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Dirty Talk - A Conversation with Moorhead and Benson

(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in November 2022)

Something In The Dirt will be in UK Cinemas from 4th November and on Digital Download + Blu-ray from 5th December

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead burst onto the scene with 2012’s “Resolution”, a smart and tense sci-fi thriller which marked them as masters of the high concept and a distinctive visual style. 2017 saw the release of “The Endless” – a sequel of sorts to the Resolution, but expanding dramatically upon that premise – and from then on, the hands-on co-directors have gone from strength to strength. 2020 saw them direct an episode of Jordan Peele’s reboot “The Twilight Zone”, and they’ve recently directed two episodes of Marvel’s 2022 Moon Knight. And now 2022 sees the release of their new film, “Something In The Dirt” – an ambiguous tale of doomed friendships, conspiracies and the preternatural invading the mundane. The film saw its UK debut at the Arrow Frightfest festival on Saturday the 27th of August. Journalistic integrity (aka anxious preparation and planning) meant that I missed it on the big screen, but thanks to a screener I was able to watch it – and even having watched it on a small mobile screen, I can vouch for the films power and effectiveness. A full review will be forthcoming, but circumstances meant that I was lucky enough to bag an interview with the two directors and their producer. It was worth missing Dario Argento on stage for.

So, early evening at a small table outside the Soho Brasserie at the West End of London, Ginger Nuts of Horror got to sit with Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson and producer Dave Lawson Jr. Keir – their PR guy – told us they were talkative and that we might struggle to get through all of our questions in the timeframe, and he wasn’t wrong – they were friendly, affable and enthused. Aaron was briefly away from the table, so we briefly touched on their experiences that morning at the Frightfest screening. JUSTIN: It's funny in all of a lot of years of being lucky enough to play at film festivals and to have small theatrical releases, I don't think we've ever seen it that nice. Like with that nice of a screen. It's like - it's exactly as we mixed it. You never hear the sound exactly as you mixed it. DAVE: We literally didn't even touch it, we just- GNOH: You just went for it. (Aaron arrives) GNOH: Nice to meet you. AARON: You too. Cool tattoos. JUSTIN: Aaron, Dave and I just made an interesting observation. That was one of the first times that we've had our movie played back and the audio was the same time as the last time you heard it in the mix. AARON: Yeah, my God. GNOH: I'm going to have to be absolutely honest now; My wife got to see your Frightfest screening but I was off preparing for this. I got to see it on a screener at 7am this morning on my mobile phone. JUSTIN: That’s what it's supposed to be! GNOH: It worked perfectly well on the screen of my Samsung. AARON: We designed the movie to be watched while jogging, wearing cheap headphones, on your way to work. GNOH: A lot of the footage is pretty low-fi anyway, to be fair. JUSTIN: It is funny, because we realise a majority of people are not going to see this at the theatre because that's not how any of us consume the majority of our media. So, it was always like 'yeah, that'll work on a - that'll work on a small screen'. Then we were like we never actually thought about the reverse really - I mean I wonder what this is gonna look like on a really big screen. Ah! It looks brilliant - Great. I'll just be over here smiling ear to ear. AARON: You can see all of our pores. JUSTIN: There was one shot of you - it was wow. Those macro shots were tight. AARON: When I was sweating? JUSTIN: It was a different one - just an extreme close-up. GNOH: It's an amazingly sized screen. JUSTIN: It transfers really well too; we've played on IMAX before, but it wasn't quite as bright as the film should have been, because of - whatever. GNOH: Some hidden Imax control panel setting somewhere! DAVE: I mean that's always tough. It's so big! But not bright. JUSTIN: But the thing is the screen was so big, and the technical perfection was so amazing, I wanted to shout out "Put on Dune!". I don't care about this right now! Put on Dune! We can watch this on a smaller screen. GNOH: It’ll please Aaronofsky, because he was moaning that everybody would watch Dune on their mobile phone screens. It'll keep him perfectly happy. Anyway, I'll introduce myself properly - I'm David, and am officially here for Ginger Nuts of Horror today. I'll be brutally honest with you - I was here as a punter but found there was a slot available to interview you, so very little preparation whatsoever! JUSTIN: I love it! GNOH: Literally winging it. AARON: Tell us about this tattoo. GNOH: That's my Twilight Zone one. JUSTIN: You know we did an episode of that, and it's an about an octopus. Is your other tattoo an Octopus? GNOH: That's supposed to be Cthulhu. AARON: Aah! GNOH: It needs a redo. It peeled a bit. AARON: All I'm hearing is that you got a tattoo of our Twilight Zone about a hyper-intelligent octopus. DAVE: You know what? That's why he didn't prepare for the interview. I'm joking! GNOH: I do have questions! The first one is the one all writers hate being asked, but what was the inspiration for “Something in the Dirt”? AARON: Dave should answer it this time! GNOH: And what was their pitch to you, Dave? DAVE: Their pitch to me was that I never answer this question and they want to see how well I answer. A lot of this film has come from the last 12 years of us making movies together and writing pitches and scripts that never got made, and doing research into weird left of centre figures in history. We had a bunch of projects that were going into production including one with Justin and Aaron that got kind of curtailed because of COVID and then we were sitting around prepping for that one, preparing for whenever the restrictions lifted and Indy film became something you could do again. We quickly realised that that's not gonna be how this plays out. Like we were like, hey four months, September we'll be able to go back at it. It quickly became clear that was not going to be what was going to happen. We've always been the team who are like - let's go make a movie, so that became our pivot as a team. I think the original idea was it was only to be the two of them - Justin and Aaron - who would be on set. And you even shot a day as a test. AARON: Yeah, Day Zero. DAVE: Which, technically would have worked, but maybe not for a whole feature. Then we realised, no, there needs to be at least three of us. The running joke on set was - one more set of hands. We really could have used one more set of hands. AARON: Always one more set of hands. JUSTIN: We should have had four. DAVE: Yeah, we should have had four people on set. I don't know if we'll ever make that three person movie again, but four person maybe. GNOH: The scales of Resolution and Endless were so vast, big sprawling vistas. Did the pandemic force you down the route of making a smaller more intimate film, or were you planning something bigger and that was curtailed?

