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Highlights

Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass sit on stage at the Egyptian Theatre. Mark Duplass is speaking into a microphone and waving his hand.

Upside-Down Tom Noonan, Anti-Racist Punks, and Brooklyn Teenagers in the 40th Edition Short Film Show With Mark & Jay Duplass

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 23: (L–R) Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass host the 40th Edition Short Film Show at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Annie Lyons 

Sundance Film Festival alums Mark and Jay Duplass took audience members on a glorious, laughter-filled trip down memory lane at the 40th Edition Short Film Show on January 23 at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah. Part of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival’s 40th Edition Celebration Screenings and Events, the evening featured an eclectic mix of seven short films capturing the spirit of discovery that short film is all about. 

The Duplasses kicked things off with their own $3-budget short film, This is John (2003 Sundance Film Festival), which follows John’s (Mark Duplass) anxiety-ridden attempts at recording a new voicemail message on his landline. “I was told this in confidence and I’m not supposed to reveal it, but I’m gonna do it right now. Apparently they had a rating scale of what number the film is in terms of quality. Someone told me that the first screener wrote the word ‘Crap,’” Jay Duplass says with a laugh.

“We submitted it to Sundance as a joke, and I can’t believe we’re standing here,” Mark Duplass adds to exuberant cheers. “Six thousand films had been submitted, and we felt so special and had the time of our lives.” 

As the subsequent short films screened, the Duplasses invited attending directors to “take a seat in pontification corner” on stage for brief conversations about their shorts, where their careers have gone since then, and their thoughts on the current state of independent filmmaking. Plus, in a recurring bit that never fails to get the whole crowd giggling, there’s always at least one joking question about how the short measures up to This is John

“This is one of your earliest works. How did you pull off something so beautiful and high concept like This is John?” Mark Duplass wonders at one point to filmmaker Mariama Diallo, who responds, “I could only aspire to that, truly.” 

“And you did fall short,” he replies. 

Shorts from Sterlin Harjo and Julia Pott also screened as part of the program, though their trips to pontification corner will have to happen another time. Harjo’s Goodnight Irene (2005 Sundance Film Festival) offers a warmhearted look at how two young Seminole men connect with an elder in a hospital waiting room, while Pott’s animated The Event (2013 Sundance Film Festival) rewinds backward from an apocalyptic event with chilling existential humor. 

Below, learn about the other five short films in the special program and the filmmakers behind them. 

(L–R) Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass introduce their short film “This is John” to the crowd at the Egyptian Theatre. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

This is John (2003 Sundance Film Festival) — “It was the summer of 2002. I was deeply depressed because Mark and I had made many, many short films and a few feature films that had been distributed in the basement of our parents’ house. Exclusively,” Jay Duplass recalls. “I was about to turn 30. I was losing my mind, and I was at that point where I did not feel like it was fair to stress out my friends and family any longer, I had to move on. Mark was living with me in our tiny South Austin apartment, and he said, ‘We’re making a short film today.’ This is back in the day when you needed film, you needed 16 millimeter film, you needed lights, you needed crew.”

“This has basically been the essence of Jay’s and my relationship… I put him into deeply uncomfortable situations and then make him carry the bag,” Mark Duplass adds. “So I went out and I said, ‘We’re gonna use Mom and Dad’s video camera. It’s fine. Nobody’s gonna see it. We’re just gonna make something. And he was like, ‘You mean the one with a dead pixel in the center of it?’ I was like, ‘Yep!’ It’s a Where’s Waldo? [puzzle] that’s not that hard to see. So I went to 7-11 and I got a $3 mini DV tape and brought it back to our little Canon camera.” 

Mark Duplass continues, “And I said, ‘Okay Jay, what’s the movie about? And I’ll never forget this, he’s like, ‘I don’t know if I’m comfortable putting this on film, but something happened to me the other day. I was trying to record the outgoing greeting of my answering machine and couldn’t get it right. And I got really sad and I kind of had a little nervous breakdown.’ And I was like, ‘Don’t say anything, don’t say anything.’ I put on some clothes, ran out the door, came back in, we filmed for 18 minutes, one take. Jay was just moving all around approximating some version of coverage. We stopped and were like, ‘This feels different, this feels cool. Something might have happened here.’” 

“It wasn’t nothing. That was all we knew,” Jay Duplass says to laughter.

(L–R) Rubika Shah, Jay Duplass, and Mark Duplass discuss taking a short film to a feature. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

White Riot: London (2017 Sundance Film Festival) — Told in a scrapbook style and thrumming with kinetic, punk energy, filmmaker Rubika Shah’s White Riot: London takes its name from the 1977 song by The Clash. The documentary short highlights how the Rock Against Racism movement in the late ‘70s U.K. rose up against anti-immigrant racism. “It’s basically almost as culturally important as This is John in terms of social justice,” notes Jay Duplass to audience laughter. Reflecting on bringing the short to the Sundance Film Festival and having an audience outside the U.K. engage with her work, Shah reflects, “That was a big moment of realization and a big moment of confidence for me to be able to talk about myself as a filmmaker.” 

