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AUSTIN, TEXAS—How do you laugh at disability? Mark Duplass, whose name or face you likely know from The League, Togetherness, or countless other projects with his older brother Jay, is ready to answer this question. Well, yes and no. The Duplass Brothers-produced Asperger’s Are Us had its world premiere Saturday at South by Southwest, and it’s already among the buzziest films of the festival. It’s a documentary about a comedy troupe of the same name, a story about four men who fall at various points on the spectrum and turn that fact into comedy. Shortly after the film’s premiere, Netflix announced that it has scooped up the distribution rights, so you’re sure to see it in your queue very soon. We had a beer with Duplass to talk about the project, about the nature of streaming, and about what it feels like to laugh at something that, on the surface, just seems painful.
This film was a pet project of a cameraman you worked with on other projects.
Alex [Lehmann] I worked together on The League. And I knew he was making this doc. And I joke about it, but it’s true: I’m now in a position in my career where, all false modesty aside, I am seen as a person who can take your independent film and blow that shit up. So people want to be a part of what I’m doing. And they want “a piece of me,” as it were. And I like Alex personally, so I didn’t feel gross about it. But there was a part of me that was like, Ah fuck, I gotta watch this movie, and if I don’t like it, how am I gonna deal with it since he’s my friend and I see him every day?
But I had a feeling it was going to be good. And the reason I had a feeling about it is because of the nature of who he is as a human being. And I wanted to invite a wider audience into this movie. So my main job on this movie, which was, admittedly, pretty small—the movie was good when I saw it—was to widen the opening and provide a framework for which anyone who stumbled into this movie could start to watch it and enjoy it in the first 20 minutes, and then slowly but surely make their way down to the specific message that is the movie. I thought the movie could be bigger than it was. When I pitched that to Alex he was into it.
Do you consider it to be a movie about Asperger’s, or do you see it as a movie about comedy?
I see it as a coming-of-age story about four friends, first and foremost. I have things I want to do in this life, and I have insecurities about my ability to pull them off. And I get nervous and scared when it’s time to execute those things, and I become not my best self. And I lash out because I’m not as self-aware as I could be. And when I watched these guys, I was like, This is a slightly hyperbolized version of exactly how I operate in this world. And I connected to it deeply, in that they’re trying to be a successful comedy troupe, and anyone who’s going to come to see them is thinking, I feel sorry for these guys who have Asperger’s, let me go see their thing and maybe give them some fake laughs. But they want to be considered as a legitimate comedy troupe, and they don’t want your pity.
As an artist, when you start out, it’s your parents and your parents’ friends that are coming to see your shit, giving you that exact same thing. I struggled as an artist for 10 years before I made anything watchable. And everyone who would come to see my stuff was giving me the exact same energy that these guys got and are afraid of getting. Don’t give me your pity. If I’m good, I’m good. If not, fine. When I saw that, I was like, oh, this is a bigger movie than something just people on the Autism spectrum, or about comedy. It’s a massive human connection point about your dreams, about being who you want to be, and worrying the whole time that you might not be good enough.
Is Asperger’s funny?
Great question. I’m the last person in the world to answer it. I’m a producer of a documentary who doesn’t actually understand this world fully. What I can personally relate to in the movie and what allowed me to feel comfortable to say, I know I can help this movie, was that there’s a specific thing called the comedy of discomfort. And it happens in a lot of ways. When Christopher Guest does it, I honestly love it, but at times it’s a little mean. And it pokes fun at the subjects. It doesn’t take you into them and let you understand them, be right next to them. It separates you and says, This fuckin’ guy is so not like me, and it’s crazy, and I love laughing at him. What I know how to do well is find extremely vulnerable, quirky subjects. I’m known as someone who takes a quote-un-quote lovable loser in my own heart and make a character you can understand and feel for, as opposed to laugh at. To me, what was so funny about this movie was two-fold. One, when they get on stage, I find their comedy successful. It’s really dry and they’re really confident in what they do. And 80 percent of people don’t get it, and they’re fine with that.
But then there’s another level of comedy to this thing. It’s fascinating how self-aware they are. Because they’re in a generation where Asperger’s is known. They know who they are. They’re aware of who they are. They play with that, and they own that. And there’s a confidence in that that makes me able to laugh freely without thinking that I’m making fun of them or joking, because they’re owning that in that self-aware way that all the great comedians own. Like Louis C.K.—when he gets up there and he’s like, I’m fat, I’m bald, I’m divorced, I’m owning it, and you don’t have to feel sorry for me. It’s the same exact thing with the guys in the Aspys. It’s like, We have this crazy-wired chemistry, this is what’s going on with me, I own this and I understand it, come with me on this ride. And that to me was so inspiring.
