Director Dan Eckman Talks the Mystery Team DVD

Director Dan Eckman leads the Mystery Team to glorious victory!

The secret is out. Derrick Comedy is one of the funniest sketch troupes on the Internet, and they've brought their unique look at the world to hilarious life in the upcoming DVD release Mystery Team. Which marks their first foray into feature length filmmaking. Directed by Dan Eckman and produced by his fiancé Meggie McFadden, this charming romp features Community's Donald Glover, and Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza, alongside Derrick team members D.C. Pierson and Dominic Dierkes. Mystery Team revolves around a group of former child detectives that have continued solving crimes well into their adulthood. Faced with growing-up, yet determined to solve one last murder, our gang of obscenity-challenged sleuths set out to prove themselves worthy of the initials P.I. The resulting hilarity is nothing short of brilliant.

To help usher in this epic release, we snuck up on Dan Eckman and forced him to chat about his directorial debut. Here is our conversation:

In hearing about the film, and being unfamiliar with the Derrick Comedy Team up until the moment I saw it, I thought I was going to see something that looked very cheap. Something that basically belonged on the Internet. But this film is actually quite beautiful and stylized, and looks way better than most of the Independent films I've seen lately. Can you talk about the process you and Meggy, as a producer, went through to get all of the budget up on the screen. And how your own eye for cinematography played a part in getting a film that looks quite remarkable for such a low budget comedy?

Dan Eckman: Thank you, first of all. That is a really big compliment. That could be a complicated answer. How did we get the budget on the screen? That was the thing. Because it was a low budget operation, Meggie found a way to get every single dollar into the frame. That is her super power as a producer. It helped that the five of us who were writing this were together every step of the way. When I was designing it, I liked to map out all the shots ahead of time in pain staking detail. When I was scouting, I had all three guys that were going to be on screen there with me. They were also the writers. I was very dynamically able to, in the prep process, adjust aspects of the writing, of the performance. We could see the blocking before hand to see what was in front of us. We had more expensive things in the script. And we could change that. The best example would be the stunt where someone flies into a stop sign. Originally, as written, we had a van crashing into something. All this glass was breaking. It was a big stunt. We couldn't afford to do that. The stunt ended up being a hundred dollar dummy that we made up to look like the character. We threw it out of a van. We went through an intense map with the editing. We had everything timed out perfectly. We're really happy with how that stunt turned out. It could have been really expensive and a pain in the ass. It's actually quite nice and brutal.

The actors in this film are also strong enough to pull your attention away from some of those cut corners. One of the things I didn't notice upon first viewing was the meat signs covering up all the cigarette advertisements in the mini-mart. But you mentioned this on the DVD commentary. Do you ever think that it's a bit dangerous to give away some of your tricks? Because now when I see those scenes, my eyes are immediately drawn to those ground round stickers. Before I just didn't notice them.

Dan Eckman: Absolutely. That is the danger in doing commentaries in general. I am hesitant about doing that kind of stuff. But as a film viewer, it is something I tend to find really fascinating. In the case of having the Chicken Eye Round Blade in the background? It is distracting and annoying. Having that stuff pointed out can take you out of the film. You're right.

I didn't find it annoying, exactly. The first time through, I simply didn't notice it. Because I was too into watching the movie. The second time, when I heard you guys pointing it out, it became blaringly obvious. But it was necessary. You guys had to cover up all the cigarette ads, right?

Dan Eckman: Yes. That was a big thing. We could legally show brands, but if it was tobacco or alcohol, forget it. And that stuff is always in the background of most stores. That is a longer story that you don't want to hear. But that's how it worked out with the Chicken Eye Round Blade. I don't know if you remember this from the commentary, but everything we shot in that particular store had to get shot in one very short night. That's all the time we had in there.

Yes. I remember you guys saying that Bobby Moynihan, who is in that scene with you, had his car break down while trying to get to set. And he only had that one night to shoot.

Dan Eckman: Yes. My mom had to drive to Connecticut to pick him up. It was funny.

The Derrick Comedy team couldn't be a nicer group of comedians to deal with. A lot of the time, when it comes to these younger sketch troupes, you run into a very arrogant crowd who sometimes tend to think they are above their audience. I never felt that from you or your actors. Is that genuine friendliness something you guys adhere to? And is it that way within the group on a personal level as well? I've never sensed the complications that come along with a big ego amongst your crew. Is that something you never really have to deal with?

