Interview: Independent Filmmakers Dan Berk and Robert Olsen Talk First Features, the Blacklist, and Moving to LA

By November 22, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By: Andrew L. Schwartz

Brooklyn based filmmakers, Dan Berk and Robert Olsen (Last Pictures), have had a meteoric rise and show no signs of slowing down. With two feature directing credits (one with a writers’ credit attached), a script that is prominently featured on The 2016 Blacklist that plans to go into production by the end of this year, and their sights set on a move to Los Angeles in the spring, it’s clear the two have an effortless partnership that shows in their work. 

We recently sat down with Dan and Robert to talk about their script, Villains, and their overall approach to screenwriting.

So how did you guys meet and start writing together?

Dan: Bobby and I met our freshman year at NYU but didn’t start writing together for a while. I was on more of a producing track and Bobby was on a directing one. After we graduated NYU we started a production company with a few other friends doing mostly short form projects — music videos, commercials, etc. At that point Bobby and I realized our sensibilities really clicked because our friendship was so effortless. That made writing together easy for us. Our brains started melding so that after a while, we’d developed a baseline of what we knew worked for both of us. We stopped wasting time pitching each other things that were off-target for the other person, and started getting really productive. And I would give that advice to any aspiring writer: partnerships are amazing, but it has to be with the right person or it’s gonna fail real quick.

Bobby: You need someone who you’re of the same mind with so that it’s not going to sound like there’s two warring voices in every script you write together. Also, when you’re writing with someone who you’re really close and comfortable with, you don’t need to mince words when you disagree on something. Dan and I argue like brothers, but it always nets a better script. We know that no matter what, we have that foundation of friendship underneath the professional partnership, which allows total honesty.

Tell me about your plans to move to LA. Did you always plan on moving here?

D: I think if you asked us that question two years ago, we would have said that we’d absolutely be in New York forever. But it’s become pretty clear recently that we’re playing at a disadvantage here on the East Coast, especially when it comes to face-to-face meetings. We’re currently in that process – particularly with actors — on Villains, and it’s honestly a bummer to have to do all of that over Skype or by phone.

B: I think if you’re an established filmmaker it doesn’t matter where you are, but at this point in our careers, people aren’t necessarily willing to drop everything and come to us. There’s just so much more liability when there’s a shitty Skype connection, or if we’re pitching on a conference call with eight people on it. What I’ve always disliked about LA is that you cant escape the industry because everyone there seems to be working in it — but that’s also the draw. You’re surrounded by other people who want to make movies. 

Was it harder to establish yourself being based outside of Los Angeles?

B: I think it’s hard no matter what to establish yourself. I don’t think we ever sat there and said, “We need to establish ourselves.” It’s just working and putting stuff out there, and eventually, someone notices it.

D: I do think being in New York contributes to a feeling that we’ve had for many years, which is distinctly being on the “outside” of a network we’re trying to get into. We’re pretty far from the nerve-center of where it’s all happening, and there’s a lot of practical difficulties to that. But we just do our best to keep making work and staying relevant in people’s eyes. 

B: I also think that early on it can be helpful at times — I don’t want to make it sound like NY is a complete negative, because early on there was definitely a cool factor with being “The Brooklyn guys.”

D: Yeah, it’s not all bad. Living in New York for the past 15 years has shaped our voice into something that stands out, I think. I don’t know how it happens — I mean there’s no science behind where you live trickling into how you write, but I am very thankful to absorb the culture and texture of the city. However it happens, I think it makes it on the page. Hopefully we’ll take that with us when we move to LA next spring.

When did you guys start working on Villains? What was the writing process like?

D: We wrote the first draft of Villains almost two years ago, but we ended up getting a job directing our second feature last year (Stakeland II) which took up the better part of the year since we edited as well, so Villains was kind of put on the back burner. 

As to our process, usually, we outline for two weeks or so, and then we’ll try to have a draft done within a month. We try to be relatively strict about getting the first draft out quickly because we’re very voracious revisers and we enjoy that process. Frankly, that’s where the hard work really begins for us.

B: Yeah, when we write our first draft, we like to get it on the page to see what works, and then we go back completely ready to kill our darlings and change whatever needs to be changed — but that’s not how everyone works. Some people like to slave over every page, and get a near-perfect first draft, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but we like to just get the raw material out there, then start to shape it.

D: One of the many benefits of writing in a partnership is that it forces you to immediately defend what you’ve put on the page to someone else. If you don’t have a partner, you can just write your first draft and not know that something isn’t working because you’re too close to it, but this automatically gives you distance.

That definitely comes across in the material. With these single locations set-ups, what advice can you give in the way of extracting the most conflict out of these situations?

B: I think the story is what dictates that. There are a lot of great stories that basically take place in a house. We always talk about how Misery is an influence on Villains.  We enjoy mixing claustrophobia and isolationism. Yes, you’re trapped in a house, but you’re also in the middle of nowhere. It’s doubly terrifying. 

Also, let’s not kid ourselves, one of the biggest reasons for a limited location story is budget: you save so much time and money when you don’t need to load in and out every day. We shot Body in 11 overnights, but it felt like 15 or 16 days because we were in a single location. We didn’t waste two hours at the top and bottom of every day loading in and out, so you get that much more effective shooting time. So we kind of knew we wanted to do something in that same world but with a bit more flavor.

D: I think it’s a matter of using locations that are going to be the most visually interesting, or have geographic elements that are going to encourage compelling blocking. In a house there are limits, but you hope that you won’t bore your audience by having a four-walled white room in every scene.

