Recall 1989, the year Sundance shined as a major film festival, because of the discovery there of sex, lies and videotape, with its tremendous cast of then-unknowns (James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo). At Sundance 2005, wouldn’t the same festival excitement surround Jay Duplass’s endearing road comedy, The Puffy Chair with its comely, talented, camera-comfortable leads, Mark Duplass (who wrote the screenplay with his brother) and Kathryn Aselton?
CLOSE TO HOME: Duplass and Aselton mimic their real-life relationship on screen.
“It was hard. It was frustrating,” said Mark Duplass. “A small film with no stars and no budget is not as appealing as a Jennifer Aniston film made for 20 million dollars,” said ‘Katie’ Aselton. Over a recent Legal Seafoods lunch, the touring Austin, Texas-based, twentysomething couple recalled the snub by deal-makers at Sundance. It took a year post-Festival before The Puffy Chair got a distribution contract, but the distributor, wary of a movie starring unknowns, keeps the first $150,000 of theatrical box office.
“The DVD and cable deals are good,” said Duplass, who accepted the deal. “The distributors do believe in our film. Hopefully, people will come out.”
Yes, The Puffy Chair really is about a huge puffy Lay-Z-Boy, which, blind bid on eBay, sets the movie in motion. The main characters, Josh (Duplass) and Emily (Aselton), live in New York, but they need to pick up the chair in North Carolina on the way to Atlanta.
“I’m kind of a non-lover of road movies,” says Duplass. “There’s only one I liked, National Lampoon’s Vacation from 1983. But my brother, Jay, and I really wanted to saddle the movie in a strong genre. We’d come out of the short-movie world, and we knew how to make a 10-minute film work. Why not string together eight 10-minute scenes? The road-movie form seemed right.”
But a really cheap one. Milbridge, Maine, Aselton’s home town, stood in for North Carolina. That way, while shooting, they could stay with Katie’s parents. Duplass: “The only expense was two puffy chairs, gas, and food.”
And they could make use of a weird local furniture store as the place from which the puffy chair has been bought. “This guy named Vince owns this nondescript store,” Aselton explained. “He gets shipments of old furniture from Atlantic City hotels, and he sells the stuff for nothing.” Duplass: “There was no set dressing or anything. We dragged in the puffy chair, ready to go.”
In the movie, the puffy chair bought unseen on the Net proves a rip-off, battered and filthy. Cast and crew started with an okay puffy chair, and went to work. Duplass: “We wanted to simulate the many years it was sat on, and that it has a reclining malfunction.” Aselton: “We just kicked the crap out of it. My dad being a goof came at it with some olive oil, a razor blade, a weed wacker.”
I wondered: was Vince, the real store owner, cast as himself? Duplass laughed. “We auditioned non-union actors, and he was a drama teacher in New York. Gerald Finnegan. He was really scattered when he came in, because he’d just burned down his friend’s apartment. ‘My friend’s in Europe, and I don’t know where to find him!’ he said. Well, his energy was appropriate for the part.” Aselton: “ ‘We like you! You’re hired!’ That’s what we said.”
In the movie, Josh and Emily feud throughout because she wants to marry, he’s eternally ambivalent. In real life, they’re engaged. Aselton: “Mark asked, and I said, ‘Yes.’ We had a four-and-a-half-year relationship just like Josh and Emily, and we were definitely in those arguments and situations. You have to shit or get off the pot. Mark got off the pot.” “I shit,” Duplass corrected his fiancée.