Super Dark Times superbly and realistically tells the story of a group of teenagers in the 90’s who experience a horrific accident. Afterward, they witness one of their friends sink into an extremely dark mental abyss that takes a terrifying spin and is difficult to watch. The movie features an outstanding cast, killer soundtrack, and spectacular cinematography. I think it’s important to note that this was the last generation that wasn’t absorbed in social media madness like we are today, because kids actually went outside to play with their friends instead of spending all day inside on Facebook or other social media sites. Super Dark Times affected me so much that I felt compelled to reach out to the writers, Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, to talk with them about creating the story.
HGL: You have worked together as writers on several short films as well as the horror film Siren (2016) before Super Dark Times. At what point did you decide to become a writing team?
Ben: We became friends in high school. This was in 1999. Luke was a senior when I was a freshman, and in addition to being the star leading man in the drama department, he also made videos for the morning announcements that were creatively exciting to me. Eventually, we ended up in the same drama elective class and got to work on a video together. He was the first person who taught me about camera placement and basic editing, and after that, I became obsessed with film-making.
We remained friends throughout my time in high school, and when I went to college to study film, I would cast him in projects whenever I could. After school was over, I had decided writing screenplays was the career path I wanted to take, and it made sense to cash in on our mutual interests and work as a team. Luke had earned a degree in British literature in the meantime and was working as a high school English teacher, so our skill sets complemented each other. Once we had a few scripts we liked, I moved to Los Angeles and for many years we worked at a distance. By 2016, we had enough work to justify Luke moving his wife and two sons to Los Angeles, and now we’re together again.
Luke: Yes, I remember specifically sitting in that drama class and watching a 14-year-old Ben interacting with some other kid. They were going off on him about some project, not in a mean way but just blabbing on and on, you know? And Ben just casually reached up and swatted the kid on the arm with a prop briefcase in a very matter of fact way. Our drama teacher leaned over to me at that moment and said, “I think you should adopt Ben.” So I did! We became friends after that, collaborating on some school projects and always sharing ideas, but never really attempting to make something of the partnership until after we both got out of college.
What’s funny is that, being three years ahead of him, I went off to college first. I spent a year at the Savannah College of Art and Design (affectionately known as SCAD) trying to study film but was too insecure and insular to network in the way one really needs to in order to succeed in that department. So I ran off to study English literature at a more traditional university where I would only be accountable for my own words. Ben ended up going to SCAD three years later and excelled at making connections, and it’s there that he met most of the team responsible for bringing Super Dark Times to life, including our phenomenal director, Kevin Phillips. So I’m very fucking grateful that we had the separate experiences we did with school and came together creatively afterwards. I became the solitary perfectionist and he became a passionate and skillful communicator and instigator. We both need each other and prop one another up. At least I hope so. He does for me.
HGL: What made you choose the horror genre?
Ben: I first worked up the courage to speak to Luke when I saw him wearing an Evil Dead t-shirt. I said “cool shirt” and he said “thanks”. And later, the first time we hung out, we watched an unrated VHS edition of Dead Alive. So horror was a part of our connection from the very beginning, but for years the work we collaborated on was often comedy or drama. Even our early scripts were more genre-mashups, which included some horror elements.
In 2010 we met our agent Emerson Davis and manager Nate Matteson, and through their encouragement we began to focus our attention on more straight-horror projects. It turns out all we needed was a little encouragement because as soon as we did, we started going back to all the films we had loved over the years and found our own voice in the genre. We specifically looked to movies that had strong visual style and dramatic character stories. Films like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1-3 especially), Hellraiser, early David Cronenberg, Altered States, The Shining, The Exorcist, etc., became our touchstones and we never looked back. This was around the time when Paranormal Activity was blowing up in the box office and budgets went down and being nobodies in the business gave us a leg up. We worked for free or cheap for years trying to get horror movies made. The dam broke in 2015 when we had three films go into production back-to-back-to-back. Super Dark Times was the third.
