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

Tuesday, September 24, 2019 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Continuing the interview that began here, we spoke to the creators and lead actress of VILLAINS, now in release from Gunpowder & Sky’s Alter division. Bill Skarsgård (the IT films’ Pennywise) and Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS, THE GUEST) star as Mickey and Jules, criminal lovers on the run who wind up in a house with George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), who are far worse villains than they are. Mickey and Jules soon discover a little girl (Blake Baumgartner) who also appears to be George and Gloria’s captive, and there’s an especially squirm-inducing scene involving Jules’ tongue stud. Dan Berk and Robert Olsen wrote and directed the movie, following their scripting/helming debut on the indie thriller BODY and their gig guiding STAKE LAND II.

When you cast Bill Skarsgård, I assume he had done Pennywise by that point?

ROBERT OLSEN: Oh yeah. Bill was actually the first actor who officially came on, and it’s like what we were talking about earlier: It was a risk these actors had to take, because if you fuck up a movie like this, the actors look ridiculous in it, and it’s a much higher-risk proposition than, say, doing a straight drama. One of our producers, Allan Mandelbaum, brought Bill up as a possibility, and we had never thought of him that way. We had been out there chasing what we thought was an extinct type of actor—this kind of tall, lanky, handsome late ’80s/early ’90s heartthrob, a jean jacket, slicked-back hair, River Phoenix kind of guy. And we just couldn’t find him; we would see actors who could hit the comedic beats but didn’t have the leading-man looks, or we somebody who was this Adonis but had no personality or couldn’t be funny. Then when Bill came across our radar, at first we were like, “The scary guy, from the scary movies where he’s always, like, brooding and scary?” And then when we Skyped with him, we realized how charismatic he was.

MAIKA MONROE: Yeah, he’s a charmer.

RO: And we were like, how come this guy isn’t playing roles like this? So we were psyched to give him that opportunity to shine.

Maika, what were your most memorable scenes with him, and in general in the film?

MM: I loved shooting the opening scene, where we’re robbing the gas station. We had a blast doing that, even though we were wearing these masks and it was hard to see shit. It was so much fun, even when we were rehearsing it and figuring out all the dynamics.

DAN BERK: That scene was designed as a Steadicam single take, so it was very complicated. They had to hit all these specific beats, and it was a two-minute scene and if somebody blew a movement, we’d have to go back to one. We did like 20 takes, but if I remember correctly, it was a short day.

MM: Yeah, we wrapped early. That was great!

Were there any scenes in the house that were uncomfortable, like when you’re chained up in the basement?

MM: Oh yeah; the tongue thing was so ridiculous. We had a fake tongue in my mouth, and the blood in there; it was so funny.

RO: Just the tongue stud in general was crazy. We’ll never write one into a movie ever again, because all the special effects people, everybody was like, “We can’t figure this shit out, man! Like, how do you fake a tongue stud?”

DB: On any film, you have those little nagging problems; you have six weeks of preproduction and you’re slowly solving them, getting things set. And the weeks kept going by, and no one knew how to do the tongue stud. Everyone was saying, “I’ve never done that before,” and we were like, “OK, I guess we’ll go home and have this not resolved.” [Everyone laughs]

RO: You can’t do a magnetic piercing like you do with a fake earring, because your tongue is too thick.

MM: And then you could swallow it.

RO: Exactly, so it was this little ball-and-suction-cup thing that took all this practice; we were literally all sitting there with these prototypes, trying to figure out how to get it to stay.

DB: And then her voice would be screwed up.

RO: But she learned how to do it with the thing in there.

DB: And then we realized, no one even can tell! [Everyone laughs]

RO: Yeah, we were looking at all the footage and we were like, you can’t see the top of somebody’s fucking tongue! You’re not looking at that.

DB: That’s indie filmmaking, when you don’t have the time and money to do screen tests—we could have figured that out way earlier!

Can you talk about working with little actress Blake Baumgartner? You have some fairly intense scenes with her.

MM: She was so great. I don’t know who found her. Did you guys audition her?

RO: Yeah, and it was Allison [Estrin] and Henry [Russell Bergstein] who brought her in, our casting directors. We saw a few actors her age, and she had this ageless presence, where she could just kind of sit there. And her dad was so funny too; when we first Skyped with them, we were like, “Is this OK, the content of this movie?”

RO: He was saying, “It is totally fine, she’s very adult, we’ve talked about, like, the JFK assassination…” [Everyone laughs] And we were like, “Great, that’s fine!”

How was it acting opposite her when she had no dialogue?

MM: Well, we obviously got to hang out on set, and I just wanted her to feel super-comfortable and safe, and she was very mature for her age. It was like she’d been doing this for years.

DB: Yeah, she had a somewhat sizable role on FOSSE/VERDON.

RO: She was in MADELINE’S MADELINE and stuff, so we didn’t even get to do the “introducing” with her on this movie.

How was it working with two directors? Was that a first for you?

MM: I have in the past, and this was great, because I felt like you guys each had your jobs; one would be more focused on the camera and the shots, and the other would be working with the actors and giving us notes. I trusted both of your opinions so much, and having different perspectives was great. It’s not always easy having two directors—I’ve had experiences that were not as good in the past—but this time it really worked out.

RO: That’s something we’re always aware of: trying to make sure it’s an asset that there’s two of us, not a liability. And it’s not as if I’m the camera director and Dan’s the actors’ director or vice versa. We kind of switch off, it’s just this flowing thing, and we have learned to trust one another completely. We make sure to be on the same page before we get to set, and game out every possible little decision that might have to be made. Of course, you can’t catch everything; there are going to be little disagreements here and there, but we try to minimize that. If you can do it the right way, you can move a lot faster, but you have to get on the same page creatively. We always tell people that in situations like this, you have to be able to totally trust that other person, and give up your ego. If you find the right person to co-write or co-direct with, that’s terrific, but we don’t tell people, “Just do it! Find another person to make movies with,” because if they’re not compatible… We were best friends for years before we started working together, and without us being of such close minds, it would be a frustrating process for everyone working with us.

DB: If you asked us about our first few films, where we cut our teeth in various ways, it has taken a long time to get to a place where we feel like we are being an asset and not a liability. There were definitely times on BODY where we would go up to the actors and commit the cardinal sin of, like, I would give a direction and walk away, and then Bobby would come up and give an almost diametrically opposed direction [laughs]. You can lose their trust in one take, where they’re like, “OK, I can’t fuckin’ listen to these guys.”

RO: And even worse, BODY was the first real movie that we directed, so we both felt like we had to get a word in, so I would go up and give a note, and then Dan would go up and give the same note, or vice versa, just because we both wanted to remind everybody, “I’m still the director!” But as we started to mature, we realized that that’s the exact thing you need to iron out of your game if you’re gonna make it in this industry. Now we’ve let all that go, and fully trust each other; we don’t even huddle up after each take, like, “You say this to the actor and I’ll say this to the DP.” We just split off, and we both just know. It takes a while to get to that place, but I don’t know how we’d do it any other way. I feel like the process would be so much slower if there was just one of us.

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.