With their latest feature together, DIY sci-fi directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead continue to make the low-budget thrillers that have gained them a dedicated fan base. Exploring the cults, phenomena, or time travel concepts that break brains and inspire documentaries, the actors take on the challenge of filling up most roles in a production, constantly highlighting their shared love of going out and making films with their friends. They champion this DIY style, stretching thin budgets and taking narrative risks with each successive film, unafraid to get more than a little weird, confusing, or plain bonkers.
Something in the Dirt finds Benson and Moorhead again picking up the roles of co-directors, co-leads, and shared roles when it comes to writing, cinematography, and editing. Following two Los Angeles loners as they experience supernatural elements wreaking havoc in their apartment building, the film devolves into inner and outer madness, using the framework of multiple documentaries to keep a semblance of narrative cohesion. In homage to the late nights spent down Wikipedia rabbit holes and the need to believe in something greater than whatever malaise is running one’s life, Something in the Dirt represents another opportunity for the indie directors to take chances and encourage each other’s craziest ideas.
The Film Stage chatted with Benson and Moorhead during the Sundance Film Festival about their 13-year friendship, the experience of watching old home videos, holding heavy cameras, and how bigger budgets don’t always equate to better movies.
The Film Stage: When did you guys first start working on this project?
Aaron Moorhead: It got started a few months into the first lockdown. And what it originally was, we were thinking we were going to a project for a really long time, and get perfectly ready. So at the moment, and I’m using 2020 phrases here, but the moment the pandemic ended, we would be able to immediately go make a movie. And a couple of things happened. One: we realized it wasn’t ending. And two: we realized that we had this production method that we had honed at over a decade of making films at our production company, Rustic Films. That’s very do-it-yourself. And we had an opportunity to do so and weren’t taking it. And it kind of felt like we were being hypocritical at giving advice to other filmmakers, and then we wouldn’t do it ourselves, waiting for something bigger or waiting for something to happen and all that. And we realized that there was a challenge being presented to us that we didn’t recognize, and we accepted it. But we wanted to make sure that we made something that wasn’t disposable and wasn’t something that was about the feelings that we were all feeling at the time. Because we just at the time, we just thought there would be a billion pandemic movies, you know, that were about isolation and loneliness and Zoom meetings. Maybe trapped in your house and that kind of thing. Turns out that didn’t really pan out. We were like we can’t do anything like that. It has to just be a movie, just a regular movie. So what can we do? What can we write that is within the confines of all the things we have available to us?
Can you tell me a bit more about your friendship? What made you start working together?
Justin Benson: We met 13 years ago, at a commercial production company called Ridley Scott and Associates. It is really Scott’s commercial production company. We never met Ridley Scott. We sat in a lobby together in front of the secretary, and when they needed someone to get coffee, we got coffee. You steal food from the breakroom, to get healthy food that you can’t afford. You basically just use your car to make runs to pick up and drop things off. And otherwise you get to sit in that lobby. And it was my last day as I was about to stop kind of phasing out doing that, as well to go off to medical school, and it was Aaron’s first day. He had just come out here from Florida. He just graduated from Florida State University. And we just struck up at a table. We started a conversation at the little intern tables. We bonded over Stephen King books and things like that. And then around the time I was really going to take off––time to go off to medical school––and had enough money from just waiting tables and bartending to go make a micro-budget movie. And so Aaron and I, we just went off and we did it and that movie’s called Resolution. Somehow that movie got into the Tribeca Film Festival.
Do you remember that day, when it got into Tribeca?
Justin Benson: I literally had, I don’t know about you, but I had a physiological reaction. All my hair stood up. Yeah. And I felt this wave of euphoria. It was very bizarre. I’ve never experienced anything like this.
Aaron Moorhead: I was on set shooting some no-budget commercial for YouTube or something like that to pay rent. And I went outside and screamed, and I came back and everyone was like, “What was that?” It was great. We sent in a DVD. Didn’t hear much about it. We have heard since that, we don’t know if this has probably been dramatized, but that it was initially a rejection. And it may have actually been thrown in the rejection pile, technically a trash can. And then someone came along and they saw the rejection notes on the top. And they’re like, “That actually sounds kind of interesting.”
How did you hear that story?
The gentleman who programmed us at Tribeca, Billy Goldberg, told us the story. He was just like, “Yeah, actually, it was recommended not to screen but I just thought it was interesting sounding.” And then from that, we were able to use a very, very, modest indie film success to go make our second movie Spring. It was almost impossible and then it became a thing where we had to borrow money from family members again to make it, but it was still an awesome opportunity. Obviously, we did that movie and then hit the same wall again. Can I get another movie? So we wrote this movie called The Endless, and we were just gonna go make it on our own with a bunch of friends. Just like we did Resolution. And our producer David Lawson was like, “You guys, I’m not going to say I’m angry. But I’m going to say that I’m not going to go work for free for a whole year. Neither are these people. You’re crazy. So let’s try to find financing.” And we found a very small amount of money to go make a movie. And then we made Synchronic and that takes us up to here.
In a larger sense, why do you like working together? Why have you continued to be such close friends over the last 13 years?
