If you’re looking to catch a movie this weekend but can’t decide if you want to see a comedy; a tragicomedy; a black comedy; a physical comedy; a horror film; a couple-on-the-run thriller; a psychological thriller; an extremely absurdist take on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; an “Oops-we’ve-broken-into-the-wrong-person’s-house” creepfest; or a (very twisted) fairytale, then you’re in luck because Villains is all of those things—and in a good way.
Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s clever, spiritedly acted third feature, which was shot almost entirely at a single house in Nyack, made a splash at SXSW in March. Now, three years after the script made Hollywood’s Black List of 2016’s best unproduced screenplays, Villains opens nationwide on Friday. You can see it in Manhattan at the Regal Essex Crossing at 129 Delancey Street; and Regal E-Walk Stadium at 247 West 42nd Street. Or on Long Island at Deer Park Stadium 16 at 455 Commack Road; Westbury Stadium at 7000 Brush Hollow Road; and the Lynbrook 13 at 321 Merrick Road. It’s fun.
Synopsis: Mickey (Bill Skarsgård, the diabolical clown in It) and Jules (personal favorite Maika Monroe, the award-winning scream queen of The Guest and It Follows) are young lovers on the run after having stolen their cocaine dealer’s money. They’re heading southbound for a fresh start in the Sunshine State. When their car dies after a gas station robbery, they break into a nearby house looking for a new set of wheels and to raid the fridge. What they find instead is a dark secret—a young girl, “Sweetie Pie” (Blake Baumgartner, from TV’s Fosse/Verdon), is shackled in the basement—and the middle-aged, sweet-as-pie homeowners, George (Jeffrey Donovan, star of TV’s Burn Notice) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick, star of TV’s The Closer), will do anything to keep it from getting out.”
Watch the trailer:
In mid-August, I had the following conversation with the engaging Berk, Olsen, and Monroe (who you can see online doing amazing stunts when she was a world-class professional kite boarder) at Lincoln Center when Villains was the Scary Movies XII’s Opening Night Film.
Danny Peary: Bob, when I met one of your former collaborators, Larry Fessenden (the recently-released Depraved), we talked about our mutual affection for Universal horror films of the 1930s. But are you and Dan among the younger generation of horror filmmakers who consider The Shining the first horror film ever made?
Robert Olson (laughing): We love The Shining, but who doesn’t?
DP (laughing): Me. I like the book.
RO (laughing): Well, I’m a big fan of The Shining, but I’m more of a The Thing  type-guy because I like creature features a lot.
DP: I like creature features, but other than the special effects, I don’t like that either! I love the original.
RO: Larry’s the Godfather and we like his earlier horror films, The Last Winter, Habit, and Wendigo. We haven’t seen Depraved yet. I think there are a lot of good horror films coming out nowadays. I like Ari Aster. His Hereditary is really fantastic. But I’d say Villains is really more of a comedy than anything else. The delineating line for it wasn’t so much between horror and comedy as between comedy and a lovers-on-the-run scenario like in Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, True Romance, Natural Born Killers. We kind of wanted to make a film in which we pitted two versions of couples from those films against one another.
DP: Dan, using the same script, could you have made this film entirely seriously?
Dan Berk: Could we have done it? We wouldn’t have been interested in doing it. There’s something in the genetics of how Bobby and I approach the filmmaking process where there’s always going to be an element of levity. That’s how real life is—even in incredibly dramatic situations, laughter comes out. Villains just wouldn’t have been our movie without the humor. It would have required different directors and different writers.
DP: Then my question to Bob is – Could it have been played totally as a comedy?
