BHFF 2022 - Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead Talk Stephen King, Aliens, And The Beauty of Filmmaking

With their fifth independent feature film, Something In The Dirt, hitting theaters on November 4th, Alex got the chance to sit down with creative duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Over the course of our conversation, we discussed the fun of Stephen King novels, their favorite theories about UFO's, the importance of curiosity and self-journalism, and the beauty of getting to make movies with friends. The very fun and eye-opening conversation can be found below, and for Alex's longer thoughts on the film, head right here. Be sure to check out the film in theaters!

 

Alex Papaioannou

I just want to dive right into it. I'm always fascinated by creative duos, so how did you two meet and find your spark?


Justin Benson

We met in 2009 as interns at Ridley Scott's commercial production company in Los Angeles. [Laughs while emphasizing his next memory] We never met Ridley Scott, and we never did anything important there. We just met in the lobby while we were getting people mail and stealing food from the kitchen or doing deliveries. We bonded over our love of Stephen King and Alan Moore, and then ended up working together more and more on spec ad commercials. Basically, they're these fake commercials that you make, and you present them to a production company to hopefully get signed and get paid to make commercials. What we didn't know at the time [while smiling] is that it's very, very, very rare for people to get jobs that way in commercials. I don't know if it's the same case now, but then, commercials were where big-time movie directors went to make money. So there was probably a very small chance we were going to get any jobs... or maybe we just didn't cut it and we're not good commercial directors [they both laugh]. But through doing those spec ad commercials together and some direct-to-client stuff, as well as music videos, we ended up figuring out a way to make our first feature, Resolution, with just our friends and our own resources.


Alex Papaioannou

You mentioned Stephen King, and as a Constant Reader I have to ask, do you have a favorite book of his?


Aaron Moorhead

You know what, Wizard and Glass is probably my favorite. But I could also pick the entire “Dark Tower” saga, including the last three! I know that’s controversial, but I'm just all in. I love it very, very much.


Justin Benson

It's funny, but I have a really soft place in my heart for Salem's Lot; it's probably one of the first books I ever read. I was so little, but it just made such a big impression on me. And then I think the next book I read was one of his anthologies, probably Night Shift. Oh my god, and doesn’t it have a prequel to Salem's Lot in it? It's just called Jerusalem's Lot. I hope this is all correct.


Alex Papaioannou

[We all laugh] We're all good.


Aaron Moorhead

Does Night Shift also have... shoot, what's it called? There's A Bullet For Dillinger was the script, but I think the story is called The Death of Jack Hamilton?


Justin Benson

[Cuts in] I think that was one of the later anthologies. But yeah, those two and the next one I read in my childhood, which was Needful Things. [We all happily nod in agreement on this].


Aaron Moorhead

Oh, Needful Things is so good.


Justin Benson

Yeah, I have a nostalgia for those. If I reread everything Stephen King did today, I don't know if my answer would be the same.


Alex Papaioannou

With such a long career under his belt, it's always fun to find a new answer.


Aaron Moorhead

By the way, for everybody that loves Stephen King. [If there were a camera, Moorhead would be looking right through the center] We're going to eventually have an adaptation of The Dark Tower that everybody's going to get behind. We're going to get it. We got to peak at Glen Mazzara's adaptation, and it's very good. There's potential for a series, and we can do this!


Justin Benson

Actually, I just realized. I think the fourth Stephen King book I read when I was like, seven, was The Gunslinger.

Alex Papaioannou

So pivoting to the film. It's obviously about searching for answers and how life can be incredibly confusing. Do you find looking for meaning in everything essential? Or as the film alludes to, is it more important to you to just go with the mysterious nature of it all?


