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A Conversation with Joe Burke, Oliver Cooper and Dan Bakkedahl (FOUR DOGS)

Joe Burke’s Four Dogs is one of the pleasant surprises of the 2013 LAFilmFest, a slice-of-life film that’s miles away from the life-ishorrible, mean-people-suck strain of realism. It’s the story of Oliver (Oliver Cooper), a young actor new to L.A., who lives with his aunt Becca, taking care of her beloved dogs as a form of rent. He’s a gentle, playful character who isn’t in a hurry with his career or anything else; he spends a lot of time alone or hanging out with his bitter and cantankerous best friend Dan (Dan Bakkedahl), a much older actor. The script, co-written by Burke and Cooper, boldly pulls back from big dramatic turning points to allow small, raw, human moments to live and breathe. Four Dogs is the rare narrative film that authentically captures the textures of contemporary life in LA.

I meet Joe, Oliver and Dan the day after the film’s world premiere; we settle in on a sectional couch on the third floor of the modern, sprawling, Marriot Hotel, part of the inhumanly-scaled L.A. Live complex. They’re obviously proud of their film and excited to talk it; Joe in particular talks a mile a minute, barely able to get the words out fast enough to keep up with what’s running through his mind.

Hammer to Nail: I’ll start with the obvious question—how did you guys first conceptualize this story?

Joe Burke: It started with Oliver and I making a couple short films together. We wanted to do a feature film, and Oliver had the idea of—he was living with his aunt Becca at the time, which is the house we shot the movie in—and he said, “You gotta see this house,” and I knew the house a little bit from past projects and it just—the world is incredible, it’s lovely, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful, it’s got this kind of vintage quality to it and I knew writing a movie around a house we had full access to would be the easiest way to make a no budget movie or a very tiny budget movie, and we embraced that. My voice as a filmmaker is tapping into that sort of realness and honesty in the filmmaking and finding that fine line of, you know, real, naturalistic, and finding the comedy and drama of all situations.

[A random person chooses, in the sea of open space and seating options in the hotel, to sit just inches from Oliver to eat his lunch. We’re all quite amused/annoyed.]

JB: And this scene right here… Two plus two equals five. What’s the one thing you can add to this form of interview that would make this scene more humorous but still honest, and it’s that. Or that’s one version. And that’s how we approached the movie though too, to take the world around us and think what could be happening in this space that would make it still real and honest but then again with that extra element of comedy out of a natural situation, and so we made the movie, it’s a week-long voyeuristic film where he lives with his aunt, and his aunt, Rebecca Goldstein, plays a version of herself. She’d never acted before but she’s excellent in the movie. Four dogs are there running around, and it was just a very lovely world to photograph and to have these characters live in. What kind of lunch are you eatin’ over there?

Random Person: McDonald’s.

JB: Okay.

H2N: [To Oliver] Since the movie’s kind of about you, I imagine you drew from a lot of autobiography?

Oliver Cooper: It’s a lot of me in the movie… All of me… I’m so distracted right now! So I mean I definitely draw [giggles] a lot from myself, you know. I was living with my aunt at the time, I was living in that house, I mean when we shot scenes sometimes I’d wake up out of bed. I wore my own clothes; a lot of the views I talk about in the movie or we talk about are things I believe and I kind of, I would say that the movie was—we shot it later on—but it was based on when I first moved out to L.A. and I had no money, lived with my aunt, I took care of the dogs—that was kinda my life, what you see. I smoked a lot of weed, and that was a very accurate portrayal of how I was kinda bumbling around. I mean I still am that way, even as I work I still feel like a bumbling idiot wandering around not knowing what I’m doing, so yeah.

H2N: I guess what was interesting to me about the film is kinda what you were saying, I mean it is kind of a comedy but you really pulled it back to where you don’t see it in the intention of the piece at all.

JB: If I had to pick between comedy and drama to describe the movie I’d say more drama, drama through the perspective of comedy. That was our intention, that’s our style—that’s what we love, we love honesty, you know, keeping the heart there. Not trying to go for the joke, not trying to be silly, you know—nothing wrong if you wanna do that, but that’s not what I like to do and we all have the same taste in that sense, but we love—I love making people laugh, we all do, so I definitely wanted to make a film where people could basically—this is interesting as I’m sitting here rambling…

[The random person gets up and walks away.]

