A Conversation with Something in the Dirt’s Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson

I’ve been following the career of both Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson since 2015. Film sites I use to visit spoke highly of Spring, a film that has been described as “the Before trilogy meets Lovecraft.” This unsurprisingly excited me entirely at the idea of what that could look like, and I remember the screening fondly. Even if mid-screening a fire alarm went off repeatedly.

After Spring, they continued their success with The Endless, Synchronic and also shot two episodes for Archive 81 as well as Moon Knight, two shows I loved and was interested in for their participation. I’ve been excited about their latest project since it was announced to premiere at Sundance. I recently went to Toronto After Dark and got to see their latest film, which is a film that lingered in my head for a couple days. I was very lucky and happy to be able to get to talk to the directing duo and tell them a bit of my love of their films.

My review of the film can be found on exclaim!

Here is my interview with Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson.

Andres: I loved your film, absolutely. I don’t think there’s a project of yours I frankly haven’t. When I was doing my review for the film, it’s a really tough to try to explain, so can you briefly explain what it’s about and how you came up with the concept as well?

Aaron Moorhead: So, Something in the Dirt, we struggle with this. It’s not really a logline-y movie. Something in the Dirt is about two new neighbours who discover something supernatural happening in one of their apartments and after initially being as frightened of it as we all will be, they realize if they’re able to document it, and show it to the world, then they’d be able to give some meaning to their wasted lives and also probably make a buck. And so they form this friendship of opportunity in order to try to make something, like a Netflix documentary. But of course, none of that goes to plan and it tests this strange relationship they have. And to say anymore would be rambling.

Justin Benson: That was good though.

AM: Thank you.

JB:  It’s often times the projects that we make like this in our small company, Rustic Films, us and our friends, we have never have to necessarily pitch these things to people. And then they’re coming out and then we have to talk about it. Like, “tell us what your movie is about” and stumble through. But Aaron just did it in a very good concise way.

Andres: It’s tough because it’s definitely about the supernatural and all the other stuff that’s happening in the apartment with you guys, but at the same time, it’s not at all. It’s absolutely about just watching the two of you do what you do constantly through all your work. The chemistry is obviously there, you notice it throughout your work together and then even more so, with your previous film, The Endless and this one. Is it fun to be in front of the camera for a change?

JB: I’d say it’s just as fun. Acting is probably the one thing on set where always when you’re there doing it, it’s always this feeling of – it’s not like “this day is going to be so hard, it’s more like “I get to do this.” That’s the reward. “I get to do this.” You get to perform in something. All this stuff we do, writing, directing, editing, visual effects, all the stuff we do. It’s all – it’s all gratifying, it’s all a privilege but acting specifically, is like simply, the reward of it is getting to do it.

AM: Yeah, also I think acting just on a professional level is one of the easier jobs on set. All I mean by that is by hours. If you’re not someone who is a preparer. However, if you are a preparer, the hours are obscenely long and it also becomes the hardest job to do well.  That’s something where you can’t phone it in. If you have a bad day, it doesn’t matter, it’s there forever. And you can have a bad week and turn in a weak performance and suddenly, you’re actually not good.  And that’s it. Whereas, you know, if we are ever diminished in our capacity behind the camera, you only get away with it [laughs] and nobody can quite tell.  It’s not your face up there forever.

Andres: Is it hard to balance that if you’re also shooting, writing, editing, and all that stuff you mentioned?

AM: It would be hard to balance if we didn’t prepare.

JB: Yeah.

AM: But we do.

JB: When we work with other people – other performers, the hope is that there will be a long rehearsal process.  We hold ourselves to the same thing. We love tons and tons of rehearsals before we get to set, having everything worked out. But as long as we’ve rehearsed, once we’re doing it, acting in scenes oddly makes it easier to direct. Some of that is because part of your job is to memorize everything, every line before you get there. Which is just helpful, but it’s something you’d never do if you were just directing something. If we’re just directing, there’s probably a lot more things that need to be done if we’re on a project and just directing. It wouldn’t be reasonable to remember the script. But on our own projects, oddly, every time, it’s just way easier for the overall filmmaking of it all, if we’re performing in it.

Andres: I can definitely see that. So in my review of your film, I mentioned that the film is about you trying to capture something “magical on camera.” Which, it feels like it’s a through line through all of your work, there are all these things that are skewed just a little off reality that it feels realistic enough to watch, but at the same time, it’s not things we’re seeing on a daily basis. So that hidden aspect, what about it intrigues you so much that it’s found consistently in your films.