RO: I think it’s as close to a full-fledged comedy as it could have gotten. I think if you went too comedic with the situation in the film, it would be offensive. You’d be making too much light of there being a young girl chained in a basement. Her situation is a grounding element and if we laughed it off too much, we’d risk turning off certain audience members. If we played the film as a totally straight thriller or horror film, I don’t think the premise is original enough. Two people breaking into a house and finding something they’re not supposed to find is something movie audiences have seen before. What makes this movie unique and speak to us is its unusual tone and the characters. It’s hard to say if it would have been possible to make this film totally serious or totally comedic because where it sits between comedy and horror, or comedy and a couple-on-the-run thriller, is what makes it the movie it is.
DP: Maika, when you read the script for the first time, did you think it was funny? Or were you thinking you could play it seriously?
Maika Monroe: As they said, it could have been completely funny or totally serious, but it would have been a different movie. What I loved about the script is that it played with a serious situation but found lightness in it, which at the end of the day is more enjoyable to watch. What I love the most about the movie are the characters. Sure, we’ve seen movies with similar plots before, but these characters in these situations seemed refreshing to me. I fell in love with Mickey and Jules and their story.
DP: I want to know about your being cast in this film. When I saw The Guest, which led to It Follows, I said, “I don’t know who that actress is or where she came from, but she is talented and has an appealing personality and is going to be a star.”
MM: Thank you so much!
RO: We wanted Maika to be in this film when we were writing the script. We saw It Follows and said, “That’s Jules. She’s perfect for the part.” It’s like what you just said: Maika has a certain naturalistic quality to her, where you instantly fall for her as a human being. The characters we had created were over-the-top and borderline cartoonish at times, just south of farce that we were going for. So we wanted an actress whose natural personality was a grounding element. And that was Maika. Early on we wanted to cast her but at the time we were going to try to make our movie for $200,000, so we didn’t entertain the idea of going after her. A couple of years went by and it became a slightly bigger project and we were able to cast her, and it was a dream come true.
DB: One of the serendipitous things that happened as we were putting this film together was getting the script in front of her.
MM: [From the film’s press notes – I read a lot of scripts and Villains stood out because it has such a stylized feel. It’s kind of like if Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson got mashed together and made a fun, crazy, wild movie. After I finished reading the script, I was like, “I have to do this.”]
DP: I think it’s a really good script and one of the things I liked best about it is that all the characters take turns devising plans! Was that your plan going in to have them keep devising the next thing they’d do?
RO (laughing): Did we have a plan to have it be about plans? It’s funny but I don’t know if that’s something we set out to do rather than something we just found. It’s always satisfying in movies to see a plan conceived and then executed.
DB: That’s Oceans 11 and every heist movie. There’s always some miscommunication and misunderstandings and things always goes wrong. They’re fun because a plan is conceived and things build upon it.
DP: It is amusing that every time Mickey says he has a plan, Jules gets turned on and starts kissing him!
DB (laughter): We don’t talk about it much in interviews, but another thing we wanted to do is subvert the conventions. When we first meet Jules, we think, “Oh, she’s like characters in other movies—a ditsy female with no agency,” but that perception changes when she tells Mickey, “No, we’re staying in this house and saving that shackled girl in the basement. You can f__king leave if you want, but I’m not leaving.” Ah! She’s actually driving the car, we just didn’t realize it before. It was masked in their previous scenes together.
DP: That’s the first time she goes against Mickey.
MM: That’s right.
DB: They love each other so she trusts him, but he is showing a bit of cowardice that she isn’t willing to go along with.
DP: I’m reminded of Joseph H. Lewis’s 1949 influential couple-on-the-run cult classic, Gun Crazy, although there is a gender reversal. Sharpshooter Peggy Cummins doesn’t think her lover John Dall, who also is a wiz with a gun, is a coward but she is frustrated that he shies away from violence. As with your film, the robberies fuel their sex and they are always kissing and saying I Love You.
DB: When Maika and Bill brought Jules and Mickey to life, it became obvious that it’s their love story that keeps the movie from spinning off into ridiculous directions. Because of movie’s tone, we needed for there to be something at stake, and their staying together is what is at stake. If one of them dies, viewers will feel that what they’re trying to do is a failure. That would be sad and they’d cry.
