Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead made their mark on the horror scene a couple of years ago with Resolution, an inspired meta-genre trifle that suggested promising careers to follow. With their sophomore effort, Spring, the budding auteurs have reaffirmed and built on the talent hinted at in their debut. Set in a picturesque Italian village, their follow-up is a tale of monstrous love between an American tourist and an enticing woman who harbors a secret not to be revealed in this introduction. Interspersed with plenty of conversation and introspection, the film feels similar in spirit to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy—sans a train and nine years of separation. Moorhead and Benson have created the type of thematically dense and aesthetically invigorating genre picture we don’t receive often enough. Late last week, we spoke to the emerging filmmakers about the state of the horror genre, balancing the professional and personal, and leaving comical comments on negative reviews of their movie. Fair warning: The interview touches upon major plot points.
The A.V. Club: The driving force of the movie is this character’s desire to “re-center himself.” Was the original impetus for this project similar for you two? A longing to press that creative reset button?
Justin Benson: Not really that, but it’s interesting, when you think back on the conception of the story, it’s never one single thing. Our first movie was also a monster movie, but you never saw the monster because of this particular plot device and the logic of the movie. It was the best way to do that one, because we made it with basically the money in my checking account. We couldn’t really build a monster, because we had $20,000 and our backs [were] against the wall. So it was an interesting challenge to be like, okay, let’s show it this time, and go through the fun of designing it. We’ll try to hopefully add to the ranks of on-screen monsters that people talk about.
Another big thing was, it felt like there was something sort of rebellious in the act of creating a new monster. Because for some reason it was something that so few people attempt to do now. Usually, when people want to tell a monster story, it’s a vampire, it’s a werewolf, or it’s an alien. It’s always got to be one of those things. That’s pretty much it, conceptually. Also, our first movie was basically a deconstruction of a really old friendship and I think we’re proud of the way we dealt with that. The natural escalation would be like, “Oh, let’s see if we can capture the opening beats of a romantic relationship.” And the reason why I think it works is [that] you’re looking at the beats of the first few months of a relationship taking place over a single week.
AVC: There’s certainly this idea of accelerated intimacy at play. Would you say that this the natural next step for both of you?
Aaron Moorhead: After we made Resolution, we didn’t really know how the movie would do. To give you some perspective, we were still in the mixing stage and would go back to our day jobs during the day. So it’s hard to think of Spring as the next logical creative progression. For us, it’s like, “Let’s make another movie and hope people let us.” I was a cinematographer and Justin was working odd jobs kind of—
JB: I was a bartender, table busser, production assistant… I did all kinds of things. And simultaneously, I was also preparing for medical school. At the time I had to choose between whether I was going to stick with filmmaking or go off to medical school. Because I had my MCAT scores and all my pre-recs done. I had taken organic chemistry. But then when I first did the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, it sold that night. Nothing’s ever a sure bet, but it seemed a little silly to go off and spend $100,000 on medical school when my film career was starting to get going.
AM: Anytime there’s a disagreement between Justin and I, he always pulls out his trump card: “Well, I almost was a doctor, so…” It’s really annoying, all the time he pulls it.
JB: I don’t do that!
JB: I was almost a doctor, so listen to what I’m saying!
AM: That’s true. I wasn’t. I’m sorry.
JB: We actually have a new campaign going with Spring where anytime anyone says anything negative in a review, I go into the comment section and say, “I was almost a doctor!”
AVC: That’s a surefire way to keep working in this industry. Your discussion about these odd jobs parallel the central character’s narrative, a guy who jettisons his bartending gig and goes to Italy. And at the center of Spring there’s this ongoing conversation about valuing the professional versus the personal. Does that hit home for you two?
JB: That stuff is probably the most personal to Aaron and I.
AM: Yeah, exactly.
JB: When you’re in your 20s and getting your career started, you’re always trying to balance. Aaron and I are both workaholics, and it takes a lot of effort to stay balanced and to have personal relationships, even non-romantic ones. It could be friendships, family, all of that. But it especially comes into play in romance, because if all you do is work, you can’t leave yourself open to that kind of experience that everyone’s having. That sentiment is rarely expressed in love stories. It’s something that tears at everybody, you know? One-hundred percent of people worry about this kind of thing. I mean it’s near and dear to our hearts, but a lot of people don’t seem to really want to talk about it because it’s an extraordinarily unromantic idea.
