CHM Sitdown with Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead

by Charles Tyra

CHM: Thanks so much for taking the time guys, how’s it going?

JB: It’s going really good. We’ve been in a nonstop work crunch for like two years now. It’s finally getting to a point where we aren’t like: Oh my God, we’re so far behind! We’re starting to create stuff again.

AM: Yeah, (we’re) not just reacting to schedule changes. Even being able to talk to you is a reaping of what we’ve sown. To actually go out and put a movie into the world feels great.

CHM: You guys are crushing it and are a big reason as to why cosmic horror is inching its way into the mainstream, but What challenges are there in adapting cosmic horror to the silver screen? How did you overcome them?

JB: It’s so interesting. While there have been challenges to overcome everywhere, every single day, film making is already about problem solving. It’s a cool career where every day, you pretend like you know what you’re doing but there are about twenty-five new problems.

AM: Everyday is actually your first day!

JB: But in terms of cosmic horror specifically, something that really helped us along was that out of the gate, we didn’t know we were doing it. We didn’t know we were making cosmic horror. There was a weird sort of convergence with the way our minds work. I was someone who was raised atheist but was extremely curious about things beyond our material existence. My imagination was trying to think up, like if there was a deity, what would it be? If there was an afterlife, what would it be? But not having a basis for it. Like, what is infinity, what’s in space? And Aaron, as someone who wasn’t raised that way, I’ll let him speak on that, is such a free-thinking person and had so much curiosity from a young age reading Stephen King and the like. But it is our two minds coming together. We didn’t realize we were making cosmic horror until movie number three. And now you have a way to talk about it even though it was never really the plan.

AM: You bring up something that we never talk about, but it is interesting. There is this amazing real-world analog for what cosmic horror is, which is religion. And I don’t mean you should be horrified by religion. That’s too cynical. But imagine, you are born into this mythology. There is this invisible thing out there that is going to break your mind and your soul. Oh, and do you know what a soul is? It’s this invisible thing inside of you. It’s not your brain, it’s not your body. It’s a very conceptual, heady sort of thing and the consequences are so much greater than with slasher horror where you get stabbed, and you die. It’s like, you’re going to this place that’s actually indescribable but the closest thing we can say is that you will be tortured forever. Cosmic horror comes from the deepest parts of religion.

JB: So, these two minds and sensibilities came together and we had this thing when we first started working together where if one person started to go down a road, and it felt familiar to the other person, we’d go another way. It was almost an unspoken rule of you know, no vampires, no ghosts, et cetera. But once you start doing that, you get into this world of innovation with supernatural stuff. And with that innovation at a certain budget range, you often times can’t show some things but they can be suggested. Trying to be innovative while also on a budget, led to this idea of cosmic horror.

CHM: You guys alluded to this a little already. For me, I am only sitting here today because when I was twelve, I read Lovecraft’s Dagon and it blew my mind. Was there a moment like that for either of you that brought you over to the dark side?

JB: In terms of the darker elements to our material, a lot of that comes from two things. One of them is an appreciation for dualities. Light with darkness. Humor works better among darkness. Romance works better if you take people to the edge. With most human relationships, we felt like we could land in more optimistic, softer places in the same material if we went really dark. It kind of frees you up to have the duality. I also want to say something. You said, you read Dagon? I haven’t read that one. I did recently finish, and hand over to Aaron, Alan Moore’s last big graphic novel, Providence. I don’t think it comes up until somewhere in the last half, but Dagon does come up. It becomes an analysis of all of Lovecraft’s work at a really elevated dense level. It’s amazing, I would recommend it to anybody. But Alan Moore’s Providence is probably my biggest education on Lovecraft, oddly. It goes deep, theorizing on where he got the stories from. And it also gets into the psychology of who he was, the good, and the extremely bad. But I think your going to love it. When you see the Dagon aspect, as it explores exactly where that story comes from, you’re going to have your whole childhood reshaped.

CHM: As filmmakers, how do you feel about the health of the industry, especially in regard to niche horror projects?

JB: God, they’re making a lot of money right now. Not ours! But I’ve seen some box office numbers recently. I’m like, what?!