Luke: It’s true, horror was a big part of our initial connection to one another as friends. For me, I don’t think there was ever any other route. Genre in general and genre stories with dark, fantastic elements in particular, have always been the ones that appealed to me the most. Ghostbusters and Gremlins were touchstones of my childhood. The first real books I ever read were Stephen King books. My love of monsters never went away. It evolved and maybe broadened in scope to include different types of monsters, but if I was ever going to create art of my own, it was always going to have those elements.
Horror is honestly the genre that lets you have your cake and eat it too, so to speak. You get to do all the cool shit: creatures and ghosts and special effects, sex and violence, all that, the stuff that’s appealing on a base level, instant gratification… but horror is also, at it’s best, deeply metaphorical. The monsters usually mean something. Sci-fi elegantly mixes high and low art as well, but it’s often more cold and cerebral; analytical. Sci-fi is typically about society, humanity at large, broad strokes. Horror is often about the individual. It’s emotional. When we write, we always start with a character, a person with problems we can relate to, a world we can relate to… then we introduce the fun stuff in a way that complicates or represents, even personifies, that personal or emotional problem. A drama is just a drama. Horror can encapsulate almost any other genre.
HGL: How did the two of you come up with the idea for the film Super Dark Times?
Ben: It sounds like a cliche, but the initial idea for Super Dark Times came to me in a dream. All I had was the scene of the boys playing with the sword until a violent accident occurred. Once I determined that the image hadn’t come from some true story I read, I decided it was a good place to start thinking about a story.
Luke: And I should state for the record that when Ben first approached me about writing it as a screenplay, I said no. I didn’t want to do it. It seemed too dark, lacking the elements of the fantastic that I’m more comfortable with, but he persisted and I’m glad he did.
Ben: What’s interesting about using the dream as a starting point is we’ve now heard many true stories from people that have a similar vibe, but all of which are even more fucked up than the event in the movie. I would assume this is at the heart of why people connect to it. Lots of fucked up stuff happens when people are young, so even as specific and fictional as our story is, it retains a relatable quality for audiences.
Luke: So the violent incident, the image of the samurai sword was there from the start. The process from there was us both taking passes on the story and figuring out for ourselves what it meant, breathing life into the people who were going to suffer through that incident.
HGL: What was it like working with director Kevin Phillips and translating the story from writing to film?
Ben: I lived in the dorms during my first year at college. Kevin was a year ahead of me and lived in the same building and we met early on and connected over film, music, and the fact that I always had cigarettes and he didn’t. I immediately recognized him as the most talented person in the film department and did whatever I could to work with him. That started with me composing scores for his short films. Later he cast me in some things and through that I started to help with the scripts. Eventually, we were co-writing and even co-directing together, in addition to being roommates in a house off-campus.
When it came time to graduate, we knew we wanted to continue our collaboration but also needed to find paying work. Kevin started working as a cinematographer on music videos and commercials, while I focused on writing with Luke. We had cast Luke in some of our student films, so there was a mutual respect between the three of us and it was a no-brainer that we should collaborate again. As soon as Luke and I started work on Super Dark Times (this was in 2011), Kevin agreed that it would be a good first film for him to direct and we promised to never give it away to anyone else. The three of us developed it with producers (and also film school friends) Jett Steiger and Richard Peete for several years, and by the time we found financing, the film was pretty well thought out. Making any movie is difficult and we were on a very tight budget and schedule. But creatively, things could not have been more smooth. Kevin’s talent had only grown over time and watching him excel at every level of film-making was a distinct pleasure. Kevin demanded I come to set, and because my wife and I have no children, I had the time to fly across the country and be there with him every day. Luke and I were in constant contact the whole time (we were actually writing two other films at the same time), we did a fair amount of rewrites in production and consulted with Kevin on every aspect up through post-production and music. Our only regret is that not every movie can be this enjoyable and collaborative.