OC: I’m sorry, I just have to say this, there’s a thousand couches, he can’t sit down…? Jesus Christ. I don’t wanna get angry but I’m angry.

Dan Bakkedahl: As long as he doesn’t come back with a gun I’m happy.

JB: How I make the movie is I kinda see what’s going on in the real world—find the humor and the drama in real life, and I… the movie in a weird way is so voyeuristic that the audience that’s watching the movie kinda gets to do that same thing. They get to watch this world and decide what they find funny or dramatic or ironic. They get to be their own observer of the world.

H2N: [To Dan] How did you conceptualize your character?

DB: Joe gave me the character and said you’re gonna play the best friend, you’re considerably older, it’s an odd relationship, you guys met in acting class, you’re still hanging on for dear life trying to make a go of it, while Oliver says, “Ah, I’m not gonna go to these classes anymore.” So for me it was like you might be hanging on to a thing in the interest of “I wanna see this through.” I don’t wanna give up five minutes before the miracle happens, you know? Yet saying out loud, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”

H2N: Why do you think he chooses to be friends with Oliver of all people?

OC: I’ve taken acting classes and the weird thing to me is, especially when I moved up to Los Angeles was I would have friends that were 40 years old and it was never a question, it was never, “Dude this is weird that we’re hanging out, right?” When you’re a 20-year-old in college, of course all your friends are 20 years old, but when you’re a 20-year-old in Hollywood you’re friends with anyone that has that common interest with you.

DB: There’s 20-30 people in an acting class, or maybe 12. You’re not close with all of them, you’re close with the one or two or three or however many that you go ah we have a similar—one, I think you’re pretty good, otherwise I’m not gonna hang out with you, or I think you’re as bad as me, and then there’s something about our approach or our philosophy or the music that we like or the t-shirt that you wore that you go “me too!”

JB: We did a short for Funny or Die a year before shooting this feature and they worked together, they did a scene together, and they hit it off naturally.

OC: It’s like my dad’s friend, Kevin Rubin—why are they friends? I don’t fuckin’ know [laughs]. They golf together! We had a natural chemistry from the first time we met in real life. Me and Joe are as close as anybody. I don’t even think of us as friends, I think of us as more like a family relationship just ‘cause I know him so well. There’s not one thing I don’t know about him. I don’t think.

H2N: One of the lovely surprises to me were the turns the script didn’t take that you were expecting it to, like when the dog dies you’re expecting Oliver to be in deep shit and the aunt to throw him out, and for this to be the big dramatic turn of events, and it doesn’t happen; it actually turns out to be a very sweet outcome. And with Dan finally getting the part—we’re used to seeing movies where it’s like Hollywood is so bad, people are so evil, but it’s like no, actually he got the part.

DB: He gets the part and it’s a shit part and the pay is crap and he’s kinda like okay, and that’s very real, that’s what happens, you’re like, man—when you don’t have a job you feel like, “If I could only get a job, man, and everything’d be cool.” And then you get a job and you go, “Uh, it’s how much? Uh, okay…” And to the point of, with the dog, I love what she says: “I can forgive you but it’s gonna take me a long time to forget.” Now I don’t know if you wrote that or she wrote that…

JB: That was Rebecca.

DB: Of course she wrote that, ‘cause it’s real! Here’s a woman with a lot of life experience, who’s probably experienced a lot of heartache as we all do in the long run, and she realizes that what good is it gonna do me to hold a grudge against him?

JB: I much more appreciate seeing the love between characters, and understanding, because I wanna see more understanding in life. There’s a non-judgmental quality in the film and there’s something nice about letting people—like I love that he can talk with his aunt about it, and she doesn’t have to yell or be irrational, and it’s OK, sometimes you lose yourself, and she is a little bit… they both cool down and I love that it comes back to can we just talk as people for a second, who care about each other, and try to get through this together? I like that, I love that…

OC: There’s something about judgment—I think these characters are not judged. And I think we live in a society that more so—as generations go—that people are so judgmental. It’s like kids, right out of high school—“What did you get on your test score? Where are you going to school? Oh you went to Harvard, oh you’re going there? Are you gonna be a doctor?”