Shah expanded the short into 2020’s White Riot. Since she knew she wasn’t making a traditional music documentary, the short helped her explain her unique vision to people. Then, it was all about funding. After two years, “It got to the point where it was like, ‘This is going to happen, or it’s not gonna happen,’” Shah says. “‘I think we’re gonna have to stop raising the finance. We have a little bit of money. We’re just gonna have to make it and see where it takes us.’ It was a risk, but we did it.”

Dean Parisot, Jay Duplass, and Mark Duplass sit on stage at the Egyptian Theatre.
(L–R) Dean Parisot, Jay Duplass, and Mark Duplass take a visit to “pontification corner.” (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

Tom Goes to the Bar (1986 Sundance Film Festival) — After seeing his debut short film for the first time in 30 years, director Dean Parisot exclaims, “I want to recut it!” The black-and-white short features Tom Noonan delivering a monologue while hanging upside down — though no one seems to care — in an increasingly chaotic bar. When asked by Mark Duplass about the short’s process, Parisot deadpans, “You want to know the old-timey stuff? We didn’t have cameras.” He continues, “I was just out of NYU. It was my first eight minutes. Those are all friends of mine from school who made it with me. I made it for $6,000, which is what I earned doing some horrible industrial film. We shot it in two days. We thought no one would look at it.” 

Reflecting on his career and being back at the Festival, he says, “Strangely, I’d like to get back to maybe a more absurdist place, which is a very hard thing, because when you come into the commercial world, back then you’d get these labels. A friend of mine said being a filmmaker is like getting pecked to death by chickens, so that pecking goes on, and you find your way through that. But without Sundance, I would have stopped right there. I would have shown it to my friends and tried again.”

Eliza Hittman sits on stage next to Jay Duplass at the Egyptian Theatre.
(L–R) Eliza Hittman and Jay Duplass discuss independent filmmaking at the Egyptian Theatre. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight (2011 Sundance Film Festival) — Drawing its title from the Bonnie Tyler song “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight offers a sensitive, nuanced look at a 17-year-old Russian teenager on a night out, all while dealing with a precarious living situation. Three-time Sundance feature director Eliza Hittman recalls how she made the film in graduate school, where she was surrounded by international classmates who flew home to exciting places. “And I’m just, you know, an Ukrainian Jew from Brooklyn,” she says to laughter. “What I was sort of searching for in the film was like, ‘How can I make this kind of small fringe area that I know well feel like the foreign film that my classmates are making?’ I was experimenting with the language. I had never played with slow motion before and close-ups.” 

Recalling how the short helped lead to her feature debut It Felt Like Love (2013 Sundance Film Festival), Hittman says, “I came with a short film, you know, there were no agents calling me. Except that I met the one programmer I felt like-mindedness [with], and that’s Kim Yutani. A lot of the film, the guy’s apartment, that’s my basement. I was like, ‘I’ll just go back and make a movie in that basement and at least I know that Kim will watch it.’ That motivated me.” 

“I’ve never had the stamp of approval from the industry, but it’s really the spirit of this place that keeps me going.” 

Mariama Diallo sits on stage at the Egyptian Theatre holding a microphone and smiling.
Director Mariama Diallo revisits her short film “Hair Wolf” at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

Hair Wolf (2018 Sundance Film Festival) — One eerie night, the staff of a Black hair salon must face off against zombie-like culturally appropriative white women. “I was trying to amuse myself and crack myself up,” says filmmaker Mariama Diallo of her gorgeous Midnight short. “It all came to me in one instant when I saw a braid, like a lost extension, just lying on the ground outside my apartment in Crown Heights. I pointed it out to my friend and I said, ‘Braid.’ It was really early morning and conversation was hard going, so I just said that, and I was misheard as saying ‘brain.’” 

She adds, “I’ve always been interested in this intersection of horror and just my own personal musings, and everything that grows out of my experience as a Black woman.” Reflecting on her career since then and her feature directorial debut Master (2022 Sundance Film Festival), Diallo says, “After Hair Wolf, I could get meetings, and I could actually talk about the ideas that I had in a concrete sense that they would actually get made, like I wrote scripts and scripts and scripts before that I just knew were for myself and were for fun. It’s definitely better for me now than it was then. 

“But I think that, you know, broadly, definitely the industry seems to be going through some sort of recalibration. Like, when there’s an apocalypse and they’re like, ‘The Earth is healing itself,’” she says to uproarious laughter. “We’ll see what happens on the other side.” 

To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.

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