Dan Eckman: From the performance end? We certainly don't deal with any problems. That's the whole philosophy and school that we come from with UCB. Everybody is serving the content. Comedy is a team sport. Some people can take it on as a competition. Like, who is going to come in here and steal the scene? For us, it's not about that. We want to service the writing more than anything. We tend to gravitate toward actors who understand what makes the writing good. We like actors that are more like writers, in a way. That is going to bring out the best performances. Something that Stephen Tobolowsky has said before is that actors tend to be at their best when they are on the same level as the filmmaker in terms of everyone thinking this is a legitimate collaboration. For me, that's how I like to work. That's how I worked on Mystery Team with the performers. And it felt like we were working on something together. The actors felt like they were part of our team. That was exciting.

And you guys never seem arrogant when it comes to your comedy.

Dan Eckman: We've come across that in the comedy world. I think that tends to be a sign of insecurity. That some people don't think they're really that funny. As far as we're concerned? The Coen Brothers often like to talk about how their just happy to have a corner of the sandbox to play in. That's our take on it. We're happy that we can do our shit. And if there's anybody that wants to watch it, we'll be able to do it. If there is something out there that we don't like, we don't look at it from the angle of, "We are so much better than that." Comedy can breed that, but it's a toxic way of thinking. Especially in our industry, where you are constantly jockeying for everything. You can't focus on what other people are doing. If you are in it for that, it gets messy. You have to focus on your work. The truth of the matter is, we will spend as much time creating an inside joke for each other as we would a sketch. Even though it's something that no one will ever see. It's about that kind of stuff. Having fun with shit, and making each other laugh.

In watching the movie with audiences, is there any particular scene that you love to death that seems to go right over everyone else's head?

Dan Eckman: Going over their heads? That would be too condescending, I think. That implies they should get it. It's our job to make something accessible.

Maybe I should word that as 'something that you find funny, but it falls flat with an audience.'

Dan Eckman: Definitely. There are a couple of favorite jokes that we feel never get their due. The one big one for us, that we reference in the commentary, is where we talk about the Doodle Archive, and how it would take five hours for that to go through. I like the idea that they have it all archived out. But that joke always falls on its ass. Yeah. I like that they've spend all of this time figuring out their naming conventions and shit. They have this overly complicated system of doing things.

I don't want to dwell on the budget, because that, to me, is never a true indication of the quality of a film. But I know that you guys were under some time constraints. Were there ever ideas that got jettisoned simply because they were too ambitious? What sort of stuff wound up not making it into the movie simply because you guys didn't have the time or budget for it?

Dan Eckman: Yes. Certainly early on, when we were having our first discussions about stuff. The Lumber Yard was originally a Power Plant. I knew that my uncles had something that resembled a Lumber Yard, so I said we should think about that. Instead of trying to find a power plant that is going to let a bunch of idiots come in and do a bunch of poop jokes. There were a few gags that got cut, but thinking back on them, I don't think they would have made the film fundamentally better. At the last minute, while we were driving up to New Hampshire, we didn't originally have that chase scene in the woods. They hit the stop sign, they jump out of the van, and they run through the woods for a little bit. Originally, they just hit the stop sign, and that was it. We got out there and realized that it would be good to put a chase scene in at that point. It would be cool for the trailer. It caused a minor freak out. How were we going to edit this into the film? Well, we found a way. There were certain other things that went by the wayside because of that. At the end of the day, we were very happy with the film we made. With the content we had.

How did you come to be the man behind the scenes? Did you never have aspirations to be someone who gets in front of the camera?

Dan Eckman: No. I've done a couple of jokey cameos in the sketches. In the film, I am the one fucking the bread. We all met while we were at NYU together. I was at film school with Dominic Dierkes, and he was in a live sketch group. That the other two guys were in. Dominic, Meggie, and I were working on our film school shorts together. The sketch comedy group wanted someone to shoot videos for them. So I started shooting their sketches. Then one thing led to another.

The new wave of comedy directors that are coming up today like to scream improves at their talent while they are shooting, and generally allow quite a bit of free flow on set. You're actually old school in that you script everything out quite well before hand and don't allow much room for improvising. As a director, how does that help you capture the exact look and feel you're trying to invoke? And do you ever think its sort of a cop-out when a director relies too heavily on improvisation?

