Throughout the month of October, Audiences Everywhere will be publishing a series of interviews with renowned horror directors in which we will discuss current and upcoming films, and also get the artists’ take on the contemporary horror landscape. First up, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the filmmakers behind the critically acclaimed film Spring.
I am a huge fan of the complex horror novel House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. For a long time, like most of the book’s fans, I thought the book was unfilmable. I cringed at the idea of an attempted adaptation.
Then, I watched 2012’s Resolution, the debut feature length film from filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. A few hours later, the movie still holding my mind hostage, I sat upright and bed and proclaimed that these two guys had changed my mind. Resolution had exhibited incomparable post-modern meta-awareness in some strange dance in which the storytelling language became a key factor in the story being told, just the sort of thing that House of Leaves would require.
When I had the opportunity to speak to Justin and Aaron, this is the first thing I told them. And they not only unflinchingly accepted the idea, they admitted to having discussed how great it would be to take on the challenge of that very adaptation.
I think that’s what’s exceptional about these two young filmmakers whose latest film Spring (available on Blu-Ray and OnDemand outlets) is equally impressive for different reasons: they are brave enough to take on the challenge of the stories they want to tell and skillful enough to find the right language to tell them. In that sense, they are the perfect subjects to start off our Horrortown interviews.
David Shreve, Jr. (Audiences Everywhere): Is it your longterm career plan to continue to film movies in gorgeous locations and just vacation as you work?
Aaron Moorhead: Dead serious, when we were trying to scout for Spring, just on kind of a hunch that it would work out, we went to the Cannes Film Festival and tried to set up locations scouts to see where it would be the most affordable and feasible and visually useful to film. It always took place on the coast of Italy, but we’d been told that Italy is difficult to shoot in for various reasons. So we set up a scout through the Apulia Film Commission (Southeast Italy), and we also scouted Montenegro, the Canary Islands, and for a different project, we scouted Estonia. And we realized that if someone were very savvy and confident as hell, they could set up some really incredible vacations through film commissions. They’ll pay for the whole thing if there’s a promise of you filming there. And it would be an incredible scam to pull.
AE: With all that you’ve accomplished and the critical praise you’ve been given for your cross-genre efforts, does it ever feel reductive when someone refers to you as horror filmmakers, as I’m about to do for the rest of the interview?
Justin Benson: It’s so unimportant to either one of us as to how our films are ultimately categorized or what genre we’re affiliated with ultimately. From a business standpoint, someone could be at a disadvantage if their films can’t be categorized at all. That said, I don’t think Aaron and I will ever do what one might call a traditional “horror” film, but the specific genre we’re working in is something we never discuss. We’re just happy that we have careers at all and that we get to make movies. And it seems like, more and more, within the industry, people are accepting of what we do and open to try to match us with the material that’s in line with our sensibility.
AM: I’ll take it one step back. We didn’t set out to blend genres, per se. It’s much more about the story we want to tell. The stories are cohesive in that one element doesn’t exist without the other. We don’t really make very baroque movies. So, the biggest thing for us is to try to find the truth of the story. Often, because we were raised on Stephen King and House of Leaves and stuff like that, the truth involves something kind of fantastic. Of course, we are extraordinarily pleased that most of the people watching our films are not only accepting, but they seem to appreciate and prefer the fact that we didn’t conform to conventions. But it’s not us being rebellious. I guess we might have that streak in us. But it’s more that we don’t even know what the conventions are. We just tell the story we want to tell and it makes perfect emotional sense to us.
AE: So when people describe Spring as “Richard Linklater meets John Carpenter,” both sides of that comparison are equally flattering, right?
AM: Yeah, for sure. On the same token, I hadn’t seen a Linklater movie before making Spring. But that said, I watched the Before Trilogy all in one long go; not in one day, but one per night with this girl I was dating. And by the end of the third one, she’s in. She’s my current girlfriend still. Those are perfect movies. If I had to pick between that and the original Star Wars as my favorite trilogy, I’d have a lot of trouble.
AE: Like those films, you mention that you focus in your movies on the human element naturally with the fantastic being circumstantial. Do you think of yourselves as being naturally empathetic in general and specifically toward your characters?
JB: I’m kind of hard on movies that just drop in an archetype and don’t create a realistic, unique character that we need to spend time with to get to know. The most basic example would be “That guy’s captain of the football team. He’s the cool guy in school.” There are more complex ones. And I kind of get that–covering ground really fast especially in a genre film where people are coming for the meat and potatoes, creature effects only. But at the same time, I just don’t have any interest in writing or making those movies. I think you can still keep a populist, commercial sense and write characters who you might not have seen in cinema before and it feels like you know them in real life.