AARON: You know it's funny. The movie we had planned that didn't go, that we wanted to do when we exploded out the gates after the pandemic was over, which of course it's never going to be over, but you get the idea. That movie was not much bigger in scale than this one - two people in a house, in the desert. But it would have had massive visuals, and still would have felt like a larger film. This one, we felt like the scale could come from exploring the parts of the city that we love in ways that are normally pretty inaccessible, either through times of not being locked down or not having a crew of three. You know if you bring a whole crew of 25 to Griffith park and you don't pay for it, there's a problem. But we could just run around every little piece of it, and that's how we wanted to bring scale to it is that we would show these little pieces of Los Angeles and use visual effects to composite these sacred symbols that aren't really there, and following this coded rabbit hole all around the city that ends up ending up right where they began. That was our idea of scope. We felt that it would end up having more scope than our movie "Resolution", but also I'd say that scope was like, thing number 15 on our checklist of things we wanted to accomplish. We just really wanted to make sure we nailed the character work first, the mythology second and as long as you hit the character work and mythology, and far down that road is something like scope. GNOH: As an aside, I thought it was your best work yet. Absolutely loved it. JUSTIN: Thank you. We're so proud of it. GNOH: I was particularly impressed, because I inherently have a problem with unreliable narrators in fiction, because you get half way through the film and you think 'why am I watching this?'. You did a great job of unravelling that concept though - you did them excellently well, and that's in a movie with two of them. AARON: I think the reliability or unreliability of the filmmaking being done and the story being told - who's telling it - I think that the things we did with it narratively in the movie, the things we tried. I think it's the first time that we've been frightened by the idea of doing something, frightened to the point where we thought let's make sure we have a backup, so we could edit the movie into not being that if we wanted. And then now - we literally saw the first cut, and we were like oh no, no, no - that is the movie. I don't think this is a spoiler - it's the re-enactment moment, yeah, that revelation. But I genuinely think that was probably our first time that we were a little afraid - let's make sure we have an emergency lever. JUSTIN: The fact that something that wild ended up seamlessly working and becoming the crux of why the movie works probably has emboldened us that those who hire us in the future will find us desiring to do something that strange, because our biggest swing seemed to connect, and we'll be chasing that for a while. GNOH: I was worried that I'd read too much into the re-enactment stuff, because it literally changes the whole narrative. Because everything you've watching might not have happened. JUSTIN: Might not. GNOH: We know you'd been to Frightfest in Glasgow - how many have you been to? Do you enjoy the Frightfest experience? AARON: I'm going to tell you something that'll blow your mind - today is our first day ever being at Frightfest. We had a late night last night, we came in for the Frightfest parties. We had a late night, and we all gathered - huddled up this morning - got together, took the tube here, got here, and Paul McEvoy grabbed us, like "let me take you on a tour". And we were like, do we need a tour, we haven't had coffee yet, and we see this staircase lit up with blood and thousands of people and the screen is like bigger than a skyscraper. We've been going to film festivals for over a decade, and we've never been to one like this. Literally the biggest. I mean, everything is bigger. The audience is bigger, the screens are bigger, and the level of excellence of presentation is on some other level. DAVE: I mean, it was really fun. We were screening at 10:30 and 11:00, and we were like who is going to come at this time of the morning? And those screens were packed. AARON: There’s a curse that every film maker has. You finish your film to a technical standard - you colour grade it, and you're like "this is how it should look". Especially with the sound mix - you mix the music, and it's perfect in a very precise way and it takes weeks, and it's expensive. And I say "you" but I mean your sound mixer, because I don't want to take anything away from them. And then it never looks or sounds that good ever again. You get to the top, and everything is just a little calibration different. It's always like a little gut punch, like a twisting in your gut, like something is like a little wrong, and you can't explain it, you can't apologise for it. And it's so cool to come here to Frightfest, and it looked better than ever. It looked and sounded exactly like it should, and it's just so wonderful. But it's all downhill from here. GNOH: Did it magnify any errors you missed? JUSTIN: No! What's wild too, is that as we were making it, we were all hoping that we want it to look like 16mm - how do you do that - you're an Indy filmmaker and you're making a little movie, often making films costs are prohibitive. There are ways to do it - I mean, Joe Begas does it beautifully. For us, we just haven't quite figured that out so we're shooting RED and it does look great because Aaron is an amazing cinematographer - but the whole process is "we want to make it look sixteen millimetre" and those are all the conversations. Huge fans of Joe Begas, and we're aiming for that look and we don't know because we've never seen it with an audience, and then after the screening today three people walked up to Aaron and asked, "Did you shoot film, shoot 16mm?" and we were like "YES!" AARON: It was like a moment from the office, where it pans to me and I'm Jim and just nodding my head. Just a little wry smile - Yes! DAVE: And the it pans back to me, and I'm like - See, we don't have to shoot film. JUSTIN: You're wrong, Dave. It's happening. GNOH: We're wondering as well - are you here for the whole festival. Wondering whether there are any things you've caught, or want to see. DAVE: I came in yesterday, and I leave tomorrow. GNOH: No, then! DAVE: These gents are living here now. JUSTIN: We've been living here since April, but we don't get many days off. A three day weekend is pretty unheard of. Yesterday we came to the first Frightfest party, and there were so many friends we hadn't seen in years, and it feels like we've been on vacation. But it also for us feels like going to church - it's been really, really cool. The short answer is we live here, but it feels like we're on vacation. GNOH: The Frightfest crowd is a really nice crowd. I mean, it's been going so long now that they've got it absolutely sewn up to a tee. JUSTIN: It's really nice that you can identify the Frightfest crowd - not just from the red lanyard, everyone lets their freak flag fly. I mean the shirts - you see the shirts and you think 'that's my people'. Tattoos, coloured hair, cool t-shirts. What's your shirt? GNOH: This is mine. We do a horror podcast - it's my own. we're repping our own merch. DAVE: So are we! GNOH: So, I noticed the references to Arcadian in "Something in the Dirt", so I think it's safe to assume it's a shared universe now? JUSTIN: yeah, there's a lot of connections.

