With the fiendishly clever meta-horror of Resolution, their 2012 debut feature, Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead announced themselves as filmmakers who understood genre films inside and out, and could revivify tired old tropes. Their beguiling follow-up, Spring, transforms the popular supernatural romance genre into a swooning, evocative metaphor for the terrors and uncertainties of love. Set in an old, seaside Italian village that’s by turns spookily atmospheric and reminiscent of the romantic cosmopolitanism of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy—to which Spring has frequently been compared—the film stars Lou Taylor Pucci as Evan, a college dropout tooling around the country after his mother’s death. When he meets the alluring Louise (Nadia Hilker), what starts as a one-night stand leads to a genuine relationship that’s fraught by the revelation of who (or what) she really is. (To quote the tagline: “Love is a monster.”) Benson and Moorhead talked to The Dissolve about their character-driven approach to writing, managing the budget on overseas shoot with impressive visual effects, and their filmmaking partnership.
The Dissolve: Resolution is a very knowing horror movie, and while Spring isn’t self-aware in the same way, supernatural romance is hugely popular right now. Did you intend Spring as a reaction to other supernatural romances, or to take that whole genre in a different direction?
Justin Benson: No. Fortunately and unfortunately, everything worked out for us, but we actually weren’t savvy about anything when Spring was written, like literally nothing. Nothing about that script was a calculated business decision.
Aaron Moorhead: No, it was just the story we wanted to tell really bad. So there’s a glut of supernatural love stories? Like It Follows?
The Dissolve: No, I’m thinking of something like Twilight. There are entire shelves of bookstores devoted to that specific genre.
Benson: There’s obviously a lot of things to the conception of a movie, but in terms of the conception in relation to Resolution…there’s a plot point in Resolution that justifies its minimalism. There’s a reveal in the third act. There’s only one way to tell that story. After making that and feeling like we had satisfied audiences with the way that we deconstructed an old friendship, it seemed like the natural escalation was to try romance. To try that same sort of naturalism and try to communicate a real human connection in cinema. It was also about the challenge of showing our monster as opposed to Resolution, where you never quite see it. It was a fun challenge designing a monster and working with a practical effects company.
The Dissolve: Resolution is so made for such a certain budget level, and though Spring is more ambitious in terms of its location and its effects, I’m sure you had restrictions there, too. Do you find yourself having to think about what’s even possible, and then writing within those limitations?
Moorhead: We have kind of this knee-jerk reaction when we see something that’s kind of like when you see a kid wearing their father’s suit. It’s like, “Oh, that’s a nice-looking suit, but you don’t look good in it.” There’s a lot of that, especially in indie film where people want to make something that looks more Spielberg-ian, but the idea is inherently expensive. And then you realize that you’re competing against all those ideas that actually had that budget. You can’t make a really good action movie for $1,000. Why? Because action costs money no matter what. What doesn’t cost money is really good human connection. So that’s usually where we start. [For Spring], Justin found for his script a credible, new monster mythology. It’s not bragging to say that it’s never been seen before. My dad used to say good science fiction has good science, and that’s the thing. Yeah, Louise is not physically possible, but you can kind of believe it when it’s explained to you, and it’s not like living in an alternate universe in which magic is real. You can actually imagine a world where someone like Louise would exist. And so you have this completely human mythology that actually inherently requires a love story to work. So we say, okay, we have our two fascinating characters, let’s put them together. And then it requires this love story to work so you have this premise, and everything from there unfolds as naturally as possible. It can’t take place in Detroit. It couldn’t really take place anywhere other than a Mediterranean, coastal, idyllic town. Everything kind of stems from that tiny little idea. As far as the budget goes, you definitely don’t want to overextend your reach. You don’t make the movie for less than you can actually make it. Otherwise, you’re going to get the thing I was talking about with a kid wearing his father’s suit.
The Dissolve: How did you get that location? And then how were able to do the effects, too, within a small budget?