B: Yeah, you want to establish the fact that — even though its one house — it’s still different environments. In Villains, the basement is SWEETIEPIE’s domain; it’s this dark, grey place that is going to feel completely different from the other floors. We want to create the feeling of traveling to new places, all within the same house. 

That’s really interesting, I guess a lot of that will come out in production design. How involved will you guys be in that? 

D: Everything in this movie is going to be just a little bit elevated, and that certainly starts with how we art the house. As Bobby mentioned, the color palette is something we’re really going to focus on, and the set decoration is a cornerstone for that. We want it to almost feel like it’s stuck in its own bygone period in a way with lots of patterned wallpaper, drapes, carpets, et al.

A lot of writers give this single location kind of advice to aspiring filmmakers — can you guys elaborate on that?

B: I think it’s especially important when it comes to beginners — a writer who’s trying to break in should always take “makeability” into account. It’s a lot easier to pitch a great script with two locations that will cost less than a million to make than it is a massive space epic. Unless it’s the greatest space epic of all time, it’s gonna be hard to get off the ground.

D: Yeah, there’s a million reasons to say no to a script, and when someone can clearly wrap their heads around how to get the thing made (and made at a price) you’ve already removed a potential hurdle.  

B: When you’re in film school, or you’re a really young writer or filmmaker, you want to be bold and different, and not feed into the Hollywood bullsh*t — that’s great. You should always hold onto some of that, but there’s a balance you have to be honest with yourself about. If you’re never going to compromise creatively, you’re not going to get anything made. The trick is being able to find that formula of what to compromise on that isn’t going to bastardize your original creative vision. You have to know you’re going to have to make some concessions somewhere. 

Do those same rules apply to a writer who may be working on a spec script to use as a sample?

B: Well, no, not exactly. If it’s truly just a sample, go for the space epic! But, for people who want to write it and direct it, you absolutely have to take budget into mind. No one lets you direct a feature until you’ve directed a feature. That’s why we wrote Body. We thought, “We can make this movie for 50 grand if we can find this house and find someone with a little cash who really likes movies — we can figure this out,” and we did.

D: Right. And despite its budget, making Body was absolutely integral for us to get the next job. And having that gig gave us the runway to write a really good sample with Villains, which is the reason that we have the representation we have now. Sometimes you just have to make a scrappy little movie to start out. And if we hadn’t been willing to make compromises on that first film, we would’ve cut off any chance of our careers moving forward.

When did you guys know for sure Villains was ready for circulation?

B: We knew there was something special happening as soon as we finished probably the second draft. We wrote the first draft, took a couple of notes, made some changes, and something was freeing about the process because we had so much fun writing it. We felt like it was the first thing we did that had our voice. We knew that at the very least it would stick out — maybe not everyone would love it, but it would stick out. 

How has The Blacklist helped your career? 

D: it’s actually helped quite a bit — it’s a very easy shorthand that our reps can use when putting our material out. It immediately catches people’s eye, and we didn’t understand the gravity of that until it happened.

B: When you’re relatively unknown, nobody wants to put themselves out on a limb and be the first person that says they like a certain script. With The Blacklist, it gives you a floor for your screenplay — people go into reading it thinking, “Oh it’s on The Blacklist so it must not suck.”

On Representation — 

B: I think people have this false idea of what reps do for you, it’s not like your phone is just ringing off the hook with opportunities as soon as you get reps. At this level, agents and managers are there to lubricate things, but you still need to generate stuff. What drew our current reps to us is that we did go out and make a few films and have a couple good samples on our own. They don’t want somebody who’s just going to sit there and only do what’s brought to them.

D: It really is a perfect illustration of how much you need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps in this industry. At the beginning of your career, when you have nothing going on; no one making offers to you; no projects are flying your way, that’s when you think you need an agent the most, but in truth, they can’t really do anything for you yet because you don’t have any momentum or interest around you. Once you do manage to get something going on your own, then suddenly your agent can be a multiplier — a relay that can turn that success into much greater success.

B: That’s a perfect way to put it; for the most part, agents are multipliers, not adders; they won’t give you something from nothing, but if you have something they can make it blossom.

And where does the manager fit in?

B: We always say that the manager is someone that kind of has your whole career trajectory in mind. Someone that you can bounce ideas off of a little bit more. Whereas the agent is there to get deals done and make sure you’re taken care of and that you’re protected.

D: There’s overlap, too. They’re all there to try and get you work and make your projects happen how you want them to happen. It’s a really great feeling having a team that jives together. We’re really lucky with who we’ve got in our corner right now.

Final Thoughts On Writing — 

B: You always have to have the next thing ready. Once you’re making a movie, you’re going to have fans who are then asking you what the “next thing” is. It’s really easy to lose track of the next thing. But it’s so important. It’s good to write every day, not just because it sharpens your craft, but because you’re going to face rejection. Sometimes a script just isn’t going to get off the ground, and you need to be able to move quickly to the next idea, both for your career and your sanity’s sake. 

D: Yeah, writing every single day is so important. Bobby and I have become really disciplined with it. We try to write at least three pages each every day, and we’ve become kind of religious about it to be honest. Obviously if all you’re doing that day is writing, you should push yourself to generate more – 5, 10, 15 pages. It’s not really about the number of course, but just about remaining consistent and sitting down every single day to keep pushing the ball downfield. Humans are habitual creatures — once we get into a habit, it feels good to nurture it. Make writing for at least an hour every day a habit, and you’ll be better for it. 


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