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When I interviewed Mystery Team director Dan Eckman back in August, he dropped the news that he was going to turn one of my favorite books into a movie. The book is called The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, and it was written by fellow Derrick Comedy member DC Pierson.
I know what you’re thinking: This is a moviemaking column, and a moviemaker DC is not. That’s fair enough. However, he is the textbook definition of a modern multi-hyphenate artist capable of wearing several hats (his credits on Mystery Team include actor, screenwriter and art director), which I believe makes him a very relevant case study for young low-budget moviemakers. Though primarily known for his work with Derrick Comedy, he has since written for several award shows, kicked off his one-man show “DC Pierson is Bad At Girls,” toured with stand-up, appeared in popular commercials and even rapped on tracks with Childish Gambino (a.k.a. fellow Derrick Comedy member—and “Community” star—Donald Glover).
I sat down with DC at this year’s SXSW to talk about some of the hats he wore during the making of Mystery Team, having a film at Sundance by the age of 24, maintaining a solo career in several fields and the future of Derrick.
Andy Young (MM): When did you figure out you wanted to work in entertainment?
DC Pierson (DCP): I’ve always liked comedy. It was always something I knew I could do, because I really liked reading, so I would write a lot in high school. When I went to NYU I majored in writing drama for TV, and I joined a sketch comedy group called Hammerkatz, which is how I found out about stuff like UCB [the Upright Citizens Brigade].
MM: How did you form Derrick Comedy?
DCP: The short of it is that me, Donald Glover and Dominic Dierkis ended up running Hammerkatz together when the original members left, and eventually the three of us broke off and formed our own group.
MM: Is that when Dan [Eckman] and Meggie [McFadden, Mystery Team‘s producer] got involved?
DCP: Yeah. Dan was Dominic’s roommate, so we’d write at his place, and him and his girlfriend-now-wife Meggie would be there, too. Dan and Dominic were in the film program together, and Dan ended up directing a lot of our Hammerkatz video sketches for the shows.
MM: How did that work?
DCP: Have you ever seen “Mr. Show”? A lot like that, the way it would go from stage sketch to film sketch seamlessly. But we also started writing and shooting what would later become the Derrick videos separate from the group, and once we heard about YouTube, we put up those videos we had already made. And the reason we’re called “Derrick Comedy” and not just “Derrick” is because I put [the word “comedy”] into our username. The metaphor I use is [that] it’s like when in the early days of cinema people would see the train and think it was coming right for them. In that same way, people had a weird relation to content that was online. We had a video called Celebrity, and people would leave comments like “FAKE,” as if we were passing it off as actual security footage.
MM: So when did y’all reach huge popularity? Was there one video that just exploded?
DCP: Yeah, Bro Rape. It’s like seven minutes long, and it was supposed to be three different videos in the live show, but we didn’t finish it in time so Dan just sent it to his friends at CollegeHumor. So they put up a Hotlink and it ended up getting a ton of traffic.
That was the summer of 2005. At this point Dan and Dominic have already graduated, Donald was about to graduate and I had about a year and a half to go.
MM: What did you do after school? Did you have a job?
DCP: I was doing random things, like interning at UCB, babysitting, bartending, temping and doing commercial auditions. Eventually I could book enough stuff to quit my day job a month at a time and focus on writing my book, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To.
Meanwhile, because of the popularity of Derrick, we felt like making a movie was the next step. We wrote a script that never got produced, and we took a trip to L.A. to pitch it. And, for the most part, people weren’t into it. Either they had seen our stuff or [they] would be vaguely aware of us, but either way it didn’t help our case like we thought it would. In hindsight, we should have had a reel or something. The takeaway was that our movie was too small for anyone to want to do it. And we realized it’s not about the money they’d have to spend in production, it’s about the amount of decisions they have to make in marketing.
MM: So what did you do when you got back to New York?
DCP: Instead of ever paying ourselves from what the Derrick videos got in advertisements/merchandise/touring, we put all our money into an LLC and decided to put that money towards a movie. But we didn’t do it towards the one we wrote.
MM: And that’s when you wrote Mystery Team, instead?