AM: I think the idea that the book is closed on what the world actually is, we’ve figured it out and there’s no reason to keep on looking, is a really sad one to us and it doesn’t really align with our world view. But on the same token, I would struggle if someone told me that they believe dragons and fairies used to exist. That’s something that’s – things that are invented like whole cloth, like high fantasy and all of that, I love watching, like The Lord of the Rings is some of our favourite stuff, but it doesn’t tickle my brain in the way I want something that we’re actually creating to do. So the just barely off exploration of the nature of what could be, of what reality could be, and what might just be around the corner of discovery. That keeps both of us up at night, clicking on Wikipedia article links.

Andres: It’s definitely things that we all can, as you said, whether going through Wikipedia or YouTube spirals.

AM: Yeah, you got to be careful with those. [laughs]

Andres: You’ve worked on television shows for both Netflix and Marvel that were released this year. What was the difference between working on Archive 81 or Moon Knight?

JB: So there’s this experience you have as you’re walking onto a set that’s probably a lot bigger than the independent films you’ve done in the past. So you get there and like, you’re looking and “Oh my god, the parking lot is huge.” There are people everywhere, and you’re walking past all these trailers, gigantic trucks, there’s gigantic generators, and there are cranes everywhere holding gigantic equipment. “Oh my god, look at all this stuff.” And then you get to where the cameras and actors are, and it’s exactly the same as an independent film.


AM: It’s like you’re in a room. [laughs].

JB: You’re in a room and a problem comes up, and there are more people to solve it,  but it’s the same. Every day, you’re solving problems you’ve probably never had before. That’s the cool thing about filmmaking. It’s like part of the job is so much people acting like you know what you’re doing, but the reality is, it’s intrinsic to the job but every day, it’s a new job, new career.

AM: You just get really good at adaptation and that’s what makes it look like you know what you’re doing. But all you’re doing is adapting.

JB: So I saw your film at Toronto After Dark, which was about a week ago [it was, at the time of the interview]. And you keep playing your films here, it seems every other film is rotating between playing at TIFF or at TAD. Like, why do you love us?

AM: [laughs]. Why do we love you? [laughs].

JB: There are a few cities on the planet, that no matter how many times you’ve watched it while making it, you watch the first few screenings, but after a certain point, you can’t watch it again. There are certain cities where no matter what, we’re going to watch it. And Toronto is one of those cities. Toronto is regarded specifically as one of those film festivals, there’s something about – Toronto has got great audiences. And you can tell, you can really tell what’s working. Toronto is one of those audiences where you’ll get a laugh or feeling of tension in the audience at places where Aaron and I collaborators have talked about a million times that that was the hope that you will get that. And now you’re seeing it, feeling it, and hearing it happen in the movie theatre. Toronto is one of those audiences where you get that. We played our first movie Resolution at Toronto After Dark, and it’s probably one of our most fun screenings of our whole career.

AM: I think a lot of people go to the theatres to – a lot of people around the world I mean. One of the reasons people go to the theatres is something akin to like, get out of the house. Go on a date, have a good time, waste your time. Fill your time with something rather than nothing. And I think, and I really think that the audiences in Toronto and a few other cities go to the theatres to feel something. Right? There’s an emotional aspect to it, that isn’t just a way to spend our time. And Austin is similar, LA is actually very similar. It’s something about the audiences there, they want so bad for the movie to succeed with them. They’re not just there to spend an afternoon.

Andres: The last thing I’d like to mention to the both of you, I remember going to one of your screenings in 2015, for Spring. And there was a fire alarm that went off in the middle of it.

JB: That was during the actual release, right?

Andres: Yeah, it came out the same weekend as Mad Max: Fury Road, and I remember you both thanking us for choosing your film instead. I just wanted to say after getting the opportunity to talk to both of you, that around then was when I started getting into film criticism. And getting to witness all of your successes and every film get better and better, and now seeing you working with Marvel again for Loki season two, but it’s wonderful and I’m really excited to see whatever else you guys got coming out next.

AM: Aw, thank you so much man.

JB: You just reminded me of that little tour in Toronto, from Raven Banner. They had been nice of them to bring us up there to host those screenings, that was fun.