Benson: Basically, we were really naïve and ignorant when we wrote that script, even more so than we are now. Everywhere we went with it, everyone was just like “You can’t shoot an indie film in Italy, it’s too expensive. There’s just no way this script can be made.” And we were at a film festival with Resolution in Trieste, Italy and we were walking down the street and [talked] to the film commission about this movie we have that takes place in Italy. And so we go in there, and we talk to the guy and he was saying, “You can’t shoot it in our region, but there’s this region called Apulia.” Our script was written for the Amalfi Coast, and it looks close enough like the Amalfi Coast, many of the same locations. Sure enough, we go meet with the film commission for the Apulia region and there were tax breaks, there were film funds, there were all these financial incentives for shooting there that financially made the movie a little bit more possible. Now, not entirely. It is still an expensive movie to make because it is a creature feature, and it is still Americans shooting in Europe. So it is expensive.
But the thing is, Aaron and I produce our own movies and we just very carefully for a year in the pre-production process budgeted, and very carefully figured out everything we need to figure out. We wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation where it’s like, “Hey you know the part in the script where it says evolutionary Frankenstein? Well, now she looks like a bunch of spaghetti thrown to the ground.” [Laughs.] There are things you can do to avoid those situations and frankly, it is planning way ahead of time. It’s meeting with your special-effects company months ahead of time, and getting everything dialed in. So you get it as far as you can on set and then Aaron is a visual effects genius, so we could actually add another layer of “that’s impossible, what am I looking at” by basically doing what we call practical composites. After the cut was locked, we went back to our special effects company and we shot additional stuff that’s practical. We shoot it practically, and then Aaron composites it in the effects program. I think the biggest thing is that we produce our own stuff so we can be prepared, and make sure that we’re not little boys wearing dad’s clothes.
The Dissolve: The two most talked-about horror films lately, The Babadook and It Follows, have been really effective in attaching metaphors to genre shocks. Was that the idea behind Spring too, to find a way through genre to express other ideas?
Moorhead: Definitely, yeah. One way or another, every story has to have a thematic undercurrent. Otherwise it’s just the story. A good example of like, no thematic undercurrent but a really good story, is Taken. Starting again with the central relationship [in Spring], we have this theme of rebirth running through it. Almost any question about the visuals and what’s happening can kind of be answered via what it’s like for something to decay and be reborn. Every good movie monster in the history of movie monsters has some sort of social resonance. Frankenstein is fear of science and society against that, and Dracula was sexual repression. They all stand for something contemporary or even more broad. In general, ours was kind of about grief, rebirth, and this idea that love is extraordinarily imperfect. Not just that in you’re going to argue sometimes, but there’s that moment when in a relationship—like a couple of weeks in or two months in—when you really do realize who that person is deep down. And whether or not you can deal with that. Ultimately, that’s more deep down. All of our decisions were like she’s very literally a monster. It’s not in his head. And that’s how we treated it on set and in the edit, but what it’s trying to get across is “relationship monsters” becoming more literal.
The Dissolve: How much do you want viewers to know about the film going in? Would it be ideal for people not to know it has a supernatural element at all?
Benson: The best audience response that the movie ever gets and the best experience for the viewer is that they go in knowing very little, that it’s a romance that has some dark elements. However, you cannot sell a movie like that. To draw in an audience and to get people to see the movie, you probably do need to market it as a movie about a girl with a dark secret and it’s a monster movie, and you can probably come to some conclusions about what kind of movie you’re going to get. Ultimately, the movie has had two different lives. It has one on the film circuit where people were discovering it and that’s the more mysterious version. But then there’s the other one where to bring in an audience, they probably do need to know a little bit more.
The Dissolve: Did you keep up with the conversation around The One I Love last year? It’s a film that’s got a very Charlie Kaufman-y premise, but it doesn’t kick in until about 10 or 15 minutes in. The decision was made to discourage critics from saying anything about it, and there was nothing included in marketing of it. It was interesting to see the hook taken away from the film in order to make the audience experience more satisfying. It seemed very unusual that you’d even be able to do something like that.
