These days, there are so many genre movies being released on a weekly basis, it’s hard for a movie to stand out. In the case of Dan Berk‘s and Robert Olsen’s Villains, they had a couple good things going for them. First of all, their script ended up on the Black List, a year-end poll of Hollywood producers and agents of the best scripts they read over the course of the year. That honorific helped the filmmaker put together a pretty amazing cast of actors for what’s essentially four key roles.
Maika Monroe (from It Follows) and Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise in the recent It movies) play Jules and Mickey, young lovers who are always getting into trouble, such as robbing a convenience store. After one such robbery, they break into a seemingly abandoned house to hide out, but in the basement, they find a young girl chained up. They then encounter George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), seemingly the homeowners who turn the tables on their home invaders… and that’s probably all you need to know.
Unlike most of the recent wave of home invasion movies, Villains is far more comical in tone, mainly because it does involve the so-called criminals having the tables turned on them by a far more cunning couple, who have their own secrets to keep. The cast of actors along with Blake Baumgartner as the girl in the basement make Villains such an entertaining experience even though it’s just as dark and violent as the recent Ready or Not.
The Beat sat down with Monroe and the film’s writers/directors when the movie premiered as the opening night of Film at Lincoln Center’s “Scary Movies XII” back in August. Because she had to run and get ready for the premiere, we spoke to her first and then switched over to the filmmakers afterwards.
THE BEAT: What was the appeal of doing this? I know the script was on the Black List and was circulating…
MAIKA MONROE: We read a lot of scripts as actors. This one was very refreshing. It stood out to me. I fell in love with these characters, and then I Skyped with the directors and we all liked each other. It kind of began there, I guess.
THE BEAT: Did you and Bill come on as a team?
MONROE: No, Bill was on it first. I knew that Bill was attached when I talked with them.
THE BEAT: Once you got on it, did you and Bill try to hang out or rehearse together to create that bond between your characters?
MONROE: Yeah, the four of us had a lot… I mean, not a LOT… but compared to zero, it’s a lot. We had about a week before shooting that we spent pretty much every day working over the scenes, which was incredibly helpful, especially for a movie like this that’s very stylized in a very specific energy and tone. It was very helpful for all of us to get on the same page.
THE BEAT: What’s it like working with Bill? I think most people would know him for playing Pennywise, and this is so different because he’s just playing a normal guy, which I’m sure he is. I assume he’s more like this character than a killer clown.
MONROE: He’s pretty normal. He’s not too much like a clown. I mean, I think he’s insanely talented. I think it’s so cool to see him in a role like this, and it was a really fun group of people, which I think is very important, and also, we all got along really well, and I think it helped with the chemistry of the movie.
THE BEAT: What was the craziest thing you had to do for the movie?
MONROE: The tongue…pulling the tongue piercing out. Hands down. We were just like, “How are we going to make this one work?” But we did it, and I think it turned out pretty great.
ONE OF THE DIRECTORS OFF-MIC: Yeah, we’re never writing a tongue stud into a movie again. It’s a very hard thing to fake.
MONROE: Yeah, if I read another script with that, I’m like, “Pass! No!” (laughs)
THE BEAT: Was a lot of this shot in the same location where you could shoot in the order of the movie at all?
MONROE: Kind of…
DAN BERK: So what we did was that we tried to do that, but the practical needs of the location obviously take precedence sometime, but we actually ended up shooting it floor-by-floor. Our first week was in the basement, which was challenging, because that’s some of the emotional peaks of the film for Jules in particular. She had some very emotional and really challenging, [a lot of] page count monologues down there, and it was like day two.
MONROE: That’s right.
BERK: And then we talked a lot about that beforehand and made sure that she was comfortable with it, but that was the easiest way, because shot-out the basement in the first five days. Once we moved to the first floor, that us allowed us to use the basement as storage for all of our gear and crew and what-not,
ROBERT OLSEN: The long story was that the driveway to the house was on this hill that made it so that you couldn’t park the truck there, so we had to “puke” [i.e. empty] the truck and put all of the stuff into the house, so then the rest of the shoot was this dance of, “Let’s shoot the basement, store everything on the second floor, and then we’ll shoot on the second floor and move everything else down to the basement, and then we’ll shoot up top …”
BERK: Within each of those, we tried to go as chronologically as we could, but it wasn’t perfect.
