Mark Duplass wasn’t sure if his new movie, Blue Jay, was going to work — partly because it wasn’t based on much besides a vague idea of two exes meeting in their hometown over 20 years after their high school relationship crumbled. But then he got Emmy winner Sarah Paulson on board, and together (plus with the help of director Alex Lehmann), they created a charming, wistful film that’s sweetly innocent and, at times, acutely painful.
Duplass wrote Blue Jay‘s screenplay and executive-produced alongside brother Jay, though much of the story came together in what Mark and Paulson describe as group therapy sessions — complete with a beanbag chair, “like a full 1987 therapy office,” Paulson says.
“We all just talked and we shared a lot of things I, for one, have maybe told my best friend and my shrink,” she tells EW. “It was in the spirit of the thing that we just kind of [mimes vomit noise], we just put it all out there. From that, Mark went away and pulled things from all the people in the room.”
Read on to see what the stars had to say about taking risks with this movie, how Mark’s relationship with Jay inspired it, and the pros (and cons) of nostalgia. Blue Jay — the first entry from the Duplass brothers’ four-movie deal with Netflix, where it will begin streaming this December — is currently playing in New York and is now available via VOD.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did this idea come from?
MARK DUPLASS: Directly from my melancholy, basically. I would say very specifically, my desire to make a project that I didn’t know if it was going to be good, that we could chase this feeling and chase this sense of, what if we just have two people and the way that they relate? Is that enough to make a movie out of? I didn’t know for sure, but I hoped it would be. So I started thinking, okay, what can I do that’s kind of short and cheap and easy? And the first thing that really came to my mind was just this feeling of, why is that when I run into people sometimes I pretend that I don’t see them? Even though I might want to connect with them. That’s a weird thing that you do. I find that there’s a weird bit of shame when you run into people who knew you at a certain time and they see that you’re not the same way. You don’t know how to act.
That got really exciting to me and got me thinking about who you were in high school, high school exes, stuff like that. Sarah was someone I had met socially a little bit through our mutual friend Amanda Peet, and I just really loved her energy, and I really loved how surprised I was by her silliness and the goofiness. Whenever I meet someone that’s got a big brain and fart jokes, I’m like, “These are my people.” So I was like, we can definitely do something together. I pitched her this really basic idea of two ex high school lovers, they meet up in the hometown, they’re going to spend 24 hours together, they’re going to go through something. I don’t know what it is yet. We’ll all meet up and figure it out together. We will improvise. Are you interested?
Jim and Amanda, the couple at the center of Blue Jay, have a very rich history — how did you create it?
DUPLASS: Most of it was in those therapy sessions and in the writing. And it feels like a very rich history, but it wasn’t like we spent months laying out all the plot points — like, this is what happened when they were 15, this is what happened when they were 16. It was some very deep things, but not a ton of them, I would say. The richness from the movie, if there is any, I really feel like comes from the way that Sarah and I personally connect. We see the darkness and the hardness of the world and we’re able to cry about it but also laugh about it too.
What was it like once you actually got to the set?
DUPLASS: Day one was awkward as s—, because we were shooting that grocery store scene. And it was supposed to be awkward, and also, I was secretly terrified of asking Sarah to do this movie with me. It’s the most unprepared I’ve ever been, on purpose, to see what we could come up with. A lot of times bands write all their songs and then they go and record them. Nice and comfortable — I know what this music’s gonna be; let’s go record it. Sometimes they go into the studio and they say, let’s write a record in here. You’re like, is it gonna happen? Are we gonna get anything? And that’s how we were feeling on day one, combined with the awkwardness of the scene. Is this movie going to be lyrical and poetic and beautiful or is it going to be boring as f— because it’s just two people in black and white? And that is terrifying. Then day two, we started getting it. And then Clu Gulager showed up in that liquor store with his romanticism.
PAULSON: There was something so open about him. He so got it right away when we were like, “We’re basically going to be playing pretend with you. All the sudden, we’re still those people.” He was like, ah, yeah. Oh yeah. We didn’t have to explain some childlike thing. He was like, “Yeah, yeah, I getcha.”
DUPLASS: And the wonderful accidents started to happen. Like we did this thing where we’re naming different beers we should be getting, and we said the same beer at the same time. We were like, “F—! This is awesome!”
PAULSON: One of the great things is there were two cameras. So you got it and you had it. You didn’t have to try to make that moment happen again that happened very organically.
DUPLASS: When you build a movie with its success point being potential alchemy that you hope is going to happen, it’s very, very terrifying, but when you get it, it’s more rewarding than having a beautiful script that you’re just marching through. Because you kind of knew you were going to get it. We didn’t know. So it lights you up. You’re like, we’re getting this thing! And when we were doing that playacting stuff in the house, it was like, we could feel that energy coming. It’s just really invigorating.
