Filmmakers Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have jokes. Lots of jokes. Anyone that has ever seen one of their always fun post-screening Q&As – locally in Toronto following the debut of Resolution at Toronto After Dark a few years ago or following their world premiere of Spring (officially opening this Friday, May 15, 2015) at TIFF last year – would know that. They have an irreverence to them that makes sitting down with them and keeping a straight face sometimes difficult. They’re a joy to be around, and one hopes that joy never fades from them.
It’s that same irreverence that makes their films so thoughtful and out of the ordinary. Resolution was an emotionally stunning, ultra-low budget, genre bending production about two friends – one addict and one responsible friend – holed up in a cabin in the woods. They try to patch up their damaged relationship, but they’re also caught in a sinister cat and mouse game with an unseen supernatural force that’s sending them threatening messages.
With Spring, Benson and Moorhead take their nuanced approach to character based horror and use it to tell a story about a romantic relationship. It’s about a troubled American named Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) who is trying to blow off some steam by travelling around Europe. In Italy, he becomes infatuated with Louise (Nadia Hilker), a young woman he gets on quite well with — or at least she appears young. Her dark secret is that she’s actually a hundreds of years old immortal.
What ensues is a character based romance, and definitely not the horror film that genre fans might expect. It’s ambitious and thoughtful instead of cheap and easily discarded. One also hopes that Benson and Moorhead can keep making these kinds of films even after their eventual jump to bigger projects.
We caught up with Benson, Moorhead, and Hilker during their time in Toronto for TIFF to talk (and joke) about their feelings on story, character, and why every film for them has to have some sort of personal connection.
With your previous film, Resolution, you guys married a story of male friendship and a drama about drug addiction with a supernatural thriller. With Spring, you guys have mated a romantic drama with a creature film. How exactly did you settle upon this for your next story, and do you generally enjoy playing around with genres in this respect?
Aaron Moorhead: [jokingly] Well, kind of like Resolution, we were on a four day bender in a crack den (laughs), and we were talking to a hobo and he just says “I GOT THIS IDEA FOR A MOVIE!” And we just thought, “Oh, thank heavens, because we don’t have any ideas right now. He was just, like, “I GOT A SCRIPT AND EVERYTHING.” And we were just, like, “Oooooookay, big guy.” Then we see this lump under his blanket and there’s Nadia.
And then you said, “That’s not a script, that’s a woman and I’m calling the police.”
Aaron Moorhead: Yeah, I think we really saved a life that day. (laughs) Then we made the movie.
Justin Benson: You probably want a real answer, don’t you? (pauses for a while) Yeah, I really don’t know.
My original lead off was going to be to thank you guys for casting Jeremy Gardner (director and star of The Battery) as the drunk, stoner best friend at the beginning of the movie.
Justin Benson: (laughs) We have this alternate version of the movie that we want to make. If you’ve seen the Blu-Ray of Resolution that we did and you saw all the crazy shit we did for that film where we just dismantle the whole movie again, but we want to shoot all this extra stuff with Jeremy Gardner so that every time his character is referenced for the rest of the movie, we can just cut back to whatever he was doing back in the States at that time. The characters are always talking about him when he isn’t on the trip. Either that or just randomly throughout the film just cutting to him sitting on the couch doing a bong rip for no reason. (laughs)
Aaron Moorhead: Just at the most intense moment of the story, just cut back to him with a title card saying, “Meanwhile, back in America…” (laughs)
Justin Benson: There’s a moment in the film after about an 11 minute, unbroken steadicam shot where Even calls his friend just to see what’s going on, and you never see the side of the conversation in America. We do the same thing in Resolution where we’re playing the humour by only hearing one side of the conversation and letting the audience fill in the blanks. But part of me really wanted when his best friend tells him that he has a monster [for a girlfriend], to just cut back to a shot of Jeremy with his bong. Just weed smoke throughout the air and Jeremy just wondering if he really heard that.
Aaron Moorhead: Or the whole movie actually takes place in Jeremy’s head and none of this ever happened. He just wakes up one morning and says “I just had the craziest dream Evan!”
Justin Benson: Then he wakes up from the dream where he tells Evan that, to waking up next to Nadia to tell her about this crazy dream he just had about this guy named Evan. Jesus, sorry for that tangent, man. You still have an interview to do. (laughs)
Not a problem. This is fun! But it is interesting how Resolution transitions into this film nicely because they are both films that are based out of love between two people.
