‘Baghead’: a mumblecore mix of laughs and screams

Special to The Times

A guy with a bag on his head can play out a couple of ways. The Unknown Comic went for laughs. Recent films such as “The Orphanage” and “The Strangers” go for straight scares. And then there’s the new indie film “Baghead,” in which the sack holds both chuckles and screams.

Written and directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, “Baghead” is part of a growing collection of movies made by an interconnected yet geographically dispersed group of filmmakers and is the first in the group to be released by a studio-connected distributor, Sony Pictures Classics. It plays tonight and June 27 as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival and has already started opening in smaller markets. Some lump these films together under the nebulous heading “mumblecore,” but what they are really a part of is an emergent wave of new American independent filmmaking.

Coming on as a scruffy gadabout in order to mask a deceptively sophisticated structure, “Baghead” mixes and matches the loose talk of indie comedy with the roundhouse scares of a horror film. Two friends (Steve Zissis, Ross Partridge) persuade two women (Greta Gerwig, Elise Muller) to head to a cabin in the woods to make a movie in a single weekend. Everyone has their own agenda, but when it seems they are being stalked by someone or something with an unsettling bag over its head, all plans go awry. There is something ridiculous -- pathetic even -- about the villain, and yet it is surprisingly effective.

“Mark was particularly obsessed with horror films because of how they move so fast and how they just rule the audience,” said Jay Duplass a few days after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.


“One time we were driving at night, it was kind of creepy out there and he was like, ‘What’s the scariest thing to you?’ The answer came up, a guy with a bag on his head looking in your window. We left it alone for a while but then it kept getting us. It’s so stupid and simple, but it’s freaky.”

Shot on digital video in 23 days for very little money -- “rental cabins in East Central Texas aren’t that pricey,” said Jay dryly -- the film is part of the Duplass’ ongoing exploration of structured improvisations. They work out a detailed outline for the story and then give the actors leeway with the dialogue. They fully light their sets so they can shoot any angle of the scene as it happens, with the roving eye of a documentarian.

“I think 80% of filmmaking is structure,” Jay said. “We think in terms of how to move things, what people want. It’s very plot oriented, but in the execution of it we try to disguise our plot.”

“We were also attracted to the concept of really caring about the characters more,” added Mark. “We knew we could do a good job at getting personal, character stuff, so the audience connects with them. We liked the idea of people you fall in love with inside this archetype experience . . . really putting yourself in this other person’s shoes.”

Originally from New Orleans, the Duplass brothers first hit the festival circuit with a series of short films made while they lived in Austin. Now in Los Angeles, they have made inroads into Hollywood with a few script deals but seem to prefer to keep the conventional system at arm’s length.

“The Puffy Chair,” their 2005 feature debut, came to audiences through a mix of festival appearances and regional theatrical engagements similar to the rollout plan being used now for “Baghead,” the film that gained them inclusion into the emerging group of films and filmmakers commonly known as “mumblecore.”

The term has launched a now years-long flurry of semantic arguments and taxonomic interpretations, though it is largely defined as films having low-key settings, homespun production values and a kind of searching, improvisational dialogue (hence the label). Many of the films tagged with the moniker share talent on-screen and off, with the same names often popping up in the credits and thank yous. Even equipment gets shared.

“Any time a little movie gets noticed, it’s awesome,” said Jay of being included in the group. “That being said, I don’t think ‘Baghead’ is a mumblecore movie.”

“There’s nothing traditional about this film,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, before he likened “Baghead” to another Austin-affiliated film he once acquired, Richard Linklater’s debut “Slacker.”

Indeed, in the classy company of more standard Sony Classics releases such as “When Did You Last See Your Father?” or “The Counterfeiters,” the Duplass brothers seem every bit the shaggy upstarts. “There is a new audience, and these guys are the cutting edge of that,” Bernard said. “No one is making movies for people in their 20s. People are in on this, it’s a group that’s really connected with the Internet and they’ve got a following. This is sort of their coming out party.”

None of the release strategies or categorical complexities of “Baghead” would much matter if it wasn’t connecting with audiences. “We’ve had these incredible reactions,” said Mark, “where people jump back and lurch and they scream and then they start laughing and then they start clapping.”

Added Jay, “I think they feel dumb for being caught up in it.”