"Who is Shitty Carl?": Interview with Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead

First published by Grolsch FilmWorks – although this is a much longer, and frankly messier ‘cut’ of my Skype conversation with filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (ResolutionSpring), here published in full ‘for the record.’ They were very funny interviewees – something which perhaps does not come across so clearly in the bare transcript – and I find it particularly amusing to see how polite they are in skewering my crazy interpretations of their films.

Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead
Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead

Anton Bitel: How did you meet?

Aaron Moorhead: When I moved down to Los Angeles, I was just like, “I should probably get an internship”. And I went and got it, and all it was was just pushing coffee around. It was at Ridley Scott’s commercial production company. It was my very first day there, and I met this guy, and it was his very last day –  it was Justin Benson. We just happened to sit at the same table on that one day we met, and talk to each other. He was like, “Hey, I want to be a director,” and I was like, “I want to be a director and DP”. It wasn’t like immediate, it was like a few months later, he lived right next to me, so we chilled out a little bit, and he called me up, and he was like, “Hey, do you want to come out and be an assistant cameraman on this commercial I’m directing?”, and I’m like, “Yeah sure.” And then, “Do you want to shoot the commercial?” – you know, another commercial, and we started working more and more holistically together. With Resolution [2012], our first feature, we officially co-directed for the first time.

AB: And Justin, I know that you do all the writing now for your co-productions, but what does it actually mean to co-direct? How do you divide your labours on set?

Justin Benson: That’s a hard thing to get into. We plan so much before we get to set that it doesn’t leave very much to discuss on set. We plan it really thoroughly. We’re producers on the films too, so we’re with it from the conception and beyond, so there are so many things that actually don’t even need to be discussed, they’re just obvious.

AB: Is it as straightforward as one of you works with actors and the other deals with contingencies on set, or are you both equally dividing everything on set?

JB: Equally dividing everything. Yeah, everything really. Even as a writing process there’s noone who’s closer to the scripts than Aaron. Pretty much everything is shared.

AM: Essentially whoever is closest to the problem and can fix it most efficiently – and fastest. We both know we’re going to have the same answer, so it’s much more about efficiency than, like, “Oh, you’re better at this than I am” kind of thing.

AB: Are there advantages to being co-directors?

JB: For one thing, if you look at the stuff we’ve done on our own versus the stuff we’ve done together, the stuff we’ve done together is far superior to the stuff we’ve done on our own. But beyond that, if that relationship works, I guess it’s kind of like cheating if you can make it work, but it’s pretty rare that two people can share that position. It just works for us extremely well.

Resolution (2012)
Resolution (2012)

AB: To me, Resolution takes an individual in a life-or-death situation – Chris (Vinny Curran) is determined to die, his friend Mike (Peter Cilella) is equally determined to bring him back to life – and in order to try to turn the contradictory dynamics of that situation into a story with a tidy resolution, the film resorts to a series of increasingly supernatural narrative frames – and as such, it’s almost like a Pirandello-esque spin on horror, as its characters go in search of their story and their (film)maker. How do you see the film?

AM: There aren’t very many interpretations of the film that people have given us where we’re just like, “That’s just wrong.”… But stuff like that – that can be thematically correct. I wouldn’t say that that conversation happened between Justin and I before we made the movie, and there is a very literal interpretation of it too, if you wanted to, and that’s how we established our own ground rules of how to make a film that works the way that it does. So I would never ever say that what you just said is incorrect, for there is something very very, um, especially about the fact that there needs to be some sort of, there’s this compulsion for a tidy resolution in the film. Hence the title. He [Chris] gets back to rehab. You know, he’s like, “Alright, I’m gonna go to rehab.” Like yeah, that’s an ending, right? That’s a resolution. And it’s still never enough. In many ways it’s about power and it’s about greed – of the viewer – and also the people trying to control – control, more than power – but trying to control the situation and bring it somewhere tidily. So yeah. But there’s also a very literal version that you’re looking at the movie through the eyes of a – quite literally through the eyes of an invisible entity that’s enacting its will on the audience – on the story – in order to create a dramatic narrative that wouldn’t otherwise be there. If you look at the movie like this, if you watch it from the very beginning the second or third time you see it, you’ll see that every single shot, every single piece of sound design, is subjective, it is the point of view of something – and a central mystery of the movie is: what is that thing? Is it one of the red herrings that we threw out – the UFO cult, something to do with Native American mysticism, the tweekers nearby, the devil at the door with the briefcase – all these are just red herrings for what’s behind the camera, the central message of that movie. But again, if you rewatch it, every single piece of sound design and every shot is planned and sort of orchestrated from the character of what’s behind that fourth wall.