Luke: Right. Almost from the outset, it was a movie written for Kevin and nobody else. It was a fun process in that, in the end, we each ended up getting the chance to do a pass on the script, even Kevin, all of us having time with it to make it our own, passing it back and forth. Everyone had lines or ideas or moments from their adolescence that they wanted to include. Kevin had scenes he knew he wanted to shoot. I think that’s part of the magic of this thing, that special alchemy. It’s not one person’s story. So often as a screenwriter, it’s like Ben and I are parents, raising our little children and then giving them away to strangers, hoping for the best, praying that they understand what’s so special and unique about our babies. It’s scary to be a screenwriter, to be an artist who doesn’t really get to finish their art. We only provide the blueprint and then it’s up to someone else to see it through. You pour your heart and soul into something for other people to pour their hearts and souls. Hopefully your hearts and souls are in sync. With Kevin, we never had to experience that fear, though. He was just a third parent, bringing his own perspective from the start and making our work better.
HGL: Super Dark Times does an excellent job of capturing the essence of teenagers growing up in the 90’s. Did you do any research for the film? What were your references for the teenage characters?
Ben: After we had the initial idea, it was natural to set the film around the time that all of us grew up. We all graduated high school within a few years of each other and spent our formative years in similar suburban, small town environments, so traditional research was thankfully not necessary. What we did do was more of “personal research” where we would talk about different details we remembered. Scrambled porn, True Lies, cordless phones, caller ID, etc., were all natural parts of our collective memory and those details became useful to both the plot of the film and also as a way to communicate the time period without having to resort to a lot of cheap pop culture references in the dialogue.
Luke: Yep. It’s all drawn from people we knew or things we felt or stories we heard growing up in the 90s. Obviously not the gruesome murders, but, as with all writing, good writing at least, it’s about inhabiting a point of view. I think we all tried to remember what it felt like to be a freshman in high school, to be angry and afraid and excited by possibilities, both good and bad.
HGL: The entire cast is phenomenal, but Charlie Tahan’s performance as Josh obviously stands out. How did you create Josh?
Ben: We got extraordinarily lucky with all of our actors, and in every case we got our first choices for the roles. Charlie Tahan basically had the role the moment we saw him. Josh is a very tricky part because it was important to us to maintain some mystery about what drove him to make the choices he did. The sad reality being of course that young men turn to violence all too often these days, and when they do, it often takes the people around them by surprise. It would have been arrogant and dishonest for us as filmmakers to pretend to know what exactly causes someone to act this way, and at the same time we wanted to show his humanity rather than just make him a monster. Charlie was the most experienced actor of the group, and while the character weighed heavily on him, he never hesitated to go to the darkest places we had written for him.
All of the actors were incredibly professional and respectful of the script, but we encouraged them, and Charlie in particular, to let us know if a line or a moment felt inauthentic, and when it did, we worked with them to find something better that felt right. There’s actually a line in the movie where Josh tells Zach, “You just say a bunch of stuff that sounds nice because you’re scared all the time” and to this day neither Luke nor I are certain that either of us wrote it. Charlie insists we did, but when it came out of his mouth it was like we had never heard it before. There were definitely behavioral details we wrote into the script, but many of the various ticks and verbal cues that define Josh came straight from Charlie with no discussion. He’s one of the most talented people we’ve ever worked with and we definitely hope to do more with him in the future.
Luke: I’ll second all of this and just add that what’s so impressive about Charlie is that he’s not the lead. That was intentional, as Ben said. Super Dark Times was never intended to be the story of a young man spiraling into darkness. We always wanted it to be about watching someone you care about spiral into darkness and being unable to help or even understand. The powerlessness of watching someone go where you can’t follow. It’s Zach’s story and, sure, he has a descent of his own. And, yes, it’s about guilt and paranoia and all of that, but it’s that distance between the two boys that’s at the heart of it. So much of Josh’s transformation isn’t on the page. The character’s entire arc is something that had to be intuited by Charlie Tahan. He doesn’t have a ton of lines or moments by himself on screen, not much in the text to hang his performance on or really show off, and he still fucking nails it. All of the nuance is there, all of the thought processes of the character, to me, show up on screen. But it’s not the focus and it’s largely not something that we can take credit for. It’s all Charlie reading between the lines and creating something in that void, that “todash” space in between.
