Interview: Dan Berk and Robert Olsen

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Originally published on The National Student on 28/08/15.

With the latest iteration of beloved cult horror film festival FrightFest kicking off this weekend, we caught up with some of the hopefuls debuting their latest projects there. 

Looking to strike gold with their first feature, American writer/director duo Dan Berk and Robert Olsen will be showing off their claustrophobic thriller Body at the festival this Friday. 

Centring around a group of young girls on a drunken night out, the film finds the trio stumbling upon a supposedly empty mansion, but when they get inside they find that they might not be as alone as they first thought. From there, things only begin to get darker as the night continues with a series of brutal twists awaiting around every corner. 

We chatted to Berk and Olsen ahead of the film’s UK premiere:

You’re premiering the film at the end of the month at FrightFest alongside a whole host of other horror films; what makes Body stand out from the crowd? 

We think that BODY stands out because the “horror” in the film is more psychological than physical.  The movie doesn’t have a ton of jump scares or ultra gory bits. Instead it focuses on the horror of a given predicament, the tough decisions our main characters have to make, and corruption of innocence that can take place when people are placed in a life or death situation. 

What was it about FrightFest that attracted you to the festival?

We heard about FrightFest while researching international festivals.  We’ve never been ourselves, but we heard they had a great program for new filmmakers. So we submitted and were lucky enough to get in! We couldn’t be more thrilled. 

How did the initial concept of the film come about? 

We knew that we wanted to make a single location film. We had a very tight budget and this incredible house that was made available to us, so we brainstormed for a few days. We talked about characters, situations, genre, and little by little the idea formed. We wanted to put believable characters in an extraordinary situation where morally difficult decisions had to be made. Once we had the characters and the general concept hammered out, the story itself was easy to write because it just became “what would this character do in this situation?”. It sounds like how anything should be written, but it’s surprising how many times films ignore that simple question in the interest of moving the narrative along. We’ve certainly been guilty of ignoring that question in the past, so it was a great exercise to have that be our mantra in writing it. 

What was it that attracted you to the idea of a largely female cast?

It’s funny, we get that question all the time.  It really wasn’t something that we set out to do. It happened organically while coming up with the concept. We didn’t even think twice about it until a couple people had read the script and mentioned it. There’s a bit of a double standard here because I don’t think anyone would have noted it if we used an all male cast. We certainly didn’t set out to make a statement or anything like that, but we’re happy that some people find it refreshing. In genre films especially, women often exist only in the context of the men they share the screen with. They’re the girlfriend, or the sister, or the new girl that the main character has a crush on, etc. It’s a good thing for us because people assume that these girls will eventually be chased around and killed one by one by some antagonist, and it takes a lot of people by surprise when our characters wind up being the ones with the power. 

A large part of the film is sold on the relationships between the female characters and the chemistry between them – how did you go about setting this up? Did you have any bonding sessions etc. prior to filming?

Lucky for us, Helen Rogers (Holly) and Lauren Molina (Mel) had just come off of shooting another feature together. They were already close friends and that certainly helped with creating chemistry. We’ve always been Helen’s biggest fans and we’ve worked with her a lot in the past. She then helped us find Lauren, who absolutely destroyed her audition and made the choice easy for us there.

Alexandra Turshen (Cali) didn’t come onto the project until very late in the game. It was taking us a long time to find the perfect person for that role. Some of the people we saw would have the look but not the attitude, others were vice versa. We were extremely fortunate to find her when we did – we were getting close to having to push. Many times when you’re forced to expedite casting, you wind up sacrificing quality, but Alex was everything we could have hoped for and really took Cali to another level. We did get together for a couple rehearsals, and we did all stay in the same hotel for the duration of the shoot, but the chemistry was there from the start. 

This is the first feature project for both of you – what was it about Body that encouraged you to pick up the camera and kick-start your career?

We had some success selling a couple of scripts but our endgame was always to direct what we write. The problem is that if you sell a script, no studio is going to let you direct if it’s your first time. It’s a bit of a paradox – you have to direct a feature before anyone will let you direct a feature. So we knew that if we wanted to direct something, we were going to have to make it happen ourselves. This included going out there and raising the money. We’ve done a fair amount of producing, and our strong suit has always been making small budgets look bigger than they are.

BODY was the perfect concept because of its scale. Locations are a huge drain on money and time, so if we wanted to stretch our dollar, we had to minimize locations. We wound up shooting the film in 11 overnights. Nine of those were at the hero location. Because of that, we were able to walk away from set every day without loading out. Not having to break everything down and set it up again basically turned those 11 days of shooting into what was effectively 15 or 16. 

As filmmakers, how did you first start working as a duo? 

We were randomly assigned roommates freshmen year at NYU. We started our production company, Last Pictures, with a couple buddies right out of school and started to make a lot of short form projects (short films, music videos, commercials) with the goal always being to make feature films eventually. We started to write together a couple years after graduating and we realised pretty early on that our talent combined was greater than the sum of its parts. So we decided to extend our partnership to include everything. Writing, producing, directing, editing – we share a credit on everything we do.

To really work together, you have to remove all ego from the equation. Ever since we’ve done that we’ve become more productive than ever. We always caution people to not find a partner just to find one. A partnership like ours should only ever be entered into with someone that is truly of the same mind and someone you trust implicitly.   

Lastly, since we’re a student publication I’d like to end by asking if you have any advice for young filmmakers who want to break into the industry?

The first thing that comes to mind is “just create things”. Film theory is great, and is a necessary building block for your career, but nothing compares to being on set and learning as you go.

But that’s probably the #1 answer you get from most people, so we’ll add this little amendment  – when you’re starting out, be realistic about what kind of film you can make at that time. Nobody wants to be thinking about budget while writing something, and we’re not saying to not be ambitious in your creative process, but at least be aware of that side of it. Is your short film something that you’re going to be able to properly execute? How can you maximize the tools that you have at your disposal right now? If all you have available to you is your school’s production package and couple hundred dollars, don’t make something that has seven locations, a car chase, and major stunt work.  A well executed film that is smaller in scope is better than a poorly executed film that is larger in scope. 

Body (2015), directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, is showing at FrightFest on Friday 28th August. Tickets are still available and can be found here.

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