GNOH: Any more plans to set anything else inside that universe? JUSTIN: I mean, yeah. We've got a bunch of stuff that we've been working on. Gosh. It's weird - Knock on wood - it feels like there's not a world where those things don't happen. It doesn't seem like it. DAVE: I'd be shocked. JUSTIN: But like I say, knock on wood. We have several things in that world. We spend all of our free time talking about it. AARON: I mean, I think we're free to talk about it. Smiling Dave: The Reckoning? DAVE: No, no, nooo - there's no Smiling Dave spin off. AARON: Alright, alright, I guess we won't talk about that yet. DAVE: You can't afford me. GNOH: I'm going to start a petition. DAVE: Go ahead. I'm not even going to give a number, because I know these guys will fight to get that petition up to whatever number it needs to be. GNOH: How do you divvy up the work between yourselves? JUSTIN: I mean, it's kind of like playing 52 card pick-up. DAVE: Yes and no. I mean, on this one, one set was very specific and we had things to do. Specifically, with those two being in every scene, almost. So, they would have to change between scenes, so Aaron as the DP would give me the layout for the next scene then would go change into the next costume. I would rough everything in, and then we'd come back together and then we had a reset. We had a wall - it was our checklist wall - that was like 'here's everything we do before we hit record' AARON: By the way, you know that wall. You know that famous meme with Charlie Day? That was our conspiracy wall, with all the scenes connected to each other. You know, here's the shot list, and here's continuity. If a strong wind would blow, there'd be a huge amount of papers. We shot most of everything in order, at least in the apartment. What needed to be there, what was the set-up of the room, but we would go to it everything. I mean, it was kind of specific but was literally the three of us going down a sheet of paper, going through everything step by step on what would be somebodies department. I mean. does Aaron have his glasses, does Justin’s hair need to be blue - silly things.

