In theaters November 4 from XYZ Films, in advance of a VOD roll-out on the 22nd, Something in the Dirt is the fifth feature from the filmmaking duo of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, who have made a name for themselves with smart, innovative, brain-twisting indies such as 2017’s The Endless, which stars the pair, or 2019’s Synchronic, which saw the duo working with a higher budget and name stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. Subsequently, they directed episodes of Marvel/Disney+’s Loki and Moon Knight.
This time around, Benson and Moorhead star as a lonely pair of unlikely friends whose discovery of a mysterious phenomenon in their apartment building leads them to become documentary filmmakers—and to find themselves deep down a rabbit hole of cults, conspiracies, and cosmic horror. It’s a Covid-era production both limited and freed by pandemic restrictions; on the exhibition side, the film’s planned Sundance debut was forced to go virtual due to the Omicron surge. Below, the pair discuss the importance as filmmakers of seeing the film with an audience as well as their own love of seeing movies on the big screen.
You mentioned at a Brooklyn Horror Film Festival screening that this movie is probably as close as you’ll get to making a “haunted house” movie. Most of it is set in an apartment building, and you have a small number of characters, which makes sense given you shot during Covid. How did you approach those restrictions and still make Something feel cinematic?
Justin Benson: Aaron’s not a career director of photography, obviously. We resist even the term “co-directors”; it’s more like “co-filmmakers” because part of our process is collecting as many jobs as possible. Aaron’s not just a director of photography; he’s also a director, a writer, an actor, an editor, a visual effects artist, all these things. But I think it’s interesting to look at his work as a cinematographer, because when you look at Synchronic, it has more of a polish on it. It’s much more mannered. It’s beautiful cinematography, with some more toys to play with to get there. More equipment, more crew, and it looks beautiful in that way. Then you look at Something in the Dirt, and [you have room for] literally the smallest crew, probably the least amount of lights you can have, probably the smallest TV truck that was in the garage back here. But it’s just as beautiful in its own way. And it’s really interesting that Aaron, not being a career cinematographer, has been able to achieve both of those things back-to-back in his films. It’s really, really amazing. In terms of trying to make the space interesting beyond Aaron’s very sincere genius as the cinematographer is: We get out of the apartment a lot. We had access to a lot of Los Angeles, because of the pandemic. The same thing that kept us nimble during lockdowns, [a small crew size], also opened up the city to us to where we probably got to shoot in a lot of places that we would have been kicked out of had we not been under extraordinary circumstances.
Given that your films are so collaborative, and you both take on so many different roles–how does a project like this evolve during production? How different is the final movie from what you envisioned in the beginning?
Aaron Moorhead: The very first concept of it was completely different than the final product. But once it develops into an outline and a script, that’s–besides the fact we had to cut about an hour and a half out of the first assembly, so there’s definitely story beats that are missing–it still feels like the same movie we were trying to make. I don’t think when we conceptualize it it was a comedy. That also happened with The Endless, actually; when we conceptualized it, it was a comedy, and it changed it to a sci-fi drama.
But one of the biggest changes of the format of [Something in the Dirt] was–it was always going to be two people making a documentary that they were starring in themselves… That was always in the script. It was in rehearsal, about three weeks out from production, that we were running through some lines, and then Justin stops at a certain point. His character references something. And he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if right here we just cut to that thing for half a second?” It played as a joke in the moment, and we laughed about it. And then [we] kind of stopped laughing [and] thought about it, like: “Oh, maybe not just there. Maybe we need to do this throughout the whole movie.” It was a watershed moment where you realize what the real format of the movie would be. I realized, “Oh, this is an editing movie.” This is a movie where the editor is going to be up front and center, despite also being literally a character in the film. The edit says something very distinct about the point of view and the gaze of the film. And it caused us to have to continue shooting a lot more. We needed 300 more shots. That’s another way that we can add some production value to what could otherwise be a small film. Because that means you can cut to shots of volcanoes. So our film has a volcano in it!
Benson: We ended up shooting in Petra. We were in Jordan for something else, so we just ended up going down to Petra and shooting some shots that are in the movie. We shot in Budapest, we shot over most of Los Angeles, the Mojave Desert.
The home video footage interspersed throughout–were those real home movies from when you were growing up?
Benson: Those are our actual [home movies]. In both cases; it’s footage from Aaron’s childhood, from my childhood. It just so happened, coincidentally, that both our families had a whole bunch of HI-8 tapes from our childhoods that no one had looked at in a long time. We both got those tapes digitized around the same time, and we realized they [could] be weaved into these fictional characters. Which, by the way, is an interesting thing to say, because oftentimes people say [about] the movie, “Oh, it feels very personal.” Yeah, it’s personal, but nothing’s autobiographical. And Levi [Benson] and John [Moorhead] could not be more different than us in real life in their dynamic, who they are as individuals, or anything. However, at the same time, they now have our childhoods. [Laughs] And also making those phone calls to my parents and being like, “Hey, are you OK if I put old footage of [you] in the movie?” And walking them through the implications of it, saying, “This isn’t just my home video. This is a movie that will be in theaters. You will have been implied to be the parent of somebody that you might not really like. Is that okay with you?”
On your films, the pair of you have a ton of control–not ultimate control, there are investors and all that–over what you’re making. Doing TV, not only are there are these other people and factors involved, you’re also making it for the small screen. Does that change how you approach visuals at all?
