Interview with Dan Eckman

By a happy coincidence in scheduling, I was able to interview two members of Derrick Comedy in two consecutive weeks. Shortly after talking to writer/actor DC Pierson, I interviewed director Dan Eckman. Since the release of Derrick’s feature length film Mystery Team, Eckman has been busy writing with DC and producer Meggie McFadden in pursuit of a film adaptation of Pierson’s novel The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To. He’s also directed for the NBC sitcom Community. We discussed his work with Derrick, Blue Man Productions, and working with actors, among other things.

Brendan Bourque-Sheil: Did you always want to direct?

Dan Eckman: Yeah, pretty much. I mean “always?” Not since before I knew what directing was but I’ve actively been wanting to be a director since I was, maybe in the eighth grade. I think inherently I always wanted to, yeah.

BB: Who were some of your directors growing up who really inspired you and made you want to do this?

DE: Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Tarantino, I mean these are pretty obvious film student choices, but they were who I grew up on. I liked Oliver Stone a lot…

BB: All really stylized, kind of personal directors…

DE: Yeah.

BB: Like, you watch a Tarantino film, you know it’s a Tarantino film.

DE: Definitely, yeah.

BB: Is that something you aspire to do yourself?

DE: Yes it is. I’d like to have a unique style, I think.

BB: But, when you do Derrick, there’s a pretty big degree of anonymity as far as directing there…

DE: Well, I mean, I don’t like to be like “look at me” when it comes to the directing of it. I always think that the most important thing is to serve the content. And I think–specifically in like Derrick sketches–where they go into a lot of different genres, it really was just trying to do what the script–I felt like–was telling me to do, rather than trying to insert…the “look at me” factor.”

BB: …The internet has really helped shape your career so far. So do you think you’ll continue to put things out on the internet or have you kind of moved on to television and film, or a mix of the two or what?

DE: I don’t like to look at it all as completely different things. I want to do projects that I get excited about. I’m definitely gonna do more stuff for the internet…The stuff I have been putting out lately has been more film and TV. But I think I’ll be getting back into the internet realm…

BB: You were scheduled to direct for Community, right?

DE: Mhm, I did direct.

BB: Oh you did. So…they’re kind of in a weird place where they’re not talking about when it’s coming back.

DE: Yeah. The show will come back, they are at least saying, and they have been making the rest of the season…I was on the first day of my shoot when everyone found out the show wasn’t coming back on the midseason schedule.

BB: Oh wow. What was the tone of that?

DE: Scary. It was tough. It was difficult.

BB: I have tremendous respect for Dan Harmon (creator of Community). What was it like working with him?

DE: He’s an absolute genius, and it was just a privilege to be able to spend time in the writers room and to direct for the show.

BB: Is it a fun show to work on–how do you feel the cast melds together?

DE: Oh I think it’s the best cast on TV. That would be the short answer. I love them. I spent a lot of time over there so I’m close with a lot of the cast and I had a great time. It was really like a dream come true.

BB: I was just sort of thinking about how…you’ve got a lot of stuff…on the internet. And a lot of people from that same time like Donald (Glover), and like Aubrey Plaza, are kind of breaking out now. And it’s interesting to me that, in a couple generations from now, the entire industry’s gonna be full of people who have these big portfolios of stuff they did when they were still in school.

DE: (laughs) Right.

BB: And it’s kind of a double-edged sword.

DE: Mhm.

BB: It’s  like, ‘that’s the stuff I was doing when I didn’t know how to do what I do as well.” …How do you imagine you’ll look back on what you did when you were in school?

DE: Probably fondly. In terms of “oh look at how young we all were and look at what we thought was good.” But, you know, hopefully that’s not what I’m remembered for. Hopefully I have yet to make that. It’s a part of my past and what I did. I’m definitely proud of that stuff…but I’m not hoping to be remembered as the guy who directed “Blowjob Girl.”

BB: (laughs)…What are some of the sketches you especially like from Derrick?

DE: It’s hard to choose just because they’re all so–in my opinion–reasonably different. But some of my favorites are “New Bike,” “WQXR The Cool Breeze,” “Memory Loss,” “Girls Are Not to be Trusted,” I don’t know, I just named like a billion of them so…(laughs) I like a lot of them…

BB: Well yeah, I asked DC (Pierson) and he named a couple…The ones he named specifically were like “Thomas Jefferson” and “Gink” and “Don’t Jerk Off to This.”

