Benson and Moorhead on Drafthouse Film's genre bender
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00AM, Tue. Jun. 2, 2015
There are some films that, the less you know going in to the theatre, the better off you are. Filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead specialize in stories that, even if you think you know everything about them, you're still barely scratching the surface.
The pair garnered serious attention with their collaborative debut, 2012's Resolution. A strange melange of buddy movie, rehab drama, and psycho-horror, it was both a preview and a shadow of the uncategorizable mystery of their followup.
Spring stars Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker, Evil Dead) as Evan, a guy on a fast track to nowhere. A bar room brawl becomes an excuse to bum around Europe, hanging out in hostels, drinking with strangers, until he meets Louise (Nadia Hilker). He thinks his blue-collar charm will win her over, but there's a lot more to this reclusive young woman than he expects. And that's where the film takes a series of radical left turns that, somehow, add up to an enchanting, unpredictable, and ultimately utterly surprising story – part ditsy rom-com, part serious relationship drama, part body horror.
The film has been described as Lovecraft meets Linklater, and comparisons have been made to Before Sunrise. However, Spring is much closer to another Fantastic Fest favorite, 2013's Afflicted, in that it uses its European location to create a sense of mystery and otherness.
At the same time they were redefining the limits of genre filmmaking, Benson and Moorhead joined the V/H/S club, filming straight-ahead action gore for the latest in the anthology series, V/H/S: Viral. Their segment, "Bonestorm" pits juvenile delinquent skate mutants versus the undead on an illicit trip to Mexico. Both it and Spring played at Fantastic Fest last year, and the filmmaking pair sat down to talk about keeping a sense of mystery, filming with real mummies, and how there may never be another The Sixth Sense.
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Aaron Moorhead: People, for some reason, aren't doing that story, and I'm glad you bring it up, because we love how wildly different they are.
Justin Benson: Do they look like they're by different people?
AC: They really do.
AM: We love that, because it keeps you from getting pigeonholed.
AC: I briefly thought someone had brought the Radio Silence guys back from the first VHS.
JB: That's a huge honor. It's pretty much the only thing we've done that's been built around a single compelling image, and it's the image of this punk skater kid in a two-shot, going at a skeleton with a sword. And there's another point of view, because there's a Go-Pro on a skateboard so you get to see it flying into the skeleton's head.
AM: We didn't want to teach something about life or love with "Bonestorm." We just wanted people to have a goddamn great time. We were after fun, and we wanted people to laugh at it and with it, and save the heartfelt things that we feel about life and love for Spring.
AC: You spend 80 minutes of Spring not explicitly revealing what kind of film it is. When you have a film with a big reveal, it's important not to telegraph it, so what was the thinking about how long could you go before you pissed the audience off?
AM: Let me ask a counter-question, just because it's something we think about in terms of tone. We love our tone, because we think we have something very specific. But the question is, if you just remove the humor from Spring, so it was a serious drama romance horror, would it be so confusing? Would it keep you on your toes so much if something serious wasn't broken up with a joke, or would it be like, OK, this is a drama with horror elements in it?
AC: The humor makes it more realistic, because that's how people deal with stress.
JB: That's what we love about it. How you achieve the naturalism is with levity.
AM: In our lives, if something gets too serious, unless it's dead serious, please crack a joke. Or at least find some humor in a strange situation. There's a moment where he bares his soul to her, and says all the crap and horrible things that's happened to him, and her response is fascination. It's not a joke, but it's, oh, wow, how can so much bad stuff happen to one person so fast? Instead of, oh, I'm sorry, it's more like, there's something crazy how bad it is. That's human. Everyone finds levity wherever they can.
JB: And what you asked about where we answer our mystery: It's something we play with in our developing stories. We never do a twist ending. We never drop it in completely at the end. With Spring and Resolution, it was all about a fun central mystery until about the third act, and then you reveal it, and that informs the rest of the story. Then you learn as an audience that the central question of the movie wasn't that. It wasn't the 'what is the monster?' question. It's 'what is going to happen to this relationship?'
AM: That's one way we keep people on their toes. The question for the first 30 minutes of the movie is, what's going to happen to Evan? Then the question completely changes, although that's still a part of it, but it adds to it. Then those two questions stay there, but the big question becomes, can these two people stay together? I think that's really interesting because, in terms of horror movie progression, normally there isn't just one big question. It's go go go, run run run, stand and fight. That's pretty much all you've got. But in terms of keeping people on their toes, what's going to happen to them becomes the central question.
AC: It's The Sixth Sense syndrome. The genius of that film is that, you go back and rewatch it knowing what you know in the third act, you realize that you're meant to watch it in a different way.
JB: I can't wait till someone works out a way to do another movie like that. Is it just a one-time thing, something like The Sixth Sense, that it's so good that you can watch it completely differently the next time? And, on top of that, it's a good movie on the first watch. It's not just building to a twist.
AC: The Roman city of Pompeii, with the casts of the bodies of people who died in the volcanic explosion, is as much a character as any of the people.
JB: Pompeii was really conveniently located for storytelling purposes. Really, the story is conceived with the image of a glassy, turquoise, Mediterranean sea, and a mutilated body floating to the surface in paradise. The movie is that juxtaposition, of beauty and the grotesque.
AM: That said, our location was not actually Pompeii. We just made it look like Pompeii. We shot on the other coast.
JB: There's a lot of archaeological sites in Italy that look almost exactly like Pompeii. Even in the little town we were shooting, there were two or three.
AC: During the scene where they're just jumping down in the dig site and touching things, I thought you're were never gonna be allowed in Italy again.
AM: They just let us have it, because there are so many archaeological digs, and they're so underfunded. So I was walking around, trying to find it, and I almost stepped down, and I look down, and there's a bone underneath my foot. I just slowly step back and think, do we shoot here? Because a Steadicam operator's not going to look down.
JB: You know the crypt scene, with the dead monks on the wall? You realize they were real dead monks, right? They didn't even put a site rep with us. They could have come down there and Aaron would be dancing with one.
AM: Actually, for one shot, I had to pop over into that area. I've got the camera, and also this giant machine that hangs over my head and keeps the weight of the camera off my back and over my hips. Every time I'd even slightly shift, three people would leap at me. 'Aaron!' It's OK, guys, I know there's a 300-year-old mummy behind me. It's fine.
Spring (Drafthouse Films) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now. Read our full review here.
V/H/S: Viral is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now. Read our Fantastic Fest 2014 review here.