HGL: The relationship between Josh and Zach (Owen Campbell) is essential to the story and so well written. How did you construct that friendship?
Ben: The friendship between the two main boys really evolved over the course of the three main drafts we did of the script. I can’t say that either of them is fully based on anyone Luke, Kevin or I know personally, but a lot of different pieces went into the puzzle. In the first draft, they were more casual acquaintances that found themselves hanging out and were then drawn closer together through the tragedy that occurred. The reasoning was that it felt too obvious to make them best friends, but when Luke was working on the second draft, he pushed it in the direction that’s in the finished film. We referenced a lot of Japanese films when building that version, movies like Akira, Shunji Iwai’s film All About Lily, Chou-Chou and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future were three that come to mind. In each of those films, a close friendship is driven apart by a dark turn of events and that gave us some confidence that it wouldn’t read as too cliche to an audience.
It was also important to give each of the boys a variety of perspectives and traits that we could all understand and sympathize with. This goes back to what we said earlier about not making Josh into a monster. I feel strongly that many people who turn to violence didn’t begin life as someone who wants to hurt people. When the tragedy at Columbine high school occurred, I was 15 years old, and in the news reports I remember noticing that I liked a lot of the same video games, music and movies as the two boys who committed those acts and thinking that, on a superficial level, I was not that different from them. We can’t ever know what exactly leads someone down that path, but we wanted the audience to have something to think about when they finish the movie. It’s fully possible to like and even relate to both Zach and Josh and not like the choices either of them make. If you see the movie as an adult you can be happy that you didn’t make the same choices, or wouldn’t have in their same situation, but hopefully you walk away with more thoughts than just one was good and the other was bad.
Luke: This speaks, in part, to why the movie ends the way it does. Which I understand is frustrating for some people and I sympathize. The movie takes a turn at a certain point into a more heightened and operatic space. It gets big, or bigger at least. But emotions are big at that time of your life, and even though I personally didn’t have any “life or death” experiences growing up, sometimes things felt that way. A little betrayal can seem huge, especially within friendships. It happened with me and Ben and our mutual friends. When you’re young and you connect with someone else and you’re both discovering who you are, you discover that stuff together and for all intents and purposes, for a while there, you are almost functionally the same person. We certainly had a group of pals who shared tastes and opinions growing up.
The word “clique” has negative connotations, but I think most people have a life raft at that age. You find a few, or one like-minded individual in a sea of noise and hormones and you cling to them. You hold on for dear life. Growing up is painful, learning that you’re not the same person is painful. But it’s necessary, and not a bad thing. Still, the first time your best friend ignores you at a party or chooses to spend time with someone romantically, or gets into music or movies or culture that you didn’t mutually agree on, it can feel like you’re fighting to the death on the front lawn in the rain. Finding where you stop and they begin, it can get touchy. That’s a big part of the movie for me. The accident is just a convenient flashpoint for the inevitable breaking of “Zachandjosh” into Zach and Josh. It’s hopefully a situation we can’t all relate to, but an emotion that we can. I still love my high school friends dearly and see them often, but the intensity of those relationships can’t and shouldn’t last for a reason.
HGL: What was the hardest part about writing Super Dark Times?
Ben: We love to write our screenplays from a specific character perspective. In this case, that perspective belongs to Zach. And while that choice helps us as writers, to structure the events and determine what we, and the audience, see and don’t see on screen, it also presents difficulties when it comes to clarity. Zach doesn’t see everything that happens and his character’s decisions are based on what information he has. It was definitely a challenge to make sure we were telling a story an audience could follow and engage with, regardless of the natural omissions. It also made certain characterizations difficult to get across. The Allison character specifically could easily have fallen into some variation of the “manic pixie dream girl” if we weren’t careful. The audience could only see her when Zach sees her, and his perspective of women at his age is limited and somewhat naive. It’s also innocent in a way, and we tried to maintain that innocence rather than fall into idealization. This pursuit naturally led to Kevin’s idea of ending and beginning the movie with her on her own, outside of Zach’s perspective. One friend actually told me he was frustrated with how we wrote her until he got to the final scenes and realized we had been intentional in our choices, which was very gratifying to hear considering the difficulty it took to achieve!
