Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead mix business and friendship again on Something in the Dirt

Benson And Moorhead

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead as Levi and John in Something in the Dirt.

Over the past decade, the directing duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have crafted a series of films which challenge the concepts of how we perceive the reality around us.

With Resolution, The Endless, Synchronic, and their latest, Something in the Dirt, the pair’s creativity takes mind-bending ideas of reality and turns them into eminently rewatchable and darkly hilarious movies.

Something in the Dirt is a COVID lockdown movie shot in Benson’s own apartment with minimal cast and crew, and tells the story of Levi, who “has snagged a no-lease apartment sight unseen in the Hollywood Hills to crash at while he ties up loose ends for his exodus from Los Angeles. He quickly strikes up a rapport with his new neighbor John, swapping stories like old friends under the glowing, smoke-filled skies of the city. Soon after meeting, Levi and John witness something impossible in one of their apartments. Terrified at first, they soon realize this could change their lives and give them a purpose. With dollar signs in their eyes, these two eccentric strangers will attempt to prove the supernatural.”

In addition to their original films, earlier this year Benson and Moorhead made a step up in visibility, directing several episodes of the MCU series Moon Knight for Disney+ and will also be tackling part of the upcoming second season of Loki.

With the wide release last week of Something in the Dirt, in which the directors also star as leads Levi and John, respectively, we hopped on Zoom to pick discuss their weird and varied filmography.

Unnamed 2The Pitch: After the Sundance premiere of Something in the Dirt, you’d said in a Q&A, “In some ways all of our movies are about the same thing: those obsessions that you fixate on, those things that you never solve over the entire span of your life no matter how much you meditate and do drugs,” and I feel like this is definitely one of those movies that leans into it, but what else fuels the way you two make movies besides exploring obsessions?

Justin Benson: Sometimes, you can look at a genre or a particular sub-genre, and I think something a lot of filmmakers do that really fuels them is they look at that genre or sub-genre and they think like, “Well, if it was just done this slightly different way, that would thrill me. That would give me more of the rollercoaster ride.”

I think that’s some of it, beyond what you just said, where it’s like you’re trying to create the story that is going to frighten you personally and the hope and the theory that that is where an audience will connect with you and your fears.

I was trying to figure out a way to describe the movies you make to some friends of mine and while I used to say it’s about watching, I’ve realized that it’s not really about watching. It seems that you two really like to explore the idea of perception–not just viewing, but the way you interpret it or the way it is interpreted and Something in the Dirt really takes that like to the Nth level in that this is more than it seems on the surface. Would that be accurate?

Justin Benson: I have never heard that description of our work before and I think it’s dead accurate. I think it’s extremely accurate. That’s amazing. I would say Something in the Dirt, without a doubt, is about interpretation and perception more than anything else.

And even the one that is the least like that, Spring, still definitely has an aspect if you interpret it one way, but actually it’s something else and that’s relatively simple, in terms of being a red herring, but there is this idea of maybe these myths that we’ve all created are actually just a way to explain something unexplainable. It’s just an interpretation of something that doesn’t really have words behind it.

Another theme throughout your films is the idea of the hidden objects that reveal more mysteries than they seem to answer. Something in the Dirt definitely has a lot in common with Resolution in that aspect. The whole idea I get watching you all’s movies is that you’re having fun playing with how you’re making it as much as you are about what the films are about–you two have fun making these movies and playing with tropes a lot.

Aaron Moorhead: It is very, very fun making these five independent features we’ve made–to the extent that you look back on it in so many days, you get done from being on set. And even though it was crazy, physically exhausting and mentally exhausting, at the end of the day you just feel still oddly, simultaneously energized by all of it, and you’re just excited by what happened. I can’t say there’s been any other job in filmmaking or in life that I have had beside what I’ve experienced making these five independent features that’s like that.

Then, in terms of like the excitement of kind of turning tropes, it’s weird because for us, the discussions usually aren’t, “How do we turn this trope?” It’s usually a result of just sitting around and someone will pose an idea, and then someone will be like, “Well, actually that feels too familiar. What if we did this instead?” It’s less about the strategy of implementing and flipping a trope and more about us just reacting and running the other way from anything that’s not innovation.

Something in the Dirt is a pandemic movie in that it was shot with a very small cast and crew in your apartment–which I have to imagine lends all kinds of issues in terms of continuity and also just never getting to leave work, which I feel a lot of people can understand–but it also is a pandemic movie in that it is falling down a rabbit hole. There is a lot going on here in terms of science. I feel so many people got into this thing during the pandemic where they started reading about one thing and just kept going and going and going. Was that the inspiration here?

Justin Benson: Our favorite thing since forever has been clicking every link we see on Wikipedia and following it to its end. So I wouldn’t say it was born out of any feeling from the pandemic and much more just a general interest in the fringes of information, of tidbits and trivia, but also the the stuff that’s just on the very edges of pop science, I suppose is the way to say it–and pop psychology well, which is science, but you get it.