JB: We set down some really really strict ground rules for how to approach the film, especially from a technical standpoint, in order to achieve exactly that. What sucks though is that it makes it anti-cinematic. You can’t sting a particular moment with dramatic sound design. Even narratively, if it works like a regular movie, unfortunately the whole premise falls apart, and so it has to shape within those boundaries a little bit. There’s no music in the film, there’s no sound design in the film that doesn’t actually exist right there in front of you or wouldn’t be a subjective thing. You’ll also notice that there’s no close-ups in the film, except for one time when the camera gets right in [actor] Pete [Cilella]’s face when he says, “It needs a resolution.” (laughs) You know, or it needs a story with an ending. There’s no close-ups, there’s no focus – it’s always in flat focus. All of that is very much on purpose, and it all derives from this almost Dogme 95 – we’d never say it’s like that – but almost dogmatic rules that we laid down before we got going. One last thing I’d just like to mention – I haven’t talked about it in a long time. When Michael first slogs up to the porch and Chris fires that gun in the air, within the sound design it sounds like how it sounds in your ear when someone fires a gun right by your ear. Like, it rings for a sec, and it sounds like you’re underwater, then it comes back. Than was one of the more fun, like highly, highly subjective pieces of sound design. You know, usually it’s used as a stylistic thing, like I think that happens a lot in war movies, but it was fun to use it like literally – the second or third time you see it, hopefully someone will go, “Whoa!” – literally there is like some sort of organic entity with similar ears.

AB: In that film you’re trying to conjure an authorial presence without actually showing what is making the film –

JB: Right, exactly.

AB: Is that tied in with the fact that you both have your own wacky cameos as UFO cultists who even share your real names?

AM: Yeah, um (laughs). I don’t know if we can take credit for it. I think we would have gotten actors if they would have been available. I don’t know, what do you think, Justin?

JB: Yeah, those characters, them being creepy sort of hinged on their being as normal as possible, despite the fact that they are very quickly going to reveal what they are, they’re kinda recruiters of this pretty wild galactic mythology. But like, we’re like really, like, painfully corny, normal looking dudes, so we’re perfect casting for that. And from a logistical standpoint, producing that movie with no money, we were like, “Of course, why don’t we just play it, instead of casting more actors, and trying to get them out there?” – ‘cos if any more were brought up, we had to figure out a way to pay for them, a place to stay and feed them.

AM: I have to throw you in the mindset of when we were making this. Now it’s out there in the world. People have heard of it, kind of. Maybe they know our faces or something. But when we finished the movie, we went back to bar-backing and Craigslist. There was no reason to insert our own faces into the movie, nobody would have understood that.  Four people would have understood that, although maybe thematically, yes, but it wasn’t something that was in any way planned, like, “Yeah, when the movie hits big, they’re gonna totally get that joke!”

 * * *

AB: Shortly after Resolution‘s successful festival run and a very limited theatrical release in the US in early 2013, Fede Alvarez’s much bigger budget studio picture Evil Dead (2013) was all over our cinema screens. Superficially both films have a common premise – cold turkey in a cabin, if that’s like a subsubsubgenre – but Evil Dead was an utterly derivative remake, while your film is a true original that defies easy categorisation and actually challenges the viewer. What does the fact that more people will have seen Evil Dead say about the state of commercial horror cinema today?

