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Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have managed to leave their mark on genre filmmaking since their first movie was released in 2012. From body horror to UFO death cults, the pair have released some of the most mind-bending films of the past decade. Their latest release is their unique take on the haunted house movie. The duo spoke about with AIPT about Something in the Dirt, Los Angeles, and not writing traditional protagonists.
AIPT: What was the inspiration behind Something in the Dirt?
Aaron Moorhead: It was somewhere a few months into the early lockdowns of the pandemic, and we were kicking around exactly how we would try to remain productive during that time.
And we were reminded of all of these pitches that we’d done for the last decade, starting with our first film, Because Resolution technically lands in the horror genre, it’s kind of a rite of passage that you just get sent every haunted house franchise, and they kind of want to see your take on it. And not just haunted house, but this in particular, we always would pitch on it, and they would say, “Give us your weirdest, most left-of-center, strangest, most out-there idea. We’re looking for something fresh.” And then we’d develop it over a week and pitch it, and you could kind of see their eyes glaze over as we pitch it, and they’re like, “Oh, guys, not that. Not that left-of-center.”
And so, we never ended up getting those pitches and remained unemployed for a decade. But we had all these really cool, left-of-center explorations of what we thought a haunted house could look like. In some ways it felt like a gauntlet had been thrown down that; can we take on the haunted house genre and make it so that most people probably wouldn’t even identify it as a haunted house movie?
Justin Benson: All of that is a thousand percent true. So, all of our movies, the intent is always that our main protagonist is not a traditional hero of the story. And obviously, in Something in the Dirt, they’re so flawed. Clearly, not one of these guys is a traditional hero in any way.
But in every movie prior, we’d always get this note that would just be something like, “Well, I’m not really sure who the hero is. You might want to clarify that a little bit.”
But it was funny because our first movie, Resolution, the intent was that Mike would be pretty flawed. And when you think about it, Mike tased his best friend, kidnapped him, and handcuffed him to a pipe. He’s super flawed. But I think Pete’s so likable that our intent to make him flawed doesn’t always come across. Evan in Spring has a horrifying temper. In the first five minutes of the movie, he brutally attacks someone in a bar. He was meant to be flawed, but again, Lou Taylor Pucci is so likable that maybe our intent to make him flawed doesn’t always come across.
AIPT: Levi and John are the heart of the story. How much of yourselves are put into the characters?
Moorhead: There’s a little, tiny bit of observations about how we actually feel about the city of Los Angeles in there. The way that I was able to connect with that character as a performer was, I think John is someone I would’ve been, had I taken a different path when I was about 12 years old. There was a different person I could have been that didn’t end up turning into the person I am.Moorhead:
Jusin pointed this out recently. It’s interesting. Because we used our childhood footage, these characters also have our childhoods, despite being not ourselves.
Benson: Yeah, and like Aaron was saying, another big thing we intended to do from the get-go in this movie is just essentially, we wanted these guys to be wildly unlike who we are in real life. Some of those things came from characteristics we may have had in our childhood, but learned to veer away from them.
I know there were characteristics in Levi that were things that characterized people I grew up with in my teenage years and I guess, in a weird way, wanted to honor what that was. There was a few guys who really stuck out to me in my adolescence, but they, unfortunately, had passed away in the journey of their life. And I just wanted to kind of honor aspects of their personality and also just things that I found fascinating.
It’s not always negative, but there’s the thing that Levi says at the window sill about feeling like he’s always had this gravity on him, feeling like the universe was sort of conspiring against him. And I remember just having friends, growing up, express that to me.
And then, not always, but sometimes, five minutes later, they’d be like, “I was really trying to get clean, but then I was at the gas station, and I’m pumping gas, and this guy just comes up to me, and he’s like, ‘I really need you to take this bag of drugs.'” And it’s like, “I don’t think that the universe conspires that much.” And sometimes it can feel that way, but really, it’s some of your own weaknesses, the weaknesses we all have as human beings.
AIPT: There’s some intense moments between the two, but even when everything’s going smoothly between them, there’s this underlying tension. There’s a give and take between them. How important was it to get that feeling across to the audience?
Moorhead: Oh, such a great question because there was another thing that was rather complicated but one of the most interesting challenges of making this film, which is we wanted people to wonder not just who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, and then land on, “They’re both flawed.” Hopefully they land there, but also have very wildly changing loyalties and even wondering who the main character is.
That question mark should continue through the end of the film. You finish the film and you don’t land on, “Oh, I know who the main character was.” So even starting the film on Levi and spending three minutes with him alone, without saying a word, indicates to the audience that this is going to be a movie about Levi.
So, finding the balance of that push and pull, was relatively easy, I think, as directors and performers because we just knew the core of each character. John was, in a sentence, a “keep-going” person, and Levi was a “I just want to live” person. “I just don’t want to die” I guess is a way to say it.
And so it was kind of easy within the scenes to know where each of them would be at, because they both had the curiosity. They both had the desire to do this thing and figure it out. But they had different levels of self-preservation versus their desire to be great.
AIPT: Los Angeles is in a lot of movies, and you either get the whole “I Love LA” version of it, or you’re going to look at Skid Row. This is right in the middle. People who are no-names living check to check. Why did you pick this particular setting?
Benson: Well, Los Angeles had been, more or less, off limits to us in our prior feature films. Our prior features were specifically written to take place in other cities. And in the case of Resolution and The Endless, it’s intentionally set in a place that we knew we had access to, and we wouldn’t run into expensive permitting or needing a whole lot of highway patrol need to shut down roads or any of that. Essentially, just things that were cost-prohibitive or prohibitive for making an indie film.
During the pandemic, it seemed like… I don’t know. I give an example. Container laws change. Suddenly, people would be walking down the street with a cocktail. So given that environment, it seemed like we could probably get away with shooting in Los Angeles, with our tiny three-person crew still, and be less likely to get arrested or fined or any of those things.
It just felt like the city was open to us, finally, to make an independent film and to feature the places that, even if it’s not places that we personally go to a lot, it just seemed like a side to LA that is honest and had never really been expressed in cinema before and that were just visually interesting.
Moorhead: We really wanted to make characters the most relatable thing in the world to us, which was just people that were right in the middle, coasting on by, when something happens to them, and that’s the moment they have to seize their destiny.
AIPT: How would you categorize Something in the Dirt, if you had to?
Benson: This is going to sound really self-aggrandizing, and I don’t mean it to be that way, but what we’ve been hoping to do, for the last decade or so, is to make films where people would just say it’s our production company, Rustic Films. “It’s a Rustic film,” or, “It’s a Moorhead and Benson film,” as opposed to needing that to fall within a genre. And I think we’ve never made a film with the aim of landing squarely in any genre, nor have we been trying to not.
We just kind of follow our impulses of whatever we think is scary or unsettling or would hopefully give the audience a feeling of dread or is funny in the moment without violating tone, and that ultimately, on a long enough time line, if we did this like a thousand times, that when people see, again, our company logo, Rustic Films, or they see Moorhead and Benson, they know what’re the getting themselves into.
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