Luke: That’s a good answer. I agree with that. I referred earlier to the special alchemy of Ben, Kevin and I all throwing ideas and experiences in. I firmly believe that’s what elevates the movie, and it was fun but at the same time it did make it occasionally challenging to keep the vibe and outlook of certain characters consistent. We all had our own Zachs and Allisons and Daryls in our heads. Sometimes they were at odds. But again, that’s how they ended up as multi-faceted as they are.
HGL: Super Dark Times is both amazing and disturbing, and I think everyone needs to see it. What do you hope people will take away from this film?
Ben: We probably addressed this one a bit in previous answers, but I think we wanted people to see themselves in these characters; to remember what it felt like at that age, and if you made it out of high school without suffering any tragedy, to feel grateful for that. Nostalgia is a very prevalent force in our culture right now. We all enjoy remembering the nice things about our youth, but we wanted to show another side to that as well; things aren’t always great just because they happened in the past.
Luke: Kevin came up with the title. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first, but I embrace it fully now. So much so that I’ll say my hope is that the audience walks away embracing every part of it. The movie is SUPER DARK. But even the wording of it, the phrase “super dark times” sounds casual, almost dismissive. “Eh, whattaya gonna do? These are some super dark times.” It acknowledges the truth, but with a sort of youthful resilience that almost negates the darkness. I mentioned that when Ben brought the idea to me, I didn’t want to do it because it felt too bleak. The concept suggested something humorless. But I have a hard time writing humorless characters. They want to make jokes, and I want to take the air out of them a little bit. No one in our screenplays gets to be too cool or too self-important or brooding without undercutting themselves or being undercut by others. That’s life. You’re most tragic or triumphant or painful moment is someone else’s joke. So that’s something that evolved throughout the process and that the actors took to the next level, the fun of the story. I love hearing the laughs from the audience in the beginning of the movie as much as I love hearing the winces at the end. My hope for all of our movies is that they are rewatchable. So many movies feel disposable these days. I hope audiences are thrilled and disturbed and they take away a bit of that darkness and, as Ben said, remember the less rosey aspects of their adolescence. But I also hope they think of old friends, small moments, the joy, excitement and fear of not knowing what the future held. I hope we created a world that, at some point, they want to come back to and characters that they want to spend time with again, even if those times are, yes, super dark.
HGL: I’ve seen several people compare this film to Donnie Darko. I’m a big fan of that film. What do you think of people comparing the two films?
Ben: The Donnie Darko thing has come up a lot and while I don’t mind it, I will admit I was surprised at first. Over the course of this year I’ve started to understand it more. There are tonal and stylistic similarities that I can see now, but I don’t think any of us ever discussed it as a specific influence. But that said, I saw Donnie Darko in my senior year of high school and loved it. I’m pretty sure Kevin and Luke had similar reactions at the time, so it must have been in our heads somewhere along the way. And to that point, I think a lot of the critics who are citing that film are probably close in age to all of us and are connecting it in a similar way.
Luke: (Laughs) Yeah, I remember getting a knock on my apartment door in 1999 and opening it to find Ben standing there with another friend of ours, both of their hoods up, eyes downcast like Jake Gyllenhaal. That was how he told me he had just watched it. I definitely fell in love with that movie but, yeah, it was not consciously on my mind when working on Super Dark Times. I get the connection, though. It’s a stylish movie that powerfully evokes a certain time and place. I think Kevin gets more credit for that than us, not for the Darko connection, but for the skillful recreation of a period. Donnie Darko is the 80’s and Super Dark Times is the 90’s, but both really make the most of painting a portrait of an era without being silly or trite. They’re immensely textured in that way. And both deal with real teenage anxiety and aggression in fanciful ways through a genre lens.