[The random person comes by the couch again and stands looking at us.]

OC: Are you alright?

Random Person: Hi.

OC: Hi. [laughs] I don’t know what’s going on! [laughs] Something about… [laughs] Goddamn it. [laughs] No, there’s something to be said for—cause I didn’t even wanna go to college, and everyone, my family, everyone’s pressuring you to go a certain way, and the way you dress, and I always find that kinda weird, it’s like, who cares? It’s like I say to my mom, why do you care about the way I dress? I mean I’m happy! I’m not trying to please anybody but myself. And I think that’s all these characters. And I love the characters for that. I’m preaching now…

H2N: In a way it’s a radical choice to make, because when you’re taught screenwriting it’s all about “where do you find the conflict?” And to choose to turn that upside down and find the humanity instead, that’s a pretty bold thing to do.

JB: Yeah my short films kinda were always that way a little bit, and I don’t know, it’s just a style, and sometimes it’s scary to go that way because there is a little bit of like, “Are we gonna be able to keep an audience’s attention?” There isn’t a ton of conflict, there isn’t a ton of plot, but there’s so much more other interesting things happening, there is a little bit of adventure, so it’s weird, like last night at the premiere seeing 160 people for the first time watch the movie that you worked on two years ago, and to see if the choices you made were right or wrong, and it was cool, last night was a good screening…

H2N: Did anything surprise you?

JB: You know what surprised me the most, a little bit, and maybe understandably so, is it does take the viewer a little bit to get into the movie. I’ve seen it so much that I’m laughing in the first minute when the hooker shows up, but for people that don’t know us at all, don’t know the dogs, don’t know the house at all, I can only imagine honestly, the first time you see this world—and it’s kinda cool that there’s people that are gonna see this that don’t know anything about it. That excites me, ‘cause it’s such an interesting place, like what are they thinking? But I think it took them a minute to really warm up …

OC: Watching that short film [The Date by Jenni Toivoniemi] beforehand kinda put me in the space of that, of someone else, like I don’t know those people, I don’t know who that guy is, that cat that he’s taking care of, but it kind of reminded me of… this is really weird—it kinda freaked me out a little bit.

JB: Yeah so I think that was the most important thing, just to kinda see how it kind of escalated. I think by the time the movie’s over, I think you—hopefully, I think that people really loved the characters. I think they enjoyed their journey. But I think at first they’re thinking, “What am I getting myself into here?”

H2N: Maybe people have a hard time knowing if it’s a comedy or a drama…

JB: Maybe! I think they’re not sure if they should laugh or not, maybe.

DB: I think the most interesting response that I experienced from the audience was after the party when Diane and Oliver are sitting on the couch together. And there was a mixture of, “Oh my God,” like sickeningly so, and, “Ohohoh, go get it buddy!” And right down to one guy behind me going, “All right, that’s enough.” And he got up and left.

JB: We’re presenting a moment, and we’re not telling an audience “This is supposed to be funny. This is supposed to be sad. This is supposed to be serious. This is supposed to be sexy.” We’re not telling ‘em what it’s supposed to be. We’re presenting an honest moment from our side, and if someone wants to laugh because they see the humor in the situation fine, if someone wants to cringe because they find it cringe-worthy, it doesn’t matter, that’s what I love about it, it’s not like “I’m gonna see a comedy tonight and I know I’m gonna be laughing, this is gonna be a fun time,” we’re not presenting that kind of movie.

H2N: Yeah, I’d like to know—the shooting of that scene, how did that go? Because that’s probably my favorite moment.

OC: That scene was kind of, what you see is what you get.