Aaron Moorhead: I can tell you that Justin is one of the most brilliant people I know. And it’s kind of an honor to be able to work with and have a friend like that. Our brains don’t work exactly the same way. And it’s the coolest thing in the world to see those discoveries. And honestly, Something in the Dirt is a pretty wild movie. And if either of us had made it on our own somehow, like, let’s imagine that was even possible. The fact is, because we own that movie, so fully the two of us, we can chase down our craziest ideas, but one person would normally self censor the craziest of the crazy. Because you get self-conscious about it. And you don’t want to put that out into the world. But because we have the other to say, “That idea is good. It’s not just crazy. It’s crazy and good. We should do it.” It actually lets us make stuff that feels bold and vulnerable. So that we don’t accidentally self-censor before it even reaches, before it gets in the air.
Justin Benson: Yeah, I’d say Aaron is literally the best person I’ve ever met. And also an absolutely brilliant guy. But if I experienced this moment of pause when you originally asked that, it’s because it’s sort of like, “Pick your favorite family member that you’ve known your whole life, and why do you like them?” Like yes, they’re my mom or my dad, or my brother.
How do you choose who plays what character in the script? Is that something you both know when writing or figure out once you begin shooting?
Justin Benson: There was something we did in both The Endless and Something in the Dirt. And it was that before the script was written, we just got together and talked about things. The discussion being, “Hey, if there’s something that you want to express as this character, as someone else, something that you think makes this character interesting, something that you observed.” When you were at the bank the other day, when you were talking to the teller, they did something. I always want to explore that further, or make that part of this guy or who this person is. A lot of it’s that, or just generally trying to construct it, the things you find fascinating, that you would personally find fascinated by that character and really dig into it. And so that happens initially. So that when the script’s written, we have yet to have the experience where it’s like, “Let’s swap.” That’s interesting. We should do that next time.
Aaron Moorhead: Halfway through the movie we just become different people. Just switch.
Since you’re both acting and co-directing, do you direct one another, or are you both a bit more hands-off?
Justin Benson: We definitely direct each other. But in this scenario, because of our production method, oftentimes when it’s Aaron single, I’m operating the camera, and the eyeline probably isn’t where it should be to match, where your head is. And you need to give them the lines but you can’t really perform them because you have to speak in a way that doesn’t shake the camera. So oftentimes it’s one of us like, “Okay, your eye-line is this place on the wallpaper. And okay, action.” And also, it was really hot. And that camera was really heavy.
Aaron Moorhead: And we both lost about 20 pounds for our roles and continued dropping through production. All we would eat was a salad and a piece of fish all day. Yeah. And so we’re just so exhausted every single day, lugging that camera around in the hottest October on record, in this place with no central air conditioning. And you couldn’t turn on the fan or open the window because of sound or hitting a light.
And do you think that added to the whole vibe of the movie?
Aaron Moorhead: Hell yeah it did. It was so cool. Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. It was like real filmmaking.
Justin Benson: Actually, this was the one movie we finished where I was like, “I feel like an actual filmmaker now.” Imposter syndrome was gone. Yeah, it’s probably back again, for a little while. The other thing too, is that obviously, we can do enough hair and makeup ourselves to achieve what we want. Man, it sure helps if you want to be sweaty if you’re actually drenched in sweat. By the time you shoot someone single, you see that looks great. That’s a neat insight that gives a good, good look.
Aaron Moorhead: We have this thing that’ll probably be on some version of a Blu-ray or online called Scene Zero, where we just about a month before shooting, just tested out. It’s like, “Can we shoot a movie with just the two of us? With no in-person crew.” By the way, there’s plenty of people to help us out with this movie. But like our art department was remote and it would drop stuff in the mornings. On the actual day, we had our producer Dave who would also help us with sound and everything. Not just sound actually. But we’re like, “Can we do this?” And so there’s this bizarre scene that’s a version of the scene where we see the phenomenon for the first time, we don’t know our lines. So we’re just kind of talking mumble. And, we realized so many things, but one of them was, “Oh, we can’t operate camera in our wardrobe.” We have to change every time we operate the camera because we’re going to sweat through our wardrobe. So that was kind of an interesting weird little thing to notice.
Justin Benson: You have a title for this article now. We’re sweaty.
Aaron Moorhead: Two sweaty boys!
The home videos were of you two, right?
Aaron Moorhead: My grandma passed away a few years ago. And I wanted to make her this In Memoriam video. And so I got all my home videos, photos that we had for my whole family and compiled it into this thing. But this was an extremely emotional evening, going through it all, but I wasn’t expecting, I didn’t know what it would be. Actually, for example, so I was gonna make it a little longer, but there’s this moment where we were all on a whale watching trip off the coast of New Hampshire, something crazy like that. I don’t know what it was. But my dad is a tugboat captain, not a cinematographer. But for some reason, during lunch, he chose to just park the camera on a close-up on everybody, one by one for 10 seconds. And you just got a snapshot of who we all were at that moment in time, including my grandma who had passed away. So it was really, really heartbreaking. And after that, I was like, “Justin, if you have home video footage, you got to digitize it, you got to go look at it. But don’t just be alone that night, because it’s gonna be a rough one.”
