How Dan Berk and Robert Olsen met is evidence of fate working in the world. At NYU, these two guys were paired up as freshman year roommates. You may as well call them brothers at this point. They are two intelligent gentleman, that have been working together every step of the way, writing scripts, producing, a little bit of acting, and now directing. That is how they like it too. The duo does not see themselves working without each other, because they are best friends, and obviously they are talented together as well. Their newest film Villains is their best yet. It's a dark comedy, stuffed into a boiling hot pressure cooker, with two criminal lovers on the run- played by Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgard- that break into a house for safety, only to find a married couple that is even more disturbing than they are. It all makes for a wicked time at the movies, with a combination of smart writing, and messed up scenarios to contemplate. Villains is proof that the team of Berk & Olsen are a talented pair. I was lucky enough to chat with them on the phone about what inspires their writing and how Villains is their best movie yet. Read my interview here:
AMG.COM: I love the story of how the two of you met at NYU as freshman year roommates and now you've made your third movie together, but had there ever been a moment where the two of you thought about going separate ways?
DAN BERK: Absolutely not, never. Even if we had gone separate ways professionally, we would still be stuck with each other as best friends. It just wouldn't have been worth trying.
ROBERT OLSEN: It's funny, I think when we first started working together, we started writing, but at the time I wanted to do a bit more producing and Dan wanted to do the directing. Then when we decided we wanted to co-direct our first movie, which we wrote called Body, that's when we realized this will be a lot easier if we take the credit together on everything. We made a blood oath to just have that ampersand in between our names and take equal credit for everything. If you don't have that arrangement then you can become creatively cagey, where your thinking about your career after a collaboration or you hold onto ideas. You can become jealous of things and as soon as you let that ego go, you give yourself up that other person, become fully trusting, it frees the bandwidth to do creative work. Once we made that agreement, that's when we started to have success.
AMG.COM: Let's talk about the writing of the script for Villains, because this was on the 2016 Black List, but tell me what the genesis of writing this script was?
DAN BERK: There was a practical impetus and where the story started, the practical impetus was that Bobby and I made our first feature- Body, which at this point we wish we had called it something else because it really sounds like Bobby... (Laughter) But Body was a single location, straight thriller, so nothing like Villains tonally, but what we learned though was that there are a myriad of production benefits to shooting in one location. You're getting effective shooting times, because your not beholden to running in and running out. Not losing two hours at the top and tail of every day. After we wrapped Body, we thought we could tell another story, something bigger, so lets keep it in a single location. We knew we wanted to shoot in a house and the characters of Mickey (Bill Skarsgard) and Jules (Maika Monroe) is where it started. They were kicking around in our heads, a couple, a kind of Bonnie & Clyde. We knew that is who we wanted to follow, so it was a matter of, “okay, if we drop them into a house, what are they going to find, what antagonistic force will they be pushing up against?” Is it Zombies? Robots? Dinosaurs? After gaming out a few options, it became clear to us that the most interesting antagonist was a bizzaro world, future version of themselves. If you look at Mickey & Jules, or similar characters like in True Romance, these are characters where we are on board with the lover criminals. George (Jeffrey Donovan) & Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) as a couple like Natural Born Killers, where by the end of the movie you don't know if you're on board with these people. It was an interesting challenge to pit these couples against one another. Once we have the quartet of characters drawn, the story pretty much wrote itself. We love powder kegs like this
ROBERT OLSEN: We usually outline a film and for this one, we had a general idea of where we wanted to go, but it was a much more organic process, where we had the characters, threw them in, and gamed it out. Writing if Mickey & Jules would do one thing to get out of a situation, but then finding out two scenes later it would end up with them dying. So, we kept going back, and trying something else, it was written in that way, which is not an orthodox way of doing it, I wouldn't recommend it, but for this movie it was appropriate.
AMG.COM: The play or movie that I thought of while watching it was a bloodier version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Did you guys have any other movies or works that was an inspiration for Villains?
ROBERT OLSEN: We want to tell that Mickey and Jules story, and yet the young lovers on the run is a bit of a trope. It can't be just that. That's why we realized to pit them against this older version of themselves, now you're having that conversation about those films. What a lot of those movies do is have a sliding moral scale with how much you're supposed to be rooting for them. It's interesting to see in those movies how much you can get the audience to forgive, based on how cute and loving the couple is. At the end of Natural Born Killers their deaths are so brutal, yet you're not rooting for them quite as much, but in True Romance you are rooting for them, and then there is a film like Badlands, in-between. Those characters are killing people, and there is a really nice xylophone score, the characters are in love. We liked to say that George and Gloria are if Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen's characters never stopped at the end, never got caught, kept going and thats what they become.
DAN BERK: That is an inspiration for the movie, like we talked beforehand, that was one. We really did draw those characters in that exact trajectory.
