Fantastic Fest Interview: Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are Synchronic
The directing duo take a new path through time
By Richard Whittaker,
1:00AM, Thu. Sep. 19, 2019
Why do writer-director duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson keep making films about cosmic mystery and the enigmas of time? "We're armchair astrophysicists," said Benson. "We just like to read interesting articles. We're never going to put pen to paper and look at equations."
In their latest film, Synchronic (which gets its U.S. premiere this weekend at Fantastic Fest), their hero also takes an interest in science. Steve (Anthony Mackie) is a New Orleans paramedic, who discovers that a series of weird deaths are connected to a new drug called Synchronic. But these aren't conventional OD's. Benson said, "What if these over the counter drugs, like the ones sold in head shops and gas station and online, made you perceive time as it actually is?"
Yet that's not the only issue in his life, as he's developed a rare cancer of the pineal gland – exactly the organ that Synchronic affects. He quickly realizes that his illness and the drug may be the way to save a life – even if it's not his own. Benson said, "He teases his destiny as experimental science."
It's one of those rare films that puts these particular lifesaving first responders front and center, and the career choice was very deliberate, "There's a nobility to paramedics," Benson said. "You never see brutality on the public by paramedics or firemen."
Benson noted that neither he nor his longtime creative partner Moorhead had actually seen the classic of paramedic cinema, Bringing Out the Dead, until they were already four years deep into development on Synchronic - much as they didn't read any H.P. Lovecraft until after they'd finished their second film, the deeply Lovecraftian Spring. However, this time around there's a very deliberate nod to the patron saint of cosmic horror, with direct nods to one of Lovecraft's short stories: 1934's "From Beyond," in which scientists stimulate the pineal gland to warp dimensions. Benson explained, "It seemed like that, in a literary tradition sense, the pineal gland would be a good fictional medical pathway to use for it." But there was also a desire to rebel against the rose-colored-glasses view of time travel in films like Back to the Future, where "the past was a really fun, romantic time, where everybody was happy and quality of life was so high, and it that wasn't the case for most people. Unless you look like Michael J. Fox, it probably wasn't that great to go back to the 1950s."
Austin Chronicle: This feels like a change in your storytelling, where you have less of your trademark dialogue, and instead gave the story more space to breathe. Was that a deliberate decision?
Justin Benson: I think that a lot of what you're responding to is the sense of dread that we were trying to build in the film, and dread doesn't build quickly. You're dealing with the end of someone's life, someone who is staring right down the barrel of the loaded gun in their head, and we just wanted to give that the space it deserved. Honestly, if pacing weren't an issue, we would have given it even more space. If you didn't have to keep the movie moving, there would have been a whole lot more brooding.
AC: Your mechanism for time travel makes the story as much about the history of a single spot through time as about the characters themselves.
JB: We realized that we'd never get the budget for a movie this weird if we were going into acton set pieces. You can imagine a very different movie, where he has to run away from the woolly mammoth, and people are trying to stab him with spears. We never really considered that.
AC: So how did you pick which periods to show, to build the timeline you wanted and the text about the brutality of the past?
JB: It was about ensuring that each leap back in time would be visually interesting, and very much different from that one that came before it. And also be situations in which Anthony would be in great danger immediately, and it wouldn't take long to kick in. You can imagine a scene where he has to walk for five minutes before some sort of conflict arises. That would be one of the more boring trips
Aaron Moorhead: Another thing we were thinking of is, what are all the dangers of the past? They suck in different ways, every single time. In some ways the past represent like intolerance and prejudice that we're still working on today; but then there's all these things like just the elements, and we wanted to show how oppressive the past was for pretty much everyone except for a really small amount of people. Although the present is highly imperfect, recognizing that we shouldn't want to go back, either literally or metaphorically, is probably the first step towards progress.
AC: There's something perfect and simple about having them be paramedics, because there are few people who deal with death and mortality and the passage of time in relation to human longevity so constantly.
JB: We knew we could structure it around first responder calls, coming across these bodies and this strange drug. the issue of making them police officers is that you're almost beholden to make it either an action movie or a crime drama, or somewhere in between, which didn't seem for telling a creepy movie about this kind of thing. The other thing is that they usually have guns, and that changes things in ever situation. It also requires you as a filmmaker to do sequences where people running around shooting guns. If you can avoid that, if you can be more creative than that, that's great.
Sun. Sept. 22, 8pm: Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead in attendance
Tue., Sept. 24, 11:30pm