DE: Oh yeah. I mean those (laughs)–I really liked those too. Yeah, those are tighter. Those are later…I’m not capable of divorcing myself from where we were…what we were trying to do making them. So they all mean something different to me than they would to any audience member, you know.

BB: So I know you through Derrick, but I look into your career and see you have this connection with The Blue Man Group. How did that come about?

DE: That was…my first job out of film school…I started out as the video editing assistant at Blue Man Group, or actually at Blue Man Productions, which kind of does all the creative work for Blue Man Group…There was no video department there other than me, and so I built kind of an internal video department. I became the video production director and did…a ton of things ranging from ads to in-show content to music videos, podcasts…I actually employed Dominic Dierkes from Derrick to help me as kind of an assistant editor for a lot of that stuff…I loved working at Blue Man…I only left there to go make Mystery Team.

BB: So let’s talk about that. I mean that seems like a pretty amazing experience. So you used a lot of your family’s resources as sets, like the lumber yard (in the film) was actually in your family right?

DE: Yeah. The lumber yard is owned by my uncles and was–I think–founded by my grandfather. But yeah…That’s why we wrote it. We didn’t write (laughs) a lumber yard and go “hey guys, guess what? It worked out!” Originally, I think we wanted it to be like a power plant. And then I was like “you know, we could probably go shoot here for free.” And like same thing…basically…setting things in houses wasn’t the most original thing in the world, but we did use Meggie’s house and a bunch of others. All the locations were written around.

BB: So yeah, it’s like you had the location in mind and then the script was compiled with the location…

DE: Yeah, in general that was the kind of formula for that movie…to try to figure out things that we can do and write a movie toward that, as opposed to “we’ve got our big sci-fi epic that takes place on the moon; let’s go do that for no money.” You know, that was the kind of mentality, which is not unique. That’s what all smart independent filmmakers do, I think.

BB: Is that the next project? The big sci-fi epic on the moon?

DE: (laughs) Um…You know it’s not that far from that, but yeah the next stuff we’re doing is definitely on the bigger side.

BB: So Mystery Team had a lot of…really amazing young up and comers from UCB. How do you kind of approach working with actors…?

DE: I…think I get along with my cast really well. I try to have an environment that’s gonna allow them to be as good as possible. And I am relatively specific with my blocking, but…I like to do a lot of rehearsal and allow them to kind of…get their ideas out during that phase so that once we get on set, we’re pretty planned out and the only improvising is kind of joke-specific. But yeah, in everything I’ve ever done, I’ve always been very, very close with the cast.

BB: You’re specific with blocking, but theres improvising with jokes–would you say you encourage that? Like, I don’t know, maybe a character is riffing in a scene, maybe changing a line up every take.

DE: Yeah…I think I’m very good at allowing actors to know where their windows of opportunity to change stuff up are. And if somebody does something brilliant on the day, I’m pretty good at adjusting my plan so that we can actually use this fun, cool thing and not being too stuck in any one thing, so I think actors enjoy that. Sometimes, like they’ll do something on take four and I’ll be like “hey I’m getting a closeup of that” and they’re like “Oh cool. My idea.” (laughs) You know…

BB: Yeah, there’s a lot of facilitating a lot of different people’s creativity…

DE: Yeah, well I think you have to be a different director to each actor. You know, certain actors are trained in a certain style and they are gonna respond to certain things. And other actors couldn’t give a shit less about, you know, their motivation, and they are just asking for a line read. So you have to kind of be a different director for each actor that you’re working with.

BB: Alright. So, I think I know the answer to this next one, but I’m gonna ask because I just want to hear your take on it. Were there any times during the making of Mystery Team when you thought “this might not work out.”

DE: Oh good lord, yes. So much…it was like constant and we were up against a really real deadline with Donald needing to be back at 30 Rock, and there were some dark moments where I was definitely the pessimist of the group in terms of that–believing that for whatever reason we weren’t gonna quite pull it off, but having the rest of the guys and Meggie there to be like “No we are, because we have to” made me feel like “okay we are gonna actually do this then.” And, you know, we did.

BB: Yeah. Got into Sundance. Got a Lionsgate DVD release.