Benson: Yeah, we talked quite a bit about it, about the poster. You can imagine what the poster could be compared to what it is. We tried to figure out exactly how to place the idea in people’s mind that they would think this is a good movie and an intriguing movie without actually giving away “it.” The thing is, you can successfully build a mystique around your movie like what we did with Resolution. If you can successfully do that, it works great. The vast majority of people buying the movie—like impulse buys, seeing it on the DVD shelf or something—don’t care about the mystery so much. They’re not going to pick it up and say, “What an oddity.” They’re going to want to know what it is so that when they buy it, they at least know that they’re getting a vampire movie or something. We can’t blame anybody. We adore movies. But I’m not just going to pick up, say, a mysterious record and buy it. I don’t blame anybody, but it does make it difficult, because you want the movie to have one solid presentation that is the most efficacious.
Moorhead: Luckily, there were the film-festival perceptions going in, which were highly mysterious. And at least no one is going to know exactly what she is. They all know she’s a source of danger, that she’s most likely a monster, but not what kind. There’s still a sense of discovery, but there’s a little more information going into it.
The Dissolve: How would you describe your partnership? What are your individual strengths and weaknesses? What is your working relationship like?
Moorhead: Justin’s my best friend, and also of course my co-filmmaker. We like wearing as many hats as people let us wear. And usually, because we produce it, we get to wear as many as we want. And so, we both produce. We both direct. We both edit. And then, we do split the duties a little bit, but we have an extremely heavy hand with each other. Like he writes, but I’m heavily involved in development. I do the cinematography, but he’s always right there over my shoulder—it’s not just director and DP relationship. And I’ve been doing visual effects, so that always helps us out. It’s extraordinarily not contentious. There’s no fun story about us bickering or anything like that. We hate the idea of slowing down the set, and just burning people’s time and money for something that we could have resolved before we got to set. We always solve every problem before shoot. And we’re both so solid in the same vision that it’s extraordinarily rare that we have disagreements on set. If we do, we take the time that it takes, but it’s just so rare I don’t know if I could even name one. It’s about taking a lot of time to prepare, spending a lot of time talking about it, figuring out where the weak spots will be. We like being prepared and we always push each other to go a different way. That’s probably what co-directing with Justin has taught me the most. It gave me a lot of confidence to make something that is off the beaten path, and that’s an extraordinarily good thing. Spring is a pretty unconventional movie I’d say, but we didn’t really bat an eye going into it. Yeah, this movie is going to work no matter what. We love it.
Benson: After Resolution, we had a lot of opportunities to go make movies with much bigger budgets and make a lot more money, but we didn’t believe in the projects one hundred percent, so we went off and made a movie for a lot less money because we love it, and because we’re passionate about it. Anytime either one of us starts backing away and asks whether we should take the more financially viable movie, the other one is like “No, let’s go do this passion project. Let’s go do the thing we love.” And Spring is one of those projects. There was a time when Spring was just a script in our wet backpack as we were riding bikes down in the rain in Cannes in $20 H&M suits where we were getting rejected left and right.
The Dissolve: What’s next for you guys?
Moorhead: Right now, we are actually going to be pitching a TV show. We’re rounding out a script about Aleister Crowley. It’s one of those names that half of the people in the world adore, and the other half have never heard of him. It’s kind of a biopic, but it’s contained. There’s kind of a narrative device that allows it to be. It’s about this transformational period in his life. It starts out with this guy with all these very progressive views, but is also kind of an addict of extremes. His libertine ideals are both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness.
The Dissolve: Do you see yourselves moving fluidly between TV and film, then?
Bensen: If we get to TV, we face less resistance with doing character-driven material. On top of that, it seems like the middle-budget films are disappearing. More and more, it seems like all you have is micro-budget and Transformers 5 or Godzilla and something. And who knows, maybe we could end up staying in TV. Our Aleister Crowley film kind of feels like at the scale of There Will Be Blood or a Victorian Boogie Nights. Like the first 15 minutes of The Exorcist, that sense of dread running through the whole thing. If we keep doing projects like that, that’s amazing. But right now, it seems like there’s more opportunities for the type of storytelling we do on TV.