Mark Duplass on HBO’s Animals: ‘The TV show world is terrible’

We find out how the Duplass brothers got stars such as Jessica Chastain on board for their new show Animals, and why they are trying to revolutionise the way television works by using the pillowtalk of animated pigeons

One Friday night while sitting in their Bushwick apartment drawing the talking animals that would eventually become the HBO show Animals, Phil Matarese and his co-creator Mike Luciano heard a bunch of people having fun while heading to the bar. Matarese leaned over to Luciano to ask: Why arent they at home working on their passion project?

Animals, which debuts its first episode this Friday on HBO at 11.30pm EST, is a strange show, and it took an even stranger route to the television. It swerved through the indie film world, via producers Mark and Jay Duplass, in a process that could possibly upend the traditional way that most TV shows make it to air.

The passion project started when Matarese and Luciano were working together at an ad agency in New York. One day through the window in their office they saw two pigeons and decided to give voices to the creatures. Basically we took that riffing we did and we put it into my laptop and we threw some images against it, Matarese says. And that was our first Animals short.

The concept has always stayed essentially the same: each episode features a different animal found in New York City (rats, cats, dogs, pigeons, squirrels and even those much disputed Central Park carriage horses) talking to each other in improvised bits voiced by Matarese, Luciano and a series of guests. The critters are then brought to life with Matareses lo-fi and rather gritty animation. The shorts started airing on digital-short clearinghouse Channel 101 and then at the New York Television Festival, which helped the pair get a manager.

Thats when Mark and Jay Duplass stepped in. The brothers are as famous for their roles in The Mindy Project and Transparent, as they are for writing/directing/producing/starring in DIY Sundance favorites such as The Puffy Chair and Cyrus. With their show Togetherness set up at HBO (season two kicks off 21 February), the pair were on the lookout for other television projects. They knew Matarese and Lucianos manager, who made the necessary connections.

We made them this pitch that was very cynical, Mark Duplass says. It was like: The TV show world is terrible either they buy it, they give you a lot of notes that youre angry about but follow because you want to get the show done and they greenlight it and youre lucky enough to get to make a show you dont like any more. Or they stretch you out for two years teasing you and then dont make your show.

I was like: Come with us, lets try this independent television format, raise some independent money and then go out and sell it as it is. Maybe it only ends up on a Yahoo or YouTube channel, or we end up at HBO, which I didnt think was really going to happen.

Mark and Jay brought Matarese and Luciano out to LA and set them up in an apartment. When camped out there, Matarese and Luciano came up with outlines for the shows and started recording the voiceovers in a home-made sound booth. Mark also started asking some of his friends to do guest voices.

I would call my close friends at the time who wouldnt scoff that we were in this apartment, he says. So it was like Nick Kroll at first. Then: Should we call Aziz [Ansari]? Didnt he just sell out Madison Square Garden? Is he going to want to come to our smelly bedroom?

They ended up with an impressive roster of guests including Kroll, Jessica Chastain, Wanda Sykes, Cobie Smulders, Molly Shannon, Ellie Kemper, Jon Lovitz, Horatio Sans, Rob Corddry and the Duplasses themselves. The results are episodes such as one about a pair of rats that go to a party and end up making babies and taking little blue pills that are supposed to help with libido. Another episode sees a pigeon thinking he might be a female because he mistakes a golf ball for an egg.

Its very much like the Adult Swim show Home Movies, but with a look that is intentionally arts and crafts, like something made in a Brooklyn apartment. The creative team likes to joke about how the drawings look rather amateurish. We were bringing in artists who drew too well and it didnt look shitty enough, Mark Duplass says. It was like: Do we just have them draw left-handed? Phil had to teach them how to draw like a seven-year-old a little bit.

The Duplasses approach to both making the show and selling it was very much informed by their experience in the indie film world. They even brought the first two episodes of the show to premiere at Sundance 2015, where HBO eventually bought it. It was the first TV show to debut there without a channel already signed on. It was a reverse engineering of the independent film model into the television space, Mark says. My hope at the time that TV buyers would see what we were making and think it was good and we could offer it to them at a price that would be cheaper than what they would have to pay to make it themselves.

Matarese thinks the show never would have been bought if they didnt use this method. Its so unpitchable, our show, because its a sketch show but its not and the mouths on the animals dont move, he says. We had to make it and show it to people. That was the only way it was going to work.

This method had great success and its something Duplass Brothers Television which has an overall deal at HBO and is also producing a series of films for Netflix is eager to try again, especially because its a way to apply their homemade film-making approach to the small screen, where there are tons of players looking to snap up as much content as they possibly can.

I will say this its cool, but its an immense investment of your time and money, more so than a movie, in my opinion. The gamble is bigger, Mark says, getting us back to the passion project that Matarese and Luciano were so bummed out they were working through instead of heading to the bar. Mark says that he and Jay had the same sort of work ethic when they were young, but with movies instead of television.

So does this mean that independent productions could be the future of television? Would the Duplass brothers recommend it? Not really, because I want to be the only one who is doing that and I want to be looked at as cool and trailblazing, Duplass says. But if it was someone close to me that I love I would tell them that its a cool model.

Animals begins tonight on HBO at 11.30pm EST


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