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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