At this point, Monroe had to run, and she wasn’t sure if she could talk about an upcoming project she was excited about, so we all just said our goodbyes and moved the interview over to Berk and Olsen. WARNING: This section of the interview does get a little nerdy into the making of the movie as they’re a fun and excitable duo who you don’t have to ask much to get them on a roll.
THE BEAT: I think I knew about this movie because I wrote about the casting of all four actors at my old job, so when I read about Villains, it really sounded familiar. You’ve done a few other movies before but this is a script you wrote that ended up on the Black List, so was it easier to get this made than some of your other movies?
BERK: [It] was helpful.
OLSEN: I think it’s always such a Herculean effort getting a movie made when you are unknown directors like we are, but actually getting onto the Black List… we had a couple little almost false starts with it where we almost had it made at a certain budget level with a different package, but once it was on the Black List, we… and by “we” I mean the guys over at Starthrower who produced this, were able to get a lot more people to read the script. That’s when the momentum started, because we were trying to get it going for a couple years.
BERK: Yeah, we wrote the script at the end of 2014, and there were a lot of different versions, different budget scales and different potential actors that we were having conversations at various stages with. We definitely landed on the best version of any of them with the highest budget and the best actors.
OLSEN: It’s funny, because usually it’s the opposite where you start out by shooting for the stars and then compromise by the end of it, and we were the exact opposite of that where we started out with “Okay, our first movie we made for 50 grand, so this one we’ll make for 200 grand! We’ll get our friend who is a sketch star on YouTube…” We were pulling from a very different well, and then as it went on, the profile of the project ended up going up and then it got onto the Black List and people really started loving the script, and said, “Let’s try to make the slightly bigger version of this and try to get some real talent,” and we did…
BERK: But it was very challenging, because it was us breaking into a scale of production that we had never done before, and no one trusts you to do that, and so you really have to be barging through doors, announcing yourself and saying, “I’m ready to do this,” because the actors who are being sent the scripts have never heard of us, the financiers have never heard of us or saw our other movies and said, “This is nothing like Villains. Why would we give you several million dollars to make this movie,” so it did take a long time. It was a good three years or so, and in the interim, we made another movie ‘cause we had to. We went and made the sequel to Stakeland. It was a road rife with challenges, but it was well worth the journey, for sure.
THE BEAT: Looking at the movie, it seems fairly simple. You just need a house and four actors…
BERK: That’s what we said!
THE BEAT: The way you talk about it, maybe you just made it look easy.
OLSEN: The fact that it was in one place definitely helps. Yes, there were those challenges we were saying with gear and moving everything within the house as you’re shooting, but I think you still prefer that to trying to make a movie at the same budget of something that has ten hero locations or something. We were walking the set and [snaps fingers] shooting, and we would end that day pre-lighting the next day, and you walk in and [snaps fingers] you’re shooting again. If you’re doing a film that’s shot in seven different apartments and a diner and a bar and a nightclub in New York City, and you’re doing company moves in the middle of the day and you’re loading out and you’re loading in every single day, and you’re burning those three, four hours to do that. Well, your twenty-day shoot isn’t really a twenty-day shoot, is it? Whereas this, for us, it felt like getting bonus days, because you don’t have to spend all that time loading in and out.
THE BEAT: Were the interiors and exteriors the same house?
BOTH GUYS: Yeah, yeah.
THE BEAT: Ah, that’s rarely the case, because in many movies, someone will go outside and then it cuts to a different location.
BERK: Totally, and we reviewed all different plans as it pertains to that, and we just got lucky. The biggest one is that we expected from the beginning that we would have to build the basement. We knew that we had a lot of photographic needs of it, it had to be big enough, both on-camera and in real life to house all the people off-frame that are making the movie. We just got really lucky that this house had a killer basement and the open balcony we needed for that big scene in the third act. And the exterior worked well enough for us, too. We got lucky that we were able to stay in one place for all that stuff.