DE: Yeah. We’re thrilled with what happened. There was a period of time where I believed that we were gonna have to shelve it for a year and come back next year and pick up a couple angles (laughs). But you know, we pulled together and got it done.

BB: Yeah. Wow, that would be crazy if like “we have to put this off for an entire year…

DE: That was kind of my darkest moment because I just felt like, maybe three quarters of the way through the shoot..we just weren’t gonna get it all. And we were gonna have to try and come back in a year on Donald’s next hiatus, and that was really depressing because I had already quit my job. (laughs) Luckily we finished it.

BB: So you still see the guys regularly?

DE: All the time…I just directed Donald in Community and Dom and DC are roommates. And I’m writing every day with DC and Meggie.

BB: …Last question…what advice do you have for people who are coming up, who are trying to get into filmmaking?

DE: To make stuff. And I know that’s what everyone says, but it honestly is the solution to the problem…Just make shit and just try to get better at it. And I would say make stuff that you can make, and I promise you, as long as you do have a camera, if you’re smart enough…there is a great idea that you can make. Don’t try to limit yourself by saying “other people have the fancy equipment so I don’t get to do it.” If you’re smarter than them, you’ll make something great, people will see it and that’ll be that.

BB: Yeah, I think DC mentioned that the camera you were originally using had about the same video quality as the camera that’s on the iPhone now.

DE: Probably shittier. Well definitely shittier because it was in standard def…And we didn’t have any lights or budget for any of those sketches. A lot of it was just…we’d get access to a certain location or we’d have some prop or we could get some prop, and then writing the actual script around not trying to kid ourselves. And me designing the angles in places I hoped were interesting.

BB: You didn’t have lights. Did you have mics?

DE: A little ways in my brother would be the boom operator so we did have that. So there was one microphone that was just getting, like, hung from above or near the ground somewhere. It wasn’t good. Like just with the kind of software upgrades…nowadays, I could make a much, much slicker version of all those sketches than I did.

BB: Well I really appreciate that they exist in whatever incarnation they exist in. I’m a big  fan, and thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

DE: Thank you.

Dan Eckman’s directorial work will be featured in an upcoming episode of Community. 

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Interview with DC Pierson

DC Pierson is still at an early juncture in his career, but he’s already made a splash in more than one artistic medium. Most people recognize him from his work as a part of Derrick Comedy, the viral sketch group that formed at New York University and made a name for themselves at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theater. Their success in the New York comedy scene culminated in the making of their independent film, Mystery Team, in 2009, for which DC  cowrote the script, acted, and art directed. Since then, Derrick has moved to LA where DC does standup and regularly performs at the UCB’s LA location. He published his debut novel, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, in 2010, a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist Darren, befriends a boy named Eric, who, as the title suggests, can’t sleep and never has to. He’s currently pursuing a film adaptation of his novel with director Dan Eckman and producer Meggie McFadden. We talked, via Skype, about Derrick, improv, and writing.

Brendan Bourque-Sheil: So you’ve been working with Derrick since NYU right?

DC Pierson: Mhm.

BB: One thing that I think a lot of people love about Derrick is that there’s a very collaborative feel to it. As cohesive as it is, you see a lot of different voices and a lot of different ideas. So if you could briefly run through what each member of Derrick–including you–brings to the table…

DC:  On a kind of base level we just have our job descriptions within the group…myself and Dom and Donald would, I guess, put ourselves in the category of writer/performers…Dan directs our film stuff and Meggie produces…but it’s pretty fluid. All five of us wrote the story for Mystery Team.

…I think Dominic is kind of an old-school-comedy-head. He’s really into the history of standup and he’s particularly a fan of late night talk shows and that format. He was also the first one to do improv and study at the UCB…

Donald, obviously, is a super-duper talented and compelling performer and always has been as long as I’ve known him. And also he had a job writing for 30 Rock…that definitely was really instructive, and we really applied his experiences in the 30 Rock writers room to writing Mystery Team. We definitely learned a lot of discipline as far as…trying to make the jokes in the movie as good as they could be on the page, because we didn’t have a lot of time when we were actually making the movie…

I think that Dan made this huge contribution of actually having a vision as far as the filmmaking aspect of it goes. As early as when we were making sketches, when we would try to imitate a certain look or a certain genre, he actually had the chops and the passion and the background to do that stuff, whereas I think most people think “oh as long as we get this really nice camera…it’ll be fine.” Like now, the camera on the iPhone is as good as the camera we were using when we started shooting…So he actually had the…vision and also the work ethic-he’s just a really hard worker and he doesn’t want to put anything out there that’s anything less than the best that we can possibly do.