Justin Benson

It is so much fun to just speculate and theorize with your friends over anything. Take ghosts for example. What do you think a ghost is? Maybe someone says that it's the soul of a person who passed away. Someone else might say no, it's some mysterious entity that's always been a spirit. Maybe someone could say it's a slip in time and you're seeing your echo of the past. You can go on and on. It's so interesting to hear what different people see as being a rational response to what it is, because it means a lot to who you are. "What was your spirituality growing up? What culture did you grow up in? Who are your friends?" It says so much about you, and it's such a beautiful thing to express to everyone by just talking about it. And by the way, I used ghosts as an example, but UFO's are a great one. "What do you think a UFO is? Is it a time traveler from the future? Are they aliens or ultra-terrestrials? Do you think they're entities from Venus that live in the ocean?" Just wild theories! Give me anything, because it says so much about you. And it's just so fun to talk about, and that's part of what the movie is saying.


Aaron Moorhead

[Forewarns us with humor in his voice] There's a quote from Socrates that says, "An unexamined life is not worth living." And people make fun of stoner-hangout conversations, and yet, it feels like those sorts of things, whether or not you're actually ingesting any substances, like opening your heart and mind to your friends, is one of the gifts that we're given when alive; trying to see why things are the way that they are.


Justin Benson

But it’s when people go beyond speculation and just start believing things where it becomes an issue.


Aaron Moorhead

Yeah, and I think that's the issue for the characters within our film. It starts with what could be stoners hanging out and speculating. But then they go so far down the rabbit hole that they end up with their souls being on the line in a way.


Alex Papaioannou

I truly believe that curiosity and having a curious mind is essential. Not just with regards to art, but living in general. Like you both said, sometimes you can go down a path that leads to the darker areas. Obviously, we're living in a world now where that's very prevalent and harmful to society. So do you have any ideas or thoughts about how to combat that harm, while still keeping curiosity alive?


Aaron Moorhead

Yeah, it would be so sad if people walked out of our movie thinking they should stop being curious. It's the opposite of that. In terms of our curiosity, we are those characters in so many ways.


Justin Benson

A fundamental part of being a human being, and also living in a way where you don't fall into a hole of believing everything that doesn't have a lot of support behind it, is just being comfortable with the unknown. You can admire it, but you also have to be able to get comfortable with it at the same time. It's okay that it's unknown. You have to be able to get comfortable with something enough to not feel like you have to solve it.

Aaron Moorhead

I really respect someone when you're having conversations like these where they answer with, "I don't know", and then stop, because it takes a lot to be asked your opinion respond in that wat. My dad has this very cool workshop that he putzes around in all day making beautiful things. And he has this Sharpie where he writes things on the wall whenever he has an idea. So after 30 years of having this workshop, it's the most amazing looking thing. It looks like the closet in the movie. And on that wall is his own quote, which is, "Be mindful of whose lyrics you craft your life by." You can expand that out to anything, not just lyrics. Justin and I always talk about sources. What's a trustworthy source of information, and how do you end up at belief? I don't have any practical solutions, except for maybe they need to teach it in fifth grade or something [laughs]. I know that a lot of the time there's actually no formal education of rigorous self-journalism that is taught. It's just not inherent in the curriculum of the country.


Alex Papaioannou

There's a lesson on primary and secondary sources, and that's all you're getting.


Justin Benson

Title this article, "Research Methodologies." [We laugh].


Aaron Moorhead

But truly, if everybody knew that from fourth and fifth grade, we might be in a better space.

Alex Papaioannou

Another thing I loved about the film is you go in and you're presented with a ghost story, just from what the characters say. And then it pivots into, "Well, maybe it's aliens, maybe it's time travel." It just goes down all these rabbit holes touching on the different meanings of life. In the Q&A beforehand, you said you were just workshopping, but how did all these different ideas for what the unknown presence in the film could be come to life?


Justin Benson

We just had our own speculations about everything over the last 13 years. Oftentimes, I was trying to come up with our next movie or trying to get a job [laughs]. Someone would ask us to pitch on a haunted house franchise with our craziest idea, and we'd bring it in and they'd go, "That's too crazy." But ultimately, that ended up being the seed of this movie.


Aaron Moorhead

So right now, we're really into the UFO subculture. And every time we stumble across a new theory, it's incredibly exciting. Because it feels like every possible theory for what these things are in the sky has been uncovered. So when there's a new one, it's extremely exciting. So I think that it's 10 years of thinking. Things move around in a house, so what can it be? It's 10 years of collecting everything we have, and there's a few of those ideas that even had to be cut out of the movie, just for time.

