Down the rabbit hole

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead on Something In The Dirt

by Jennie Kermode

Something In The Dirt
Something In The Dirt Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

It’s one of the most hotly anticipated films at this year’s Frightfest and was one of the films everybody was talking about at Fantasia. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have developed a reputation for producing interesting, thought-provoking oddities, and Something In The Dirt will not disappoint the fans. I connected with them shortly before the London-based festival, when they were already in the city and getting ready for their screening, and began by asking them if the high expectations which people now have of them put the pressure on as they approach each new project.

“It didn’t until now,” Justin protests, laughing. “That’s great of you to bring that up. Yeah, well, I mean, independent film is always high pressure. There's not really a great reason to make an indie film if you're not going to make it personal – not to confuse personal with autobiographical. Obviously, there's nothing autobiographical for us in Something In The Dirt but it is personal. And when you're making any films, it should be personal. And that's why it's so scary, releasing it into the world, because people hate it, it's going to sting a little more. If you were you were directing an episode of an anthology series or something that's like, ‘Oh, it didn't go well.’” He shrugs. “Anyway, it's all going to be our fault if you don't like it.”

I assure him that I did like this one, and ask what felt personal about it and what attracted them to these ideas.

“Justin and I spend pretty much all of our free time together, talking about the fringes of what's out there, of spirituality, of the supernatural, of just interesting little Atlas Obscura-esque things in the world,” says Aaron. “And right now, our current fixation is the UFO phenomenon, so I think that's pretty much the most personal thing in this film, where we have two people who are extremely flawed, they're not wildly unintelligent, and they decide instead of running away from seeing the supernatural, to instead embrace it, run towards it, because it can give answers.

“It can give success and give a lot of things, you know, especially if you've lived if you've lived half your life already and you're thinking, ‘I guess there's nothing else out there, and this is kind of it.’ And then suddenly something presents itself saying actually this isn't it, via religion, via something supernatural, philosophy, whatever exactly it is. You are under a bit of a moral obligation to yourself to chase it. And we really liked that about what those characters in Something In The Dirt do. The rest of it? They're just being characters.”

In some ways, it seemed like an invitation to critics to get lost in rabbit holes going hunting for background, I suggest, and explained that I looked up the number 1908, which features prominently in the film, on a numerology site, which said that it's associated with surrendering oneself completely to one’s faith, because then one will find a solution – something which sounded incredibly dangerous to me. Did they choose that particular number for a reason?

They look at each other. “We did,” says Aaron. “Although now, that is so perfect, we're going to steal that like we always meant it.” In actuality, he says, it’s because there’s a way of using Morse code to interpret Ode To Joy, which also features in the film, which almost makes it 1908.

I note that I also heard a bit of House Of The Rising Sun in there, an clear reference to The Endless. Does everything linked back in their films, or is it just about adding more misdirection to this one?

“Oh, this definitely won't be the last movie that connects back to our other films,” says Justin, “but there is something to this one that's probably a little bit different than the other ones, that that you really do notice more and more connections with additional viewings. Obviously the connections between, like, The Endless and Resolution are much more conspicuous in this movie. We are continuously working on projects that take place in that universe of The Endless and Resolution and this movie.”

For reasons which those who have seen the film will understand, I have brought along my antique Russian doll to the interview. Both filmmakers are amused by her presence.

“This is totally a non sequitur,” says Aaron suddenly, “but you know how in Lord Of The Rings, how Peter Jackson would use forced perspective to make big things appear small and vice versa? Your matryoshka doll seems like it's as big as you are.”

I lean forward so that my head is next to the doll’s. She’s bigger than he expected, though he contends that she looked like she was behind me, looming over us all. Trying to get things back on track, I ask about the exploration of conspiracy theories in the film, and of the way people get lost in them..

Justin is quick to answer. “When we were developing the scripts and making the majority of the movie, obviously, the world changes so fast now, at the time we were just talking about, there was this famous Alan Moore quote, and I won't be able to say that quote exactly. but it was something to the effect of ‘You shouldn't be worried if you're on a CIA list. You should be worried if you have the same name as someone on a CIA list.’ It’s a thematic thing in one of his books, the idea that belief in conspiracy theory, oftentimes, is a sort of wish fulfillment, that we can't be that organised – that one could argue that many conspiracy theories are often just a perception of a bunch of interconnections between things, and that if there's someone who's able to run all of that and get all those people kind of organised in that way, when in fact that the scary thing is that really everything's much more chaotic. So there were thematic ideas dealing with all of that.”

“There's a condition called, I think, pareidolia,” adds Aaron, “which is when people see, for example, they see the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast. They interpret signals in the noise. It's not about any particular thing in the Zeitgeist. Believe it or not, we were developing this before the conspiracy thing was as big as it was, and it had a little more to do with the perils of chasing certainty in unknowables – and instead, perhaps, you know, finding where the borders are scientifically, and then accepting the unknown, this might, in some ways be less of a folly.”

I mention the way that the characters in the film use image enhancement and do reenactments, which leaves me wondering how people are going to distinguish something that is true. It seems to be making real news appear fake.

Justin nods, and says “We're going to reach a time where people will be able to make a video that looks exactly like you. That's probably within 10 years. Yeah. But in terms of of the way John and Levi deal with conspiracy theory and what's going on, in terms of what's real and what's fake, honestly, that was more just inspired by just the fun of being able to have a movie fold in on itself.”