Dan Eckman: For our style, and the way I like to shoot things, and our storytelling, that sort of directing wouldn't jive. We allow improvisation, but that all happens during the writing process. While that is happening, I can be in the room, and we can shape the scene. Then we can go in and execute that scene in a way that allows us to have more specifically cinematic moments. Because we are dealing with a more technically difficult shooting style. It is so hard to pull off all the insane moves that we had, especially with the budget that we had. We didn't have time to get anything that wasn't technically correct. Part of the process that we get off on is being able to conceive of something that gets us really excited. And then being able to execute that in battle. There always has to be room for improvisation on set. But that comes with intuition, and how we work on the fly. For example, near the end, when the actors are in the office, and they are running away from the bad guy. And they are going through some scaffolding. We got to that location, and I realized we had to run them through certain parts of the building. Because it would look awesome. We leave ourselves room to do stuff like that. But we usually go into a location and preplan it. We make sure we get what we want. And that is exciting for us. That's one of the reasons we put that test production scene onto the DVD. It is shot for shot, word for word, what we see at the beginning of the movie. It allows you to see that we didn't deviate from the script.

Aubrey Plaza isn't a member of Derrick Comedy. How did you go about casting her? She hadn't really been in anything at the time you made this, but Mystery Team is coming out at a time when she is really taking off with her performances in Parks and Recreation, and Funny People.

Dan Eckman: Actually, I knew Aubrey Plaza back in film school. She was in film school at the time. I had a weird, creepy roommate. And he stalked her. I knew her. She was a comedian around the scene. When we auditioned for Mystery Team, she really wanted the part. I was dead set against casting a comedian. I thought it was the one serious role in the film, and that it should be done by a serious actress. But everyone they brought in was too serious in a bad way. Aubrey was always great. We made her audition three or four times, and she kept nailing it. While we were on the set, my brother taped her audition for Funny People. They did that in the Lumber Yard. She got the part, and we thought, "That was the best decision we ever made in our entire lives." She is amazing in everything. And she deserves everything that is coming to her. When we took this film to Sundance, most of the cast was unknowns. Now a lot of them are emerging. The cast is moving on up. It's hilarious. We can't take credit for it, either. We are just riding the wave. Its not like Mystery Team came out, and then they got famous from that. We are benefiting from the fact that these guys are all very talented, and now people can see them here.

What was the casting process like on the rest of the movie? I know you had a lot of kids that came in that had to swear, and a bunch of people didn't even show up once they'd been cast. How did those different elements work to or against your advantage in getting this thing on the screen?

Dan Eckman: There were multiple stripper issues in regards to casting people that never showed up. First of all, we were supposed to get a handful of actual strippers. But we also cast this role of a stripper mom. And she had all of these fun things to do. She looked like a stripper but acted like a mom. She was offering lap dances and milk. It was very funny. The actress wasn't a real stripper. She was a local acting teacher. And she didn't show. She wasn't there on the day, and the stripper company only sent three girls. We had much bigger shots planned than that could provide. We scrambled to rewrite the scene. Now, we just had our kid there. We started putting the different strippers in different wigs in regards to where you would see them. For one shot, we needed more strippers. It got to be 7 am, and a bunch of the strippers had to take their kids to school. We lost most of the strippers. The production designer had to step in. That just happened. I was really shocked that she did it. But she did.

And there were other instances where you hired actors and they didn't show up. Did they not believe this was a real movie? What happened there?

Dan Eckman: I think that's a diplomatic way to put it. We had a number of different casting processes. We went to a local community theater, and cast out of there. That's where we found a lot of people who weren't too serious about the craft of acting. If they were serious about it, they weren't taking steps in their lives to make an opportunity for themselves.

Are you going to move onto something that isn't Derrick Comedy next? Or are you already in the planning stages of setting up another film for all of you to do?

Dan Eckman: We are working internally on our next project. I will probably direct another outside feature first, before we do another Derrick feature. But we will be doing another Derrick one, for sure. I have a feature that I am working on right now, but I don't think I am allowed to talk about it. I'm hoping to move more into action comedy. I want to bring more cinematic elements to comedy. It's going to be original.

How do you get away with that in this day and age?

Dan Eckman: Good question. Maybe I'm not at the level where they want to give me a big name franchise.

I wouldn't be surprised if someone turns around and gives you a board game or a toy to make a movie out of.

Dan Eckman: Honestly, if I get excited about the idea, I'd be happy to direct some sort of property. I much prefer original content. That is something I am excited about. I'm not one of those guys who's dreamed all of his life about something he wants to remake. I want to make something new. But look, I'll make things I want to get excited about. That's all I care about.

Its neat to hear that someone is working on something original. Its exciting, because there's not too much original stuff coming out nowadays.

Dan Eckman: That's why I'm excited about what I am working on.

Mystery Team arrives on DVD this coming Tuesday, May 25th.