Aaron Moorhead: Totally, even if the love story in Resolution is more of an implied one.
Justin Benson: Even though no one says “I love you, man” in Resolution, it’s definitely still about caring for someone more than you care for yourself.
Aaron Moorhead: Neither man in Resolution really ever comes out and says that they love the other one, but they do say, “I’m sorry.”
Justin Benson: But there is that connection there between the two films. One of the things we were most proud about in Resolution was how we sort of deconstructed the idea of friendship. So the next step really is to deconstruct a romantic relationship in sort of the same way. We want characters to point out things that are always said in real life, but that never get said in movies a whole lot.
When you think about the conversations that you have throughout the day, you realize that those conversations that you’ve been having probably wouldn’t be interesting to a general audience. You have to find that balance and distill down what exactly is the most interesting conversation that could be had between these people.
Aaron Moorhead: We wanted to make sure that we could portray romance as something that could be beautiful. Not the genre of romance, but real life romance. Romance and love can be really wonderful, but they’re also almost always trying to some degree. No romance is perfect, but we wanted to get across that it’s not this whirlwind of any sort.
The core idea of any romance movie should be simple. Why can’t this relationship that we’re seeing work? What is going to stop them, and what can they do to overcome it? We definitely still have that here, but I feel like a lot of films are dealing with external factors when it comes to those issues. It’s like, “Oh, we’re in the middle of a war” or “I’m rich and you’re poor.” In this case, it’s much more a question as to whether or not these people, on a very basic level, connect in the right way. There’s a bigger question about their relationship on a physical level, obviously, but it still comes back to those same questions people ask of themselves in relationships of any kind.
And I think that’s part of why the comparisons that this film has been getting to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy have been appropriate, because those films show romance as a series of discussions where people continue to find out new things about each other in a relationship over time. Here, Evan and Louise are talking about weird things, but I think they talk realistically and rationally about these weird things. So how do you keep things realistic when you add a supernatural element to it?
Aaron Moorhead: With the dialogue, specifically, there is always this tricky thing where we’re trying to strive for naturalism, but when you think about the conversations that you have throughout the day, you realize that those conversations that you’ve been having probably wouldn’t be interesting to a general audience. You have to find that balance and distill down what exactly is the most interesting conversation that could be had between these people. You need to know that these are two people speaking, and not that there’s someone behind all this writing everything they have to say.
Love is such a multi-faceted thing. I think a lot of movies like to make it way too pure when it comes to love. For most movies, it is love, it has to be love, it can’t be anything else, boom. There isn’t even really talk of other vaguely or explicitly compatible emotions.
There’s a moment in Resolution where the Chris character is talking about being an addict, and he’s being very frank and emotional about his body chemistry and his addictive nature, which is something people hardly ever see in movies, but that happens all the time in real life. In Spring, when they’re talking about their romantic relationship, there’s a similar moment when Evan tells her that he’s in love with her, and she’s taken aback by him. She questions him by asking him if he ever lusted for someone and mistaken it for love before the feeling passed. That’s something we’re pointing out in the third act of our romance here, but that’s a very real thing that happens in life. It’s an interesting thing that doesn’t come up in cinema a whole lot.
Justin Benson: There’s also another moment where that gets turned around. He asks her why she’s still here, and her reply is really simple. “It was easy to talk to you, and it stayed easy.” It’s not like, “Oh, my God! You’re the most amazing person, and I have to have you!” It’s a more realistic, “I get along with you great.” It works just fine. Sometimes it’s not “Till death do you part” immediately. Sometimes it is, and that’s okay, and part of our movie is that, two.
It’s also very realistic for two people to be on different levels of a love/lust relationship, and they still try to make it work. They both don’t have to dive in first. They both don’t have to play it cool. They very much have the ability to come at this from different sides. Love is such a multi-faceted thing. I think a lot of movies like to make it way too pure when it comes to love. For most movies, it is love, it has to be love, it can’t be anything else, boom. There isn’t even really talk of other vaguely or explicitly compatible emotions.