AE: How much does it help that you are basically four-for-four on the performances from your main characters?
AM: We take a lot of pride in our casting. It’s kind of like a bit of the silver bullet of what we do, in a lot of ways. Justin writes these incredible scripts and we have a very refined approach. I think it was Spielberg who said, “Casting is 90% of directing.” We absolutely adore the people that we get to work with.
AE: What do you want to see more of in new horror movies as fans?
JB: I’d like to see more stuff like Kill List. I think there’s a big difference between a horror movie and a scary movie. I have a really profound respect for scary movies. Where it really gets under your skin. It’s not the emotion of being repulsed from intestines being pulled out of a stomach. That can be very effective and I think that’s great, especially for punctuating a moment you already built with your characters. So I’d say, scary horror films. The cliché example is The Exorcist, which is an actual scary movie. Everyone remembers spinning heads, crab walks, projectile vomit. But the reason that stuff works is because you spent so much time getting people to believe that a girl is actually possessed.
AM: We all at least intuitively understand what horror conventions are. When I think about the movies that I think of as scariest, they’re not even conventional horror movies. I find There Will Be Blood more terrifying than Jason movies. I would never call There Will Be Blood a horror movie, but in terms of me being deeply unsettled and at the edge of my seat, and not tense because of “what’s going to happen next” but tense because of the darkness of human nature. I wonder if people are working in horror movies to make it scary instead of shocking. Most people I think are, but occasionally, you’ll see a movie or two that attempts to elicit some gross out emotion or something like that.
AE: What’s one horror trope that you’d like to see done away with?
AM: Boyfriends who scare their girlfriends and laugh at the look on their face.
JB: I was going to throw a blanket statement and say zombie anything, but then you’ve got 28 Days Later and The Battery. I love both of those movies! I could use a reduction of zombies? Or, okay, you know like the town in Scream? Where everyone lives in a nice two story house and the high school hierarchy is the high school bully on the football team? The weird, dated John Hughes inspired world… To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist and it never existed. Maybe it’s because I’m from Southern California, but to me, that’s just movie world. Horrortown, Movieworld. I can’t get on board when I get a whiff of it.
AE: What’s the first film that made you guys want to make horror films?
JB: That’s a hard question. Resolution is probably more inspired by House of Leaves and No Country for Old Men than a specific horror film. When I was about 17, I saw the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I didn’t find it to be the most terrifying experience in the world, but I found that it looked like something that me and my friends could make, and it did have a magic to it. There’s a little magic in that movie. Even though you’re impressed by it, you watch it, and if you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you say, “I understand how one does that.”
AM: I’m going to cheat again. I feel bad not answering with horror movies. I think it was probably Jurassic Park. I think that that’s the fantastic meets the horrifying. It’s not a horror movie, but you can see how terrifying that would be to me as a child, particularly the T-Rex attacking the Jeep. Just because I was about the same age as that kid, and I always wanted to be a paleontologist. That kid just was me. And what was great was that the movie felt completely real to me. I don’t mean real like the graphics were really good. They actually had an explanation for how dinosaurs could come back to life. I remember when it was done, I asked my dad if it that was possible and he wasn’t sure if it was possible or not, because it seems so plausible in the movie. If dinosaurs existed, it was possible we could bring them back to life and then a dinosaur could attack me. That existed in my mind for a while, whereas, in my experience, ghosts probably aren’t real, so I wasn’t too scared of ghosts.
AE: Is there a well-known, classic, or popular horror movie that you don’t enjoy or understand?
JB: Mine isn’t that old, but if I say this, you have to quote it very specifically. I really dislike the script of The Conjuring. I think James Wan is a really good director, but I really dislike the script.
AM: I think I’d go after all of the slasher franchises. They don’t make much sense to me. Like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. For me, there’s a whole bunch of blood and it doesn’t do it for me, I suppose. I haven’t really watched them that much. I am not going to say Halloween. I really liked that. I’m going to go with Jason X. That movie is so much fun. Just so bad. I could extrapolate that it’s one of the better ones. Just generally, slashers aren’t for me.
AE: What’s one thing–story, novel, historical event, folk lore, etc. – that you’d like to see be adapted into a movie?
JB: I’ll say Preacher, the graphic novels.