JB: I guess it’s okay to open up and say that we actually—I mean…

OC: Well actually when you say believe in the camera, I always, whatever you’re shooting, I don’t—it’s not like, “That’s the last line they gave me, the scene’s over.” You just stay in the moment until the moment is done. And Joe didn’t say “cut,” so you know, in life you don’t just finish a thing and then it’s over; it just continuously goes on and on and on and on like that. Then it’s over! [Laughs] Those are my favorite moments, those are the most fun to shoot because it’s like whatever I thought of… I smelled my fingers! And I started to laugh at the idea of me smelling my fingers. And also I wanted to talk about—what were we talking about? Nah, it’s all right. Forget it.

H2N: [to JB] You were about to tell me something…

JB: Yeah, I can say this.

DB: You talked about it last night.

JB: It’s a little bit like, because it was such an improv-ish movie, certainly in the dialogue, but even like the organic nature of how we wanted to make it, we kind of shot in order, we knew that if there were going to be some scenes that were not gonna feel completely honest we’d have to change it. I didn’t want scenes that felt like, “Eh, that scene didn’t quite work.” And the relationship between Oliver’s character and Diane’s character was kind of the biggest question mark, a little bit, just to see what that was gonna be and become, and the night that we shot that scene the first thing we shot was actually a sex scene between the two, and we actually started shooting it: they were half-naked shooting the scene. But based on how they got to that point, naturally and organically, I wasn’t buying the situation, the scene itself didn’t feel right. It did feel okay, like I wasn’t upset, it’s just like, “This doesn’t feel right,” so we had to stop, and we thought about it for like a half hour on set and we were like, “Well what if we were on the couch and like they’re hanging out and then he just takes his hand and starts rubbing her leg?”

OC: That’s the first thing a young guy goes to. When I hook up with girls, you know, that’s the first—you start making out with them and then that’s like that move, it’s like…

DB: Cause she can always take the hand off her leg and go, “Don’t even think about it.”

JB: I will say this: we knew it was gonna stop. We knew, we talked about he’s gonna do it for a couple seconds, whatever it’s gonna be, and eventually you’re gonna take it out, you’re gonna say goodnight and you’re gonna leave. But in terms of how it was gonna go down naturally, or what emotions were gonna come out of it—I mean the whole movie was shot in a sense where we had the camera in a kind of voyeuristic spot, and we wanted to roll.

OC: Those accidental moments are what we strive for.

JB: And there was also a lot of stuff going on in Oliver’s mind that night. Especially because we came from the sex scene that wasn’t quite working, and it’s very vulnerable to do a sex scene to begin with, and there are just so many thoughts and questions in the air of what was gonna work, what wasn’t gonna work, and all that stuff running through his mind naturally plays so well on his face, that I couldn’t cut from it. Oliver’s the first one that watched the take and said, “That’s interesting.” ‘Cause at first I was like, “Can we hold on this this long? Can we do this?” And he was just like, “It’s interesting.” And I said, “You’re right. It is interesting.”

DB: And there’s a payoff!

OC: You just went Ernie McCracken with your hair.

DB: [laughs] I just went nuts with my hair. There’s a payoff in that moment, that I, as an audience member last night, went, “Oh wow. All right that’s too long. Oh wow! All right that’s too long. Oh wow!!” And that was the payoff.

H2N: What about how Hollywood is portrayed in the movie, because you always expect Hollywood to be portrayed as the bad guy, and the butt of the jokes, and here it’s more like Hollywood plays the straight man for these people, I mean especially Dan.

DB: I think people come to this town, or they go to New York or Chicago in the pursuit of excellence in their field of entertainment, people come here going “I wanna do that thing, I wanna pursue that thing.” They’re not mad at Hollywood. The people that come here to work are not going, “How come there’s no original ideas? How come it’s Superman again, and Spiderman 5?” They’re going, “Man I wanna get in there! I wanna be in Superman 7!” They are fans of it in the greatest way. It’s the cynics that look at it from the outside that are saying, “Ah, it’s broken.” And it’s the cynics on the inside. It’s not the dreamers, it’s not the Oliver and the Dan of this movie…

OC: Maybe the real ones.

DB: Maybe the real ones, but the ones in the movie are going, “I guess it’s just never gonna happen for me.” It’s not, “Hollywood’s fucking broken,” it’s that moment when the character sees the [Hollywood] sign, and you don’t have to be an actor to know what’s going through that mind.

