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In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Jason Segel plays a 30-year-old living in his mother’s basement whose obsession with M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and search for meaning in the mundane drives the plot of the latest effort from brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. The filmmakers and star were joined at a recent press conference in Beverly Hills by cast members Ed Helms (The Hangover), Judy Greer (The Descendants) and Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise) to discuss their creative process and the loveable loser named Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
“We don’t really see Jeff as a slacker in a lot of ways,” Mark Duplass explained. “Like, he is 30 years old, he is living in his mom’s basement, but in a way, it’s because, you know, there’s an argument to be made that Jeff has more integrity than any of us — that he believes his life is meant for grand things, for big things, and he won’t settle for just a decent job and maybe the right girlfriend. Jeff is waiting for glory, and that’s what we love about him.”
Segel found he related to Jeff’s search for meaning in a similar way. “I just remember a period in my life when I was out of work and I was sitting there waiting for someone to cast me, and it very much was like Jeff, where, you know, the sign of that I’m supposed to be an actor is getting cast — and 21 to 25 was a crazy out of work period,” he said. “It was before I really started writing hard and I remember very much just sitting there thinking that I’m going to wait for the sign that I’m worthy of being an actor. That’s what I related to in the part.”
Sarandon leaned over and asked, “What was it? The sign?”
“Are you still waiting for it?” Helms teased.
“Yeah, it hasn’t happened yet,” Segel joked.
When asked what it was like to film on location in New Orleans, Segel admitted he had too good of a time. “The movie takes place in one day, and I gained 25 pounds while being there,” he said, “and we shot as much as we could chronologically and [with] as many themes as we have, the movie is about a guy who gains 25 pounds over one day.”
“What did you say the other day? It’s like the Benjamin Button of weight loss,” Mark Duplass laughed.
“It’s amazing!” Segel said. “I walk through a doorway and I’m like 10 pounds heavier.”
Known as founding members of the “mumblecore” independent film movement, the Duplass brothers’ previous efforts have been small, character-driven pieces that focus on the mundane foibles of human relationships. With Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the brothers stay true to their roots, but amp up the action with a car chase and several big stunts. When asked whether these new elements posed any difficulties for them, Mark Duplass replied, “The big challenge for us is to maintain that sense of, I guess, personal relationship/comedic drama that we like, while at the same time incorporating these bigger things like car chases and whatnot and in this sort of shaggy improvisatory style that we shoot in.”
Both Helms and Segel performed their own stunts, including an anxiety-inducing sequence near the end of the film in which they jump off a freeway overpass into the swampy waters below. “Jason did it first and survived, and so I was confident,” Helms said, “but I still landed in the water with my pants full of pee.”
“I did something smart,” Segel said. “I told everybody that I was going to do the jump, so that when it came time, I couldn’t not do it.”
“I came to the set just to watch,” Sarandon interjected.
“They didn’t tell us until after — they were like, ‘It’s totally safe. We’ve scoured the waters,’ and then after we jumped, the dude was like, ‘There was an alligator. We caught an alligator this morning,’” Segel said.
While the inspiration for Jeff didn’t come from just one person, the filmmakers did draw from a very specific time and place in their lives. “Jay and I lived in Austin [Texas] for a long time, and there’s this ZIP code in Austin, particularly South Austin, called 78704,” Mark Duplass said. “And if you’ve seen, you know, some of the early Linklater films, it’s this group of people that are sort of neo-philosophers living off of $4,000 a year, theorizing about the nature of the universe while wearing basketball shorts and hoodies and smoking a lot of pot.”
Jay Duplass, who’s the main camera operator, spoke about the duo’s overall creative approach, saying, “We’re not controlling the actor’s blocking that much. They’re going where they want to go and doing what they want to do.”
The brothers also don’t use rehearsals. “We like the idea that maybe something unexpected will happen on the first take that you might miss if you rehearse it,” Mark Duplass said. “We shoot the scenes from the front of the scene all the way to the end every time, and because we have zoom lenses they never really know whether it’s a wide shot or a close-up. They don’t have to be conscious or thinking about any of those things.”
Helms was especially effusive about working in that improvisational environment. “It’s the most fun way to go to work on a set every day, just not knowing what you’re going to say,” he said. “I’ve done little bits of theater and stuff where you literally say the same lines every night and that has its own kind of Zen appeal, like you can really find nuances in the same lines. But then there’s this whole other really exciting process which these guys are all about and it’s so, I don’t know, it’s really fun.”
Greer, who plays Helms’ frustrated wife, joked about how each of the actors always had to be ready to work. “If you don’t have lines in the scene that you were shooting that day, you’ll probably end up talking a lot,” she said.
One reporter asked Segel about the nature of comedy and his approach to the role of Jeff. “Well, I mean, I was just born hilarious,” he deadpanned, “but beyond that, this movie was, it was a no-brainer for me. I knew what my job was and it was just to show up and do what they had written so I didn’t try to bring any ‘funny bones’ to it.”
“I think the biggest mistakes are in comedies,” Sarandon said. “I mean, you can be mediocre in a drama or a whodunit or whatever, but when a comedy is bad — eww. That is so, so bad. And when you’re in something that’s falling flat — when people are trying too hard — eww. Bad.”
Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens Friday nationwide.