JB: There was a very limited release in the cinema of Resolution. The only reason Resolution was released in theatres was to sell a certain price point on VoD, and to get that branding stamp, “Hello, this is in theatres!” Hopefully what it gets the movie is a kind of credibility with audiences. All that said, one of the biggest differences in those models is that with Evil Dead you’ve got something like a $25million marketing budget, and that is going to create a massive public awareness that you can’t even compare with the awareness of Resolution. On the one hand, Resolution was never even offered to that portion of the world, so whether it would have been successful or not in the same way Evil Dead was, is like, I dunno, maybe if you popped $25 million worth of marketing into Resolution, would it make the same impact if the same amount  of people see it? I dunno. Evil Dead, you’ve got a brand name, and I honestly don’t know if the audience you reach with $25 million, if they’d rather go see just visceral makeup effects and more traditional horror than they’d see something more cerebral. I honestly don’t, I have no idea. The more I talk to people – you make films that have some scarier component to them, you talk to people a lot about them – I think most people actually do want more, from – let’s not call them horror movies, let’s say in the genre of scary. I think people want more from them, I think the audience has been underestimated to a certain extent.

AM: I totally agree. I think that the fact that we are underestimating the audience a lot, I think that that doesn’t mean – we don’t have any – a lot of people just seem to hate audiences because they go see Transformers, and they hate audiences for it, but it’s not really that. There are middle grounds – that aren’t compromises, that aren’t wishywashy movies. There’s still pretty intelligent genre film out there – even something like The Dark Knight, like it’s actually a pretty intelligent genre film.

JB: And then there’s some really adult stuff too, but what they want is The Dark Knight.

AM: What people want is something that hits all the marks, whereas Resolution doesn’t really have anything visceral about it, and Evil Dead has everything visceral about it. I think it’s a tough target to hit, but I think it’s just being really in tune with the audience and finding those things that you like that they like – just making sure that in that Venn diagramme you can get right there in that perfect centre point. That’s that movie that can have success – commercial success but not just be so completely dumb. I think audiences are a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and not just indie ones, not just cinemalovers, but the quote unquotes blue-collar Netflix crowd, the Redbox crowd.

JB: Not to take anything away from the extreme artistry and craftsmanship, you know what they accomplished in Evil Dead in terms of the practical effects in it. Those things are very hard to do, very expensive, they take a very long time, and certain directors get that right, certain ones don’t, certain directors work with the right companies, certain ones don’t. There’s a lot of variables there, and that’s a really huge achievement to pull something like that off. However, if I had to guess why the Evil Dead goes into 3600 theatres, and gets a $25 million marketing budget, I’d say it’s just the IP – the intellectual property of Evil Dead. Like yeah, everybody’s going to go and see something called Evil Dead, that brand. Like, over decades it’s grown, and people are interested in it, and they recognise it – so it’s as simple as that. Whereas Resolution is kind of the opposite. There’s something 500 people know about.

AB: At that level, given that – it’s an independent film – you are coming from a completely different place from a big prooduction like Evil Dead, is it the case that, because of Resolution, you were able to go on and make Spring, which is a bigger budget film, and has actors that people will recognise in it? Was it an important stepping stone? (laughs) I don’t want to reduce your film to a stepping stone…

JB: It’s a huge stepping stone. Anyone can – you know, you can make your first microbudget film now,  the technology’s available, there’s more and more people doing it. Still if you pull that off, it’s a huge accomplishment, and we did it with Resolution, it opened tonnes of doors for us. We probably could have much more easily gone and made something like Evil Dead, but then we couldn’t have – Spring was a really hard movie for us to produce, to put together on the business side of things. And yeah, Resolution opened a lot of doors. Now that said, your first microbudget film in the 2010s is not the same thing as, like, in the 90s you have a breakout indie hit. It’s kinda like, you’re halfway to where people really trust you can make a real film, ‘cos there’s just more people doing it, because the technology’s available. So that’s an interesting kind of new thing, you know.

'Bonestorm', from V/H/S/ Viral (2014)
‘Bonestorm’, from V/H/S/ Viral (2014)

AB: In ‘Bonestorm’, the segment you contributed to V/H/S Viral (2014), your skateboarding heroes seem to treat a group of murderous Mexican Satanists – and the demons that they raise – as just another challenging obstacle in a day full of adventure. Would you regard the constant proximity of death as the key theme in all of the work that you’ve done together?

JB: That’s interesting. (pause) Wow.

AM: I dunno, I’ve never even thought about that. I guess that’s pretty – because also in our promo videos, Justin dies like every time and we didn’t even mean to.