So do you think of this film as cringe-humor, dark comedy, the comedy of discomfort, or do you think of it as uplifting?
I’m kind of a cheeseball at heart. I love an underdog story, and the way I saw this movie was a story of four friends who have a huge dream, and the odds are stacked against them. When I saw this movie, it reminded me of Hoosiers. And I fell in love with them and I wanted to be with them and root for them, you know? Alex, our director, when I talk to him, over and over the message that keeps coming from him is, I wanted to tell an honest story, and I wanted to tell a story that parents of kids who have Asperger’s and don’t quite understand how to deal with them, can walk away from this and feel like, ‘I don’t feel so alone in this and I kind of understand it a little bit more.’ That is really his angle on this, and it’s been kind of great to watch.
I have never made a piece of art where I have curated specifically what I want my audience to feel. When I make Togetherness, when I make my movies, my goal is to show you something truthful. Sometimes you watch it in a theater of 500 people, and people start to laugh, and that gives you permission to laugh too. Sometimes you watch it at home by yourself, and it’s real sad. Same scene. It plays different contextually. I think this movie is going to have a wide variance of how people perceive it. I think it will be, depending on your personal connection to the spectrum, or your personal connection to the comedy of discomfort. I saw it in the theater today and we had a lot more laughs than I thought we would get. But when I watched it first at home on a link, I saw it as an underdog story that had a big beating heart that I wanted to root for.
So how does Netflix play into that? Because lot of people are going to watch this movie at home.
The reason I was really excited is that Netflix is very proprietary about how they do shit. I don’t understand it. They don’t tell me. But sometimes they turn a dial inside of their system, and your movie gets 10 million views. I don’t know how the fuck they do it, but, they did it with Creep, and they’ve done it with some of my other movies. And when I showed them this movie, they said, “We believe in this movie,” and they looked me in the eyes, and I knew they were going to turn the dial. And that, to me, and to Alex, was the most important part of distribution. It was not money, it was getting the most amount of eyeballs on this movie as possible. That being said, there will be a theatrical component to this movie, there will be a VOD component to this movie, there will be a DVD to this movie, there will be everything. There are countless societies of people with Asperger’s and people on the spectrum who are ready to support this movie, ready to promote this movie, they love it. We’ve shown them rough cuts. They’re ready to get on board.
So, we feel like this movie is going to have two lives. One for the people who know this world, who are going to come out in droves to see it in the theater, and then there will be other people, like me, who cruise around Netflix at night, looking for something interesting to click on, and they’re going to see this title and this picture, and they’re going to check it out. And that’s themost important audience for this movie. It’s the new audience who doesn’t know that much, and has a late night, slightly interested click, and then they click on something new. That’s the big win. And Netflix, in their worldwide release model, turning that dial for me, it can’t be beat for a movie like this.
That description—”late night, slightly-interested click”—I feel like that could describe your body of work.
Bros, who are sitting home, scrolling through HBO GO, they’re like, “What’s Togetherness? That’s a dumb title.”
My movies are gateway drugs. I try to make posters and things that make it interesting enough to click on. I have a huge fan base—bigger than I ever thought I would have. That come out in theaters, VOD, DVD, that’s wonderful. They come see my stuff, that’s great. The best and most exciting part of what I do is finding places like HBO GO, Netflix, Amazon, that have these widespread existing core audiences, who might take a chance on you. The Puffy Chair, my first movie, made $200,000 dollars in theaters, which equates to roughly 25,000 people seeing it. And then it went on Netflix, and within a year of being on it, 5 million people had seen the movie. And I owe my career to that. To this day, Netflix, and other services, HBO Go, Amazon, they’re a place of discovery. I feel like I’m gushing a little bit, but I just feel so blessed that independent film has an outlet like that now. Where we’re not just relegated to the niche art house theaters in New York and L.A. and the 10 major markets, and then we just go and die on video. People surf around. And I’m grateful to The League that it made my face something that people will click on. And this sounds cheesy and I don’t want it to be taken in the wrong light, but, we have a movie on Netflix, which has the word Asperger’s in the title, and the poster will look fun. And because of that, those two elements, I’m gonna get millions of people to learn something they never knew before, and that’s huge.