Aaron Moorhead: What we’re hoping is that people walk away from the movie, even if they think the romance is unrealistic, is that even if they don’t think Louise and Evan would for certain spend the rest of their mortal lives together, that these characters have pointed out valid, finite things, and that at the very least that they think Louise and Evan would still remain friends even if the romance doesn’t work out.
Justin Benson: The nicest thing about this is that I think unequivocally that even if these two can’t be lovers, they would still remain friends. They say there’s the triangle of love: sex, love, and companionship. That’s the thing. Even if you strike out one, you still have the other one or two. Relationships just aren’t built exactly to a form. You can always have one or two of those.
And it’s interesting that this film features a hundreds of years old creature as one of the members of the relationship, and this person is only realizing for the first time how loyal another person can be even when all the facts are laid out. I think when most people hear that the film involves a monster, there will be this third act ramp up to something where the audience expects Louise to go crazy, but really the film focuses again on tangible problems. It always stays grounded in the friendship, and that’s what’s so great about it.
Justin Benson: Can I be really candid? The biggest note we continually got when trying to get funding for this film, and the one that we constantly shut down to lead to us completely financing this independently, was because of the third act. Everyone we talked to wanted there to be a chase or they wanted it to be a horror movie. It caused us so much trouble, honestly. It was something that we just really didn’t want to do. That caused us so much trouble with people, but we are just so happy that we did it this way. It was so much more satisfying and so much more real.
Aaron Moorhead: It’s one of those things that audiences point out that they like the most about it. Instead of the tension in the third act coming from some secret organization of people who hunt them down or something like that, the unease and tension is best represented early on. We can see that Louise doesn’t have control over her own body. It’s not a malicious thing. It’s just who she is. She can transform at any moment. We like her, and we like Evan, but we also know that if anyone here is likely to get hurt physically or emotionally by this, it would be Evan. It comes from these internal struggles, and not from some manufactured exterior chase from some plot point we just made up to appease someone so they would give us money…
Nadia, when you were first approached with this story, did you know in advance what the character entailed, or did you only find out from the script as you were reading along with it?
Nadia Hilker: I started reading that script at 2am in the morning. I was so tired. I started and I couldn’t stop. I loved Louise. I always wanted to be like her. I would love to be just like her, without killing or transforming, but I think she’s an amazing badass. She’s the kind of woman I always wanted to be. She has ulterior motives, but she knows what she wants, how to get it, and she has hundreds of years of learned experience.
It’s a huge gift to an actor to give them a character with this much world experience, and you genuinely wonder how this woman will ever be able to relate on an emotional level to this seemingly regular everyday guy. There’s not really a rule. You can do whatever feels right.
Justin Benson: Would you say that it’s not really that difficult to play a character with that much history? Because it’s like your grandparents, for example. You know they have wisdom that you don’t have, but they probably don’t know much more than they did when they were thirteen in terms of facts and tangible knowledge. You will still know things that they don’t know, and Evan will know things that Louise in over hundreds of years would never be able to figure out.
Nadia Hilker: Exactly. Louise doesn’t have to be this creature because she has found someone that can relate to her just as another human being. You don’t get to have a role this physical – with the creature movement and the noises – and get to play someone who just wants to be respected as a person.
Aaron Moorhead: There’s a moment when Evan asks her what her original name was, and she doesn’t remember. Then she asks him if he remembers the address of his childhood home, and she’s kind of shocked that he does. But if you think about it, she has 2,000 years on him, but she doesn’t remember all of it. She remembers maybe the last thirty. She has a human brain. The rest is hazy. She didn’t have more knowledge than anyone else did in the 1600s, but I’m willing to bet that a 14 year old today is smarter than anyone was back then because we now have the internet and live past the age of 25. (laughs) She would take the lessons learned from whenever she was living, and then apply them to whatever she could remember the easiest. Maybe that isn’t the best example, but you get the idea.
I loved Louise. I always wanted to be like her. I would love to be just like her, without killing or transforming, but I think she’s an amazing badass. She’s the kind of woman I always wanted to be. She has ulterior motives, but she knows what she wants, how to get it, and she has hundreds of years of learned experience.
Nadia Hilker: Hell, yeah. And if you think about it, culture really reinvents itself every 25 years or so, and she has really been there to see more changes than anyone else could.
Justin Benson: This is probably the only time in a film where I haven’t seen a world-weary immortal. When she lives life, she’s mostly always enjoying it.