DCP: Yeah. Donald always wanted to do a grown-up version of Encyclopedia Brown, so the five of us wrote the characters and [the] basic outline. To save time, I wrote act one, Dominic wrote act two and Donald wrote act three, and then we’d all go through it together and make changes and punch up jokes until we had the finished, cohesive script.
DC Pierson in Mystery Team
MM: What were your duties as an art director for the film?
DCP: From what I’ve been told, I was actually more of a production designer. What I would do is make the concept art for locations and costumes, and then I’d help Dan make the storyboards and some of the art in the book covers or [the] drawings on the walls.
MM: What was the biggest problem you ran into on Mystery Team?
DCP: We were basically working with this pirate crew assembled from people working in the northeast on independent movies but [who] didn’t want to be union, and we had to deal with the perception that we looked like a bunch of 24-year-olds that didn’t “deserve” to be making a movie. We came off as very green, and when you show weakness it’s hard to get respect. But you always have these weird hierarchical things, where if you don’t have all the command from top to bottom, you run into a lot of problems. And if the crew doesn’t respect you and believe in what you want to accomplish, they aren’t gonna want to do that 19th take.
MM: So what was the plan for release once you finished the film?
DCP: Submitting to Sundance in 2009, which we got into as a midnight movie. We didn’t get picked up, since it didn’t exactly fit their market, and it was during the recession. We knew there was a built-in audience for this movie, so we worked with some film sales agents, and they set up screenings in L.A. and N.Y. to show distributors that [the] audience existed. Those went really well, and Roadside [Attractions] picked us up.
We did a college tour, and the idea [was] that if we get it into theater chains in these markets, we can spread it… around to larger markets. This was a method that was a bit of an unconventional flawed experiment, because the technology to notify people of our screenings wasn’t quite ready yet. We never opened in more than one or two cities at a time, but because of how theatrical distribution works, we couldn’t be everywhere with the movie. But now it’s everywhere on VOD, and I think [it] has definitely found its audience.
MM: Once you finished Mystery Team, I think the last Derrick video I saw was Thomas Jefferson. What happened with Derrick after that?
DCP: Our philosophy has always been that Derrick would never be our day job. Because of that, we have to do other things to sustain our individual careers, and the group won’t pay your rent. We still work together in different ways: Me, Donald and Dominic still do a UCB show called “Shitty Jobs” on Sundays, I open for Donald doing stand-up and me, Dan and Meggie are adapting Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep. So we still work together, but we won’t do another Derrick thing until the time is right.
MM: Where are you on the Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep movie?
MM: For you personally, what do you do once you’re done with Derrick and Mystery Team?
DCP: I settled in L.A. and started auditioning and writing. I wrote another book that’ll come out sometime next year, I started doing stand-up and my one-man show… It took me a while to get into gear and do my own solo stuff.
MM: You have the ability to wear a lot of hats. Do you think it’s mandatory to have a multi-hyphenate job in order to be successful?
DCP: It’s not mandatory, for sure. I only do all these different things because I’m interested in them and feel like I have some talent for them. Some more than others. I’d like to think I could continue to always do all these things to sustain myself, where I can write in the mornings [and] develop pitches and do stand-up and podcasts at night. Merlin Mann has a great quote about putting all the chips on the table and seeing where they pay off.
MM: What about having a prominent online presence. Is that important?
DCP: I think [that] even though social media is useful, it’s also overrated. You can have a great social media strategy, but it’s useless without good content. People always ask us what the “secret” was to the success of Derrick, but I think we just made good videos. And we had good timing, since we were one of the first groups to post sketches on YouTube. That being said, I’d like to think videos we made three or five years ago would still become popular today, since I feel they were good.
MM: Any advice for people who want to make their own movies?
DCP: Just make really good shit. People spend a lot of time thinking about what city they should live in, what person they should have a connection to, what camera they should own… 98 percent of your energy should be focused on making stuff that you’re proud of. And don’t be afraid to make shitty stuff first. You know how a yearbook staff in high school would get someone’s name wrong and then go, “Hey, we worked really hard on this!” Just because you worked hard on something doesn’t guarantee it will be good, and you should save those social networking campaign bullets in your gun till you have something worth talking about.
Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer who lives in Austin, Texas and studies in the University of Texas at Austin’s film program. At the age of 21, he has directed over 150 short films and one feature, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy also has experience directing for theatre, television and animation, and he continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.