THE BEAT: Since Maika’s gone, I can ask about casting her, and actually about casting all four of them, because they’re all great. Jeffrey Donovan is the one actor who I didn’t know at all and Kyra, I’ve never seen doing something like this.
OLSEN: Yeah, isn’t he great? That’s what we love to hear is people saying that they haven’t seen these actors do this before, because that’s what we always felt like the big selling point – both to those actors and to people who want to watch the movies. You’ve never really seen Bill Skarsgaard like this, and him and Maika are kind of known for being in these more horror-leaning things with him in It and her in It Follows and The Guest. That was the big thing, finding people who could pull that off. Bill as the first one that we actually locked in, and that role, it took a long time, because we really wanted this throwback late ‘80s, early ‘90s, jean jacket slicked-back hair, tall, lanky, type of guy that we just couldn’t find anywhere. You’d find an actor who was funny but they didn’t have the leading man looks. Or you find somebody who had the leading man looks but didn’t have the comedic chops, and then one of our producers, Alan Mandelbaum, was like, “Hey, you should check out Bill Skarsgard, he’s really blown up and he’s doing all these things,” and we were like, “Isn’t he just kind of the scary guy who is in scary movies? Can he be funny?” We Skyped with him, and he was just so charismatic, and we were just like, “That’s Mickey” and we just built it up from there.
THE BEAT: Also, how did you work with the young actress who plays the girl on some of the harder scenes she’s involved with?
BERK: That was a concern of ours. We’ve never really worked with a child actor in a role as large as that, and some of the subject matter of this movie is obviously pretty dark. We were really scared about that, but we auditioned Blake [Baumgartner] through the regular channels, through our casting directors. She was amazing, and then we met her Dad, and he was this really over-the-top stage Dad but in the best way. We were like, “So what can we talk about and what can’t we? What’s off-limits? We don’t want to break her brain by bringing up cocaine and sex and stuff with this 9-year-old.”
But he was like, “You can talk about anything. Blake is incredibly mature. I’ve talked about the Taliban with her. I’ve talked about the JFK assassination.” He rattled off like four historical atrocities, and we were like, “Okay, I guess the answer is yes, we can talk about anything.” She had never read the full script. The way that our process worked was that Jason, her father, had read the script, and he just kind of prepared her the night before for each sequence. It was kind of directing by proxy in some ways, but we also worked directly with her as well. It was a challenge for her, because there are basically no lines.
OLSEN: I think the hardest thing, especially for a young actor to do, is listen. I don’t mean listen to us – the character in the scene – as an actor, you’re always focused so much on your performance, and one of the hardest things to learn to do is how to look like you’re really listening to the person across from you. That’s all this role was. She pretty much has no lines in this movie. She’s doing a lot of listening, so for her to – during Micah’s monologue about her backstory about her parents abandoning her – doing the coverage of Blake for that, it was amazing, because she was locked in the whole time. You would think that a kid might lose their attention span at some point, but she was just constantly locked in with this wise-beyond-her-years type gaze. It was something to see.
THE BEAT: What about casting Jeffrey as George? I didn’t really know him at all before this.
BERK: We feel like we got so lucky with him, because George could have so easily been a flat antagonistic character that didn’t have that genuine charm, and Jeff Donovan is like a rocket ship. He’s such an incredible actor, and he shouldered a lot of the work of finding that tone, honestly, from the beginning. We always talk about how the tone of this movie had to fall a little South of farce but a little of North of reality. Our first conversation with him, he was like, “I totally get it. As long as we’re all committed to that, I can deliver that.”
OLSEN: Yeah, he came up with that phrase.
BERK: Yeah, he coined the phrase, and he did, he just got it. He really, quarterbacked a lot of scenes for us. That was another one where our producers – I don’t know if we shout them out enough but our producers at Starthrow Entertainment, Tim and Trevor White and Alan Mandelbaum, they had a relationship, because I think they met him on LBJ, and they had suggested him, and we were like, “Yeah, let’s meet him.” Once we met him, we were like, “This is incredibly serendipitous that they have this relationship with him, because he’s BUILT for this role.”