JB: Yeah. You know, it’s weird, because I never really thought of it as the proximity of death. I think for me I think about it as, as , um, um, man, it’s something that was once called something like the cosmic fear, the, um, the encoraching doom, the oncoming doom, like a train on the tracks. A lot of filmmakers do this and a lot of storytellers do this, this kind of building stormclouds around their story. I think that’s definitely something I work in a lot and that seems to kind of relate in a lot of ways to immortality. There seems to be something vaguely immortal in almost everything we do, which is interesting. Yeah.

AM: Wow, I really like that, I never thought about it that way.

Spring (2014)
Spring (2014)

AB: That brings me to your latest film Spring, with the theme of immortality that you mentioned. Not unlike its heroine Louise (Nadia Hilker), Spring is something of a hybrid creature. On the one hand, it’s a brief spring romance between strangers abroad, in the spirit of Linklater’s Before Sunrise; on the other, it’s a moody contemplation of time, science and religion, mortality and the infinite; and it is also, eventually, a monster movie, with a kind of monster never before seen. What benefits come from this strange marriage of different genres and tropes?

JB: This may be hard to believe, we never actually discuss what genre it is we’re working in. We just kind of do whatever – it’s basically whatever interests us in the moment while there’s still being an intent on high comprehension by the audience, naturalism and also, um – it’s like, e.g., if there’s a joke that we think is hilarious and it doesn’t break tone, it will always end up in the film. Like we’ll fight for it, through production meeting editorial, through like anything. But there are certain jokes that do break the tone. Vinny Curran is literally one of the funniest guys in the world, but we couldn’t use all of his jokes in Resolution, not because they weren’t brilliant but because if you saw it before we cut it, it was like: I was scared, and I needed a bit of scary, I’d get a little bit, and then I was watching Anchorman for 15 seconds. So, there’s a fine line – basically what feels right in the moment to capture the humanity of it, and then also simultaneously bringing the goods of what we all like to see in spectacular cinema.

AM: You know also, something that’s also really nice about it is that we are very much allowed to – a lot of the time when you’re developing something, if you worked in a co-directorship, a lot of the time, the conversations can go like this: “Oh I like this thing, but it breaks tone,” or “but it breaks the genre or the mood.” Or like, “Oh, that’s too funny, we’re in a horror movie, we’re in a romance. That’s too funny.” It’s something like that. And first, it’s basically complete freedom to just go with our gut instincts, and as long as it feels like it’s happening in the here and now, like the real world, we can just do whatever we really want, because, again, tying back to not underestimating your audience, that’s probably what the audience wants too. Honestly, it’s just very freeing. There’s no chemistry to it, it’s not saying, “Here’s this horror thing, here’s this romance, let’s put it in a pot.” It’s genuinely just us kind of being like, “What do we feel like doing right now?” And we go for it, and as long as it’s not too unrestrained, we don’t want our brains to fall out of our head, but as long as it’s not too unrestrained, it seems that everyone’s on board for that.

AB: Certainly the comedy that you put in the dialogue totally humanises the characters. Potentially Louise could be a very ethereal, out-there figure, but she’s just anchored into reality immediately because of the way she speaks.

JB: Yeah. There were a couple of simple things that we had talked about going into it, that we think the movie benefited [from] quite a bit. It’s, like, pretty obvious. With Louise, if you have an immortal character and you don’t make them really tortured and have an existential crisis, speaking in an aristocratic accent left over from the 1700s, if you just made it about someone who’s changing with the times. There’s a levity to her, she has a sense of humour about herself and things – it’s just something you don’t see in immortal characters in storytelling all that often. And then the other thing was, like, in the case of Evan [Lou Taylor Pucci]: it was like, oh, here’s a romantic lead in an indie film. There’s long takes here, it’s very naturalistic. There are some things there that you would characterise as ‘This is an indie film romance’ – but our male lead is the one going after the girl, which oddly enough is pretty rare in indie film romances. For some reason in indie film romances, it’s always the girl initiating the romance with the guy, and even despite the fact that he’s just had something fairly traumatic just happen in his life, he’s still the one going after – well, they’re sort of going after each other simultaneously, but hers are for, like, self-preservation reasons, and his are about being very impulsive in everything in his life.