The playacting was so specific. What inspired that?
DUPLASS: A lot of this movie is an ode to, honestly, the way me and my brother used to be in high school. He would come home from college, and I would miss him so much, and we would go in our back room and do acoustic guitar covers of Lionel Richie songs together and just be stupid. I would film him running around the block and write a music score to it because I just loved him and he loved me. I guess I was trying to get at something like that. I just came up with the idea that they would playact and be these future versions of themselves, which to me, is a really ignorant and uneducated and silly version of what love could be. They’re so stupid to think it could be that easy.
PAULSON: But it’s also so common to kind of imagine. I remember thinking that my 40-year-old English teacher was like, really old. Really old. When I was in, I don’t know, 9th grade or something, the idea of being 40 was so foreign and impossible. So the idea of these young people imagining domesticity and the gloriousness of it, the romanticization of it, was just, to me, I totally believed that they would do it. I probably did something like that, maybe not with my boyfriend at the time, but with my friends. Doing some weird s— like that. It struck me as being very true. And also bats— crazy. [Laughs]
DUPLASS: Really dorky, really sweet.
At the end, you have the reveal of why you guys broke up. Did you ever consider not having that in there, of just letting it be a mystery?
DUPLASS: Would you have preferred that?
DUPLASS: We talked a lot about what the reason could be for why Jim and Amanda aren’t together and does it need to something big, could it be something small? I am always prepared to change the ending of a movie. When we shot The Puffy Chair, we changed the ending of the movie right there. Same thing happened with my movie Baghead. For me, when we started making this movie, and we saw the way that Jim and Amanda started to connect in that playacting and the depth of how kind of incredible they are and could be together, I knew more than ever that we needed something that brought them apart.
PAULSON: That would be hard to come back from. Because once that innocence membrane is broken, it’s very, very hard to go back, I think.
DUPLASS: You can’t get it back.
How much of their relationship, as it is now, is pure nostalgia and how much do you think is a current connection?
DUPLASS: That’s the question of the movie. We talked about that a lot. How much am I trying to connect to who we were, as a couple, and how much am I trying to connect to who I was, back then, and miss that person? And is this real at all? I don’t know.
PAULSON: I think, like anything, it’s easy to zoom out and try to define that. But when you’re in the middle of it, who knows and who cares, really? Because that’s the kind of thing that you do… Once Amanda’s driven back home or back to her sister’s and then she’s flying home to her husband, it’s like, did I just dream that? Was that real? You know that thing if you see an ex, and for a second, you’re like, “Wait… Why did I break up with this person?” And then you talk to them for five minutes and you’re like, “Ding, ding, ding that’s why!” [Laughs] And it sometimes happens really immediately, or sometimes an hour into the dinner. I think it’s a kind of beautiful murky area, and that’s partly what contributes to the velocity of it. Like, why does she want to go back to the house? Well, cause, she’s just curious. And also it’s sparking something in her that’s not dangerous because she is happily married, but just… a need to be near something that she doesn’t even know she lost, in terms of who he makes her, how his way of being in the world makes it clear who she is. It’s helpful with her own identity. And she didn’t even know how tied that was to Jim.
I feel like nostalgia’s often seen as a bad motivator. Do you think it is?
DUPLASS: It’s dangerous. In filmmaking, it’s super dangerous. In life, there’s no choice for me. I don’t think about it as bad or good, because I live with it. It’s just there. What I like about it, and I’ve had to come to just accept it because it’s part of me, is it keeps me in my shoes, it keeps me present and on the earth. I’m aware that I’m part of something larger than myself, that I’m part of a past that my future I’ll then look back at this moment and be sad that I’m missing this. It keeps me aware, just a little bit, of, what are you gonna do, dude? You’re gonna spend your whole time wallowing? You’re gonna miss out on this stuff? But I like it, because I’m turning 40 this year, I’m barreling toward my death. I like living in all the times that I’ve lived, and that’s part of what nostalgia does for me.
And on that note, why black and white?
DUPLASS: I brought up the idea. I really liked it, I was nervous it was going to be pretentious. And then we were just like, f— it. We’re gonna do what we want to do with this movie, and we’re gonna own it. And if we’re the only people that like it, that’s okay. I’ve never done that before. I’m acutely aware of my audiences. I’m building movies for my audiences, because that’s what makes you successful. And I’m glad I did that for 15 years. But on this one, I didn’t want to do that, and it was really fun.
RELATED: See Duplass talk more about Blue Jay below