“Yeah,” says Aaron. “I think we're really into the idea of a bunch of loose connections all connecting together and seeming like there actually might be something to it. The idea of hidden codes. There's also, I mean, would you say there's something about the city we live in, in Los Angeles – that kind of weird, seedy, sinister, alternate history that kind of made us want to connect with that?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Justin agrees. “Also, I mean, there also could be something to the fact that most cities on the West Coast don't have even that long of a history to draw from and to get lost in what was real and what was false in the past. Here in London, you have a city that goes back far enough to where the the recorded evidence is, like, you could have a much more elaborate conspiracy going back so much longer without totally inventing things for plot.”

Aaron nods. “I just realised, you know, the theatre here in London, there'd be a haunted house movie which would be like, ‘Well, 60 years ago, someone died in this house,’ and it's like, of course someone died in this house. Someone died in every house.”

It does make some American ghost stories seem odd to those of us in the Old World, I agree. But Los Angeles has its own peculiarities. Right at the start of the film, we see a huge pall of black smoke hovering in the background of a scene, and it’s easy for outsiders to forget about the wildfires and imagine that, in the universe of the film, there’s some kind of war going on.

“It feeds a lot into the apocalyptic feeling of the film,” Aaron agrees.. “And also, you each character's own personal feelings on the apocalypse, because wildfires are just such a good symbol of apocalyptic thinking and feeling and we wrote them in because honestly, there were wildfires every single summer, choking Los Angeles, and the feeling that it creates is unmistakable.”

There’s also an apocalypse-focused church in the film. Does that reflect a wider preoccupation with the state of the world?

“There is an interesting psychology to this somewhat common spiritual belief that comes with an embrace of the end,” muses Justin. “It's like this idea of welcoming the end of the world being part of your religion, and that being a fairly common thing. Just finding out someone holds that belief and starting to get to know them, it just seems like such an extraordinarily selfish thing in the other person but yet it's a relatively common thing. Expressing that you don’t view that as being a negative thing specifically, but the person that you’re with might.”

The relationship between the characters is interesting in a lot of ways, I say. Neither of them seems wholly trustworthy, they both have some dubious things in their pasts, and viewers will find themselves shifting their sympathies.

“I think we were reacting to stuff that we'd seen, but also just watching a shift that was happening in a lot of movies and TV, of likability being the most important thing,” says Aaron. “And we never found that particularly important. I guess we shouldn't say likability, because even a bad guy can be likeable, but there's this idea that we've started bumping up against where as soon as a character does something that would be considered by most people being morally wrong, that that we need to strip that out and get rid of it. It’s like, no, that's not really how likability works. And so we very actively designed a movie where our characters would both be highly flawed. And in fact, your allegiances with them should shift completely from one to the other, or to neither over the film.

“On top of that, we wanted to make a movie where the whole point is that it's not about solving the mystery. It's about the fallacy of trying to solve a potentially unsolvable mystery, and how to be comfortable with that without ruining your life. And those things are very hard to try to make a movie that's actually entertaining to watch. Because you made a promise to the audience most of the time like ‘Oh, we’ll tell you what's going on at a certain point.’”

I ask them how they approached the sound design for the film, because it’s very well done, and is one of those things which keeps people hooked.

“Usually when we're doing our edits of the movie, we'll attempt to add a bunch of sounds and spend a lot of time trying to find stuff that's getting close to what we want it to be,” says Justin. “And then when we hand it off to our recording mixer, Yahel Dooley, we spend a lot of time with him trying to get those things to actually sound good, or at least try to explain why we chose that temporary sound, and allow him to go off and make something way better than we found, or made in our apartment, or whatever we did to get the sound.

“We might spend spend more time on our sound mixes than some other filmmakers. We also are not afraid to quiet down our movies, to just let let scenes play quiet, pull out music, but it's hard sometimes because our composer Jimmy LaValle, the music is so amazing you want to let it play through all these scenes. But since our first feature, Resolution, which had a story reason why there wasn't a score, we've just been always really aware of how effective a scene can be playing without music, and just spending a lot of time on really precise sound design.”

On another technical note, I feel compelled to ask about the collages of imagery used in the film, and how they’re assembled.

“I’m so glad that you asked about that,” says Aaron, “because that was by far the most exciting part of post production: finding what we call our interstitial assets, or something like that. So a lot of it is public domain footage, all the black and white stuff that we sourced from the internet. And then we also got a lot of it as stock footage as well. And then anything we couldn't find stock footage of, we had our production designer [Ariel Vida] become the second unit director, and she would create, with her team, and shoot anything that we needed and didn't have, like all the papers on the table, all of that. And then there's also footage from our actual childhoods that we utilised while we were writing Something In The Dirt, and we decided to integrate it into the film.”

So how do they feel about how people have been reacting to the film so far?

“Oh, it's been really lovely,” says Justin. “It's funny – you go ‘Oh, it's our fifth movie.’ So you think about things relative to your other films. And it seems like it's one of the more well received films among our filmography, which feels really good. That feels especially good given that of so many things we've done in the last several years, this is the one thing that is actually just ours, and it's nice.”

Something In The Dirt will be in cinemas in the UK and US from 4 November.

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