Commentary: 'Mystery' leaps from Web to Sundance


"Mystery" movie: Although the buzz about the films being shown at Sundance later this month is that there won't be a dry eye in the house at many of those screenings, the good news is there will still be a few comedies to enjoy, as well.

A case in point is "Mystery Team," the first feature-length comedy from the Derrick Comedy group, whose short comedic videos have been viewed more than 100 million times online. Derrick's members -- Dominic Dierkes, DC Pierson, Donald Glover, Meggie McFadden and Dan Eckman -- named themselves "Derrick" because most of their names started with "D." They say they decided to come up with another "D" name that would be a suitably stupid sounding one for the group.

"Mystery," which Eckman directed and edited and McFadden produced, was written by Glover, Pierson and Dierkes. Starring are Glover, Pierson, Dierkes, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan and Matt Walsh. The film will receive a half-dozen screenings at Sundance, which is celebrating its 25th year from Jan. 15-25.

In "Mystery" the Derrick team plays would-be detectives who have been solving child-sized mysteries for years. No one takes them seriously, but now as they're graduating high school a double homicide case turns up that could really launch them as detectives.

To see Derrick's trailer for the film click here. A collection of the group's short videos can be seen by clicking here. My favorite of these is "Movie Executive Dad," which takes place at dinner where Dad insists his wife and two sons tell him about their day as if they're pitching him story ideas. It's as funny as it sounds and only runs two minutes. Click here to see it.

For some insights into the making of "Mystery," I was happy to have an opportunity recently to talk to Dan Eckman. "We all met in college (at NYU). We were part of another comedy group there," he told me. "We've been making short sketches on the Internet for the past few years."

They began writing their first feature film last October. "The Mystery Team is a group of former 'Encyclopedia Brown' style kid detectives who when they were kids would (solve) small town kid style crimes like who stole Mrs. Johnson's pie," Eckman explained. "But now they're about to graduate from high school and the town doesn't find it so cute any more. So to prove to the town and themselves that they really can be real detectives, they take on a double murder that takes them into this darker underbelly (of crime) that they've never really been a part of."

How'd they get the picture made? "We've been making these shorts on the Internet for the past few years, and they've been pretty popular," he replied. "We've never paid ourselves from that. We formed a company together in early 2006 and just started putting all the money from that directly into the company. We were always planning on building towards doing something larger and always had a plan to make a film out of it. As we were putting the movie together it got (put together) with some private investments."

The resulting film obviously had what it takes to get selected for Sundance. "We submitted our film and they accepted it," Eckman said, making it all sound so easy. "Our biggest hope always was to get in there."

Of course, Sundance gets tons of films submitted for consideration -- 118 movies are being shown this year out of 3,661 worldwide submissions -- but Derrick had high hopes they'd make the cut. "They called Meggie, the producer, two or three days before Thanksgiving," Eckman recalled. "It was a 310 number (from L.A. displayed on her caller ID). We were getting nervous because for the whole month leading up to it we were freaking out (from) waiting and waiting and waiting because our whole life just was leading up to finding out from Sundance. We knew that some films had heard already, but we still didn't know.

"We saw Meggie's phone call (coming in), and we were freaking out. I had my ear up to her ear and the guy got on the phone and was like, 'Hey, I'm calling from the Sundance Film Festival and we'd like to program your film.' And I just started to scream. I think he must have been really weirded out because he was (talking) to her and someone else starts to scream. I just started screaming and screaming and screaming and then I called up my manager and I don't know what happened after that."

"Mystery's" support team includes Josh Braun at Submarine Entertainment in New York, which is handling sales for the picture, and Greg Walter at 3 Arts Entertainment in Los Angeles, which represents Derrick.

No distributors have seen "Mystery" pre-Sundance, according to Eckman: "Our biggest hope is to sell the movie at Sundance and to get it in front of an actual audience. When we were making it we were always joking about how we're probably making this just for ourselves (and) we'd be happy to sell it on our website out of our apartment, but we really want to bring it to Sundance and get it in front of people."

Although Derrick had made some 40 shorts over the years, doing a feature was a totally different experience for the group. "It was intense," Eckman laughed. "Creatively it was the same collaboration, but we had to be just infinitely more prepared. Everything was just amped up to an infinitely higher scale. It was much, much bigger than any of us had ever done before."

Besides directing Derrick's Internet shorts, Eckman also had some production experience: "My day job, which I quit to make the film, was as video production director for Blue Man Group" (the popular group whose theatrical shows and concerts blend music, comedy and multimedia theatrics)."

Asked about directing his first feature film, Eckman said, "Oh my God! It was insane. It was like the most intimate thing in the world while simultaneously being the most erratic, crazy kind of intense experience of my life. We were simultaneously fulfilling all the dreams I'd ever had since I was a little kid, but also all the fears and nightmares I'd ever had. It was like both things happening at once, which was both amazing and terrifying at the same time. It was great."

Creatively, he pointed out, "we were able to do all these ideas that I'd never been able to do before because of technical limitations and just not (having) the time to put into stuff like that. I never had to deal with a crew size like that or any of the demands (of making a feature). We shot for 33 days and it was just a major size operation, at least from our perspective."

Eckman's directing style reflects his taste for organization. "The way I shoot stuff is very meticulously planned out," he noted. "I tend to have a lot of technically blocked out sequences. It wasn't actually storyboarded. I drew up overheads and had typed up descriptions of each of the shots. What we would do is myself and the three (principal) actors would go to a lot of the locations and with my video camera on our own just shoot video versions of the storyboards and really block out meticulously what all of the blocking would be. We would actually have like a pre-viz version on my laptop."

The "overheads" he referred to showed scenes from the perspective of looking down rather than from the camera's point of view as storyboards do. "First of all, I'm not that good at drawing," he explained, "and we couldn't really afford a storyboard artist -- although, in retrospect, that would have been very, very helpful. They were like overhead maps showing what the path of the camera would be and where all the actors would be. So every day we would have a detailed shot list and that overhead for the DP and actors. I had been to all the locations with the actors and the DP and the AD at least three or four times and had been through every single shot and almost everything had been shot already with my video camera and the actors ahead of time."

Eckman, who now lives in New York, shot the movie entirely on location in his hometown of Manchester, N.H. "We were trying to make a bigger movie than we thought we were originally," he said. "I guess that happens to lots of people (making their first films). We never felt like we had enough time. It wasn't like we felt we weren't prepared because we felt we were extraordinarily prepared."

That preparation, he added, included the film's screenplay. "Even though we worked with improvisers and it was a comedy, it was very tightly scripted and very well rehearsed," Eckman said. "It was just a very, very complex film to shoot for an indie comedy. It was just really difficult."

Another factor they had to contend with, he pointed out, was that "I would not recommend shooting a movie that takes place mostly at night right around the summer solstice because that's when the nights are their shortest. We had a lot of nighttime exteriors and not a lot of time with which to shoot them so we were constantly seeing the sun coming up on the horizon at us. We were having to turn the camera head away."

In casting the movie, they had the advantage of having a core group of performers who'd already done a lot of work together on other Derrick projects. "It was the three leads, who wrote the script, but then a significant amount of the cast came out of a comedy theater, the Upright Citizens Brigade, that we've had a show at for a number of years," he said. "They have a theater in both New York and L.A., and they are amazing.

"We have a monthly show there and we're close friends with a lot of the performers. As we were writing it we had a lot of the roles kind of (pre-cast) with different actors in mind. And then we held a number of casting sessions in the New England area and we also brought on a casting director out of New York."