DP: But you guys say in the press notes how you want the audience to “be joyous” when leaving the theater.
RO: For a period of time we had the animated credit sequence at the top of the movie, but it kicks ass so much that the film itself seemed less energetic by comparison. But when we put it toward the end of the movie, it works a lot better. The high-energy animated credits allow viewers to leave the theater with a bigger bounce to their step than they’d have otherwise.
DP: I won’t give away anything, but I imagine you had long discussions about how to end your movie.
DB: Yeah, there were a lot of different versions. Most had the same general framework, but some characters didn’t meet the same fate that they do ultimately. What we landed on is what we feel is the best illustration of the moral universe of this movie and is what these characters deserve. There were a lot of conversations about that moral spectrum.
DP: Maika, do you think the most important scene in the movie is when Jules is alone with Sweetie Pie in the basement and confides about what happen to her as a young girl? I do.
MM: Interesting. Watching a movie that I’m in, it’s very hard to step out—I wish that I could—and tell how important scenes I’m in are to the rest of the story. But I know that was a big scene for me because Jules reveals that when she was growing up she experienced some really hard stuff that no child should go through. Keep it in!
DB: There was a longer version of that scene in which Jules goes much more into her backstory. It’s definitely our favorite scene in the movie, so cutting it was heart-breaking but it benefitted the film overall. That was the very definition of “killing your darlings.” That scene is the movie’s emotional core because when she engages with Sweetie Pie, she breaks down the wall of distrust between them and shatters the Stockholm Syndrome bond the girl has with George and Gloria.
That scene allows for the emotional payoff at the end of the movie, which makes it very important. Also, this scene tells the audience that although the movie is really fun, it is serious too. They are reminded that this is about people who have gone through real trauma in their pasts and there are high stakes for them.
MM: It’s definitely not all comedy.
DP: Do you think Jules told the story of her abandonment as a kid to Mickey?
MM: Yes. They’ve both been through so much in their lives that they have a connection, and that has grown so that they totally trust each other. Because Jules knows Mickey understands her, she would tell him everything, including about her childhood. I think he knows all about her upbringing.
DP: Is there a parallel between the love relationship of Jules and Mickey and the relationship of Gloria and George when they were younger?
DB: Absolutely. One of the real cornerstones of the foundation of this movie is the idea that these couples are kind of foils for one another, but not so much in the traditional sense. George and Gloria are kind of like a warped future version of Mickey and Jules. We thought they were the most compelling foe we could pit Mickey and Jules against. What we said earlier, we liked the idea of taking a couple-on-the-run from, say, True Romance and pitting them against the couple-on-the-run from Natural Born Killers.
We found it interesting to ask each other about what love does to different couples; and what is a healthy love and what is a toxic love. George and Gloria are sociopaths, but as far as we can relate to them, we feel sympathy for them because as they look at the young Mickey and Jules, they think, “I remember when we were like that.”
DP: Maika, how does Jules see Gloria?
MM: Jules connects to Gloria. I think she understands Gloria better than anyone else and can picture her when she was Jules’s age and picture herself at Gloria’s age. Jules can see herself becoming like Gloria in the future, but she doesn’t want that.
DB: Mickey spends time with Gloria, but our narrative didn’t allow for Jules and Gloria to spend much time alone. It was more important for us to put Jules together with Sweetie Pie, and pit Mickey and George against one another. It is interesting to think about the love Jules has for Mickey and Gloria has for George. Gloria’s love for George is a complete, ruinous dependency, while Jules’s love for Mickey is kind of freeing. What the two couples’ love looks like is what separates them.
DP: Do either of these couples have family or friends?
DB (laughing): George and Gloria, absolutely not.