HGL: What did you enjoy most about writing this story?
Ben: Personally, I enjoyed writing in voices of these characters immensely. Daryl in particular became such a part of our brains that we could rattle off new lines for him without even thinking about it. Each character has their own way of speaking and joking, and the fact that their distinct voices come across on screen is incredibly rewarding. I also really liked writing our sort of “high school versions” of many types of scenes you would traditionally see in “adult” films. The stuff with Zach acting as a kind of detective for instance, but especially his big monologue over the phone. We referenced that as like something from All The President’s Men or Oliver Stone’s JFK. It’s not the kind of thing we always get to write in horror movies, and finding a way to fit it in was really fun.
Luke: I’ll second that. I love writing banter. A lot of our previous scripts dealt with isolated characters who were largely alone on screen. I loved working on the scenes of all four boys together, being able to craft ensemble dialogue, letting characters bounce off of one another. I also enjoyed working on the Zach and Allison stuff, really injecting some heart into the piece. I would listen to the orchestral version of Peter Gabriel’s “Wallflower” on a loop and just cry as I thought about them. Perhaps I’ve shared too much there but fuck it. Go put that song on and think about your high school crush, I dare you.
HGL: You are both actors as well as writers. Do you prefer one over the other?
Ben: (Laughs) I see you’ve done your IMDb homework! We have both definitely done our share of acting in the past, and still do it if we get asked by friends, or if the limitations of a low budget movie demand it, but at this point we definitely consider ourselves writers first and foremost. If our past as actors has any real bearing on us now, it’s in that we are aware of what we are “asking” actors to do in our movies and can relate to how vulnerable it can feel to be in that position, which is why we aren’t fascists about the script. I won’t name names, but we’ve all seen movies where good actors give bad performances when saddled with bad writing or bad direction, and we get no ego thrill out of having our material followed word for word if the end result is bad. We like to think of ourselves as collaborative writers, and that extends to every department and every role in a film. It doesn’t mean things have to be easy for everyone all the time, but they have to be worth doing. So if we learned anything from acting that apply to writing, it’s definitely that.
Luke: Speak for yourself! I’d act again in a heartbeat. I definitely suffer from the same thing many writers and actors do which is a crippling insecurity/self-loathing coupled with a raging ego and a desperate need for approval. Both acting and writing involve putting yourself out there, but writing feels a little safer. I can handle the rejection of my words since there’s a sort of a buffer there. When I was Zach and Josh’s age, I desperately wanted to be an actor, but I’d never be able to do that professionally. The rejection there feels too personal.
That said, I think my experiences in high school and community theater and in Ben and Kevin’s student films helps me as a writer. Every dialogue exchange that I write is something that I “test out.” I want to feel the ebb and flow of a scene, when characters might raise their voices or speed up or slow down, to be sure they have the space for the emotional turns they’re going to take. I want to know it will work. So I’ll take long walks and talk to myself, saying the lines, getting a sense of the timing and rhythm. The actors are, of course, free to do what they want with it from there, but I almost write as an actor, I guess. Maybe I’m still just selfishly fantasizing! To me, that’s a hallmark of a good script, though. If I’m reading something someone else wrote and I find myself wanting to say the words aloud, I know it’s great work.
HGL: What are the two of you working on right now?
Ben: We have a half-dozen projects in various stages at this point. Some that have been announced and others that are still relatively secret. A few that are with studios, which we have relatively little control over, so at this point we just sit back and wish them the best. But we have a few smaller indie features that we are as actively involved with as we were on Super Dark Times. We have a lot of friends who are incredibly talented directors, and more than anything else, we want to use the trust and energy from those relationships to make more films.
Luke: We’re exploring TV as well. But yeah, we always have a dozen irons in the fire. For any prospective writers out there, that’s how it goes. Don’t just write that ONE BIG THING and clutch it protectively to your chest. Finish that one big thing, then move onto the next. Build a portfolio. Screenwriting is raising a family on the prairie in the 1800’s. You better have ten kids because they aren’t all going to survive the winter.