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Villains, with Bill Skarsgard and Maika Monroe, was maybe SXSW's most twisted film
The SXSW midnight flick Villains is a unique movie. Imagine putting Don't Breathe, Raising Arizona, The People Under the Stairs and Twin Peaks in a blender, and have it somehow work, and you're pretty close to figuring out the tone of this movie.
The film puts two enthusiastic, young and in love, drug-addicted, small-time criminals into a seemingly perfect homestead that kind of feels like an idealized 1960s nuclear family suburban home. Of course, beneath the neat and tidy trapped-in-time veneer lies something much darker, and the film becomes a battle of wits between the young delinquents and the older couple who own the home. It sounds weird and the movie is indeed a little weird, but it's also a bunch of fun.
That weird tone might have made it a hard sell to investors, but it is exactly what attracted its core cast, comprised of veteran actors Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) and Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice) and up and coming stars Bill Skarsgard (IT) and Maika Monroe (The Guest).
"When I read it I could see in my mind a tone that was on the page," Donovan told me during our sit down during the SXSW film festival, where Villains celebrated its premiere. "That's what intrigued me. Then I got on Skype with [writer/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen] and said, 'Let me just be clear. This is a thriller, it has dark elements, but I think you should laugh.' And they were like, 'Yes!' I said, 'You're acting surprised.' They said it was really hard to get people to understand that."
For their part, Berk and Olsen knew they had a pretty narrow bullseye to hit when crafting the story. They knew they wanted to make something unexpected and dark, but also accessible and enjoyable.
"That was always the dangerous part about making this movie," Olsen said. "Where are we going to land tonally? It's really easy to make something a little too funny and the stakes don't matter or it's too dark so when there are those little moments of humor you're like 'What the f*** are these guys thinking?'"
And it's not just audiences they had to worry about having that reaction. When you make a movie with a heightened reality, it's imperative to have your actors 100% committed to the world, something the filmmakers admit the entire thing hinged on. They wanted their actors to go a little farther than they normally would, but if they went too far then everything falls apart.
"It's a really scary thing to ask an actor to go there," Olsen said. "If you mess that up it's a total joke. You fail way harder than if you screw up a straight drama or something."
"Yeah, the actors have to trust us a lot in that respect," Berk added. "Jeff is a total ball-buster. We'd give him notes, like "Let's do a take that's even bigger" and he'd be like, "Okay, so bad acting. Sure. Got it, guys." To their credit they did trust us and hopefully they're as proud of this movie as we are."
Donovan did seem very happy with the movie, although he had no idea how audiences were going to react to it.
"I tried," Donovan said. "I swung for the fences and it was definitely a risk and I don't know if it works, but certainly Kyra and I talked about going for it. Hopefully when you watch the film you realize George and Gloria have their own movie going on in their head and they kind of got trapped in a certain time to close off all the pain of who they are and their past. They've lived inside that world for so many years."
George and Gloria can very much be read as the title villains, but Donovan and Sedgwick didn't necessarily see them that way. In fact, from their point of view, these two punks broke into their home and threaten to disrupt everything they have built. They love each other just as much as Skarsgard and Monroe's characters do.
"That was important for Kyra and I," Donovan said. "We kept on talking about it. It has to be a true love story. It's a sick one, but it's still a true love story. In some ways it's what Maika and Bill's characters could become. This is the older version of who they are. It's very intentional that the two are standing opposite each other when they meet. They're mirroring each other. This is their future if they keep going down this path."
Putting the love the characters have for one another front and center proved to be a key element in making that peculiar tone the filmmakers were going for work. They pulled back on the gore a little bit to ensure a balance was struck.
"There's a line where you come off as sadistic as a filmmaker, as a writer, where you can push things a little too far," Olsen said. "The violence in it... we didn't want to go full Sam Raimi crazy, blood everywhere."
To the point where Berk and Olsen still seemed unsure if they should have done more in that regard.
"A note that we do get from people is that they wish the violence 25% bigger," Berk admitted. "We live with our decision, but by design we wanted to avoid it being campy. We wanted the violence to feel grounded."
That's not to say the movie holds back. You see the aftermath of a bunch or horrendous actions, but the filmmakers very clearly didn't want to revel in that, choosing instead to keep the focus on the characters and how they react to extreme situations.
At the end of the day Berk and Olsen delivered a movie that marches to the beat of its own drum, which in and of itself makes this film stand out from the crowd. Villains is currently still looking for distribution and will hopefully lock it in soon.