Justin Benson: I did what he said, I found a collection of about a dozen, half a dozen tapes. In fact, they’re literally the tapes that are in Levi’s bag in the movie, the exact literally the same tapes. And my mom committed suicide while we’re making The Endless and I hadn’t heard her voice or seen her in four or five years. And watching that footage for the first time just before we made this movie was intense. She’s narrating the videos. She’s there. She’s on camera. She’s there. She’s talking through observing me as a child. It was just one of the wildest experiences of my life. And also, what’s funny about those videos now is that Aaron and I obviously share almost nothing in common with these people in the movie, but they now have our childhoods. How weird is that? That is so bizarre.
Aaron Moorhead: So I had to ask my family’s permission, just being like, “Hey, just so you know, I’m pretending that you are related to this guy that might be kind of a bad guy, depending on how you view him. Are you comfortable with that?” I had to describe the character. And I was like, “Are you cool? If I’m saying you are this person’s mom.” That was an interesting conversation.
I feel like all of your characters aren’t necessarily bad people, but they don’t have much going on. They’re stuck in a way.
Justin Benson: So it’s interesting. I think we all as individuals feel like that sometimes, even if we’re not defined by it. And even if that’s not the truth. We can all feel like we try so hard to do these things in my life. And now they’re not happening. I don’t think that’s the case in Levi’s case, for example. I think it’s true. I think he did it. He is a lost soul floating around, however, it’s him expressing that it’s not his fault. It’s the universe’s fault. That’s incorrect. It’s his fault. Some of its circumstances. But you can see him in real time make poor choices that are the choices that hold him back from these things he claims to dream about.
Aaron Moorhead: Levi’s character says, “We’re not friends.” And it’s true, they have the format of a friendship, they hang out, they spend time together, they work together, they joke, but you realize they’re not friends. And the reality is John has found his calling, whether or not he’s good at it is a different thing. One of the reasons that these guys seem to get together is the fact that neither had felt they found their calling, and it kind of made peace within their lives. But they didn’t realize they were in kind of a rut. But one of the things that I think tears them apart by the end of the film is the fact that one did find his calling and the other one didn’t, and that can be really heartbreaking in any relationship.
The film feels very self-aware, with the documentary within a documentary concept. Were the interviews part of the initial idea?
Justin Benson: I think the interviews were in from draft one. And some of that was we’re both obsessed with the book House of Leaves. And there’s something you know, when you’re reading that book, and you can see that all of a sudden, there’s a quote from Anne Rice or Stephen King. That’s really cool, commenting on the story you’re reading. And there’s also a movie by Richard Linklater called Bernie that does it to a really great effect. And so we thought we could do that really well. And that would work really well in this production method we’re using, because you can just bring one person into a safe setting and do these interview questions. All of the other stuff that isn’t the interviews that are the documentary format, most of that came to light to us during rehearsal. It was like halfway through rehearsal, and we’re like, “What the heck are we doing? Why don’t we? Why don’t we actually use these steps to create these documentaries?”
Aaron Moorhead: I think what it was, was we made a joke about a cutaway during a certain moment to each other. Just made a joke. Wouldn’t it be funny if we just cut away there? And it was like five seconds of silence and us just looking at each other with wide eyes. That’s exactly what the whole movie needs to be. And so we started going way back through the script, and just turning everything into the documentary itself in some ways, or at least referencing the method in which it is constructed. And it was one of the most exciting ideas that ever lightning-struck us.
How do you feel with expanding budgets, and working with Netflix and Marvel and all of these bigger corporations?
Aaron Moorhead: I think we used to be nervous about that. But the thing is, between this and Archive 81 and Moon Knight, you don’t feel so nervous about having to prove something. And so, we can walk away from something that doesn’t feel right. And so I think now, we’ll probably be able to keep the amount of control that makes us comfortable. That’s a good way to say that accurately. I don’t know if I’m maybe overstepping.
Justin Benson: No, that’s basically it. The other thing that’s kind of interesting is, without getting into the exact numbers of things, which would mean some sales agent somewhere would be trying to curse our names. But essentially, if you look at the graph of the budgets of like Resolution, Spring, The Endless, Synchronic, Something in the Dirt, the graph would look like this. [Makes a big wave motion] There’s not a linear trajectory of our budgets going up, they’ve gone up, they’ve gone down. The Endless was less than Spring. And Spring was obviously more than Resolution. Synchronic was more than all of them. This one, you know, obviously cost $50 million, but it was worth it.
Aaron Moorhead: There’s also, there’s a big perception, everybody would say what I’m about to say, but there’s still kind of a feeling that there’s some kind of correlation between quality, budget, and a film’s success. And they are all completely uncorrelated from each other. You can have a very successful bad movie, you can have a very low-budget successful movie. You know what I mean? Like maybe the Venn diagram is just three independent circles. So for us, we just want to make sure the quality keeps going up, or at least stays the same and doesn’t go down. And the budget is just not even really a question.
Something in the Dirt premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.