OLSEN: Because George and Gloria were supposed to be these characters that were these sociopaths that kind of built their personalities around old films and things like that. He managed to just channel this old school Cary Grantish kind of vibe that… it was what the character needed. It took us a second to find that. I think he was written a little bit more like just straight arch and Jeff found a way to make you like love that character. We always wanted him to be scary-friendly, but it’s really easy to just play that as arch. You could argue that De Niro in Cape Fear is like scary-friendly, but at the same time, you almost root for George at a couple times, because he does melt your heart here and there. He’s ultimately this despicable character, but there are some scenes he just steals with his charisma, and that’s part of who the character is supposed to be, somebody who is able to sweet talk his way from Louisiana or wherever they got their start to here.
THE BEAT: So that house isn’t actually theirs?
OLSEN: That’s one of the things that we like to leave up for interpretation, but we always talk about George and Gloria as being Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands if they got to keep going and didn’t stop at the end. This house is probably the twelfth house they’ve lived in, and that’s the one they settled in.
BERK: And maybe they killed the people who lived here, maybe they just found a house where the owners had just passed away. Obviously, the production design of the house, it being this sort of time capsule to some by-gone era speaks to that potential theory of how they came into ownership of this property.
THE BEAT: I think you might need to pitch a prequel…
OLSEN: It’s so funny. We have heard a bunch of people asking things like, “I love Mickey and Jules so much. Can you do a Mickey and Jules spin-off show?”
THE BEAT: Oh, I was thinking Gloria and George actually…
BERK: Well, that we could actually do.
OLSEN: A George and Gloria prequel mini-series.
BERK: That would be a lot of fun.
THE BEAT: Or you could just do another movie and have them show up as auxiliary characters like how Michael Keaton’s character shows up in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and also Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
BERK: 100 percent. I love that, and there’s a rich tradition of directors working with actors on many consecutive movies in different roles, like Mike Flanagan and the Haunting of Hill House sequel show, and he’s using three or four of the same characters that were in the family from the beginning but it’s a totally different story, and it’s like, “Cool, I like that.” They’re really good actors, and they have a great working relationship, so why would they not make more good art together?
OLSEN: Yeah, we definitely would want to do that. I feel like they do that a lot on those anthology shows like American Horror Story.
BERK: Broadly speaking, we’re dying to work with any of these four actors again. If they would honor us with that, we would definitely do it for sure.
OLSEN: Nobody had like an ego to deal with or anything like that. It was a really collaborative and really joyous set to be on. We’ve been working on movies for a long time. We’ve only directed these three, but back in the day, we’ve been TAing and second seconding and producing little indie things. We’ve been on some movies that are not fun places to be, and that’s always just the worst experience. I think most movies are somewhere in between where you’re having a good time, but there are some really tough things here and there. This one was pretty fun throughout. Of course, there’s a couple bumps here and there, but it was a really positive vibe.
BERK: It felt good, too, and we can toss this up to a lot of different departments, but our first AD David Ketterer. We were finishing our days, and getting really good stuff, and that tends to just have a rolling effect on morale where like by a couple weeks in, people were like, “We’re a good crew. We’re making a cool movie. We’re getting good stuff, and we’re getting to sleep on time. There’s no turnaround violations, no meal penalties, we’re doing a good job.” Everyone feels some ownership and pride when you do good work. Even a group of really friendly people, if you’re fucking up and leaving all these scenes on the field and by Week 3, you’re seven days behind, people can’t help but think there’s some rot somewhere in this process. “I don’t know if someone didn’t schedule it right or the director’s an idiot but something’s wrong, and I don’t feel proud of the work I’m doing.” We had the opposite of that where everyone on set felt like a superstar, we hope. We certainly felt that way.
OLSEN: Yeah, it was a real family environment.
THE BEAT: Well, you two seem like a fun pair, and it’s always from the top down.