AB: I guess in a sense you’ve already answered this question, but I’ll ask it anyway: do you consider yourselves horror directors? Why, or why not?

AM: I would never want to say no to that, because we have no problem with horror – we love it, and we work in that space – but we just like anything that we find interesting, and so everything we ever do will just be something that we find particularly interesting, and we don’t really want to particularly limit ourselves to any one genre. That said though, if someone says, “Those two horror directors, they did horror movies,” we’d be like, “Yes, we did.” And we love them. And I only clarify that because in many ways horror is the red-headed stepchild, and we’re not that. We love horror, we watch it, we go on the horror circuit like non-stop, and we watch everybody’s contemporary movies that we can too. But I wouldn’t want anybody to watch any of our next movies that might or might not be so much horror, and go, “Hey, what are they doing? What’s up with those guys, those horror directors?” – throwing their roots away, or something. It’s just not – yeah. I think we really like a fantastic element, whatever it is. Some kind of fantasy, sci fi, horror – we like that in our films. It’s not destined to be there, but we like it a lot. We’re attracted to it.

JB: Our next movie is about Aleister Crowley. There’s a lot of bad versions of an Aleister Crowley movie, and I’m not saying this one is necessarily bad, but – yes, ours could be characterised as a horror film, but as I said, it’s about the human being Aleister Crowley and not the caricature Aleister Crowley. There’s literally not a pentagram in the movie. It’s not about a satanist or whatever, it’s about a human being, it’s a very complicated belief system, and you know, it’s funny, it’s tragic, you improvise with it, but he’s not just like a straight horror movie blackmagic version of Aleister Crowley.

AB: Do you know who’s going to be playing him?

JB: No, no idea yet. It hasn’t been cast yet. It’ll be interesting to see.

AM: I’ve been working on my British accent, and I might be able to nail it, but I have to kind of stress tonight: this is the first time I’ve brought it up, Justin. I was practising in the mirror, and I was, like, “Wow! That is British!” [does terrible Cockney accent] “Oi guv…” (laughs)

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 23.41.04AB: I’ve lived here 20 years and I still don’t sound British. Can I end with a couple of really banal questions about small details of your films? In Spring, Louise and Evan are on the couch, and they’ve just watched a movie on her television set. We can see the DVD menu on the screen – it’s Japanese, I think. What’s the movie?

AM: Well we weren’t able to legally get the rights to any movie without paying for it, so I didn’t want that. So we took a piece of art of Medusa that is in the Creative Commons space right now, cos it’s like 400 years old, made it red and blue so it looked giallo, and then in Chinese it says “The woman with the strange body”. So she basically had Evan watch with her a Chinese bootleg of a sort-of giallo film. It used to actually be “Transformers”, but we realised that if this ever gets released in China, they’re going to go, “What? That’s a bad joke”. I like the joke – the transforming, whatever.

AB: Near the beginning of Spring, as Evan is fired from his job as sous-chef in a bar, his boss Mike reassures him: “I can bring you back – I brought Shitty Carl back, and he stabbed a goddam crippled guy in the leg with a fork.” In fact, this is also you bringing Shitty Carl back, as we heard Chris briefly namedrop him in Resolution too. So who the hell is Shitty Carl? Why does he keep haunting the background world of your features? And is he going to come back in your future features?

JB: (laughs) If this is an article, can the title be, “Who is Shitty Carl”? Oh god, well actually, what it was, is, in Resolution we were just rehearsing, early on in the rehearsal process, and Vinny Curran was rehearsing the line, “Oh, I sold all that shit years ago.” And in rehearsal, he just goes, “Oh I sold all that shit like a really long time ago to Shitty Carl” – oh and by the way, he have a friend named Shitty Carl who we all know. But now we have this fantasy of a movie where there’s also a character named Dale that shows up, who’s also just an asshole. We want Shitty Carl and Dale to get together and to go pretend to be, like, paramilitary enthusiasts, and go treasure-hunting or something. We’ll send you a link to something that really integrates Shitty Carl with Dale a whole lot.

AM: Shitty Carl and Dale are in a blog by the guy who gathered the footage from Resolution. This exists, we’ll send it to you.

Interviewed by Anton Bitel