Headed into the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, I had suspected that Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s comedic crime caper Villains (you can read my review HERE) would end up stealing the show (so to speak), and so it was a delightful surprise to see the film get so warmly embraced, becoming one of the most buzzed about movies playing in Austin last week.
And while in attendance at the fest, Daily Dead was thrilled to speak with both filmmakers about the inspirations behind the script for Villains, the challenges of balancing the film’s tonal shifts, bringing together their brilliant ensemble, which includes Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, and Kyra Sedgwick, and more.
Congratulations on the film, guys. I just loved this so much. I’d love to start off by talking about this story, finding this great energy in the material and balancing everything out tonally. It’s just all really great stuff.
Dan Berk: The conception of the idea is like this big puzzle of different pieces that came together at the same time. It was this confluence of, we knew we wanted to make a film, a genre film in a single location because we had kind of learned on our first film, Body, the amazing production logistical benefits of shooting in a single location. Just the extra time you have, shooting time you have, by owning a location. So we knew we wanted that, we had a preoccupation at the time of this lovers on the run concept. Like, Bonnie and Clyde types whose transgressions and crimes they've committed were overshadowed by their love. And the challenge of making the audience fall in love with characters that were doing things that were maybe illegal or weren't the kindest things.
Robert Olsen: A big part of it was Badlands, and watching that film and how much you love Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, but then at the end of the day you're like, "They are straight up murdering people and yet I like them." So that's where George and Gloria kind of came from. We were like, what if Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek didn't stop at the end of that movie and grew up—what would that have looked like? And to have Mickey and Jules, who are the young budding version of this, butt up against this kind of bizarro world future version of what they could be or if a different path was taken, [they] might wind up there.
And so in that way, we stumbled upon this theme of love and the different ways it can make you better, but it can also corrupt you if that love is mixed with say, obsession. George and Gloria and Mickey and Jules, both of those couples, have this incredible bond and they are truly in love with one another. But love can't forgive you of all your sins. That was something that just always stuck out in those movies, and you could see all the different ways that different filmmakers deal with that, where maybe it’s like True Romance, where you are very much rooting for these people who are in this crazy underbelly, or is it a little bit more Natural Born Killers, where they get to a place where it’s just not okay anymore because they're doing very bad things. That’s where it started.
Dan Berk: Once we had those characters, that location, and that thematic framework, we had to get our hands dirty with what we felt most confident in, which is just plotting. We want them to have a bunch of twists and turns, so what can we do in this single house with these four characters and have these four different motivations?
In Villains, there are the darkly comedic elements to this film, but there are also some very straightforward story beats, and some very horrific things happen at certain points, too. How did you guys attack these different tones to find a great balance in the script?
Robert Olsen: So, the tone was something that always existed in our head, but it was a tough thing to articulate to other people. We did our best to put it into the script, a lot of the screen direction is cheekily written, to let you know we were going to deal with a little bit lighter paint brush on this story. And I actually thought Jeff [Donovan] on our first Skype call with him, put it in a really eloquent way when he said, "It operates in this world that's just south of farce." Where it's never so wacky that it doesn't matter to you anymore. And so I think that it was just this pH balance that you have to find between the funny moments and the more intense or emotional moments, and that's just like a back and forth script level thing, where you are making sure you're hitting the right notes and everything.
Dan Berk: Beyond the script, Robert mentioned Jeff, and it was really a process with all four actors just ensuring that both individually and as a collective, they all understood the movie that they were in. What was really valuable to us, was that we fought really hard for a week of rehearsal before we shot and we were able to get that. Having the four actors in the room when we didn't have all the pressures of being on set, we weren't on the clock, and we weren't burning daylight, either. We were just all able to huddle up and be like, "This is the movie that we're making, let's figure this out. Let's run lines. Let's make sure we all get it." So that by the time we got to set, we understood that tone, and they really carried that banner for us.
Robert Olsen: And it took a lot of faith on their part, because we don't have this established track record of movies with this tone. We knew that we wanted it to be that, we knew that that was a part of ourselves that we really wanted to put on screen, but our first feature was a $50,000 feature, that was very straightforward. We were trying to get on base with that movie. So we did play it safe, and then the second film that we did was a director for hire sequel to a movie that already existed. So there was a creative framework that already was there, that we had to work within. This one was our third feature, but it in a lot of ways feels like our first, because it was the first one where we had the budget and the creative control.
And it was fun to watch them all make each other more and more comfortable the more that they worked together. At first, everybody's a little bit like, "We're in rehearsal, I'm just going to read the lines." But then, little by little it started to come out, and Bill sees Jeff doing it, and Kyra sees Maika doing it this way, everybody starts to feel, "Oh, okay, well, if they're going to do it, I can do it." Little by little everybody just kind of finds that tone together, and you can kind of tell when it's too much or you can tell when it's not enough, but it's not until you're actually all in the room, saying the lines out loud that you can see that.
Dan Berk: And when the sparks start to fly, and you're like, "Oh, we just discovered the chemistry between those two characters. Amazing!" And that's what that rehearsal was so useful for.
Before we go, I’d love to talk about this cast, because they are all phenomenal.
Dan Berk: Oh, absolutely. We are so so so so lucky that we got the cast that we did. Bill was the first actor to attach himself, and we had some very narrow stipulations for what we wanted for these characters, and for Mickey, we wanted somebody who had a certain physicality, we wanted him to be tall–
Robert Olsen: And yet lanky–
Dan Berk: Like a ’90s heartthrob, but with this charisma and also a goofiness, or slight dimwittedness to him. He needed to be lovable, too, and we really had a lot of trouble finding that. There are a million actors in Hollywood, but the list of ones that will actually unlock your financing with your financier, and the ones that actually satisfy you creatively, there weren't a lot of people. And so when we found Bill, who of course we knew from IT and a ton of other stuff, we Skyped with him and he was so down to earth and he so understood the character and he so understood the humor in this film, it was such a f--king relief.
Once we brought him on, Maika was the next one, which was amazing because we wrote the script in 2015, and it was right after we had seen It Follows. We thought Maika Monroe would be perfect for Jules and we told our producers that, and they were like, "Slow your roll, guys, you're not going to get Maika Monroe right now, she's way too hot."
Robert Olsen: It took so long for us to actually tell her that [laughs]. It wasn't until we were done shooting the movie that we were like, "By the way, we're obsessed, and we watched you in this movie like three years ago, and that's when we started to think about it" [laughs].
So, we started with the younger couple, and then we built George and Gloria after that. When Kyra came on, I think the commonality between Kyra and Jeff is just how much they both got it. I think we thought that going in, maybe because we're on the younger side comparatively or something, that the younger actors will get the tone, but maybe it will be the older actors that we have to explain it to a bit more, maybe there's a generational thing here. And that was totally not the case. But anyway, we had always talked about Gloria feeling like she’s being lifted out of a Tennessee Williams play, and the first thing Kyra said was, "Oh, this character reminds me of Blanche DuBois," and all this stuff. And we were like, "What? That's crazy." And it was the same with Jeff, too.
Dan Berk: That was the casting process. You hear from every filmmaker and yet you don't really believe it until you go through it, but it's like, you get that one person to dip their toe in the water and then the project comes together in three weeks. It's just crazy how it works, but I totally get it. It's like this a normal human thing, where you don't want to be the first one necessarily, but then somebody trusts you enough, and then everything else comes together. And we were so lucky with the actors that we got. So lucky.
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