our time. There's this thing that happens in Los Angeles where people get together and they talk a lot about stuff they want to make one day, and they do these things called “general meetings,” which are the death of actually making anything. And Jay and I just refuse to do those things. Unless we're actively making something or spending time with our family, we're not doing it. That almost includes socializing, too, which is probably something that we could do better at. But we have our work and our families, and that's about it.
I know this was in the can for a while. When was this done relative to other things like recent seasons of “The League” or “Transparent”?
Jay Duplass: We shot the pilot for “Togetherness” exactly two years ago, and we shot the first season a year ago. So the show has been a long time in the making, and HBO is very methodical and careful about how they build their stuff, and that's part of their success. They really are intentional and focused about how they do things. It's been a while. So, for instance, we shot the pilot a year before “Transparent” shot, and we shot the first season before the first season of “Transparent.” They just happened to release super-fast, because their distribution is basically is uploading it to the web.
Having acted a decent amount in other people's shows, is there anything you learned there that you wound up applying to this, or was it simply a case of you taking what you do in your movies and elongating it?
Mark Duplass: I think it's more a case of the latter. There's something we discovered as we were making a TV show: the fact that we are primarily filmmakers, which we thought, if anything, might be a little bit of a hindrance to making a TV show is something that made our stories kind of unique. We needed a little bit of getting up to speed as to beating out of us the notion of, “Oh, you don't have to close this storyline immediately, you can let this linger a while.” When you're a filmmaker, you're trying to close things out in 90 minutes – or, in our case, 80 minutes. So that took a little getting used to. But there's also something to our independent filmmaking approach that has a different quality than your average TV show would have. It's been as much of a help as a hindrance to carving out our show from the average television show.
Was there a story or moment from this season that would absolutely not have fit into a feature-length version of this story?
Jay Duplass: Honestly, this is more of a general thought, but as we've been doing this show, Mark and I are realizing how well-suited this form is to what we've always done and always been trying to do, and that is to convey dramatic things in the subtlest form. For instance, when you realize that your marriage might be coming to an end, it usually doesn't happen in a very dramatic fight that's well-lit down by the river. It can happen in the aisle of CVS as you're fighting over the right his and her toothbrush set to get. In a lot of ways, all of the moments are formed and made possible, especially later in the season, you get to know these characters so well, and they can do those tiny subtle things, and you know exactly what they're thinking and what's going through their mind. That's something we've struggled against in the feature realm. We love the idea that our audience knows all of our characters way more than they ever have in any of our features. Really, everything is graded on a much subtler and more honest curve, in my opinion.
I loved the Kick the Can episode, but I imagine even a 90-second montage version of that would be one of the first things you cut if this were a movie.
Jay Duplass: That is a perfect example. You have this massive personal victory that happens when a lady kicks a can. You kind of need four episodes of build-up, of wondering what's going on with this woman, what does she need, what does she want. Mark and I have talked about being in a place of trying to submit a certain scene for awards situation, and that particular moment is such a peak moment of our show, but it requires the knowledge and the viewing of the previous four episodes to really get the payoff.
It's really interesting watching how Brett and Michelle's marriage deteriorates. Neither is doing anything wrong, but they've each changed. And she's as interested in David for the chance to do the school as for any physical attraction. How important was it to make it that complicated?
Mark Duplass: We were really excited about watching a marriage hit the rocks, where each (person) not only was not clearly in the wrong, but each has an equal desire to make it work, and they're not necessarily being jerks about it. They're just missing each other. That's how Jay and I perceive our sense of problems in our lives. So that was fascinating to us, and Brett and Michelle are, at least to us, more heartbreaking, because they are nice people, and they are willing to work hard, and it's still not working. That is almost the most terrifying prospect of all. If you're a good person, you love your spouse, and you're willing to go therapy, and it's still not working – that felt like a little bit unique.
Steve told me he realized at one point that two of your main goals in doing the show were to make him famous and get him to lose weight. Do you feel you accomplished that?
Jay Duplass: Yeah. We did both. Mark and I have been Steve Zissis' biggest fans forever, since high school. So, consciously, we wanted to make a platform to show the world who he is and what he's capable of. At the end of season 1, he was thin, and now he's getting offered movies and getting recognized everywhere. So whatever happens to this show, a big part of our mission has already been accomplished.
Finally, what was it like being at Sundance in January as so many other filmmakers like you are looking to make a push into television?
Mark Duplass: I think everybody in the indie film community is pretty realistic and realized you can do both things. You can do television and be a part of independent film. There are a couple of diehard fans who would see me and Jay on the street and would have this look on their face that was basically like, “Don't leave us for your new hot wife,” which is television. There's some of that going on, but I think most people are realizing you get to tell unique, and very sensitive stories in television, and make a living. And there's really very few places you can do that today.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com