Meggie is just kind of an organizational genius and, you know, actually figures out how things can get done in the real world, which is one of the textbook definitions of what a producer does.

As far as what I bring to the table, I think I’m a good writer, kind of a student of writing and I like a lot of different genres…And I always want the things that we do to transcend “oh, it was just this silly little comedy thing,” so I guess that’s what we all have brought to the table in the past and hopefully will continue to.

BB: Yeah, so what is the status of Derrick? You’re all doing your own things but are there any future plans in the works or talked about?

DC: We would still like to do more stuff together but the thing that we don’t want to do is…putting something out there to put something out there.We’re at a place where we haven’t put anything out there in the world under our names for two years or more now…Whatever we would do, we’d want it to live up to the expectations of what we’ve already done…So at such a time as we have an idea and we all have time, and someone wants to give us money to make something, we will, but there’s no specific plans right now.

BB: Speaking of giving you money to make something, Mystery Team was a low budget independent movie made in that one summer before Donald went back to 30 Rock. And then you’ve also had some parts now in these big studio movies. So, what’s the difference between the two experiences?

DC: It is cool to be on something that is not your baby, where all you have to do is go and just do your little part…you miss the authorship of having made something that’s entirely your own and having control over every facet of it. But then it’s always very relaxing to not have to have control over every facet of it…you go in for a couple days and you do your thing, and then someone else gets to take care of it. It’s pretty nice.

BB: What are some of your favorite moments from Derrick?

DC: As far as sketches…my favorites are the ones we’ve done more recently…around the time that we moved to LA and we were making to promote the DVD release, one’s like “Thomas Jefferson,” “Don’t Jerk Off to This,” “Gink,” I really enjoyed…And then of course, they’re all our children. I like them all, dating back to the earlier, stranger ones-or not stranger necessarily but, more sketchy I guess.

As far as my favorite moments…making the movie was really like heroin. It’s really, really, really, really hard and it seemed like it was gonna fall apart a bajillion different times, you know–having our entire grip department quit on us at one point because they felt that they were being asked to do too much and that we were being too ambitious for first-time filmmakers. And then, eventually the movie getting into Sundance and then getting an actual theatrical release and being on DVD from Lionsgate is very vindicating in a “hi haters” kind of way, so yeah that’s something that I’m super-duper proud of, as well as being actually proud of the movie that we made…I still really like spending time with everyone in the group. We still hang out all the time. Me and Donald and Dom are in this improv show called “Shitty Jobs” that’s every Sunday night at UCB…I’m working with Dan and Meggie on stuff, Dom’s my roommate. We all are still very entangled in one another’s lives, even though we’re not actively working on the next Derrick thing.

BB: Going back to what you said a couple minutes ago, you talked about some of your earlier sketches from Derrick being a little more sketchy, and then you have some that are a little more all over the place–a little more expounded–like “Thomas Jefferson.” What do you think has been the evolution in Derrick that’s made it move from the more conventional stuff like maybe “Jerry” to “Thomas Jefferson?”

DC: I still love “Jerry”–but I think just getting more bored with the format of traditional sketches. We had done a lot of stuff at UCB and we’d gone through all the earliest stuff by Dom and Donald. We’d  gone up through the levels of improv class and me and Dom both taught sketch classes at a point–coached improv and stuff like that–so I think just getting bored with the traditional way that we were taught how to do it. And of course, the way that you’re taught how to do it is more of a guideline than it is the bible of exactly how to make a funny thing all the time, so it’s one of those things where…you really take on those lessons and you practice them a lot…for a while you practice them in a very “faithful to the letter of the law” kind of way, and then once you do that enough, you can sort of bend the rules and makes things that don’t literally look like, you know, “one character’s standing in a room and then three wacky characters come in at different times.” You can make something that’s a little more interesting and play with different genres…and do really, really weird subject matter as well. I think that we always apply those lessons that we learned. We never completely rejected them outright but the stuff that we started to make more towards the most recent things that we’ve made, I think have been a little more faithful to the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law as far as we were taught.