Alex Papaioannou

I know you also said earlier to ask you anything about UFOs. Do you have a go-to fun fact or theory about them right now?


Aaron Moorhead

[Excitedly] I'll go first. I personally find the most exciting evidence for the existence of some kind of alternative intelligent life to be the Ariel School phenomenon in Zimbabwe. I think that's the strongest evidence we have. This is where almost 100 school children all said they saw the same thing. So this Harvard psychologist, named John Mack, goes and interviews these children of British diplomats. He interviews all of them individually, and found them to be telling the truth. But it's almost 100 of them! That was in the 90s, and to this day, they all maintain the story. And it wasn't just a little thing in the sky. They say the aliens landed and walked up to them, then they communicated something telepathically. It was a huge incident in all these kids’ lives, and one that doesn't make any sense as either a hoax or imagination. Even if it was a hoax perpetrated upon them, it still doesn't make any sense because there's telepathy involved. So I think that's something where you either have to say, "100 people got together and spontaneously decided to lie about something for their entire lives, as well also fool a Harvard psychologist," or something otherworldly happened. I think that's very interesting.


Justin Benson

Mine would be probably the whole collective of military pilots who've given very lucid accounts of seeing something. These are very highly trained, very intelligent people. Sure, fame is always a strong motive to do anything, but they don't seem to have motives really beyond that. As far as I can tell, when you hear them speak, they seem like they are telling their truth. And often times these are events where several pilots all say the same thing. And that's a hard thing to just give a blanket statement of, "No, they're all wrong." or "They're all lying or being paid by their government." To me, that seems more far-fetched than them actually seeing some sort of vessel. I don't know what the vessel is. I have no clue. But it seems as though they probably did see something that they saw as having, for example, a propulsion system that shouldn't exist. As far as we know, we don't have the technology for that. The other wild theory that I always thought was really interesting is that people have always said that there is no vessel which can achieve the speeds needed to get to a planet that is habitable. I think it's Venus that had an atmosphere that could have supported life and had water up to 750 million years ago; and then it shifted and became the hellscape that it is now. But up until 750 million years ago, there was 3 billion years that could have potentially had life, and that would be enough time to have some extraordinary technology if they were to make it longer than we did. So if they did that, and they left Venus, 750 million years ago, they had to go somewhere. So maybe they came here? Maybe they've been here and we just haven't detected them. And that wouldn't even require interstellar travel, just interplanetary. So that's an interesting theory. I don't believe it, but I just think that it's thinking outside the box in an interesting way.


Alex Papaioannou

I know how I'm going to spend the rest of my day [laughs].


Aaron Moorhead

I read this pop psychology book called Thinking Fast and Slow [by Daniel Kahneman], and one of the major sections in it is about cognitive ease. It's why we accept certain things and reject other ones, and there's quite literally a physical symptom that happens to us when something conflicts with our worldview. And it hurts, it consumes more calories in the brain to fight it; which is, of course, one of the big problems in the world. So a great example is these videos that have been released by the government recently, where Congress has actually said it's real and they're investigating them. Those are all very interesting, and very well known as the FLIR, the GOFAST and the GIMBAL videos. Those have been such an object of fascination, and yet, I recently saw some extremely compelling debunking’s of the videos. And I can't tell you how much it hurts my brain to accept these debunking’s, because I want them so badly to be something else. And then I saw the debunking and it was like a wrench being pulled in my brain of like, "No! They're aliens!"

Aaron Moorhead

I guess my point is that whether or not those debunking’s hold water, I have to at least accept it's more likely a balloon than something that has been completely unproven. I'm thinking of myself as someone who made a movie that is all about how you should not dive into unfounded belief. And I have a significant struggle accepting these things as possibly being a lot less mysterious than they are. It just goes to show you that we are not judging our characters in Something In The Dirt. We must all hopefully look at those characters and think, "It could be me" and "What are our own innate biases that we're just so sure of, that actually might not be true?" There's another book called What If We're Wrong? [by Chuck Klosterman], that's just about the things that we are so sure are correct, like the theory of gravity, which actually keeps changing in strange little ways. So you have to just hope that you can remember that you actually might be wrong. And not just even on fringe stuff, but on the basics.