AM: I’ll say House of Leaves again. I just finished reading this recently. I got completely engrossed in it. I started finding free time where I really shouldn’t have been finding free time to read it. One of the most engrossing books I’ve ever read. Once again, I started thinking maybe, maybe that book is real. I could imagine what it must’ve been like being the very first person watching The Blair Witch Project, not knowing it’s a movie to be presented. That’s the feeling I got from House of Leaves. Justin had a great idea for Rectify, where he watched the Blair Witch Project not knowing it was a movie.
AE: I watched Blair Witch thinking it was a real documentary.
AM: No way!
AE: Yeah. One of my best horror experiences.
AM: So you believed it!?
AE: I did!
AM: So I’m going to turn this on you. Can you explain your process of finding out it’s not real? Were you relieved or doubtful or…?
AE: There’s two factors. One, it was such a unique movie experience, that you don’t want to give it up and the other is… you don’t want to admit your gullibility. You want to preserve both the scary magic and your dignity. But then I saw them come out at the MTV Movie Awards and just said “Shit…” I was disappointed that those kids weren’t really dead. I don’t think that can ever exist again.
AM: Justin and I have talked about this ad nauseum. You can’t make people believe in it any more. People are too cynical and the internet is too prevalent. You can just Google things so fast. Found footage, in terms of scaring people with being real, came and went with The Blair Witch. Maybe Paranormal Activity, but I don’t think people thought that was real. That said, though, Cloverfield was awesome and people knew it was fake.
AE: Who are your favorite up-and-coming filmmakers right now?
JB: Jeremy Gardner, Ciarán Foy…
AM: The Soskas…
JB: He’s not up-and-coming any more but Ben Wheatley. I feel like we’re leaving out obvious ones. David Robert Mitchell, obviously…
AM: Oh, have you seen Goodnight, Mommy, yet? Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala. Those guys are amazing and their movie is awesome.
JB: I got two more rad dudes for you. Jim Mickle and Evan Katz.
AE: Have you two seen The Witch yet?
JB: No, but… You know what, though? A lot of times, obviously, films in the film festival circuit get a big hype around them. There’s a bubble thing that happens in the film festival circuit. And I’m starting to suspect that with The Witch, there is no bubble and it’s just an amazing piece of cinema.
AE: It seems like every year, out of that general film circuit viral buzz, there are one or two horror movies that make everyone say, “This is the next great horror movie, the scariest of the decade,” and nine times out of ten, it’s not. Being involved in that circuit as filmmakers, is your cynicism and doubt higher than that of most horror fans?
AM: Oh. I’ll be honest with you. Yes. There is one person on this planet who can tell me whether or not I’ll like a movie, and it’s Justin. Even people with indisputably good taste, I’ll just be like, “I don’t know man.” That said though, I’ve seen a lot of movies come and go that nobody even talks about outside of the the festival circuit. The best example is the one Justin mentioned. Kill List. Pretty popular in the UK, probably couldn’t mention it to anyone in the U.S. who doesn’t love and seek out horror, but it’s one of the best horror movies I’ve seen. So it’s a double edged sword. A lot of times, I hear a lot of buzz, see it, and I’m underwhelmed. And a lot of times, it’s a relatively casual recommendation that makes me see it, and it turns into something amazing.
JB: Here’s a funny little anecdote about Aaron and I’s movie recommendations to each other. Aaron wasn’t huge on Birdman, and I had a screener at my house for two or three months. I totally forgot it was there. It was there collecting dust while it won fucking Best Picture. And to this day, I haven’t seen it. To this day. I remember a friend was over at my house and I said, “What do you want to do? Watch a movie?” And I was like, “There’s nothing to watch.” And she said, “Well there’s Birdman on your coffee table” and I was just like… “I don’t know. Aaron wasn’t into it.” Still haven’t seen it.
AE: Do you get nervous anticipating the other person’s response or are you confident that you’ll agree?
AM: Pretty confident. The only thing is… I think that my opinions line up with what most people in general like, with a few more exceptions. I’m a bit more of a hater than the general populace, perhaps. I don’t know. One movie I loved that everyone else despised is Jurassic World.
JB: I just don’t have a strong opinion about it. I’m a human being. I can go to a movie and see a commercial film with cool special effects and enjoy it. Yeah, I didn’t have a strong opinion. I didn’t find it offensive in any way. For some reason, I found Avengers: Age of Ultron kind of offensive. Probably something I need to reach into my soul and figure out. What’s up with my haterism?
