One of our favorite films from L.A. Film Fest last week was the lo-fi dramedy “Four Dogs,” about two unlikely friends making it through the Hollywood doldrums. Our review called it, “unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of this little pocket of humanity, it finds both the pathos and humor in the moments of real life that are truly funny and truly sad.” We had a chance to catch up with the film’s writer/director Joe Burke, actor/writer Oliver Cooper, and actor Dan Bakkedahl to talk about reality vs. fiction, the most important element in comedy (and drama) and what it’s like to play yourself onscreen. Here are a few highlights from our conversation.
Sometimes the best inspiration is right in front of you.
Writer/director Burke says about the mix of reality and fiction (Cooper and his aunt Becca play themselves in the film), “I really love finding the humor and drama in everyday life. It’s knowing what that idea is and then finding a way to successfully translate it onto the screen.” And this is no movie-enhanced version of Cooper either, as he says that “I’m playing myself. It’s no version. This is the real deal.” Having grown up together (Burke was friends with Cooper’s older brother), the two began collaborating after they both moved to Los Angeles, with the short “Rick White” serving as the thematic and stylistic spark for “Four Dogs.” After shooting that film, Burke spent time hanging out with Cooper at his aunt Becca’s house, while they worked on “Four Dogs.”
“We did do a lot of writing, but physically, I don’t know if I ever wrote anything down on a piece of paper. He did all that, but we did so much, he would literally watch me for hours,” Cooper says of the process. Bakkedahl became involved after connecting with the duo on a Funny or Die shoot, and says of their collaboration, “We just got talking about our common views on comedy, our common views on filmmaking, the creative process. The common language here with us is a patience for comedy.”
Burke himself relates most to Bakkedahl’s older friend character, especially in the real-life relationship to Cooper, saying, “the soul of the Dan character, we see eye to eye on the character. That’s why he’s so great for the role, he steps right into it. He nailed exactly what goes through my head a lot.” And Bakkedahl also brings himself and his experiences to the role written by Burke and Cooper, describing the way that “the fears of shortcomings of this character are largely my own fears and shortcomings. That happens to be the way the way the character was written, but it also happens to be who I am. Certain things that are said in the film are not certain things I would’ve said out loud. They’re certainly things and feelings that I would have thought and felt. I think the challenge in playing yourself is so few of us know who the hell we really are.”
Honesty and believability are the most important ingredients in comedy or drama.
Bakkedahl, a trained Second City improviser, was taught from his very first class that “you need to be believable first, you need to leave comedy to them, let the audience determine what’s funny and what’s not, you simply live in the situation and let them tell you what’s funny.” Cooper paid his friend a compliment in saying, “The interesting thing about Dan, that I really fall in love with watching him, is that he’s so funny, but he never is forcing anything, he plays the moments genuinely, and commits to the character. That’s something that I’ve always known, but that I really strive for as an actor.”
While the movie is both funny and serious or sad, Burke is hesitant to label it a comedy. “If I had to pick if I was going to call this a drama or call it a comedy, I almost would call it a drama because it’s my take on life. It’s real life, it’s drama, filtered through a humorous perspective so to speak. Because we’re not playing jokes, we’re playing real moments you just find the humor in,” he said. Bakkedahl backs this up with his improviser’s attitude, leaving it up to the audience to find what they need to find in the film, adding: “Where is it our job at all to ever assume whether we know something is a drama or comedy? Our job is to tell a story. And to keep it honest. The audience’s job is to laugh at that which they find funny.”
Cooper’s real aunt Becca, who plays herself (and owner of the house and dogs) in the film was an integral part of the “Four Dogs.”
Originally, Burke had a different plan for the aunt role: “We had another actress, a professional, Academy award nominated actress possibly in mind to play the part maybe, but Oliver and I decided at a certain point, Becca needs to play this part, Becca has unconditional love for this house, Oliver, dogs, the world, she’s so interesting, so lively, so warm, she was the character… there’s such a charm and a heart to the movie now with her presence in it. ” While working with a non-professional actor such as Becca, the environment Burke created on set was an important part in drawing out her performance, citing the “two great actors working with her, so it made it comfortable for her. They were able to create an environment where she was molded right in.” She also had a natural ability which Cooper described as “this ability to go to her emotions. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, and she’s so loving. Even with me since I lived with her for almost three years, she was really sweet and nice to me and she was a huge part of my life and career. She also intuitively improvised with Bakkedahl, inspiring an honest reaction from him when she tossed off a “Dan, I made kugel,” in one scene (he’s a fan of her cooking).
One of the best written scenes in the movie wasn’t written at all.
One of the most important, climactic scenes where Oliver and Dan discuss their unique friendship over Indian food was entirely improvised and appears in the movie as one, unedited take. “That conversation is a pure honest conversation that I did not write, we knew the beats, but those guys nailed that,” Burke said. Bakkedahl added that he trusted his co-star could deliver. “I know Oliver well enough to know that if I say ‘Why do you hang out with me,’ he’s going to go ‘Fuck you dude, why do you hang out with me?’ and he does.” Clearly the Vulcan mind meld was there, because Cooper doesn’t have an improv background. Burke knew what he had on his hands with these two together, saying, “These guys are incredible actors… they both have comedy backgrounds but they’re great actors and they’re so present in the moment… I trusted that these two guys together would bring this magic to the screen. I love this buddy dynamic.”
But while their connection was the inspiration, it works because of the way Burke frames the dynamic. “[He] gave us the time, Joe set the camera up and said this is it, this is the scene here’s the camera, go talk, so we had the opportunity and the breath which you don’t normally get, to go ahead and take the time and allow this conversation to develop in a natural way,” Bakkedahl says. “It’ll start at a not so funny place and it’ll end at a laugh because you let it take that journey. I think the whole film itself does that. It starts in an inquisitive fashion, and then it goes into almost a sad stage, and then it becomes kind of this roller coaster at the end of wait a minute, I’m suddenly laughing at this movie a lot more than I was before.”
No release date yet for “Four Dogs” but be sure to keep an eye out for it.