OC: Joe and I have had a lot of conversations about this, and I think it’s so easy—and I’ve had a really amazing amount of fortune in such a short amount of time here, I think it’s easy to be like, “Oh they’re making such shit movies,” and I think a lot of people do have that kind of mentality, and a lot of people working have that kind of mentality, and I’ve totally been there, and I totally am there some days, but more so I’m trying to get over that. It’s such a waste of your time to even worry why they’re making another Superman, I mean who gives a shit? I had nothing to do with that movie. Make as many as you want. Especially up-and-comers are always like, “Yeah this movie doesn’t have heart.” So you go and make a movie that has heart.

JB: It’s not even necessarily I hate that they’re making another Superman, it’s just I don’t like it when I go see a movie and it doesn’t turn out well. And I think the reason movies don’t turn out well is how the process is made. And the way movies are made out here on a big scale is it’s made by committee, it’s made by statistics, it’s made by graphs and charts and how can we make this work. And I think that’s a terrible way to approach making a movie, and it’s exactly the exact opposite of what I wanted to do with our movie Four Dogs. I wanted to make a movie where it didn’t feel like making a movie. I didn’t want an Assistant Director saying, “Yeah, five minutes to get the shot.” I didn’t want a video monitor making everyone feel like, “Oh how does it look? Oh how do we look? Let’s all watch it.” You know, I wanted to feel like I was just making a movie in the backyard with my friends.

OC: I think my character in the movie is—and it’s a view that I have—I had such a weird way of breaking into show business and getting an agent and getting a job, and my approach was so different from what everyone else told me. And that’s kind of an idea behind the movie I think, it’s there isn’t this one way to do things. It’s like you can live with your aunt. And I used to tell Joe this when we first started to bond with each other. I’ve met so many interesting characters, and I didn’t have a lot of actor friends, which is kind of my vibe against—when I go to the party in the movie, ‘cause I don’t really like those guys. Because, that was kind of my vibe with a lot of the actors is like, I don’t—the second I feel like I’m “An Actor” like I hated myself, like this is fucking bullshit, like I’m not an actor. Like, I’m just a guy, that happens to play characters, ‘cause, you know, I think you start to take yourself so seriously, like, “Oh my God I did this play, and I worked with so-and-so,” and I think that hurts your character, your real character, and I think you lose something along the way, buying into that. And so I always have real friends and real people to hang out with, and weird people, weird characters that I like to be around and that I thought added a lot to me as a person.

H2N: Yeah and I think it’s interesting how your character comes into focus in the course of the film, where at the beginning he comes across as this kind of Judd Apatow loser/comedy foil, and as the movie progresses you realize he’s this force at the center of the film, giving emotional support to Dan, and he’s also an important part of his aunt’s life.

OC: Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s what they seem, I think everyone’s got so much going on, I think even the people that you think, “This guy’s so confident and cocky,” and I see the guy in Hollywood that wears cut off t-shirts and goes to clubs and stuff and it’s like he’s got the hot girl and the hair’s all done all perfectly and you’re like, “What does this guy do by himself at his house?” Like, he can’t be like this all the time. He can’t be just like dancing all the time and talking like an idiot, there’s like a real… people are just interesting to me.

H2N: And in the writing of the script how did you conceptualize the character, like how he comes across, what his dignity as a human being is…

