Ed Helms understands comedy. But the kind of improv that writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass do made him a little nervous.
"I've done a lot of comedy improvisation and this was nothing like that," says Helms of his role in the Duplass brothers' new film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home. "It was very different. Mark and Jay wrote a wonderful script and if we'd done it, word for word, it would have been a fantastic movie. But that's not how they operate. They put their faith in the cast to internalize the scene and make it their own.
"So you have these mundane moments with damaged, arguably dull characters. Yet even the smallest moments were exciting if we felt like we got it right. It's different from trying to get a laugh. There's something beautiful in the smallness of it. Once you put the microscope on the little universe of this family, it keeps exploding, like fractals. It's sort of intense and beautiful."
Helms stars with Jason Segel in Jeff, which opens today. Segel is the title character, a 30-something stoner who lives in his mother's basement and is searching for his place in the world. Helms plays his brother, a paint salesman in a failing marriage (to Judy Greer) -- and their worlds collide one day when Jeff is forced to leave the house on an errand for his mother, even as he searches for a sign from the universe about a direction for his life.
The film is the next step upward for the Duplass brothers, their second studio movie (after 2010's Cyrus). But they maintain the same hands-on, hand-made approach no matter what the budget.
"Jay and I are really excited about the place we're trying to inhabit in the studio world," Duplass says. "We're making what we call mainstream-adjacent art films, and putting bigger stars and more stars in them. So you've got a film with Ed Helms, Jason Segel and Susan Sarandon at a fraction of what it would normally cost. They want to work with us because they know we're obsessed with performance. They know that, if they have a great take but it's not the one with perfect lighting, well, that's still the one we're going to use.
"And we do it at a fraction of the cost. For doing that, we're getting unofficial tenure. We've never made a movie that has not made money. So, for the studios, it's a lottery ticket: Even if it sucks at the box office, they'll still make their money from HBO or DVDs or any of the other ancillary markets. So the movies don't have to be mainstream."
Indeed, Helms was surprised at what he'd signed on for, in a good way.
This interview continues on my website.