Villains in Love

Letterboxd talks ‘couples on the run’, moral relativism and Bill “handsome as the day is long” Skarsgård with Villains writer/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen.

That’s how we like to do drugs. Non-judgmentally.” —⁠Robert Olsen

In Villains, the new thriller from Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, who wrote and directed together, we join a couple of young lovers on the run: Jules (Maika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgård).

Their car breaks down following a gas station robbery, so they take refuge in a nearby suburban home. After making a disturbing discovery in the basement, they quickly realize they picked the wrong house. Their situation becomes drastically more perilous when the owners, the outwardly folksy George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), return home and turn the tables on Mickey and Jules.

From the title on down, the darkly comedic Villains clearly wants to play with cinematic notions of what constitutes “good” and “bad” characters. Berk and Olsen are assisted in this by four actors doing great work, but Donovan (Fargo) must be singled out for such effective use of his delightfully insincere smile.

We sat down with Berk and Olsen following the film’s world premiere earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival.

Villains co-directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen.
Villains co-directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen.

Did the concept for this film come to you first or did you start with the characters and go from there?
Dan Berk: I think probably the first thing, if we’re being completely honest, was a little bit more practical. We knew we wanted to make a film in a single or a limited location because our first film Body, which we had at Slamdance in 2015, we shot that entirely in one location and it was a shoestring budget, $50,000. We shot it in eleven overnights. It was really kind of insane, but we came away from that realizing that if you own a location, you can leave your gear up, get in, shoot your day, get out, come back the next morning, turn your lights on and keep shooting.

Robert Olsen: And that’s a big realm that you can fit a lot of different ideas under. We were wanting to do a kind of “lovers on the run”; a couple of amateur criminals, like in the style of Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands. We had been circling that for a while and then it kind of became like, okay, well, if it is this young couple, this inept Bonnie and Clyde, what do they run into in this single location of ours? And that’s where George and Gloria came from. What if it was this bizarro, older version of themselves? Because you look at those different movies and the couples are treated differently, morally, in different ones. Like in True Romance, you’re very much sympathizing with them throughout, whereas Natural Born Killers, they get to a certain point where you’re like: oh my god, these people have problems, it’s not good. And so we were like, well, what if Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek didn’t stop at the end of Badlands and grew up—what would they be like? And wouldn’t that be funny to see these people run into the evil version of themselves?

DB: Once we had the practical location component and the characters, the thematic framework came next. This idea that was sort of obvious once we laid all the pieces out on the board, of this moral relativism. The idea that if you saw Mickey and Jules on the street, you’d go, like, oh those are the villains right? They just robbed a convenience store. Those people are not good people. And if you saw George and Gloria at the grocery store, you’d go, those are good upstanding citizens, look how nice their hair is. It’s tough really that that’s how we operate. And it’s sort of a “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing.

RO: And just like how love plays into it where both couples have a genuine loving relationship. They are truly in love with one another, but it’s like, how much can your love for one another forgive the sins that you commit? And also love as this razor’s edge tightrope that you fall on to one side or the other. Are you going to be on the good side of love which drives you to be empathetic and imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes? Or are you gonna fall on the bad side of love, which is like, obsession and letting love become a corrupting influence on you. So that was where we wound up and then we just got in there and started writing.

Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan in Villains.
Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan in Villains.

The film invites comparisons with previous “lovers on the run” movies, especially with Bill’s character being named Mickey (evoking Mickey and Mallory from NBK). Were you hoping that audiences would link these characters to that tradition?
DB: We certainly didn’t wanna hide from it. We’re not running from the Bonnie and Clyde ancestor of this, and True Romance and Natural Born Killers and Badlands and all that stuff. We’d be delusional if we thought we invented the idea of young lovers. We wouldn’t go so far as to say the entire thing is an homage.

RO: We wanted there to be enough references that we were showing that we didn’t think we were the first people to ever have this idea, and at the same time you don’t want so many references that your movie’s just this clip show.

