For me, it’s been a thrill to watch the evolution of both Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s careers for over a decade now, and with their latest project, Something in the Dirt, the DIY duo go back to their roots along with producer and fellow collaborator David Lawson Jr. to deliver yet another genre-bending viewing experience that gives viewers a lot to contemplate and enjoy.
Something in the Dirt recently celebrated its world premiere during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and Daily Dead had the chance to speak with the trio about the project, and they discussed how things have evolved for them over the last decade or so, the inspirations behind the story and approach for Something in the Dirt, creating a cinematic love letter to Los Angeles, and more.
So, because you guys have been working together for quite a while now, what was different for you on Something in The Dirt versus your other collaborations in the past?
Justin Benson: It's probably just a little bit more of a conscious appreciation for all of us being able to work with each other in this creative space where we can do whatever we want and follow down whatever weird idea we have and get it right. There are all these things that you can do when you're making indie films with your friends that would be unrealistic to have the expectation that you could do that in the industry at large. There is good and there's bad to that, but it can be insanely fulfilling and to still do that with your friends. And with the pandemic and with other stuff in our lives and being in isolation and being away from indie films a little bit, we're really able to appreciate the process a lot more consciously while we were doing it.
Dave Lawson Jr.: I think the biggest thing was, especially on this one, that we all had to wear so many hats. So, I think preparation was the key. Just making sure that we had a really solid plan. I think even though it was the three of us, we still did a hard month of pre-production just like we would on any other size shoot.
What I always appreciate about your work, Justin and Aaron, is that you guys make me work for it in the best possible way, because you have to be a very active viewer in your stories because there are so many little intricacies to your stories and how everything unfolds. So, what inspired the direction of your story for Something in the Dirt then? I felt like I was constantly falling down all these little rabbit holes with your characters.
Aaron Moorhead: For us, where the story came from, there are about five different answers and we're trying to figure out how we land on exactly where it is. It was a slow congealing of many different sludges. One was, we've talked all the time about one of our favorite shows was The X-Files, but the new seasons just can't be like the old seasons, because they have to be reflected in the year 2020, which is the time in which they were making this. And through the modern perspective, a shady government organization doesn't quite have the same meaning and working for the FBI doesn't have the same meaning. So what we realized is, and it's even broader than that, but as a sci-fi writer, you have different responsibilities than you used to because sci-fi has become a lot of people's reality.
I think that's actually because we do follow science fiction in order to define our realities later, our utopian visions. And so, we're starting to realize that some of these fictions that were created in the past for fun are starting to become people's realities. What kind of responsibility do you have for that? And we wanted to make a movie about that. And there are also about nine other answers we can give you, too [laughs].
I'm glad you mentioned The X-Files, because that was truly one of my absolute favorite shows growing up. I think you guys did a great job of capturing the thoughtfulness and the paranoia of that show really, really well. Because of the different concepts that you're throwing out in this, can you discuss the scripting process for Something in the Dirt? It just feels like there are all these little puzzle pieces you have to lock together as you’re watching, which was great.
Justin Benson: Traditionally in storytelling, when you have a story that we'll just broadly call “places that are haunted, and people react to it,” what happens is that they observe said phenomenon, whatever it is, and they become extremely frightened by it and they either run from it or they try to figure out a way to cleanse that environment or something. We've seen these stories. There are literally tens of thousands of these stories and probably hundreds of films. And something Aaron and I started talking about, literally, over a decade ago, was an idea of like, “Okay, if you actually witnessed supernatural, paranormal, or otherworldly phenomenon, how would you respond to that?” And I think the thing we're always knocking at was the premise of this movie, which is like, well, you probably should try to exploit it financially.
And if you’re not exploiting it financially, exploit it for whatever currency you desire. For a lot of people these days, I suppose that would be fame. That's obviously all weaved into this story. And then in terms of where this story actually goes, it was spending a lot of time just thinking about these characters individually and once we had them figured out, what would happen next? And then next to next to next. It just felt like those dominoes fell very easily. Though, you do your first cut of the movie and there's always some section you're going to have to retool a little bit. But yeah, that was it.
When you’re working in mostly a single location, there’s a tendency for folks to think that it’s “easier,” but I’ve always believed the opposite. How did you guys approach the visuals so that you could try and keep things interesting for the viewers since about 80 percent of the film is set in this small apartment?
Dave Lawson Jr.: That was something that we talked about from day one. How do you make this interesting and keep it interesting when you are mostly sticking to a small room? I think that's why it was written the way it was, is to get us out of that room from time to time so it doesn't become boring or monotonous. We were constantly finding new ways to shoot that room.
Justin Benson: Yeah. It's funny. We started out with just a verbal list of ways in which we could shoot scenes differently and then we paired them with how the scenes were supposed to feel so that there was almost no visual repetition between these scenes. Not just because, oh, the audience is going to get bored. We made sure that we were actually progressing the story using the cinematography, because that's one of the few things that we can do with a single location. And yes, there is a lot of the movie in a room, but simultaneously you probably would not describe the movie as a chamber piece. And a lot of that was we had already done a chamber piece and we don't really want to do that again. It's not that I don't want to, but it's hard to get excited to do that again.
Aaron Moorhead: But when we shot, we had so much access to the city of Los Angeles, just using locations wherever we could unofficially. Like, sometimes that meant that maybe you almost got arrested, but the movie itself becomes this love letter to Los Angeles that we hopefully show it in a way that is slightly different from the way people have seen it before. That's obviously hard. There are a lot of movies that take place in Los Angeles.
But there's a cut of the movie that was much, much, much longer and we'd left in us getting kicked out of a location where we were telling these bald-faced lies about why we were there. But it just made the movie too long. We still got kicked out, too, by the way.
Justin Benson: My favorite part was we spent about 20 to 30 minutes on the drive to that location coming up with what our reason was and literally, it got shut down before we even got a chance to try to convince this guy.
Aaron Moorhead: Yeah, we were really disappointed. It was like, “No, no, let me tell you the story.” And he was like, "No, you need to leave." We had this whole story, though!
Justin Benson: He was like, "I don't care."
What's interesting to me about Los Angeles, and I think it's something that you experience when you live here, is that there is this sense of history, but there's also the sense of non-history in a way, too, where you watch these buildings with history being torn down and then these condos go up. So I think the way you were able to highlight the history and integrate it into your story was great.
Aaron Moorhead: We wanted to make, as you said earlier, a film about how regular people might react to this, and people that we recognize from our everyday lives that also included our experience of Los Angeles, where it does have this underbelly. But for us, it's not like Collateral where we're going to get shot if we talk to the wrong guy [laughs]. It's more that you read books about bizarre histories and odd things that happened, and we integrated a lot of that with Jack Parsons and the Laurel Canyon conspiracies. All of those are very real to us. And we used some famous architecture, too.
But it was also because when you're making a low-budget film, these things are completely available to you. Public domain footage adds so much production value, and it's so interesting to look at. So, to find a way to integrate it into your story and manipulate that footage in a way that is meta-textural to how the film is talking about manipulating footage, we were just extremely attracted to being able to do that.
[Photo Credit: Above photo courtesy of Aaron Moorhead / Sundance Institute.]
Go HERE to catch up on all of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival!