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Exclusive Interview: Writer/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen and star Maika Monroe on “VILLAINS,” Part One

Friday, September 20, 2019 | Review

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Who are the real VILLAINS? The answer is fluid in the new film by writer/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, which mixes horror, humor and a quartet of great performances, including one by Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS, THE GUEST) in her return to the genre. RUE MORGUE sat down with Monroe and the filmmakers

VILLAINS, reviewed here and opening today from Gunpowder & Sky under their Alter banner, stars Monroe and Bill Skarsgård (out of his Pennywise makeup from the IT duo) as Jules and Mickey, a criminal couple on the run forced to seek shelter at a remote house. Its occupants, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) turn out to have an even darker side than their new “guests,” and things get frightening—and darkly amusing—fast. It’s the third feature helmed by Berk and Olsen, who made their scripting/directing debut on the microbudget thriller BODY before stepping up to the Glass Eye Pix vampire sequel STAKE LAND II (a.k.a. THE STAKELANDER).

After directing other writers’ material on STAKE LAND II, did you enjoy getting back to your own script with VILLAINS?

ROBERT OLSEN: We were actually already writing VILLAINS and trying to get it going when that opportunity presented itself. Even though we had said we were going to write and direct everything we do, we thought STAKE LAND II would be a great opportunity to cut our teeth, no pun intended, on a slightly bigger project.

DAN BERK: We were really happy we went through that experience before we did VILLAINS. As much as at the time we were like, “God, I just wish we could shoot VILLAINS right now!” it was nice to prepare.

RO: Yeah, there’s a whole side of directing that you just don’t learn making short films growing up, which is the personnel management side of it—handling people’s personalities and making everybody feel like they have a seat at the table. That’s something that takes a little time to develop.

VILLAINS actually feels like a first film, in that it’s one main location and a very small cast. What were the challenges or advantages of creating a narrative with such limited parameters?

RO: We started with that in mind, since as I said, we wrote VILLAINS before getting the STAKE LAND II gig. We were coming right off of BODY, and when we originally conceived VILLAINS, that was going to be the $200,000 movie [laughs]. Thank God we had a friend who was a producer who said early on, “You guys don’t have to do that. You made a $50,000 one that did well, shoot for higher than that.” We wanted to get to a place where we were making bigger movies, so we saw this as the next step, where we would have the budget to do what we wanted to do creatively.

So it did start with us thinking, “Let’s try to do another limited-location movie,” because we saw the production benefits of that, and you’re always going to want more in your budget. So if we could find a way to set it in one house, and we could get $1 or $2 million for it, we could stretch that and make it look like a ton, because we had seen the benefits of single-location. You don’t have to load in and load out [equipment] every day, so you effectively get another 20, 25 percent of actual shooting time over the life of the movie if you’re just in one place instead of a dozen.

So the house was really the first “character” in the script, and as we spitballed and tried to figure out what kind of story we wanted to tell there, we kept coming back to these lovers on the run, Bonnie and Clyde types, and we became obsessed with that. Eventually, we stumbled upon this “What if the couple from TRUE ROMANCE ran into the couple from NATURAL BORN KILLERS?”, or this bizarre, older version of themselves. We always talked about George and Gloria being Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in BADLANDS if they didn’t get caught at the end, and got to keep going; they even have the same names. What might they look like 30 years later? Once we found that, and put the characters in this situation and just started writing, it was a process of going back and forth and finding new things. It was not the type of movie where we know where we were going to land at the end when we first started writing it.

DB: We were making revisions as to who lives and who dies up to a month before shooting. We did so many rewrites.

Indeed, without giving anything away, you made interesting choices regarding who survives and who doesn’t by the end of the film.

DB: Well, a lot of people come up to us after watching the movie and are genuinely pissed that we…well, I don’t want to spoil anything [laughs], but that we kill certain people and don’t kill others. But when we finally unlocked that, we were like, “OK, that makes sense with what we’re going for here, as far as the moral scale of the film’s universe—who deserves what and for what reasons.” But it was in flux quite a bit.

RO: There was one character we kept going back and forth on what their fate might be toward the end. But it was a totally organic process, and one thing we fought for was a week of rehearsal with the actors, which is just impossible to get on a movie this size. We didn’t even get a full week, but we did get a few days, and it made such a difference to be able to hear the words spoken aloud and see what felt right, and what maybe wasn’t quite right. With a film of this tone, you’re so out there, you want to be just south of farce, and finding that line and what felt a bit too much and what felt too little was very important. There were a lot of little tweaks made to the dialogue in those last couple of weeks up to production.

It was a very collaborative process, with all of our keys as well: our production designer, our costume designer, our DP—everybody got to pour themselves into this and brought so much to it. We had our vision, but the boundaries were loose enough that everybody got to play, and I think they all got to express themselves and feel like this was their movie as well.

Can you talk about maintaining that tone, and finding the right mix of horror and humor?

DB: Yeah—we picked that lane before we started shooting of being above reality but below farce. Staying in that lane fell largely on the shoulders of our cast, and when you’re working with such talented, professional actors, there’s not a ton of direction; you just let ’em go. Of course, we corrected them if we needed to, but they all understood the narrow tonal bullseye we were going for from our earliest meetings. That was very helpful, because everybody knew exactly how to stay within those bounds, and I believe we achieved that tone we were going for.

Maika, this is your first horror film since IT FOLLOWS and THE GUEST; were you offered a lot of genre movies after that, and this was the first one you responded to?

MAIKA MONROE: There was definitely a lot of horror that came my way, but I read this script and just fell in love with it and fell in love with the characters. And then Skyping with you guys, I was like, “I want to do this so bad!”

DB: The day we found out Maika had read it and was interested, we Skyped about 15 minutes later; it happened very fast. She charmed us immediately; she was like, “I read it, and then I read it with my mom.” [Everyone laughs] And we were like, “What? You read it with your mom? What do you mean? That’s amazing!”

RO: It was so funny, too, because when we were writing VILLAINS, we had watched IT FOLLOWS, and we were like, “Who is that? That actor is incredible, we have to work with her someday.” So we almost wrote it with her in mind, but that was way before we were even considering trying to make the bigger version of this movie. And then we had to play it cool when we first Skyped with her; we were like, “Who are you? Let’s see here, Maika…” [Monroe laughs] And then finally, when we wrapped, we were like, “By the way, we always knew who you were, and we were obsessed with you the whole time!” [Everyone laughs]

Your character is a “villain,” and yet sympathetic at the same time. How did you find the right balance there?

MM: It was in the script. The writing was so good, and while reading it, the relationship between Mickey and Jules was what really drew me in. They’re so intense and they love each other so much, and I feel like it’s so much fun to watch them through this adventure. And Bill was incredible; he’s so great to work with. On a movie like this, it’s so important to all be on the same page, and we had a blast.

DB: That relationship, from the early stages of the scripting, was the grounding element. The way that you travel that white-knuckle tension one second, and then comedy the next, is you need a base like that. It’s not enough to just have everyone act serious for a scene; when they can go back to that relationship, that grounds you immediately. There are real stakes in this movie because they love each other, so they can’t lose each other. That was so important, and Bill and Maika bringing it to life is what makes the movie work.

TO BE CONTINUED

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.