OLSEN: Part of it is definitely that they see Dan and I collaborating, and there’s not this one mastermind director in his or her tower tossing down creative decisions. It’s a collaborative process from the top of it. That’s how we work. We want our – Annie Simeone, our production designer; Stacey Berman, our costume designer, Matt Mitchell, our DP – they all had so much input in their given departments. That’s what we wanted, because we always feel like when people feel creative ownership over something, they’re going to work harder and put more of their heart into it. It’s on us to just like pick and choose which of these things actually make it into the movie.
BERK: The lessons you learn as you direct more and more movies, they’re not what you’d think. They’re not technical, like, “Oh, that’s like a cool shot,” or “Oh, that piece of gear is really valuable.” It’s much more personnel stuff of, “How can we get this vision that we have across BUT keep the edges of that vision flexible and soft enough that everybody can feel genuinely empowered and feel genuine ownership and be incentivized to give their everything?” That’s that nebulous thing where you can really figure out how to do that. It feels like we just started to scratch the surface on Villains, and I think we did a really good job of it, but I can’t wait to see what we can do next if we just remember that as the central lesson of “This is everybody’s movie. It’s everybody’s movie,” and if you really, genuinely believe that, then you can see it on screen.
OLSEN: That’s a great way to put it. When you start directing, you’re like, “Oh, man, in this many years from now what I’m really going to focus on and what I’m going to get better at, is I’m going to learn more about lensing and more about shot-listing something properly, and I’m going to learn how to say the perfect thing to an actor,” but then as you go up and make bigger and bigger movies, there are people who will know way more about any of those things. All of a sudden, you’re working with a DP who will say what you want it to be, and they know exactly what they want to do. You’re working with actors who don’t need you to have this “Eureka moment” of a way to describe something. They’re fucking incredible! What does it become? It becomes a way of you now have an over-abundance of talent and good ideas. It becomes way more about selecting the right ones then it does about being able to conjure all of those things yourself.
THE BEAT: I haven’t read your script, but I have to imagine it changes a lot from when the actors get involved and you start filming.
BERK: Yeah, a script is 90 pieces of paper. The actors bring that to life, and these actors brought so much that wasn’t on the page. Little mannerisms and tics and physicality, and even lines and various elements we found in rehearsals or even on the day. One of the reasons we felt like we’re making the movie we wanted to make, and we felt even from the first days of shooting that we were approaching a potential success by our own merits was that it felt like the script that we wrote and the script that was in our head was what we were capturing on the day, so we felt really good about that.
The big transformation I think was in the edit. We really learned to embrace the idea of killing your darlings when we were in the edit here. Some of our favorite scenes of the movie are not in the movie, because of pacing things. Anything that got cut was not because of shitty performances from actors, it wasn’t because the writing wasn’t good. It was either a pacing issue or hitting the wrong emotional beat at a certain point. You hear these lessons from the first day of film school, but you don’t necessarily embrace them… or if you don’t, you won’t succeed. We learned to actually embrace it on that and just allowing the movie to be flexible in post.
There were decisions… that animated end credit sequence that closes the movie? That used to start the movie. It’s a great animator, Matt Reynolds, that we worked with on that, but we had it at the top, and something wasn’t working. We were watching the full cut, and we couldn’t figure it out. Then we got a note from a really, really smart, super-talented filmmaker friend of ours that was like, “Kick that sequence to the end, it’s too bad-ass. It sets expectations where people think the whole movie is going to be like skulls exploding…” and we were like, “What? No, it was written to be Scene 2 of the movie. We’re not gonna fucking move it.” And we did, and we were like, “Oh. The movie works.”
THE BEAT: Especially since it ends with that nice montage on the beach and then it cuts into this crazy end credits sequence that’s like “Holy shit!” and you want to watch it until the very end.
OLSEN: That’s what we thought. When we had it at the top, it did a bad thing where it’s set an energy expectation that the film could just never touch, but here, it actually had the opposite effect where the film that has a somewhat somber ending, now you get to leave the theater with a little bounce in your step, cause you have almost this recap fun, animated sequence of everything you’ve just watched, and so you leave, and it actually makes you think that the movie you just watched had more energy than it did.
Villains is now playing in select theaters across the country.
Also, here’s a new clip from Villains, one of the quieter scenes, that gives you some idea of the tone of the movie: