Skip to story Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead at the BFI London Film Festival in 2014. Tim P. Whitby/Getty
Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead don’t care about the rules of filmmaking.
Well, they care a little bit—at least enough to know full well which conventions they want to break. But in the seven years since they became the double threat known as Benson & Moorhead, they’ve put out two genre-mashing feature films, contributed to the horror anthology V/H/S: Viral, wrote a script about Aleister Crowley (whom Moorhead calls “a rock star ceremonial magician”), and just pitched a show to HBO. So, apparently, all that rule-breaking is working out for them.
Their latest brainchild is Spring, a movie that’s been dropped in the horror bucket, but resists singular categorization. There are suspenseful elements, yes, but it’s also a quirky love story with a dry sense of humor. Oh, yeah, there’s also the science fiction creature-feature aspect. It’s been burning up the VOD ranks lately, and for good reason: It’s excellent.
But there’s a lot of talent and good projects floating in and around Hollywood. Throw a rock in any Century City bar and you’ll hit someone carrying a screenplay in their satchel. So in a town awash in good ideas (or at least a lot of ideas), what special alchemy sets these polymaths of “sophisticated pulp” above their lo-fi indie contemporaries? WIRED talked with the duo about their distinctive horror-sci-fi-character-driven-drama calling card and teased out a few methods of their madness, which include—but are not limited to—Gore Verbinski, Shia LeBeouf, British hip-hop, and Children of Men. Here’s everything you need to know about Benson & Moorhead.
They’re Very DIY
Obviously, Benson and Moorhead didn’t just roll out of a cabbage patch together. A few years back Benson was an intern at Ridley Scott’s commercial production company, RSA, doing menial work and gearing up for med school. Moorhead was there, too, but it wasn’t until his last day on the job that they met. “We immediately clicked over having a decade each of do-it-yourself filmmaking experience, and started to work together more and more on spec ad commercials and short films,” says Benson, who soon realized he had stashed enough cash from “crap jobs” to make a movie with his new creative partner. That project would become Resolution, a feature film about a man who sets out to save his sardonic tweaker best friend from the perils of drug addiction. Sorry, med school, but Benson and Moorhead had stories to tell.
They Do a Lot of Jobs
As usual, Moorhead and Benson wore many hats during the production of Spring. They split directing duties while Benson wrote the script—with collaboration from his partner, of course—and Moorhead handled cinematography. “Aaron is an incredible, incredible cinematographer. I refuse to work with any other cinematographer,” Benson says. They handle editing and VFX themselves, too, and get help on the audio from their associate and resident “sound genius” Yahel Dooley. (Sound design is a big deal for Benson and Moorhead, who cite the sound of No Country For Old Men as an influence on their style.) And both men agree they feel empowered to take on a bigger workload because they know the other is there to share the responsibilities.
“It’s actually very symbiotic,” Moorhead says. “We’ve talked with some co-directors before where the battle is part of their trial-by-fire and everything. We don’t really have battles. We kind of have the exact same tastes on everything. So whatever the scene is, we’re always trying to get to the same thing, because we both kind of inherently understand it even if we have different ways of expressing it.” From Benson’s perspective, the reason for their effective chemistry is pretty simple: “We elevate each other.”
They Love ‘Long-Ass Takes’
Moorhead and Benson try to work “some ambitious, long-ass take” into every movie they make. They’re just huge fans of them. The long shot from Children of Men is a particular favorite.
Their Vision Boards Are a Rich Tapestry
Although it’s impossible not absorb filmic influences through your pores as a lifelong cinephile, both men try to avoid direct homages in their work. “If we’re talking and we’re like ‘It’s so cool what happened in that movie!’ [then] it’s kind of like an unspoken rule that we can’t do it,” says Benson, the primary screenwriter. But as a guy in the 21st century who writes movies, he obviously acknowledges the place Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater hold in his heart. “The dialogue I write probably is at least guided by that sensibility of making it sound conversational yet trying to also remaining as interesting as possible,” he says.
But instead of trying to write the next Jules Winnfield or O’Bannion, Benson tries to pull from less conventional sources for inspiration. “Often when I write characters I’ll refer to characters of underground rap music,” he explains. “The dialogue of the British backpackers in Spring? That dialogue was written in the voice of Mike Skinner from that indie rap group The Streets from the early 2000s. Little stuff like that.” Moorhead has his own pop culture muses. “If you look around, even something like what Shia LeBeouf is doing right now, that’s inspiring to me in general,” he says. “A lot of people see it as complete insanity, but I think it’s a work of brilliance.”
They Want You to Hear Their Voice
The LeBeouf shoutout might seem incongruous, but respect for distinct voices and singular personalities is a prevailing thread through the two filmmakers. Linklater, Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and even Michael Bay get hat tips for the relentless individualism that bleeds through their work. “That, I think, is what’s always refreshing, when I see a movie that could have only been done by one person,” says Moorhead. “Or reading stuff like Stephen King, which couldn’t be more pulpy mainstream kind of stuff, but you have to respect a guy who just owns an entire brand of himself.” Benson is quick to agree, “I’m the exact same way. Take for example Guy Ritchie and Richard Linklater. Those are two filmmakers who you see their movies, you see them coming out in their films—wildly different films—and it would be so sad if those filmmakers didn’t exist, no matter what you think of them.”
This uncompromising commitment to their unique voice probably is what’s gotten them this far, considering indie mavericks are totally having a moment right now. Over the past year, Moorhead and Benson have traveled the festival circuit with similarly rogue agents like directors David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), both of whom have garnered attention and massive praise for telling common stories about how people connect with each other through unconventional narratives. “There’s a myth that movies have to be one of about 10 pre-constructed myths,” says Benson. “It Follows is a completely new movie that doesn’t get bogged down in its own myth. It is something totally different. We definitely love and respect that.”
They Respect Practical Effects
Despite the fact it’s a love story, Spring is a monster movie at its core, and the rendering of its central creature/character, Louise (Nadia Hilker), is among its highlights. Moorhead shot her beautifully, using light, shadow, and depth of field to simultaneously reveal and obscure her. It’s a maddening dance because you just want to know, but it’s also essential to keeping Spring’s mystery intact. How much of Louise you see fluctuates through the movie, but considering her, um, otherworldly appearance, Benson and Moorhead were careful to balance in-camera and digital effects to create the most believably unbelievable entity possible. “People don’t hate visual effects. They hate bad visual effects,” says Benson. “But most visual effects, when they’re done really right, are unnoticeable, and you’re just left with questions of ‘Was that CG or not?’ and that’s a great place to be in.”
The team had members of Mastersfx on-set to execute modeling elements, then used the CGI paintbrush to add finishing touches. When describing the movie’s “centerpiece effect,” which we certainly won’t spoil, Benson says, “we used practical effects to get us 80 to 90 percent of the way there, then we kind of looked at it and went ‘How do we push this into the completely impossible?’ We wanted to take it just a little bit further, and that’s where we allowed visual effects to come in.”
They Just Want to Make Good Movies
Benson and Moorhead’s combination of lo-fi stylings and big budget predilections make a lot of sense when you think about it. They produce suspenseful movies about the power of interpersonal relationships laced with sci-fi elements and surprising humor—of course they like Pirates of the Caribbean as much as they like Children of Men—because when they are sitting down to hash out a new script, the only thing that matters is telling a good story. “What’s interesting is the ‘business rules’ about genre films, of exactly how they conform and how they can be sold,” says Moorhead. “Especially with things right now like It Follows and The Babadook and Spring as well. We’re finding that those rules aren’t rules and at all. It seems like the horror audience just wants good movies.” And Benson, once again, picks up right where his associate leaves off. “Audiences are more concerned with it being a good movie than they are with it conforming to their expectations and sometimes they even like you for it,” he says. “But it’s interesting, because it seems like we were sold a bit of a lie—not just me, people in general—about what the audience wants. What they want is good cinema, and that’s it.”