Entering the Industry During Super Dark Times
An interview with the writers and director of Super Dark Times about their process, understanding your own art, and breaking into the film industry
By Melissa Tomczak and Malley Nelson
In October 2020, Aspect sat down with the writers (Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski) and director (Kevin Phillips) of their first feature, Super Dark Times (2017). We’re all certainly living in super dark times right now, but we can all be grateful that we’re (hopefully) not living the reality of the three teenagers whose lives get thrown off balance after an accident results in the violent death of a friend. We talked to Kevin, Luke, and Ben about breaking into the film industry, their creative process, and how they interpret their own work.
Collins’ and Piotrowki’s next film, The Night House, is out on July 16th.
Aspect: When you come up with a concept, together or independently, is it more of a slow process or more of a “Eureka!” moment?
Ben Collins: This movie in particular was something unique because we started the idea process around 2011. Kevin and I went to college together, Luke and I went to high school together. We all started working together in college.
We had been writing a couple different movies trying to get jobs. Kevin had been working mostly as a cinematographer on commercials and stuff. Kevin and I had been roommates and really close collaborators in college. Kevin and I made a promise of “We’re gonna do this, and Luke and I would write something for Kevin to direct.” The hardest part of the process is getting an idea that you do feel confident enough in telling other people to carry the torch for years. There’s something of a eureka moment when you think you have it. But a lot of great scripts don’t get made, or don’t get made the way you want them to.
[Super Dark Times] — it sounds sort of ridiculous and mythological almost — was a dream that I had. A dream about these kids playing in a field. Just some kids. They were not these characters. And they were playing in a field and playing with a sword. And in the dream one of them was decapitated. Fully had his head cut off. And I woke up and was like “that was a weirdly specific dream.”
And I almost thought it was something I had heard in the news. You know, one of those weird stories that is copied from some foreign news website that gets translated, like “some kid in japan got his head cut off?” And I started to Google around to see if I could find anything specific and it wasn’t coming up. So it must’ve just been a weird thought I had. But it felt very potent and could be a vivid idea, that then could become part of a thing. So it becomes part of the process of asking, where does it fit in a story? Is it the end of a story, is it the beginning of a story, is it the middle of a story?
Luke Piotrowski: Ben’s outline had lots of maybes in it but it is at least now presenting me with some choices to choose from. Ben did a first draft in [six days] that had gaps. Then I did a whole pass of the draft that took a month or two. And we ended up with a script. That was the first draft, then from that point it went through some permutations.
The next big thing I remember is Kevin took a pass and added a lot of things and poured a lot of his heart into it. Then there was the process of “alright how do we take all these things, smooth over the edges.” Those were the pillars to me of developing the script. All taking a pass then consolidating it into a streamlined draft.
BC: All that was four to five years. Any time we attempted to get financing, it was with the idea that we didn’t want anyone creatively messing with it. We didn’t want to hear from someone about ideas that will make it more marketable. For this movie to be what it was, it needed to live up to that core of some kids screwing around with a sword and some horrible [stuff] happens.
LP: Which is not a marketable idea.
A: This was you guy’s first bigger budget feature. How do you balance that need to please the producers and audience and wanting to make sure your own vision is intact?
LP: We [the writers] were pursuing Hollywood screenwriter stuff. So we’re working for Blumhouse writing theatrical horror movies, not the independent route. So this was always the one that we knew we wanted to do on our own.
So we’re trying to appease the gods of popular opinion with most of our day jobs and [Super Dark Times] was able to always be the one we held closer to our hearts. It’s not a commercial idea, and when Ben pitched it to me he said “I don’t want to take the time to make that because no ones gonna want to buy that.” But once it became this passion project, you can do whatever you want with that. So we didn’t ever have to think of that with this one.