BB: So how does the writing process differ from writing your comedic scripts for sketches versus writing your novel?

DC: It is pretty different because in a sketch you’re just trying to explore one comedic idea over the course of like two to five minutes, but then again I would say there’s also something that I learned in sketch comedy that’s been very useful in…longer form writing or prose writing which is the idea that “if that, then what else” which is an idea from improv…If we establish something as being true in a scene then we want to ask ourselves, “if that’s true, then what else is true?” And that kind of leads us to…the next comedic beat…And that’s definitely something that I’ve applied within prose writing….if you’re talking about sci-fi, it’s like “if this one thing were different, what would that change about everything else?”…So even though they’re very different, lessons from either one have been applicable to the other one as well.

BB: So that kind of thought process of taking an idea and forming the logical next step, kind of a chain of cause and effect, is that what you applied to Eric from The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To?

DC: Oh yeah for sure. I mean, it did just kind of start with the germ of the idea of “wouldn’t it be interesting if there were someone who didn’t have a biological need for sleep” and then you kind of make other decisions around that like “what is the context of that thing and then how would that thing  effect the rest of the world. And how would that effect your relationship with that person? How would that effect that person’s relationship with the world.”

There’s…a term in improv called “inventing” and it’s kind of a pejorative thing, like inventing things is bad. We don’t really want to be just making stuff up at every moment, because it’s really labored and mannered after a point to just continue to invent new stuff out of nowhere. It’s kind of what the perception of improv is, but really, ideally improv is making a few strong decisions at the top of a scene and letting those inform everything that you do for the rest of the scene, and then letting those scenes kind of inform what you do for the rest of the show. And you can apply that to prose as well. You just kind of want to make a few decisions and then see how things play out rather than just continuing to invent…

BB: So, with your novel I feel like there’s definitely a lot of autobiographical inspiration in some of the characterizations. Would you say that’s true about Darren?

DC: Absolutely. I was closer to being like one of the theater kids that he encounters through his girlfriend than I was necessarily a total and complete, self-inflicted social outcast, but I also–throughout elementary school and middle school, and even to a degree…in high school–was definitely someone who just wanted to be buried in a book and not have anyone notice you being buried in that book because you didn’t want to have to answer questions about it. So yeah, it was kind of drawn from a bunch of different periods in my life but, yeah, I would say, for sure.

BB: I’ve seen some internet buzz about the possibility of a film adaptation of the book. Is that possible-is that something I just heard…

DC: No, no it’s definitely something that myself and Dan and Meggie are actively pursuing and we wrote a draft of an adaptation last year. And then we went out and we had a bunch of meetings and we’re gonna do a bunch of rewrites on it and then go out and have more meetings and just see how we can put it together–basically is where we’re at with it. I think that what we did initially was probably write more of a straight-up, verbatim…you know…

BB: Like completely faithful draft-

DC: Yeah faithful, and that’s not to say that we didn’t have to cut a bunch of things out because we did, but the book has kind of an unconventional…story structure to it, even though I did try to make it be fast-paced and interesting the whole way through, it definitely doesn’t have a traditional three act structure, so what we’re doing now–is…writing a version of it that’s a lot less directly faithful to the literal events of the thing but…definitely faithful to the spirit of it. But it will probably look a lot more like a movie than it necessarily does in its current incarnation, so I’m pretty excited about that.

BB: I was thinking about some of the scenes towards the end when it starts to get really science fiction-ey and how, with limited constraints, you could actualize that on film. And it seems really ambitious, but I’m consistently so impressed with what Dan Eckman can do with any small amount of resources.

DC: Yeah completely. And it’s something that we feel really confident in our ability…almost to the point where we’re like “alright, somebody just give us a number and we’ll figure out how to make it within that” but right now it’s a little bit of this dance of…like “well what do you see that as being” and we’re more like… “well what are you willing to give us, and we’ll work within those constraints,” but unfortunately that’s not exactly how it works. You kind of have to figure out exactly what you want to go after and then go after it, rather than somebody just deciding an arbitrary number to it. Because no matter what that number is, it’s gonna be bigger than any number we’ve ever worked with, even though it would be pretty small within the constraints of a traditional Hollywood movie, so, we shall see…