ROBERT OLSEN: Then it's fun to just look around it, like Raising Arizona, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? There's a lot of random films.
DAN BERK: Buffalo 66. Blue Velvet. We took visual cues from Buffalo 66 and Dogtooth. So as you can see, if we are talking about where we got our reference from, it's very rarely a direct comp story-wise. For the color pallet we loved Kill Bill, it is a tough question to answer because there's a lot in there.
ROBERT OLSEN: Sometimes you just see a movie after the fact that should have been a reference.
DAN BERK: Don't Breathe is an impossible movie to not compare it to because it is about criminals breaking into the wrong house. We wrote this script, we swear to god, before Don't Breathe came out, but then it did and we were like, fuck, but that is when we realized that the tone of this film needed to be unique enough that it was going to be an original element.
ROBERT OLSEN: We're not reinventing the wheel with the nuts & bolts of plot here. That's not what it's about, as Dan said, the strongest element was the tone. Sometimes it's good when something comes out that is similar, because it lets you know to focus on the parts of the movie that is more us. Sometimes that works to our benefit.
AMG.COM: I wanted to talk about casting the two couples. I think all four of the major players deliver their own unique performances, but how did getting Bill, Maika, Jeffrey, and Kyra involved?
ROBERT OLSEN: The scripts greatest strength was also its greatest weakness was this uniqueness of tone. It made it so that if you are an actor reading five or six scripts a week, that this one will stick out. And yet that is what made it difficult, because it is a risky film to do. Our first two movies were nothing like this tonally, so we had nothing for a proof of concept to say, “hey, you can trust us making a movie like this.” I think that's where it's scary, because with a film where your operating in that Cohen brothers, north of reality, south of farce world, if you mess that up, it's really bad. If you're an actor doing some drama and it doesn’t come out that well, you as the actor won't look ridiculous. If you do a movie like Villains, doing these over the top cranked up performances, if it turns out to be garbage, well now you are a meme. You're getting a Razzie. That was one of the big things, and Bill Skarsgard, god bless him, was the first actor to come on. He was confident in his own abilities, in the script, that he felt comfortable to join. When he was put in front of us initially by Allen Mandelbaum, one of our producers at Starthrower, he said “I think Bill Skarsgard is the guy we are looking for.” We were like, “really?” We had only seen him in IT and Hemlock Grove, he's always playing brooding bad guys. I had never seen him do this fast talking, comedic character, but he fit the physical profile we were looking for. We really wanted Mickey to have the slick back hair, heart throb, a Johnny Depp, River Phoenix vibe. We could not find that. You find an actor that fits the physical, but not the comedic side. Bill was an extinct actor. When we skyped with him everything clicked. Shortly after that Maika Monroe came on and we had seen It Follows after writing the script, we saw Jules in her. Early on she was working on Independence Day 2 and other big things. This is when we are trying to make the movie for two-hundred grand, so it was a pipe dream. A few years go by, get more on the budget, and then Bill comes on and we were able to get Maika. We didn't want to tell her we were seeking her out. Didn't want to freak her out. Jeff and Kyra came on very quickly. It was a thing where we got lucky that they had a space in their slates and they were able to come out and do it. We were nervous because they were the biggest actors we had ever worked with. We didn't know what to expect. They were stars that were on network shows that were on seven to eight years. They were kings of the sets, but how were they going to feel on a rinky dink movie? That was so not the case, they are just the most down to earth, incredible, hard working, collaborative people. Everybody had something to prove.
AMG.COM: I also wanted to ask you about the fantastic animated credits. Who decided to have that be done for the film and talk about bringing the artist on to do that?
DAN BERK: The animators name is Matt Reynolds, he's an incredibly talented illustrator, he came across our radar because he had done some of the bumper animations for SXSW a few years ago. He met with one of our executive producers Chad Harbold, who made the intro. Why we had it in the first place, Bobby and I love title sequences. They are this bygone thing, not in movies enough anymore. They do this incredible thing when at the top of a movie, which is to give you a runway to get into the tone of the movie before it starts. It gets you warmed up and ready to be in a mindset the director wants you to be in. The sequence was designed to be at the start of the film, it use to be scene two. There was the robbery and then they crash into this title sequence. When we were going through the editorial process, there was an energy or a pacing problem. We couldn't quite figure it out. A very talented, filmmaker friend of ours gave us some notes and said the title sequence kicks too much ass. It's setting up expectations at the start of the film that the movie can't keep up with. The title sequence is this crazy animated thing, with skulls and crossbones, people crushing up skulls and doing lines of crushed up skull coke. So we took a pause and of course we weren't going to cut that from the movie because it was too cool. So we moved it to the end of the movie and as soon as we did that it all fell into place. It felt so good to go out on this celebratory mood. This movie deserves to go out on a punch and we think the animated sequence really worked. Glad that it played for you and there is quite a good story behind it.