JB: I spent a lot of time with Oliver in the couple years leading up to this project, I spent a lot of time at his aunt’s house, we had a lot of deep conversations about life, about the business, about our approach, so—we made a short film called Rick White, it was the short film that inspired Four Dogs, an improv short film we did a couple months before, and that kind of helped us find a tone and for me I just wanted to capture Oliver. I just wanted to capture Oliver’s core as much as I could, and so did he. He wanted to see if he could capture himself on screen and be as true to himself as he could. So in the writing of it, we wrote a 45-page outline, which I’ve never done before. Of course I’ve never done a feature before, but I’ve never worked off an outline even for a short film. I’ve just been pretty scripted. Very scripted. In fact I used to be so anal about the dialogue and the words, like, “That’s not the right word,” and I’m glad I’m not like that anymore because I think there’s so much more excitement and so much more interesting things to explore as a filmmaker when you have the options to explore. So I wrote the 45-page outline; we had all the beats fleshed out, the details, but then we brought these guys on and I wanted them to bring themselves to the project, I wanted to bring myself to it. On set, I wanted to be on my toes, and be a little more like, “Where is the beat? Where should the camera go? Where is the moment? What is the moment here?” You know? It was just such a really fun way of making a movie, and it felt so real. That’s kinda been my goal since undergrad. I made a film in undergrad that kinda sparked all this for me, called Coop’s Night In, about four friends smoking weed in a bathroom talking about life and death.

OC: I think the movie is run through Oliver’s eyes, and I think whether it’s Dan, whether it’s Becca, whether it’s the dogs, you meet them through his eyes and one thing that’s interesting for me about this character, and this is something I do in real life, is I sing in the shower to songs that don’t even exist, and I do these fucking characters that maybe they’re not even that good of characters, I don’t know, sometimes they’re just dumb, but I do them in the mirror, and I really have a fascination with the idea of, like, what people are like—you were saying this earlier, about how I am with my grandma, versus how I am with my best friend, versus how I am with some guy I looked up to. You’re different around everyone whether you try to or not. And by myself—I kinda like my alone time a lot. I like spending time by myself and I always think if someone was watching me right now Jesus Christ what would they think? Talking in the mirror, I’m like naked. You have no—for the first time you don’t worry about what anyone thinks of you. Doesn’t matter, no one’s watching you. And that was the idea, if I could hit that… You know sometimes it’s tough, you’ve got cameras and stuff there, and you’re trying to get to that place…

JB: I don’t wanna make a documentary necessarily, maybe some day, but I wanna make a narrative movie where, I wanna get close to making things as real as possible, I don’t know why, I just love that being my mission as a filmmaker a little bit. And Oliver let me tap into his real life. He let me bring my camera into his house, into his aunt’s house. So did Becca, and even Dan brought a ton of himself to the project, and even Kathleen. It was so nice and refreshing to be able to—and going back to Oliver being so vulnerable, being naked in the shower singing, letting me see him waking up in the bed from sleeping, having sex with a hooker in his aunt’s house. There were so many things—Diane jumping in the pool naked, and by the way we shot in November so these guys got in the pool and it’s freezing, and Diane went in the pool at night, naked! Just so interesting, just so fun to tap into the realism of it all. The dogs really helped to ground the thing—to have four dogs running around your film shoot you can’t help but be reminded you’re shooting something real.

OC: I really at times hated those dogs, especially living with them. They’re loveable, but dogs can be so hard to live with.

JB: You know, I live in the house now—did you know that? So I shot the movie and then six months later Oliver and Becca were like, “Why don’t you…” you know—I needed a place to live, I was moving, and I wanted to save some money—“like, move into the spare bedroom, you can finish editing the movie here.” So I moved into the spare bedroom, I finished editing Four Dogs on my laptop, in the house, where the dogs are barking in real life, and it was like—it was so special to me. I like creating something so unique, the film is so unique to us; no one could’ve written this movie. I couldn’t have written this movie—I didn’t write the movie.

H2N: In the context of American indie film, I think there’s naturalism as a style as opposed to actually capturing something that has a rawness to it.

OC: Joe comes from more of an indie background, you know, he went to film school—they make this really classic indie film. And we were really conscious about that; we were never like, “We’re making an indie project,” you know, “about Hollywood.” It was never like that for us, no, it was real. We’re just making a movie based on our life, and we didn’t try to have—like a lot of these indies—not to be mean toward those movies, but we didn’t try to follow an indie model. Or a studio model. It’s just like this is what we’re doing; hopefully it turns out.

JB: We wanted to shoot it well. I edit all my own work. I love making cinema, I love making movies, big or small. I’ve edited horror movies, I’ve edited comedies. The filmmaking process is important to me, it’s just interesting to take those techniques and make a film, and tap into real life.

—Paul Sbrizzi

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