JUSTIN: I have a really soft spot in my heart now for script supervisors who have to work with us because we've done so many movies without someone managing - someone specifically managing continuity, and then we edit those movies, so we know like the lengths of what we get away with, and so I feel so bad for script supervisors who have to come up to us and go "what about this and this?" and we're like "doesn't matter, doesn't matter, doesn't matter." and they're like "we have a job to do" and we're like "we know, we know.” DAVE: “You're too good at it. Problem is that you're an expert. We need an amateur." GNOH: We're huge Twilight Zone fans, and we know you worked on an episode. Jordan Peele's revamp is pretty good, but we have to ask - does he just let you get on, or does he have a hand in things? JUSTIN: That's a really good question. That's so fun. Actually, first off, that job was a gift from God-thing. It worked out scheduling wise that we had maybe more interaction with Jordan than many other film makers did, and he comes in there, and at least on set he wasn't giving us notes, or anything like that but you get to obviously do the obligatory him doing the Twilight Zone thing, the role of Rod Serling. But we got to tell him, we got to express to him that on every one of our movies on our downtime now we show people his Gremlins 2 sketch from Key and Peele. We were like, do we tell him? Do we tell him? And we told him - and we're big fans. And also, by the way, we were kind of blown away that he had time to make small talk with us because post Get Out Peele is an insanely busy guy. He's got so many responsibilities, it was wonderful he had time to make small talk with us and hang out, have a dinner. And, Aaron, what was his response? AARON: I don't know how you're going to write this - you're just going to have to describe it or something. We said to him "We're just going to have to tell, that Gremlins 2 sketch was our life blood for many of our productions". He just gave the biggest sigh and then - JUSTIN: Hold on, wait for it. (Aaron looks up, smirking with a cheeky smile). AARON: "What do you wanna know?" He loves that stuff. He loves talking about it. He told us every detail about it, about shooting it, about how he pitched it to get it made, and we're probably not at liberty to tell his stories. GNOH: Fantastic. I think "Nope" feels like it could fit into your universe, a little bit Endless. Big Eldritch things in the sky. AARON: Big Eldritch things in the sky, and amateurs trying to document the supernatural. JUSTIN: Dave, have you seen "Nope" yet? DAVE: Not Yet. JUSTIN: Hey, there you go. It's special. It's a very, very good movie. I wish we had more Summer movies like that. Unapologetically weird. GNOH: It's just a great Monster movie. JUSTIN: yeah, it's beautiful as well. Shall we talk about "Nope" for an hour? GNOH: Could do, but you've got people waiting. This is a question that I ask a lot of people - how many marshmallows do you think you could fit in your mouth? AARON: Oh my god. 45. GNOH: We're not talking size. DAVE: No, we have to, because that's critical to the question. AARON: Camp-fire marshmallow size. Still 45. DAVE: I could fit 50. JUSTIN: 63. GNOH: And I'll ask the question you're probably not allowed to answer. How's the Marvel work going? How's Loki coming along? AARON: Oh my god, no hang on. Can I just tell you the entire plot of the new season of Loki? GNOH: Have you started work on it yet? (Aaron looked nervously about, checking the skyline). AARON: Tom? Can you just turn off the sniper? DAVE: Three predator dots will just turn up. GNOH: It never hurts to ask. Thank you for your time, gentlemen. Much appreciated. After a long day of interviews, the guys needed to get food. We chatted about that I’d also seen a film called “Everybody Dies By The End” which starred Vinny Curran (from “Resolution” in a starring role), and they were singing his praises as an actor. Aaron took a photograph of my tattoos to send to his girlfriend, insisting to her that I only got them because I was a really big fan of their Twilight Zone Episode.. And as the patterns in “Something In The Dirt” may attest to, perhaps they are. Perhaps even before they’d filmed the episode, it was destined that I would have the tattoos in place. There are patterns everywhere.

​“Something In The Dirt” had its UK Premiere at Arrow Frightfest and will be in UK Cinemas from the 4th of November.

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