AM: It’s in such a golden age and it has been for about five years. It’s still as hard as hard as ever to get a movie made and seen but also the quality seems to be going up and there are more innovative production methods. We have a company with our third partner David Lawson (Rustic Films) that was founded on the philosophy that films are not conceptual enough and are too expensive. We thought, we could find and identity other film makers and plug them into money and let them run wild, as long as they had a really good idea, which cosmic horror is all ideas and can be made at a certain price point. Obviously, there are plenty of movies that have come and gone but deserve to stay and I think, with the adjunct of streaming, there are ways for everyone to get a small movie made and get it seen. Every movie gets its day in court, at least a little bit. There’s still plenty of inequality and so much to solve but you’re no longer relying on having a big box office weekend and that’s a huge deal. We get to see more diverse voices, more interesting voices, and just more of them, period.

CHM: Speaking of streaming, with that medium really blowing up during the pandemic, do you think it makes it easier or more difficult to find an audience?

JB: That’s a really good question. It definitely puts more eyes on your movie but we’ve had some movies that have done really well with streaming. Well, it’s funny, how do you really know? But we’ve had movies that were ranked really high for viewership, at least publicly on Netflix. It’s weird, you get more eyes, but I couldn’t really say how much it expands the size of your audience going forward.

AM: It seems like the gatekeeping aspect of it has moved to a different place. Let’s remove streaming, like we were talking about before. You had DVD’s, theatrical, and of course TV. You would have to score a deal to make that work. And that’s only because there is only so much space on the shelf at Walmart, for example. Only so many slides at the theatre. And now, if you want to, you get to go on Amazon Prime. You send a link and you can do revenue sharing immediately. So, the gate has moved. You no longer have to score a deal, now you just have to fight your way through the noise. It’s a different ballgame. Justin made a good point that you might not be finding your audience, but you are finding an audience.

JB: We recently finished season three of Barry. There is a scene of someone having their show canceled on a streaming service while it’s number one on the streaming service. They’re like, it’s been out for twelve hours, what do you mean canceled?!

AM: It was on the front page! Everyone is loving it! 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s just gone. The algorithm doesn’t like it. That’s cosmic horror. The algorithm telling you what you like is the real cosmic horror.

CHM: Do you have any surprising influences as artists that might surprise your fans?

JB: It’s funny, if we did have fans and they heard our influences, they probably wouldn’t be surprised. From a general film maker standpoint, it might be a little surprising. Alan Moore is a big influence. Stephen King, also not surprising. Garth Ennis.

AM: There are some people that you know, just inspire us like El-P from Run the Jewels. You just listen to him talk and your like: Yeah, you are just ruggedly independent all the way through and it’s always worked out for you. It kind of reminds you to just do it. You can do this. Synchronic was our largest film by budget and the next thing we did was Something in the Dirt which by budget, is our smallest film. And that wasn’t scary to us because we have people like El-P saying, yeah turn down money sometimes! Also, Ethan Hawke is a big inspiration even just as a human being.

JB: Yeah, he’s kind of like a renaissance man film maker. The more things you know, editing, acting, directing, plus doing other things that aren’t totally related to film making, they make you better at the job you are showing up for. If you are doing all of them, you’ll understand people so much better. If you ever have a bad interaction with someone on a film set, they are probably busy with their one job they’re doing and haven’t done other things or been able to see someone else’s perspective on it.

AM: It is fascinating, and I’m sorry this is going to sound judgmental, but you notice a humility when someone has done everything on set. You start to notice them keep the kid gloves on for other parts because they know what you’ve been through. Kind of like when you overtip the server. And also, Ethan reminds me that unbridled passion isn’t uncool. It sounds obvious, but you realize that sometimes you hold back on things that you really care about because you worry that gushing loses your veneer of cool, and he has none of that in any instance we’ve seen working with him or in any of his books. He rips his chest open and shows everything without considering that you might judge him for it.

CHM: Going back to 2012 with Resolution to now, how do you think your approach to film making has evolved?

AM: I wouldn’t say it’s changed. It’s more like its solidified. It’s calcified. We can say, oh that was always a good idea you just weren’t sure of it at the time. Like, could I make Resolution today? Yeah, it would probably look pretty similar.