Kevin Phillips: But also we sat with this movie for a minute. We couldn’t make this movie for a handful of years for a number of reasons. And that’s fine. We made the movie when we needed to. We determined that on set. I remember Ben and I one day, we had this conversation. Some ungodly hour in the morning when we were setting up a scene and we were also stoked. We were just walking around this parking lot like, “God could you imagine making this movie a year ago? It would have been such a different experience.”
We individually, in tandem, got where we all needed to be to see this thing through. And in doing so, we grew to understand the movie more and the movie we wanted to make more. So we were imbued with a certain type of confidence about that. It took me a bit to get there, because it’s a developing process. But the moment that happened, we just were able to sidestep any sort of notes or questions that ended up coming at us from financiers.
BC: I think there was a belief that there would be people who liked the movie, whether that was a 20 million dollar opening weekend box office or it was just the cult hit on Netflix that it turned out to be. We believed it would connect with audiences. It wasn’t like we were intentionally being vague in some sort of way where we’re like “Yep that’s right no one understands our art.”
KP: We’re all lovers of cinema. So the only reason we were making this movie was because we believed it was the only movie to make. Whether it’s difficult to market a film like this in common practice is its own thing. It wasn’t as much our problem because we thought “this is a great movie, and we should spend the time, effort and energy seeing it through.” And we were able to convince the right people to see that as we did.
A: You talked a lot about collaborating. In what ways has sticking together benefitted your careers?
KP: Enormously. I learned this in college by being blessed with meeting a group of friends that in turn became collaborators. And seeing the power in that and holding onto relationships. Understanding early on that film is a collaborative medium. Those two ideas, they worked hand in hand. I saw how enjoyable and inspiring it was to be able to make films with friends at a young age while in college. So why give that up?
LP: On a practical level, I’m a little older than Ben so I took a year at film school before they were there and bugged out because I couldn’t quite manage the connections and hack it. But I owe my career largely to the friendships and connections that were made when he was in film school and by being friendly with him.
Then also it’s like a marriage or something where you get better at it as you get to know each other. The new thing that we’re working on with Kevin, whenever we sit and talk, we can talk much deeper with a deeper shorthand because we think in the same way. For so many reasons, you don’t want to get stale and stagnant but at the same time it’s like building a muscle, where the team knows the rhythms of the team and can achieve something even greater.
I think we can make something greater than Super Dark Times because we made Super Dark Times.
A: Kevin, you’ve worked a lot as a cinematographer before you directed anything. Was cinematography a way into directing, or was it a natural transition?
KP: I studied cinematography to be a better director ultimately. I saw cinema as primarily a relationship between sights and sounds, and that the relationship between the subject at hand was storytelling. I studied photography to be a better cinematographer. They all kind of worked ultimately toward the goal of wanting to be the best filmmaker possible. So I fell in love with cinematography naturally because there’s something photographic within me, I think. I like to see things in images. And I learned that through college and through the practice of doing that a lot. I learned that cinematography in its own right as an art, as a career is a beautiful thing. It has its own type of relationships that are fortified. It’s very craft-based, and I’m a very craft-based person. You’re working with your hands more immediately [than in directing].
Both disciplines inform one another so much. I think had I not taken those years to build up my career as a cinematographer and work as a cinematographer, I would not have been able to approach Super Dark Times in the way that I did.
A: How did your time as a cinematographer influence your own personal style as a director?
KP: The road to finding a personal style is, as you can imagine, a long, arduous one. When I was starting cinematography I recall being more camera-centric than lighting-disciplined. I had more of a fascination with lenses, not in a technical sense but just in that I understood lens language and grammar and how they invoke a certain feeling for me personally. I knew what I liked but it was hard to replicate that in craft. It took me a while to become disciplined in that respect.
And then when you do [become disciplined], these two things all work in tandem. Camera language and lighting, it all comes under the cinematography umbrella. When I started off, I was working off the influence of all these filmmakers and films I’ve seen growing up. Ben and I would religiously watch all sorts of things all the time. And we’d constantly be checking things as points of interest and influence.