Aaron Moorhead: There isn’t some kind of made up existential crisis.
Justin Benson: She isn’t bored. She wants to keep living because she sees everything as getting better!
Aaron Moorhead: Louise has a really interesting view on life, death, and spirituality. We can look around and see Presidents change. My life itself didn’t change much from Bill Clinton, to George Bush, to Barak Obama, and Louise’s life didn’t change that much from the Pagan gods of Rome to transitioning towards Jesus. It’s an interesting view on the world.
Nadia Hilker: And technology, too. Her life didn’t change much before and after electricity because by that point she had already established who she was as a person. I mean, it’s fun to play someone that old who isn’t jaded.
Justin Benson; She would probably make fun of Anne Rice’s vampires as a bunch of emo bitches. (laughs)
Aaron Moorhead: There was this movie called The Man from Earth, have you seen it? It’s from a few years ago. I don’t think that’s a particularly great movie, but I like it really quite a bit for weird reasons, and the main character in it was doing all his things because he was world weary, but in terms of the knowledge gathered, I think we were kind of going for that. In the way that that movie goes into ideas of spirituality in these really grand ways with its twist, we kind of wanted to do the opposite of that. Louise admits that she’s a little person, and that’s how she wants to experience life. She wants to be a regular person and live as much life as possible.
You guys financed a lot of this the hard way, so what’s it like mounting almost an entire production overseas and away from the States where it probably would have been easier to fake like you had more of a budget? Does that lead to situations where you fear your vision of the film could be compromised?
Justin Benson: It’s so weird because everyone told us that shooting in Italy was going to be horrible and hard, but it was really super easy and positive. The local film commission gave us unlimited logistical support, and even some financial support. That was great. It was pretty simple.
And since it was independently financed, it was easy to keep our voice. No one was ever telling us what to do. It was always what we wanted to do from the beginning. Of course, there’s always room for collaboration, but because Resolution was just us, we wanted to do that one more time before dipping our toes into other waters. We wanted to do another film on our terms before opening any more doors. You don’t know what you can do until you can prove the movie is good, you know? You don’t want to deal with someone who might think working with you is a nightmare right away, you know? (laughs) It was really good to make sure that we stuck to our Resolution roots. We just had a bit more money this time.
Since it was independently financed, it was easy to keep our voice. No one was ever telling us what to do. It was always what we wanted to do from the beginning. Of course, there’s always room for collaboration, but because Resolution was just us, we wanted to do that one more time before dipping our toes into other waters. We wanted to do another film on our terms before opening any more doors.
Aaron Moorhead: I mean, the hope is that we can both just constantly be making these personal films. We get a few scripts sent to us a week. Sometimes more than that. But most of what we get we just don’t have that connection to. It can have a great structure and high concepts, but it lacks that personal thing. I think we both have to feel emotion when we read something, and I don’t think there’s ever a reason to really go away from that. The key is being savvy enough to move up in budget in a way that you can maintain creative control throughout.
In a perfect world, we’d love to keep our final cut thing going and keep generating our own material. If something comes along that has a personal touch that we connect to, that would be great. But as far as watering down what we do… I mean, not everything has to make you cry or laugh out loud, but you really do need something along those lines.
Justin Benson: There seems to be this misconception – or maybe it’s not a misconception, because it seems to be making a lot of money for people – is that the story or the hook of the plot is what gets people in the theatre. Some people might want to see only that for two hours, but most people stay with something because the story, and more accurately the characters, feel personal to them. You need to show that you care.
You have to focus on the story, and it has to be interesting and fresh, but I think a lot of that is Hollywood’s hang-ups. They are so focused on plot that they become blinded by it. Character is nuanced and something that has to be nurtured. Plot is obvious, and it has to be because that’s the visual stuff on screen. But you rarely know if you have character or not. You have to have those instincts. You have to feel it out more. It’s not mechanical. It’s not quantifiable. It’s hard to know.
Even a screenwriting guru that everyone seems to adore or hate like Robert McKee says that, if you’re doing your job right, plot and character are the same thing. That’s it. The plot comes from the character and the character comes from the plot. There’s no other way to do it. It’s very intrinsic.
But yeah, we never put one thing over the other, and I think that’s the voice that we always try to maintain and bring. If we feel like that’s being compromised, we can’t get excited about something.