JB: I read the book by RZA, The Tao of Wu. Some of it is autobiographical, some of it is little bits of life wisdom he’s picked up along the way. He has this part where he talks about when they made Thirty Six Chambers, probably one of the greatest pieces of music of all time, certainly one of the greatest albums of all time, regardless of genre. He says, he was so new to it, he really didn’t know what he was doing. Now decades later, with so many new skills picked up, he couldn’t make an album that tops that one. I think there is something interesting about being raw coming out of the gate. I don’t think I would say we’ll never make another move as good as Resolution. Someone else might say it. We loved the film, but there is something so interesting about the idea of being tasked with going out and trying to repeat that. To do that again and capture the spirit of it.

AM: I think Something in the Dirt kind of does. Something in the Dirt reaffirms that we can grab a camera and go make this tiny movie. And I know what you mean, you are always trying to come back home. You just don’t know it when you are leaving. You don’t know it on movie two, three, or four. That you are just trying to get back to what movie number one was at its core. I don’t mean to disagree I just think we did sort of take everything we’ve learned and instead of making some big budget spectacle, we said let’s make a tiny movie where nobody is going to care that it’s small. That when you think about it, it will just feel like a regular old movie.

JB: I want to go on the record, before this goes too far, saying that I am in no way comparing Resolution to a Wu-Tang album. That it has any cultural relevancy at any level compared to that! I just think its an interesting thing to think about comparing the earliest things you’ve done before you know what you know, and saying, could you do it again?

AM: You know what’s possible though? If you don’t mind us going down a country road on this?

CHM: Not at all!

AM: It’s possible that I am delusional. You know when you watch a TV show and they try to fake bad footage but it’s not bad enough because it is being made fake by professionals? So, I wonder if that’s also a thing. Like I can say yeah, Something in the Dirt kind of does that but when you look at it side by side, outside observers are like yeah, there’s definitely ten years between these two. The purity is something we will never get back, you can’t unlive 15 years of filmmaking.

JB: You know, (Aaron) I think with your cinematography. Like, this movie looks spectacular. I think it looks amazing. But then there is a world with what your cinematography could have become, where there is more ‘following the rules’ but you didn’t, and the cinematography is better for it. Because you’ve never done that. You’ve never not taken risks.

AM: I’ve been tempted!

JB: Yeah, you could have. You could have said now I have all this technical knowledge and I’m applying it in a way that makes it look bigger and more professional but ultimately, it’s kind of a little more boring. But you don’t flag yourself for it, it’s just so hard to do!

AM: It’s so hard to take something that’s still rough around the edges, but it’s correct. Now is the place to stop, don’t sand off the edges. Do you know what the edges should be? You want to fix everything, but I think we are going down a better path for that now.

CHM: Any connection to other films for Something in the Dirt? Can I expect an appearance of Shitty Carl?

JB: First of all, yeah there are a lot. Someday when this movie becomes available and you can flip through frames, you will catch a lot.

AM: Yeah, dozens and dozens. So, we do view this in a way that all the movies are connected. So, this one is more strongly connected than Spring and Synchronic but less strongly connected than Resolution and The Endless.

CHM: Is there anything else about Something in the Dirt you guys would like to say?

AM: At the end of the film, you’ll see in the credits, it’s dedicated to making movies with your friends. You’ll be able to see frame by frame when you pirate the movie, time-lapses of us all working together. There is a third one of us who should be here, David Lawson. He’s been with us every single step of the way. (He is) Smiling Dave, in The Endless. And it’s more true than ever, both in the world but for us as well. We just want to make movies with our friends. Every time you build a crew, you build a little family and every time you look outside of the people you know for help, it’s the wrong way. The people you know and love, you gravitate toward each other for a reason. The talent will grow with you. We just want to honor that idea and you know, the movies just get better and better as long as you make them with your friends.

JB: Plus the hours are too long to not be dealing with friends!

CHM: Thanks so much for your time, guys. You’ve been incredible!

Faithful (or new) CHM reader, if you love cosmic horror, particularly on film, go see Something in the Dirt any way that you can! The movie is set for release in the United States on November 3! Check for local show times or toss a bag of kettle corn into the microwave and catch it streaming in the comfort of your home. Keep an eye on our social media channels and we will post as soon as we know which streaming platform will carry the film!

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