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What's Scary About a <em>Baghead</em>?

A guy with a bag on his head: scary! Absurd! The basis for a comedy/horror film about struggling wanna-be actors, as envisioned by the Duplass brothers!
BagheadWhat if an entire movie was structured around the alternately horrifying and hilarious—but, truthfully, plain ridiculous—image of a man with a paper bag over his head?


From such an absurd premise, Baghead, the second feature by the Duplass Brothers (Mark and Jay), runs with the concept, blending together suspense, comedy, and romance with low-brow shtick (exposed breasts, a bit of vomiting, a tad of masturbation) and low-fi handheld DV.   


Mark and Jay, who started working together in Austin, TX, spent close to two years on the festival circuit with 2005's well-received The Puffy Chair. They met countless actors at these festivals,  people whose dreams would most likely never come true—but whose earnestness struck home with the brothers.


"Actors are the purest expression of desperation in trying to achieve something that's pretty much impossible," Jay says. "We know it and they know it's not gonna happen."


"It's like, 'I see the shadow of evil in you, and it smells like me, my friend... ,'" Mark drawls out.


Baghead, which played at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, takes on these struggling arteests, following the exploits of four desperate life-long extras/actor wanna-bes retreating to a country house for the weekend to finally make it big with a collaborative horror/buddy flick/romance script—featuring a man with a bag over his head. As night falls and tequila shots flow, the wind chimes announce the arrival of something sinister.


The film belongs to the foursome: Matt (whose success with the ladies is due to his "Elvis hair"), played by the handsome Ross Partridge, is the confident instigator, still full of ideas and spunk commonly found in actors a decade his junior, with just a glint of sadness in his eye. Steve Zissis plays Chad, Matt's "funny and cute" but insecure and overweight best friend. Elise Muller takes on the role of Catherine, an acute blonde cougar keen on making her long-ongoing casual sex relationship with Matt into something more.


Greta Gerwig, who starred in last summer's Hannah Takes the Stairs, steals the show in the role of the rookie Michelle, pursued clumsily by lovelorn Chad while she throws all modesty to the wind in her clandestine grab for Matt. She has a little of Roller Girl-from-Boogie Nights in her: coy, dumb, innocent, slutty, and very kind. Despite the fact that she's the spark for the strife between the other three, she is easy to forgive.
As with their previous films, the Duplass brothers rely heavily on what they call "structured improv": the scenes are not rehearsed, the actors are given the freedom to change their lines and add entirely new ones, and Mark and Jay often feed suggestions while in the process of filming. The goal is to film "when the lightning strikes" and capture the good surprises: over 30 percent of the film uses first takes.


"Our scripts are not the precious parts of our process," Mark explains. "We get the structure down and we get the first draft in a couple of days."


"Working with them is a hybrid of having a plot and a script and having freewheeling freedom," Gerwig—who's also a playwright and co-directed and co-wrote this fall's Nights and Weekends—says. "The Duplass experience is not to be missed."
Baghead was shot with a crew of six: Mark operated the boom and Jay shot the footage. In addition to playing Matt, Partridge did the gaffing, and his girlfriend and the Duplass brothers' wives also pitched in. Over the course of the three-week shoot, the editor, Sundance regular Jay Deuby, played an integral part, and the film is flawlessly sewn together.


Encouragement plays a big role – the Duplass brothers pride themselves on respecting their actors, so far mostly unknown, and inviting them to participate outside their traditional roles.


"It's the compliment sandwich," Gerwig says. "And we're the meat."


baggierheadThe Duplass brothers, along with Gerwig, have been grouped into the indie movement termed "mumblecore." It's a loosely-defined genre of movies about very average 20-somethings, characterized by true-to-reality-TV shooting styles (hence the mumbling) and stylistically descendant from a host of lo-fi inspirations, from Jean-Luc Godard to Richard Linklater . The term was first offered up in an interview by Andrew Bujalski, whose Funny Ha Ha (2002) is considered to be the launch of the movement. Bujalski, Mark Duplass and Gerwig appear both as cast and in the writing credits of Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), the film that brought mumblecore significant critical attention; it had its zeitgeist moment last summer with a New York Times profile and an IFC Center festival, "Generation DIY." Considering the Duplass brothers' connection to the genre, and Gerwig's status as "the muse of mumblecore," it begs the question: Is Baghead a mumblecore flick?


"No," Mark answers after a decidedly long and potentially contemptuous pause.


"Probably not," Jay tampers.


"It's so intricate in its plotting and use of genre," Mark explains. "We're feeling like our movies are basically not perfectly fitting in the movement—and we want to get the fuck out before there's a backlash."


In its austere aesthetic, Baghead and mumblecore are reminiscent of Dogma 95, the Dutch movement defiantly launched by Lars von Trier and characterized by a rigid list of rules governing everything from lighting to sound aimed at breaking down film-making to its purest. The Duplass brothers, Gerwig, and Patridge all cite Celebration, Dogma's breakthrough film about a family coming to terms with incest and sexual abuse over the course of a dinner, as one of their favorite films. But they draw very clear distinctions.  


"Mumblecore is more mundane," Jay says. "You allow the highest emotional bit to be something that we would normally experience in a three-month period. Most people will not have an emotional moment like in Celebration."


"It's hard enough to come up with a good movie and make it," Mark says. "We certainly don't want to limit ourselves from anything that can help us with that at this stage in our career."


The one thing Baghead shares with mumblecore is the use of hand-held DV cameras, making audiences nauseous since the days of The Blair Witch Project. That, perhaps, is the film's weakest aspect: while shaky filming may be de rigueur in today's DIY movie culture, the disappearing/reappearing focus is distracting, as is the frequent loss of framing. Nonetheless, it is rescued by the strength of the acting and the effortless flow of the plot. The Duplass brothers' first two films were made for nothing and have taken them to a different level: after finishing Baghead promotional duties, the brothers are preparing to direct their first studio film, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (also starring Steve Zissis), and the touch of polish afforded by serious backing should only help as their craft ventures beyond the festival roundelay and into the multiplex.


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