A: I think I noticed some Hitchcock influence in Super Dark Times. Do you consciously think about your influences when constructing shots? Or do they bleed into your work?
KP: Yeah, I’m glad you caught that! Consciously and subconsciously. I’ve become very okay with the idea that filmmaking as a medium is entirely eclectic and that the medium itself works if only because it’s an influential medium. So I am happy to wear influences on my sleeve. But it’s about how you apply these influences. Luke said something the other day… it’s about applying the influences in unique interesting ways to things that aren’t direct rips of style. If you can take a feeling that you derive from a certain film or scene or moment or whatever, and apply it to something that isn’t a direct copy of that, then all of a sudden you’re viewing it with a new dimensionality.
All the filmmakers we love are ultimately lovers of the medium, and even for someone like David Lynch who apparently doesn’t watch anything ever, he’s deriving influence not necessarily from film but from any other medium, which is just as relevant.
A: Ben and Luke: Do you find it’s the same when you’re writing?
BC: Some of it is just automatic, if you input enough data into your brain. I have The Game, the David Fincher movie playing on mute on my TV right now. I tend to just bathe in movies all the time. Sometimes with a brand new project, as you’re sort of fitting together ideas, I’ll make a list of every movie I can possibly think of that has anything to do stylistically, tonally, narratively, a character similarity. So when Luke and I are coming up with an idea, it’s like one of us can say to the other, “oh, it’ll be funny like Robocop.” And maybe we’re not talking about anything to do with sci-fi action futuristic stuff, but we understand that reference is to each other. That goes back to the shorthand thing with a sea of primordial ideas where the more you have a language with a person you can dig that stuff up.
LP: Art is the distillation of stimulus. Every person is a unique filter that will distill it in a different way. The danger comes, especially for burgeoning artists, is when there is no distillation. “I like David Lynch so I’m going to make something like David Lynch.” Well, David Lynch already did that, but what you can do is watch a bunch of David Lynch and Walt Disney and listen to a bunch of pop punk, and write something with all that swirling around in your brain.
A: So, as a complete pivot, we wanted to put it out there that Malley and I are completely obsessed with the line in Super Dark Times, “If anyone asks we’re already fucked.” This is just an excuse to tell you guys that. But the question is, when you guys write something— a great line like that— do you ever sit there and just feel, “hell yeah we just wrote that” or is always sort of the forest rather than the trees.
BC: Yes and no. That one I think was Luke. I can speak to another similar one and say that was me. I remember that one being like “yeah that’s a cool one.” Sometimes you don’t [know], sometimes they’re throwaway things.
LP: And you know I’ll cop to it. Whatever. I said I was insecure on the call earlier but I’ll say that our career is littered with a bunch of lines that I thought were like “hell yeah that’s the line” and nobody noticed or cared, or they got cut out or changed, but every script there are ones that are like, “that’s a banger.”
KP: To be fair that scene originally did not end with that line though. When we were editing that scene we knew that it was a powerful line to end on so we kind of sacrificed what came at the end of it just to use it as punctuation.
A: You guys once said that horror is often more about the individual and it’s emotional. That seems to lend itself well to coming of age movies, so what about coming of age or adolescence in horror kind of, to you, attract each other?
LP: I’m pushing 40 now, but I think that our generation and the generations after, with the video generation, horror became a really accessible right of passage for a lot of young people. So they started to really conflate. All these horror movies are readily available, so not only do you have people trying to make them cheaper but you have consumption in the home. Six-to seven-year-olds have access to the TV, and it’s like daring each other to watch this stuff. So horror becomes this thing where, it’s going to show you sex, it’s going to show you violence, its going to show you things that you’re not allowed to see. And people who are of that generation can never really let go of that. I mean we write horror— it’s a little bit of chasing that excitement of childhood. Some of the first stuff Ben and I wrote was just chasing that dragon of sneaking down to the TV at night to watch something that you’re not supposed to be watching. So I think that horror just as a genre is really tied up with coming of age.