Also, even with the production method–yes, it was definitely designed to be able to be made during the pandemic, but it also had a production method that it should be almost everyone’s first film: small cast and crew in a limited location. That’s just first film, independent filmmaking 101. We did that with Resolution and we just wanted to return to those roots.

Resolution was our first film and we just wanted to return to those for this film. We knew how to do it ’cause we’d done it before. Also, of course, we wanted to, on a production value level, escalate it way beyond two people talking in a room and so, we were able to run around the city of Los Angeles, which was mostly closed down, so we were able to sneak into places we otherwise weren’t able to with a tiny crew and then all these cutaways and stock footage and public domain footage and visual effects exploded the scope of this tiny movie into something that felt like a movie movie, hopefully. I mean, still low budget.

You saying that makes it super-great because this is also the 10th anniversary of Resolution, so returning to those roots seems very apt, before you fully embark on this Disney track you’re headed towards. Given that you’ve talked so much about the idea of independent cinema, how is it adjusting to one of the largest corporations in the world and making shows for them?

Aaron Moorhead: Oh, it’s, it’s not much adjustment, really. It’s all still basically doing the same things we’ve always done. If there was any adjusting to anything in the last couple of years, it was probably just the good fortune of being employed as much as we were. Being in production as much as we have in the last two years has been a big, a big learning experience that we’re extremely grateful for.

It’s probably a pretty rare occurrence in a filmmaker’s life that one would be on set as much as we have been in the last two years. Just usually by the cycle of the way things go, usually you break and go to pre-production longer, or where it’s a movie, it doesn’t quite take as long and that’s been a blessing and it’s also been with massive lessons, just learning how to have the endurance to do that.

Justin Benson: A marathon that has been pretty wild. We didn’t just work for Marvel, we also did a Netflix show. We did an episode of Twilight Zone. It is, without a doubt, a very long marathon that we were ready for, but also–as he says, lessons learned in terms of just your own endurance.

People seem to think of you as a pair in terms of how you write and produce and film all of these things, but like I’ve always noticed that there’s a third member to your team making movies and that’s Jimmy LaValle of The Album Leaf, who does the scores for much of what you’ve done. What’s it like, having a composer 10 years on, to whom you can turn and know that they know what you are doing?

Aaron Moorhead: Feels like a cheat, like a filmmaking hack or something because we don’t really have that much to do when he’s composing and every time, he turns in something that’s literally magic that makes the whole movie work. There probably quite literally isn’t another composer who could have scored Spring, The Endless, Synchronic, and Something in the Dirt and have–every single time–it be something wildly different and such a perfect fit for such a specific tone that we go for.

Also, just a great guy. Him and I have a slightly-longer backstory. One of my first jobs ever as a filmmaker was following him around, shooting him making the album Into the Blue Again. One of the first filmmaking jobs I ever had just running around the video camera. In fact, it was this exact video camera that’s featured in Something in the Dirt. [turns around and grabs the camera] So it’s pretty wild–you look back on your life and you’re like, “Whoa. That weird, weird little gig amounted to a lifelong friend and partner.”

Justin Benson: Life’s weird. I feel like we’ve got this “make movies with friends” thing going on, and it just becomes more and more obvious that it should be your friends, as opposed to these other people. You’re looking around trying to find someone better. It’s like, no, it’s actually your friends. That said though, Jimmy is always a blessing. He was never like, “Can I please score your movie?” We were like, “Please, Jimmy. Score our movie.”

Aaron Moorhead: And also, the thing that should be mentioned is, at the time Jimmy was a famous musician and I was a kid just outta film school. The fact that he even remembered me and reached out to us to work on the score to Spring is a testament to to his character. Again, I don’t even know why he even remembered me. That was weird.

Talking about working with friends–in addition to writing and directing and cinematography and all of this, you’ve done production work on two films that I’m a big fan of, After Midnight and She Dies Tomorrow. What’s it like getting to work with your friends?

Justin Benson: When we founded our company with our producing partner, Dave Lawson, Rustic Films, we weren’t doing it because there’s all this money floating around in independent film. We did it genuinely because we realized we’d identified something that was slightly missing. There are a lot of independent film production companies. But they really are companies, hiring people that aren’t organically together necessarily. We’ve been kind of doing this production method of using our friends and working with our friends naturally, so we decided to make a company out of it and so, it’s as you say, with After Midnight and She Dies Tomorrow–that was just a way to facilitate our friends’ movies getting made.

After Midnight was the first one, and the reason we put together an official company was because we knew that the script was good. We knew that people were capable. They just needed the production resources and without a doubt, it just makes everything a little bit better. People say don’t mix business and friendship. Totally disagree. This works great.

Something in the Dirt is out now via XYZ Films.

Categories: Movies