Mark Duplass Can’t Get Enough of ‘Rocky II’

It was May 2020, two months into lockdown, and Mark Duplass, an avowed workaholic, was getting itchy. So he took up some hobbies, one of which was conversational Spanish lessons with an online institute in Guatemala.

Then a good friend, the filmmaker Lynn Shelton, died and Duplass wasn’t in the mood for small talk. Neither, it seemed, was his instructor, and their dialogues began to go deep.

“I found it very interesting that this 2D-video chat thing that everyone was starting to complain about and fear was going to be the death of our personal connections was actually bringing us closer,” he said. “I was looking for that feeling of warmth and connection as we were losing it.”

Sensing the kernel of a movie in those interactions, he called Natalie Morales, whom he’d known socially and had hired to direct a couple of episodes of his HBO show “Room 104,” and asked if she wanted to collaborate.

The result was “Language Lessons,” in which Duplass plays Adam, whose husband surprises him with weekly online Spanish classes. Morales, in her feature directorial debut, is Cariño, his teacher, who becomes a confidant when he throws himself at her like a love bomb. The two built their characters independently and then let them “organically collide,” Duplass said, as each one’s drama played out on the other’s screen.

“One of my ways to experience a sense — as someone who is and has been married for 20 years — of falling in love with a new person in your life is to do it through the making of art together,” he said. “I thought this would be such a great way to do this with Natalie, to tell this platonic love story of the two of us.”

Duplass’s other onscreen relationship, on “The Morning Show” — as Chip Black, the TV producer to Alex Levy, Jennifer Aniston’s anchor — imploded last season, demoting him to local news as Season 2 begins. “They give me so much creative freedom and respect on that set,” he said. “Working with Jen Aniston has been one of the dreams of my life.”

In a video call from his home in Los Angeles, which served as the setting for “Language Lessons,” Duplass discussed cultural touchstones like the New Orleans movie house where he absorbed indie cinema, the Austin music club that taught him about success and the insight he gleaned from reading “Infinite Jest.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1. The Black Cat Lounge in Austin In 1991, my brother [Jay] went to college at the University of Texas, leaving me home alone without my soul mate and highly depressed. Then I went to visit him in Austin. He took me to the Black Cat Lounge, where there were dollar hot dogs and dollar PBR and these Texas funk-soul bands, and people were dancing and sweating. And I was like, what is happening here in this place? I had my mind absolutely blown.

It was when it started to dawn on me that an artist can have a life that is not you’re either the Top 10 on the Billboard Charts or the Top 10 in the box office — or you’re not doing it. These bands were raking in a couple of hundred bucks a night. They were local-ish celebrities. They also had day jobs. And they were successful artists in that way.

2. David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” I had made “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” my two studio movies, and they had not lit the world on fire. So I had convinced myself that if you’re going to tell these oddball characters and this level of specificity, it’s never going to be successful. Then I read “Infinite Jest” and was like, “Oh no, you just didn’t do it well enough.” And it gave me comfort. I realized I’m not going to be an auteur like David Foster Wallace. I don’t have that in me. What I do have in me is I’m an incredible collaborator. I’m a great first leg on a relay team.

3. Tracy Chapman I was 12 and I was a skater punk with my snarky skater punk friends. We were watching “Saturday Night Live,” enjoying all the chopping broccoli jokes, and Tracy Chapman was the musical guest. She walked on and she played “Fast Car.” All my friends were like, “This sucks,” because we were Metallica fans. I was like, “Yeah, this sucks.” And I went into the bathroom and I sobbed my eyes out. I was like: “Well, I’m different than my friends. This is something else for me.” And that kicked me off into a singer-songwriter journey.

4. Neutral Ground Coffee House in New Orleans I was obsessed with the Indigo Girls, obsessed with Shawn Colvin. So from when I was 14 or 15 years old on, I would go to the Neutral Ground Coffee House every Sunday and see their open mic nights. Eventually I worked up my courage to play my original three songs, which — no false modesty — they were terrible. The guy who ran the place, Les Jampole was his name, looked me in the eye afterward and was like, “Hey, Mark, I dig your stuff, man.” And it was everything to me to have someone validate me from the outside. So I kept writing songs, and by the time I was 17, they offered me my own gigs. It was this tiny enclave of confidence-building for me.

5. Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private IdahoIt was how I discovered independent film. I was 14 and I was a big fan of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” A big fan of “Stand by Me.” And I’m like: “Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix. Great. This’ll be a funny movie.” I went to go see it without reading anything, and that’s how I ended up at a Gus Van Sant art film.

6. Movie Pitchers in New Orleans

Movie’s was a second-run art house cinema, and they didn’t card very hard, God bless them. From ’92 to about ’95, when I graduated high school, that’s where I got my independent cinema education. And I could convince some of my friends to come with me because they would serve us pitchers of beer and we’d watch movies in recliners.

7. Chris Smith’s “American Movie” I saw this in 1996 in Austin, and it changed my entire approach to filmmaking. I fell in love with [the filmmaker] Mark Borchardt. I couldn’t believe I loved him despite all his flaws. Also, I was struck in this screening that maybe my narrative films could look and feel like docs so they’d give the impression of feeling more natural and real. Odd zooms, out-of-focus moments left in the edit, important moments happening in poorly lit, canted frames. The offhandedness of it all inspired me to bring it to our narrative work in the years to come.

8. Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” I saw a production in college that wasn’t very good. But it gave me the courage to focus on a two-hander and know that that could be entertaining, despite what my playwriting and screenwriting teachers were telling me. And you can draw a straight line from that to “Language Lessons.”

9. John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany” I don’t know if it holds up. I think it might be a little corny and a little schmaltzy, but the way it hit me when I was 17 was great because it was the first book where I saw the machinations of a detailed plot working. And I saw it coming before it came. It didn’t ruin it for me, but it made me realize the power of writing and how much I identified as a writer. Multiple plot lines, all converging for a satisfying ending.

10. “Rocky II” I used to watch “Rocky II” as a kid because it had two fights in it. They showed you the end of “Rocky” at the beginning of “Rocky II.” I was a little bro who wanted to see as much fighting as possible. But what you forget is that, in between, “Rocky II” is a slow, depressing, late-’70s, Bob Rafelson-style drama about this guy realizing the death of his dream and coming to terms with himself being not what he thought he would be. So that was inadvertently soaking into me the whole time. I look back and I think that was maybe one of the most formative movies for me. As a 6-year-old, I was taking in all of this male ennui, slow withering drama, and I think it had a deep effect on who I am as a creator.

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