We hear a lot about the “contained thriller” as a genre these days. How did you feel your film would set itself apart from all the others?
DB: I think it’s about the space that you’re in. Something we wanted to do differently here was get a sense of mood. We wanted the basement to feel different from the living room and feel different from the kitchen and feel different from Gloria’s room, so that the movie does not become visually repetitive.

RO: Had our resources been more limited, we might’ve been forced to do a situation where we were looking at white walls the entire time and I really don’t think the film would’ve worked had that been the case because the production design, the set decoration, buttresses this tone so effectively. I would say that if you removed that buttress, the entire tower would fall down. You can’t make this movie that exists in this slightly elevated lane above reality without the backdrops of your scenes; they need to get the memo too that we’re existing in a weird world. The dining room needs to have that fiery orange palm tree wallpaper. The other room needs to be cool blue. You would never design two rooms together like that but George and Gloria do. And it’s a signal, it’s a code to the audience that yes, this is a bit surreal.

DB: You can have a unique tone, but if you don’t establish it until 45 minutes into the movie, then you’ve failed. You need those visual markers to let you know that wallpaper’s just too perfect for this to take place in the exact same reality I live in.

Drug use in films is usually pretty didactic, but you have your protagonists take them in what feels like a non-judgmental manner here.
RO: That’s how we like to do drugs. Non-judgmentally. [Laughs.]

DB: That was one of the first things we conceived at the script level because it’s so in line with that theme of moral relativism. We’re not sitting here saying eleven year olds should be doing coke, but we wanted to paint a portrait of characters that were levelled and had good intentions and you’d feel comfortable sitting and having lunch with them and talking about their lives, but you also see them doing things that are perceived by most of society as evil.

RO: It’s playing with the idea that you mentioned where normally, that is a signal to an audience member that this person is bad. That’s just not how real life works. There are people who do drugs that are perfectly good people. And yes, if your son is thirteen years old and his friend is trying to get him to do coke, that’s evil in your mind in that relative situation. But it’s not the same thing as murdering somebody. It’s not the same thing as keeping a person chained up in your basement.

DB: It was also a way to compartmentalize these characters, to show that their identities were very multi-faceted, that George could both have done incredibly evil things, but he’s doing all these things because he loves his wife and he actually is a good husband.

You’re keying into something that was really important to us: it’s so easy, and it’s part of the common language of film, to put a character in a box. You’re either a protagonist or an antagonist. You’re either an evil person or a good person. And it’s a challenge both for us as filmmakers and for an audience when they’re digesting this story, to try to carry both of those things in your head at once. “This is a character that is doing something I morally disagree with but I love them though. What’s going on here? This is making me feel weird.”

It’s interesting to see Bill Skarsgård give such an “all-American” performance here.
RO: We had this idea in our head of this young Johnny Depp, this River Phoenix, late 80s/early 90s heartthrob that they just don’t make anymore, and we just couldn’t find it. And then here comes Bill. We had seen him in these sort of more genre-based roles and things like that. We’d never seen him be charming like he is in this.

DB: He’s usually the opposite of charming. Like in Castle Rock and It.

RO: As soon as we Skyped with him, we were like. that’s it! He’s got it! He’s like, long and lanky but handsome as the day is long and everything too, he’s the perfect guy.

DB: Bill takes the craft very seriously but he’ll do a [comedy] bit with us for five minutes. He’s very jokey as well. We’re in love with him.

RO: And he is so built for it. He has these big eyes. He has this, like, “hot Steve Buscemi” thing going on. I’m sure he and his team discussed this and [thought] ‘you’ve got nothing else like this’. So if it’s bad or whatever, we’ll slip it under the rug, but if it’s good, who knows what this could get you? He shouldn’t just play the boogey-man. There’s a lot more to him.

DB: There’s so much more to him than the scary clown.

Villains’ is in US cinemas now. Comments have been edited for clarity and length.


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