Writing and directing duo Dan Berk and Robert Olsen have been creative partners since their days at NYU. They took some time before their premiere at SXSW to discuss why their collaboration works so well.
It's easy to see why Berk and Olsen have become writing and directing partners. They seem to operate on the same frequency, with the same genuine excitement for creativity and storytelling.
Their new film, Villains, premiered at SXSW on March 9. The movie stars Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgard as a pair of bumbling but very much in love thieves. They find themselves stranded at a house with two charming bumpkins who also happen to be murderers (played with amazing charm by Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick).
Berk and Olsen are accomplished writers, directors, and producers. Their first feature, Body, was a Slamdance film that landed them on the map. Their writing and directing has developed and grown between these projects, resulting in fun and interesting genre films.
"The only reason this works is because we were best friends before this."
Should you find a writing partner?
It's easy to be jealous of Berk and Olsen's easy repartee and think, "Maybe I should get a writing partner of my own!" But they say it's not as simple as that.
"It's kind of like the 'watched pot never boils' type thing," said Olsen. "Or if you're single, and you're out there trying to desperately find a significant other. If it's supposed to happen, it'll happen. We don't recommend that people have a creative partner, like as a cure-all. The only reason this works is because we were best friends before this. We can have arguments with each other, and it resets five minutes later, you know?"
Berk agreed that friendship and trust is a necessary foundation to have before seeking a creative partner.
"We have to be fearless and vulnerable about throwing out a bad idea," Berk said. "And then you're both so excited, and you're riffing on each other. 'And then she can go to the zoo instead of the hospital, because she's confused!' And Bobby looks at me, like -- "
They shoot each other a look and laugh.
"But if you don't have that relationship, then suddenly there's resentment and there's fear and there's embarrassment," Berk said. "And then, once you clam up, then over time you become too afraid to even throw ideas out in the first place. Without that friendship and that trust, I don't know how people would do it."
They said that if you do begin a partnership, make the parameters clear from the very beginning. Are you sharing other credits, like producer? How are you handling the financial side? Have that discussion before you start.
"We're 50/50 partners in everything we do, and that way there's absolutely no resentment," Berk said. "There's never any conversation about, 'Well, I had the idea for this, and you wrote most of the dialogue, so maybe we'll split it 65...' You get rid of that right off the bat. If you don't, you are going to fail. There's no question about that."
How they write
Berk and Olsen insisted they both came up with the idea for Villains and now they have no idea who wrote which words. It is a constant back-and-forth collaboration, with one writing a section, the other rewriting and adding to it, until a full feature is born.
"If you don't feel the freedom to change a lot of what the other person wrote, you're screwed," Olsen said. "You know? Like you need to have -- "
"And if you can't accept that someone changed your lines -- " Berk said.
"Exactly," Olsen said. "And honestly, that's how it works. Sometimes, you write something, the other person takes their pass and they change it. And then either you are okay with that, and you're like, 'Oh, okay, I see what was wrong with that,' or you do have the option [to say], 'Hey, why did you change that, because I really liked this?' And then [with] that conversation, you always wind up with the best version of whatever that little thing in question is."
They aren't perfect, they said. Sometimes they have fights, or get delayed, or act passive aggressive toward each other.
"It's always really funny when the fever breaks," Olsen said, "and you're screaming at each other, and you're like, 'Well, I think that's a great idea! We should do that!'"
"'Let's go get dinner!'" Berk said with the same mock anger.
This process forces them to justify their ideas.
"The fact that there's another person here, and you have to defend your ideas, means that your shittiest ideas never see the light of day," Berk said. "And there are a lot of bad ideas."
"You're screaming at each other, and you're like, 'Well, I think that's a great idea! We should do that!'"
Don't forget to have fun
Berk and Olsen said they want to foster an open and cooperative atmosphere on their sets so they can work with the best people and share ownership of the project with them. For them it's not about being in charge, but instead about finding a smart team and enjoying the act of making a film together.
"No matter how stressful it gets, it should be a joyous process throughout," Olsen said.
Berk agreed. "You should love the experience."
"Yeah, exactly!" Olsen said. "I feel like even on our toughest days, there's still this undercurrent of just goodness, and [you] feel like you're in this flow and traveling along this path. You're living your dream! You're making a movie! It's what you've always wanted to do."
"Well, and if you allow creative input from everybody on the set, then making the movie should remind everyone what they love about making movies," Berk said. "No one's feeling stifled, no one's feeling like their ideas were dismissed, no one's feeling marginalized in any way. That's how we try to run our set."
Villains and the Black List
Villains, a comedic thriller, made the Black List in 2016, earning a coveted spot which they said was instrumental in helping them get the movie made. At first, however, they weren't totally sure what the list was. First they made the Hit List and started gaining traction.
"And then we went to see one of our reps," Berk said, "and he was like, 'We might have a good chance for the Black List!' And we were like, 'What? Is that a bad thing? We don't get to work in this industry anymore?'"
"'That sounds really bad! How do we avoid it?'" Olsen said with a laugh. "But then we got on it, and I don't think we realized how big of a deal it was, even once we were on it."
"Is that a bad thing? We don't get to work in this industry anymore?"
They were in prestigious company that year, alongside movies like The Post and Mindy Kaling's Late Night. After that, they got their producers and were able to attract the cast and actually make the film.
They cautioned, however, that it shouldn't be a goal or the end-all-be-all to make it onto the Black List. They pointed out also that, like anything in Hollywood, sometimes politics and campaigning are likely at play.
"There are forces at play that you have no control over," Berk said.
"It's not a reflection of the quality of your work," Olsen said in agreement.
Villains is produced by Star Thrower Entertainment, The Realm, and Bron Studios.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.