Moorhead: The visuals change so much from project to project. It’s less about whether it’s indie or something bigger that makes the difference. It’s really just the individual project that determines what we’re doing visually. While doing bigger projects is obviously much, much more collaborative–not to say our indies aren’t collaborative. In our indies, we’ve been very lucky. For about a decade, we could never get the bigger jobs. We also couldn’t find financing for bigger independent films. That was always a no. So we’d take what we could get and do stripped-down productions. What came with that was no one saying no to anything, and us always doing whatever we wanted for five movies. That’s a huge privilege and a big responsibility. If you work on something collaboratively for hire in TV, and it fails, nobody really completely points at you and says, “This is your fault, because this is an expression of you.” They kind of just want it to project. But if it’s an indie film, it’s you. You’re putting your soul out there. You’re kind of the end-all-be-all. They don’t care [about] the restrictions you had. They don’t care about what happened behind the scenes. They just care if the project succeeds or not.
Benson: I will legitimately tell you, I sweat harder on the release days of our indie films than on the release day of a Marvel show. For sure, I sweat a lot more.
There have been some smaller-budget horror films that have really done well at the box office lately–Pearl, Barbarian, Smile. These are the sorts of movies that might have ended up going directly to streaming instead. Something in the Dirt has a two-week exclusivity window; how invested do you get in how your film is released?
Benson: Generally how it goes with our movies, over the five features we’ve done, the process of getting to that point of distribution, is something like this: We either self-finance it, or we find a little bit of money from a private investor. We go make a movie that we’ve developed for about a year. [We] put our all our lives into this movie, make it. Then we handle post-production. And then, if possible, we try get it into a film festival that has something like a sales market, where it’s presented to distributors in a way that’s hopefully positive. Hopefully the audience likes it. And then what begins is the sale of the movie. If you’re lucky enough to have offers come in, one of the biggest things that gets considered in the sales process is, “What kind of theatrical are you going to be offered?” It’s something that transcends the price of the movie or anything. What you’re hoping for is that it’s in as many movie theaters as possible. That maintains for us. It remains that way. We’re aiming for that, we’re trying for it. It seems like in recent years–at least, in our experience, from roughly The Endless onward–that there is a way to release a movie theatrically [and have it] do well without having to have some gigantic marketing budget that could potentially put someone in a financial hole. You can release movies to more than a dozen screens. It really, really does work. It’s very important to us. It’s always been hugely important, and it’s remained so.
Our dream came true, and [Something in the Dirt] got into Sundance. But because of Omicron, Sundance went virtual, and so we didn’t get to see our film in a movie theater. Which of course was so wildly disappointing. We were getting really excited for what felt like our actual premiere, because a premiere feels communal. We got to see it in Switzerland. We got to see it in Imax at Fright Fest in the UK. And this is a film that was shot in this apartment that you’re seeing us in right now. And we got to see it on Imax! So I think that was the day, eight months after we played Sundance, is when I realized that the movie really works. We knew that people liked it. We saw our Rotten Tomatoes score. We saw how people seem to generally dig it. But sitting in the audience, [it was like] we’d cast our spell, and our spell worked. And they were actually laughing at our jokes. You shoot in the dark with jokes. You hope you’re funny. You don’t know.
Seeing it in a theater told us that the movie worked in a way that we were deprived of. We didn’t get to do any test screenings. Our initial premiere was virtual. So it was a huge sigh of relief.
Moorhead: This movie has a lot of comedy, obviously. And it also has what you might call cosmic [feel]. That is a sense of dread running through the movie, among all of the comedy. And comedy and horror are two things that play so much better in a communal experience than sitting by yourself.
I invested in getting a projector and a giant screen in the living room. And still, without a doubt, I’ll let that thing gather dust and walk down the street to the theater. Because there’s people there!
Benson: We saw Ti West’s Pearl in an audience of about 1,500 people at this film festival in Spain called SITGES. First of all, I was blown away by that film. But even in a room full of people [for whom] English would not be their first first language–people that mostly speak Spanish and Catalan–you can still feel [the effect]. The movie’s brilliant. You could feel every brilliant beat coming through a wave in the audience. And that was very, very special.
Moorhead: I’m going to get this a little bit wrong, because I’m not in the music industry. [After the collapse of the CD market], the way that artists actually make their money, besides brand deals, is touring. It’s a cool thought: Before, the way they made their money was through their record deals. It can be a communal experience, but mostly you listen [to music] in your car. What has actually come back in music is that we’re seeing everything [through] the communal experience. I had the best audio engineer teacher in film school who said one of the most true things I’ve ever heard. He said: Whatever happens in music and audio is just the next thing that’s going to happen in film and video. He was talking about technology. But I genuinely also believe that the communal experience of film–we dipped for a little while [with] DVDs, streaming, Covid–but I think it’s something where, if we don’t have it, we will feel so that we’re lacking something.
What were your favorite hometown theaters growing up?
Benson: One was the Ken Cinema in San Diego. The other big one I [would] go to a lot was the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas. It was a big one. In fact, that was probably the one where I saw some of the films that influenced me most now as a filmmaker.
Moorhead: There was [a Muvico theater] in Clearwarter, Florida. But the one I ended up at the most was the [AMC Veterans 24 in Tampa], which is playing Something in the Dirt opening night, which is really cool.
Benson: You bring up this really vivid memory. When I was in high school, I went and saw Run Lola Run at the San Diego Hillcrest Landmark Cinema. I got there, and I was like “I’m kind of thirsty, I think I’ll try this coffee thing.” It was my first time having coffee. [It was a] funny, very caffeinated experience of watching Run Lola Run as a teenager. Some people see Top Gun and they want to join the military. I saw Run Lola Run and I was like, “I’m going to be a filmmaker!”
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