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Directing on a Dime: Derrick Comedy’s Dan Eckman on Mystery Team

Directing on a Dime: Derrick Comedy’s Dan Eckman on Mystery Team

Blog - Directing on a Dime

Welcome to Directing on a Dime, where indie moviemaker Andy Young provides tips and insight for moviemakers whose budget is more The Blair Witch Project than Avatar. Have questions for Andy about low-budget (or no-budget) moviemaking? Ask away at .

Anyone who doubts that creating short films and posting them online can actually start ones career needs to take a look at Derrick Comedy. The five members of the Internet sketch comedy group–director Dan Eckman, Dominic Dierkes, DC Pierson, Donald Glover and producer Meggie McFadden–have created online shorts that have gathered well over 100,000,000 views on sites like CollegeHumor, Funny or Die and YouTube. In 2009 their first feature film, Mystery Team, premiered at Sundance and was later distributed by Roadside Attractions. Dan Eckman has recently directed Worst. Prom. Ever. for MTV as well as the music video for “Freaks & Geeks” by Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Derrick and “Community” star Donald Glover).

I had the chance to talk with Dan about how he got into the industry (HINT: It involves the Blue Man Group), whether he’ll be directing an episode of “Community” (HINT: Yes) and his experience bringing Mystery Team to Sundance (HINT: Having a press screening at the same time as a presidential inauguration does not help).

Andy Young (MM): When did you figure out that you wanted to be a moviemaker?

Dan Eckman (DE): Sometime around 8th grade, when I saw the opening shot of Boogie Nights. That kind of solidified it for me. But really, as far back as can I remember there have been moments in movies that said the same thing to me.

MM: Did you go to film school?

DE: I went to NYU and graduated in three years, since I took some summer classes. In my third year I made my thesis film, Checkout. One of the guys who starred in it, John Grady, happened to be a former member of the Blue Man Group. When I was trying to get a job there he put in a good word for me, and that’s how I got in. While I was working for them, Checkout went to HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and won best college short.

MM: What did you do after school?

DE: Right out of film school I got a job working as an “editing assistant” for the Blue Man Group. I thought that meant I would be an “assistant editor,” but I got there and they were like “…well, you’re the editor.” As it turned out, they just wanted to pay an assistant’s wage, but I was basically the whole video department. Even though it didn’t pay a lot, it was really a golden opportunity. Over the next few years I built the department up to be a four-person team and got my title changed to “Video Production Director.”

MM: What’s the usual budget for a Derrick Comedy short?

DE: Nothing. We already had a camera, so we were really just buying the DV tapes. That was really part of the writing process, writing ideas we could physically do.

MM: When did you start seeing success from the Derrick shorts. Was there one that just exploded, or was it a gradual buildup?

DE: While we were in college we made short videos every month for our sketch comedy group and played them in front of a live audience. This was before there was a real place to put them online. We made this video called “Bro Rape,” but it wasn’t done in time to be in the show. I was working with these guys at CollegeHumor at the time, and I sent it to one of my friends there. He thought it was cool, so they put it up and it just exploded from there. By then YouTube had taken off, and we started putting up four or five videos up a month.

MM: Where did the idea for Mystery Team come from?

DE: We had written another script that was more like a sketch than a movie, but when we came out to L.A. we couldn’t get it funded. Then we came back and decided to make something ourselves. Donald had written a draft of his version of Encyclopedia Brown, and he’d been in touch with the owner, but it didn’t work out. He thought, “Well, what if there were three of them and it wasn’t part of that property?” It seemed like a movie we could actually make, something that was a blend of our sketch comedy roots and something that we could put a little more heart into.

MM: How did the shoot go?

DE: A lot of the things that can go wrong on a movie set went wrong on Mystery Team, to say the least. Any movie that tries to go outside its means, like we did, has its struggles. We shot on the RED camera, and I think we were actually the first film to shoot with the full 16:9 sensor. But they didn’t have all the QuickTime wrappers worked out yet, so we weren’t getting dailies so much as weeklies. It helped that, as Derrick, the five of us were completely in it together. We all believed in our movie.

MM: What did you do with it once it was done?

DE: The timing worked out where we could have a cut done in time for Sundance. It felt like kind of a pipe dream, but we got in. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell. To be fair, we were a pretty tough sell, but it didn’t help that it was a rough year for the economy and only half of the companies from the year before had come back. Also, our press screening was literally during Obama’s inauguration. But we did get some great reviews and made contacts with some high-profile Websites. In the next few months we had some free screenings in New York and L.A. for potential distributors. Those were packed, and that’s when we got with Roadside Attractions and took it on the college tour.

MM: What’s going on with Derrick now?

DE: We’re absolutely still together. We’re all still collaborating, just in various formations. DC has a novel called The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, and he, myself and Meggie just adapted it into a screenplay that I’m hoping to direct. As time goes on, our standard for quality goes up and our need for quantity goes down, so we don’t mind waiting a while. We’ll do another Derrick movie when the time is right.

MM: Have you ever been offered the chance to direct an episode of “Community”?

DE: I’m doing episode 13 this year. I’m really excited about that.

MM: How many times did you have to shoot the one-take music video for “Freaks & Geeks”?

DE: I think that was the 23rd take.

MM: Do you think film school is worth it?

DE: I would say it was for me, but I don’t think you have to go. I personally had a great time and met people who I’m still working with today. But I don’t think the fact that I was at film school was essential to that, since we were making our own videos and putting them online ourselves. It wasn’t like film school had any “key” into the industry.

MM: Any advice for people that want to make their own movies?

DE: Just make stuff, plain and simple.

Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer living in Austin, Texas. At the age of twenty, he has produced over 100 short films and one feature film, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.

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