A: Kevin, you’ve talked a lot about Super Dark Times and “white youth masculinity,” especially related to Columbine. We noticed a lot of your other projects touch on that as well. Is there something about that that you are sort of attracted to or is sort of coincidental?
KP: The themes usually kind of come secondary, right? In a way. I think that might be true for you guys too, Ben and Luke, right?
BC: You spot them at a certain point and it can kind of inform it. It happens along the way.
LP: Well it’s a little boring to make art that you completely understand.
KP: 100 percent. One of the most exciting aspects of creating anything, especially in filmmaking, is to follow a feeling of not really knowing what it means, and then coming to the realization through the process. This is what ultimately brings me most satisfaction out of doing anything and it has happened a number of times for me on Super Dark Times. It could be just an aesthetic gesture; you just chase this feeling and then as you’re putting the pieces together its like, “oh, that’s what that means. That’s why that’s there.”
BC: You are describing the very David Lynch, when he talks about the process of excavating things and that things have a natural order and you find it.
KP: So to speak to the question you had regarding white male masculinity, I don’t know, that’s just probably something deep inside, you know? It’s a current underneath things. It’s such a universal thing that it’s kind of hard to ignore.
LP: I remember Ben and I wrote this movie— it was this little horror movie called Siren— and then Super Dark Times, and those are two of our big first produced things and they both feature toxic male characters. And I was terrified like, “Oh no, we’re building our filmography and it’s exclusively populated by [toxic] guys? Well what’s our next movie going to be? I don’t want to do them anymore!”
A: It’s interesting that you bring up Lynch talking about that sort of thing because he has that tendency for an interviewer to ask him to explain [his film] and he’s just like, “no I don’t want to do that,” which is great. I love that about him. But similarly there’s a lot that you could unpack about Super Dark Times. Do you guys ever feel the need to explain your work if you see someone misinterpreting it somehow?
BC: One time in particular on Twitter, a couple videos were made where people were theorizing about Super Dark Times, the “Alison Did It” theory, where they tried to reframe the whole thing as this Jordan Peterson theory where “it was the woman!”
LP: I definitely subscribe to the theory that if it’s on the page you can claim it. You can read through it however you want, but if you’re directly asking me if your misogynistic read is correct then I do feel the need to be like, ”um, no.”
This is a problem with a lot of online film criticism and fan theories. It’s fun until you’re wasting your brain energy in the wrong way on the piece. If we wanted to tell that story we would have given you some literal clue. We wouldn’t leave this off the table. There’s a difference between trying to interpret the plot and trying to interpret the theme and intention. And theme and intention— it’s out of our hands once it’s on the screen or in your eyeballs. But in terms of plot, like “was this a plotpoint?” No, that’s not a plot point that you missed or that we chose to keep off screen. The plot is the plot. I think it’s a very mature thing to resist the temptation to not want to talk about your work, and maybe someday I’ll get there.
The idea of looking at a movie as a puzzle to be solved and not as an experience to be had, or that there is a one single answer that is correct and the others are wrong and that you can find it. It’s a way to exert power and control over the movie in a gross way. I don’t like that that’s the train of thought that the internet has given us. A way to solve the movie and win.
A: A lot of our peers are currently trying to break into the film industry as actors, writers, directors. This industry especially is hard to break into because there aren’t really clear steps as there are with other fields. What are some of the specific steps you guys took to get started, or if you had any advice or things that you must do if you want to break into the field.
LP: My thing for writers: if you want to be a writer, you must write to completion and do it again and again. Twitter is littered with writers that are “writers” that have never finished a thing. And you can’t really call yourself a writer if you’ve never finished the act of writing and haven’t written.
Our agent read something and the first thing he said was: what else you got? So if we didn’t have something else to give, [we’d have nothing to give.] The first thing you write is never going to be your masterpiece, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be going in the trash it just means learn from that. Move on to the next thing, learn from that. Maybe it’s good but don’t put all your eggs in that one basket, so that when they do ask what else you got, you can show the breadth. It’s no good if it’s just not done.