RO: I’m sure they have relatives but nobody they’re in contact with. The same with Mickey and Jules. They’re like a pair of rolling stones, so maybe they crashed with someone in some town they passed through. Maybe they’d have a beer with them if they popped back into that town, but there’s nobody they care about visiting.
DB: They definitely had a drug dealer.
MM: That’s one thing for sure!
DB: They started their quest down to Florida by robbing their drug dealer. That’s probably how they got their car. It’s certainly where they got their bowling bag with “Rocco” on it.
DP: By giving them a drug history, doesn’t that risk putting a negative stamp on them right away?
RO: Yeah, but that’s what we were trying to play with. We were trying to set it up so that every visual cue tells us these people are villains. They’re robbing a gas station, they’re doing cocaine, they’re breaking into a house. We show all these criminal things and then try to slowly make you love them, despite what you saw. It was kind of the opposite with George and Gloria. When they find Jules and Mickey in their house, they exhibit none of the tell-tale signs of being villains, but as the movie goes on you see that they are the ones who are morally rotted away. Mickey and Jules just have a light interpretation of the law.
DP: Is George, in a twisted way, enjoying himself because he thinks he’s outsmarting the young couple?
DB: He’s a sociopath and I think he does derive some pleasure from power. Power is a product of this situation in which he has these people in captivity. But I think if he had a choice, he’d wish that Jules and Mickey never showed up. Because in his world, he’s doing what he’s doing to serve his carnal need for a power dynamic; and, much more, to try to make the woman he loves happy. To him, these two strangers are threatening the tenuous peace in the household, including their having Sweetie Pie chained in the basement. That’s a problem for George.
RO: I think he would have enjoyed it more if it weren’t Mickey and Jules, but two normal people from off the street. The tricky think is that they remind him of his and Gloria’s origins story, which we always imagined as a Badlands-esque tale. Being confronted with that and having Mickey know how to push his buttons is something he doesn’t enjoy. Those two characters rub on one another in a way where Mickey is reminding George of what he once was but isn’t anymore, and George is reminding Mickey of his dad.
DP: Unlike Jules, Mickey, I think, would kill Gloria without blinking an eye.
RO: We always thought that his decision in the beginning to leave Sweetie Pie in the basement and flee, dooms him.
MM: I agree.
RO: The rest of the film is a journey of redemption for him. How Jules reacts in the end toward Gloria illustrates that she understands her—and Jules realizes that for Gloria being killed isn’t the worst thing that can happen to her.
DP: Does Jules change by the end of the film or does she reveal who she really is?
MM: That’s a really good question. Jules has been through bad stuff in her life before this movie begins, and during the movie she really goes through a lot, including with Mickey. Anyone going through that has to come out a different person. I think she comes out stronger and knows that she’s going to be okay whether she’s by herself or taking care of someone else.
DB: Some movies will have their protagonist just switch from being one kind of person to someone totally opposite. Jules has goodness in her, which comes from Maika, and by the end she is becoming who she had been the whole time but never revealed. She’d been put to the test. Only now does she have the chance to put her life on the line to save an innocent person.
MM: She comes through at the end.
DP: What was it like working with your directors?
MM: It was amazing. I had one of the best experiences I’ve had on a movie set with these two.
MM: It’s true. It all flowed so easily, and both of these guys were always on the same page, which is obviously what you need if there are two directors. All those long scenes with the four actors were such a blast to rehearse and work on and shoot. I had such a good time.
DP: And did you turn out to be a troublemaker?
MM (laughing): Oh, yeah.
DB: Honestly, she was one of the easiest actors we ever worked with. She always just “got it.” There were very few disagreements. She was always on time and prepared and would nail it in a couple of takes every time.
RO: All four of the actors helped make the movie as good as it is. Because they were so prepared and so good, we didn’t have to do a lot of takes and had time to get all the shots that we needed. We were able to make the movie we wanted to make.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies,Jackie Robinson in Quotes, and his newest publication with Hana Ali, Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It, about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes (Workman Publishing).