Alex Papaioannou

So pivoting a bit from aliens and space, the film is also just very funny. There's plenty of comical moments, and many of them have to do with living in an apartment. Specifically, one that's leaking, doors don't shut, and everything seems to be going wrong. I was just curious if either of you have any apartment horror stories similar to this?


Justin Benson

Well I do kind of...


Aaron Moorhead

[Smiling] Yeah, you do.


Justin Benson

When Aaron and I first met, I lived in this amazing apartment building in Los Feliz in Los Angeles. It was this really cool building that used to be an old hotel in the 1920's. You guys have a lot of cool buildings here in New York, but Los Angeles is not very old. So we have a lot of just pink stucco buildings [while smiling]. But this was actually a really neat looking Art Deco building with an elevator that you'd have to pull a cage open to take it up. It was just a really interesting place. It was also really old and really cheap. So I had this tiny little apartment, and it fit my bed and a desk. It had no kitchen, just a kitchenette. And a tiny, tiny bathroom. But I had a really bad cockroach infestation. They started in my kitchenette, and then they expanded into the bathroom, and pretty soon I'd wake up and they'd be on my bed. So I got to know cockroach behavior very well [smiling]. I noticed that when I'd go to swat them away or kill them, they would flinch. I don't know if they were learning or something but it was really bizarre. I opened my cabinet one day, and there was one cockroach on another, and it was eating the head of the other cockroach. I could see it ripping the head off its neck while the other one was still twitching. It was so gross, so horrifying. I think back on it now like, "Whoa, I really took that pretty well at the time." I was pretty calm about it, but it was wild.


Alex Papaioannou

Something I found very touching about the end of the film, and I'm now noticing the sticker on your phone case, is the dedication at the end of the film: "Make movies with friends." So I'm just curious, what's your favorite part about making movies with your friends?


Aaron Moorhead

There's something that happens when you're working on a crew that doesn't exclusively have a bunch of your collaborators you've worked with for decades. You start to like the person that you're just now getting to work with, and you get to start learning from them. You get to meet new humans, and that's always exciting, especially when they're brilliant humans, but there's always a moment where you finally see each other. Like, you really see each other, and you don't know when it's going to come; it never is on day one. And it is often when you're halfway through a shoot, or just before you wrap. Something like that. And you just wish, "If only we'd seen each other on day one." And that's what it's like working with your friends. You've already had that moment; it's way in the past. And now there's nothing loaded behind anything either of you are saying. It's just working through whatever we're working through. And you can't predict it, and you can't really manufacture it, outside of trying to spend time with them away from work. It just makes your life a lot better when you can find whatever that turnkey moment is before you ever even start.


Justin Benson

[Takes a few moments before starting] You know, this is our fifth independent feature. And there's just something about all of us getting together, and that process in the different stages of pre-production and conception. Aaron and I brainstorming stuff while working on the script together. All the little things that happen in pre-production, and then you're in production, then you're in the phase of post-production. We're shooting edits back and forth, working with our other editor [Michael Felker] that we always work with. There's something about that process, where every day, it's more than a job. We've all had jobs; it's different. You're so motivated every single day to do your absolute best for you and your friends. And you're having so much fun in the process that you forget it's even a job. Like it's not a job.


Aaron Moorhead

It's like a spiritual need.


Justin Benson

Yeah. And at the end of the day, at every stage of the process, even at the end of a production day, which is hard as hell, you could be physically exhausted, but you're so energized. You just go, "We're doing it, we're expressing ourselves." We're getting it out there and it's happening. You're birthing it and it feels so good. Filmmaking is always fun, but when you're making it with your friends, it just transcends being a job, and you're motivated by something deeper. And over the course of a decade, you all become like family.


Something in the Dirt will be released in select theaters on November 4.

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