AE: I get that feeling sometimes. I feel somewhat elitist and wonder why I say I love movies, horror in particular, but seem to love less horror films than a standard movie goer.
AM: I think it’s okay, though. I prefer the debate. Because if everyone is just walking around and agreeing with each other, then we wouldn’t be making art. It would be pointless. But let me backpedal on that and say, I would hate if I had to convince someone that Mad Max: Fury Road is awesome. Luckily everyone is just agreeing that that’s a great movie. But the debate is part of the culture of film. I definitely prefer it. When I was younger, I’d backpedal on opinions if they weren’t popular, but now I like being the guy that likes Jurassic World and dislikes Birdman. But having an opinion on a movie is the easiest way to have a conversation with me.
AE: What’s your response to people who say, “There aren’t any good horror movies these days.”
AM: I would dismiss that outright. That’s just people not paying attention. There’s a bunch of really bad movies, good movies, and great movies. I would say horror is the same proportion, but horror has a target on it because it’s so bloody, so people can dismiss it really easy. But, I would rather see some piece of shit horror movie at a film festival where everyone is just getting ripped up than a really boring domestic drama.
JB: I know that most people aren’t like this, but nostalgia doesn’t factor into why I like certain movies. The horror genre especially, and being a horror fan often times is steeped in nostalgia, where things that were heavily flawed when they came out become better over time to the person because it’s personal to them. They went on a date in high school at the time, or they watched it at their parents house. I could make a really good argument that there isn’t a single good Hellraiser movie. I think there’s neat stuff in Hellraiser II, but I’d argue none of the movies are good. Sometimes I think that’s the root of the sentiment that there’s nothing good in horror “any more.” Because there are things that are personal to you, so you attach emotions to it. When you look at stuff that actually is good–like, again, The Exorcist, The Thing, or the original Halloween–those movies are spaced out quite a bit. They’re not part of one bygone era. There’s consistently been good horror films for as long as there has been horror films. I don’t think quality is in decline.
AE: Do you think it’s cyclical? Do you think when we’re sixty, there will be thirty-year-olds talking about how The Gallows marked a Golden Age of horror greatness?
JB: No, I don’t think anyone’s going to do that. But you know what I hope? I hope 10-15 years from now, people say, “Remember when horror movies were good like Cabin in the Woods? Remember when they had new concepts?”
AM: I feel like they might be like, “Remember movies? Movies seem really simplistic to the full VR experiences we go through every day now.”
AE: Do you guys have ideas ready for that technology?
AM: Yes and no. I don’t really want to work in that field. I just want to live in it. I actually don’t really think movies are going away. I’ve thought long and hard about the replace-ability of our jobs. I think the way we shoot movies may be different. But, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit because I love the idea of a VR video game more than anything. I will be the first person in line for that. But I actually think that watching a movie is different than going to a horror theme park and getting scared. They’re incomparable experiences in some ways. It will exist. People will figure out how to tell a narrative in that way. But I don’t think it’ll be the primary means, much less a model that will replace film altogether.
AE: Pulling it back then, what’s next for you two in the short term with current technology?
JB: We got a whole bunch of stuff. Most likely, the next thing is a movie about a late 1800s, early 1900s occultist named Aleister Crawley. Sort of a rock star ceremonial magician in his own time. Really interesting guy. We got a script called Showdown at the Cataclysm. The simplest way to describe it is a sci-fi Western. And we have three TV shows that we’re in development on.
AM: TV’s the new jam!
JB: The one that’s the farthest along… a good way to describe it would be “Boyhood meets Lost.”
AM: [laughs] I love that. I like calling it that because I realize that no one could have any idea what that could even mean.
JB: It’s basically about a fifteen year old surfer/skater/punk kid growing up in San Diego and he doesn’t know who his father is and one day it comes to light that it’s one of these four men in his life. And simultaneously this mysterious object, this MacGuffin, a mystery box comes into San Diego and you don’t know what it is. And these four men are all after this mysterious object, and as this young man tries to figure out who his father is, we see them all become anti-heroes in their own right. As the show goes on, the mysterious MacGuffin slowly becomes something more and more profound.
AE: I want to ask you this now so that eight years from now, when we hit the final season, and the debate’s are going on, the answer will be here. Do you know how the show ends already?
AM: We do know how it ends.
JB: We actually have the last scene.
AE: So if you land House of Leaves based on this discussion, can I get an exclusive on the last season interview?
JB: You can have 20% of the profits.
All Images Courtesy: Drafthouse Films