BC: You know, you’re going to get out of film school and there’s a lot of different things you can do. You can move back home and get a job at a warehouse like I did. You can go straight into a career being a high school teacher like Luke did. If you’re really talented like Kevin you can start getting cinematography jobs and work your way up. If you’re wanting to work in this industry you’re going to spend a lot of time on your own stuff while doing that. You’re going to go clock in at the day job and then come home and you’re going to stay up till four in the morning writing the spec or you’re going to spend all your time going on auditions because you want to be an actor. But either way, this period of time that you have where there’s this part of your brain telling you that you gotta make it real right now. Like, if you can make it real right now and it’s real then all the work you did was valid and now you have the career. But in reality you don’t want the career if it’s built on less than some representation of yourself. Because it’s a career. It’s not one trick that you do to show all your friends that you’ve made the movie now. You want to be doing this your whole life, right?
I think that embracing that time while you’re frustrated that you’re not already having it, what you actually have is infinite time to find the things that you do love. And find the things that are going to define you and if you’re going to write a spec dont have it be, “oh I just saw that they made a Purge Part Seven. I’m going to write a Purge type thing because those are popular.” Spend that time to not know what other people are doing and distance yourself from the need to live up to things and really just dial into the things that you’re going to be passionate about. You’re going to write them better, you’re going to direct them better, you’re going to act them better. Hone into the things that you want people to identify you with later on. Take the right opportunities you know. Work on the right things. I don’t know. That’s my whole rant, Kevin what do you got?
KP: Good rant. I guess to speak to physical production, I think it would come back down to the communal aspect. I think I have two things to say about that. As infuriating as it sounds, the industry is built on networking. And that’s a really bad thing to hear because sometimes it really sucks to meet people and to hold onto these relationships. No matter what, if you’re working as a PA as a script supervisor, learn every job that you can. The more you know about the industry you’re in, the better off you’re going to be. Make everyone’s job easy. I say take that with a grain of salt, but really take it to heart. You want people to not look at you like an antagonist. Especially as a director, you want to be approaching everybody that you’re interacting with with respect and admiration ultimately for what they’re doing. They are there to make this thing happen together with you in unison and that’s a beautiful thing.
And another thing I remember learning— it sounds cynical but it’s not— as a director particularly no one’s going to care as much as you do. And if you just keep that in the back of your mind I think it will kind of drive any incentive to really see this thing through because it’s true. At the end of the day, if you’re not doing the work there’s a good chance that no one else is. So you need to be prepared at any given moment to see this thing through because it’s all going to be on your back ultimately. You have this whole incredible team that you’re building based off of meeting people and meeting collaborators and it lightens the load, but you’re still at the helm of this thing. And if you have this mentality, it’s going to drive your heart. And this goes for any director or any position. It just drives you forward and drives you toward something with the potential being great.
A: Thank you all for that. Just to wrap up, do you have any current or future projects you guys want to plug?
BC: I think our movie from Sundance (The Night House) is still to be released. It would have been in theatres probably right now if the pandemic didn’t happen. But that movie right now is one that we feel very very strongly about.
LP: David Bruckner, who directed The Ritual for Netflix, ended up doing it and it was a really special experience working with him. I think it’s a really special movie and it is a bummer that it’s not in theatres right now because there are no movie theatres.
BC: I don’t know, Kevin, we probably shouldn’t say anything about our project that hasn’t been announced. But we wrote a new movie for Kevin that’s in the process of casting and financing. But I think it’s our favorite thing that we’ve ever written.
LP: I think it’s my favorite. Who knows, I don’t want to count chickens and whatnot, but I hope that happens, and if not we’ll work on the next thing.
A: Well, we’re excited about it!
BC: And if you guys don’t like it then, you know….
A: Yeah we’ll let you know; if we don’t like it we’ll send you the check.
BC: [Laughs] Yeah, please.