AVC: Many people have made comparisons between Spring and Richard Linklater’s Before series. Was that a point of reference here?
JB: Aaron actually hadn’t seen… I don’t think he’d seen a Richard Linklater movie at all.
AM: I actually owned Waking Life. But I hadn’t seen the Before trilogy.
JB: If you’re gonna be compared to something, there’s nothing more flattering that that. But at the same time, it’s like making a gangster movie and everyone’s saying, “It’s kind of like The Godfather.” You don’t want people to say that because you can’t be as good as The Godfather. Those movies are absolutely perfect.
AM: Before Sunrise literally has 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, after 20 years or whatever.
JB: Interestingly enough, we got this award from Variety called “Ten Directors To Watch,” and they organized this brunch. And Richard Linklater was there. The way we were introduced onstage, we pretty much had to go talk to him right after. We walked up to him awkwardly, shy and scared, and were like, “Excuse me sir, we just wanted to say we’re admirers of your work.” And he turned around and was like, “Oh, you guys made that movie Spring.” We said, “Yeah yeah, they always tell us it’s like Linklater meets Cronenberg.” And he was like, “I love David Cronenberg!”
AM: How did he have the perfect and tactful answer ready? “I love David!” instead of, “So it’s like my movies.”
JB: He actually watched Spring last week and he said, “It’s a beautiful, unique love story. An accomplishment of genre and tone.”
AVC: No negative comments to leave there.
JB: Actually, after he sent it, I found his email address and I wrote him a thing saying, “Hey, I was almost a doctor, Mr. Linklater!”
AVC: And he responded with, “I love doctors!”
AM: [Laughs.] That was it. That was the perfect full circle.
AVC: There’s an amusing contempt for Americans in this movie.
JB: Right, an American tourist gets his penis ripped off. There’s that. No, no, we have absolutely nothing against Americans, having low self-esteem ourselves. But Aaron and I traveled a lot with our first movie and we started to notice patterns. Oh, Americans are the worst tourists. Usually Americans are the worst tourists. And also, with Europe taking shots at Americans, it would be an unrealistic thing if you don’t embrace that kind of attitude. When you’re in Europe, you get criticized for being American all the time. It’s always in good humor, it’s just the way it is. Who else are you going to take shots at?
AVC: What was the reason for setting the film in Italy?
AM: I mean, first it’s Italy. There’s that. We got to shoot in Italy, which is great. Every producer that we talked to said, “Oh don’t shoot in Italy. It’s expensive.” And then we were kind of just like, “But it takes place there.” It takes place there for very specific reasons. And as it turns out, we found Apulia, a region where it’s film friendly. They’ve got tax breaks, all this wonderful stuff. And on a story level, you can kind of juxtapose the beauty of Italy with the grotesque.
But more so than in any other country, except maybe France, Italy has like this undercurrent of myth that exists everywhere. Everybody there is Catholic and all of their history goes back thousands and thousands of years. You can just walk through the countryside and through ruins, and everybody as a collective society knows those myths. Italy kind of holds this mental real estate for everybody, and so we latched onto that and used that for our story that is about building a myth.
JB: We actually went and scouted Montenegro because a Serbian production company said that it looked exactly like Italy and would take us on a scout to go see it. And they did, and it was crazy because we looked like hobos in Cannes, and wore $20 H&M suits running around in the rain. They bring Aaron on their private jet and they flew me separately, and we meet up in Serbia, and we end up staying the night in this backwoods place in Serbia. Then we take a plane to Montenegro the next day. Montenegro is gorgeous, but it’s not exactly Italy.
AVC: In the script, how much focus did you put on juxtaposing the “grotesque” with the “beautiful?”
JB: It’s situational. We shot this promo video to get financers on board. We show this woman, she’s so beautiful, she’s so sensual, and then all of a sudden the camera moves around her and you come across this leg that’s horrifying. You’ve sort of aroused your audience, and then changed the imagery very abruptly into something that is both grotesque but also nature-based, with some actual psychological impact.
AM: There was a girl who tweeted yesterday, “I love Spring and the way it confused my boner.” We’re in very progressive times.
AVC: A brave new world. Do you two feel the horror genre, more than most genres, is lost?
JB: It’s interesting. On the one hand, we’re living in a time when new forms of distribution—digital platforms, VOD—allow for a lot more risks taken in genre film, horror and sci-fi and all that. You know, you have something that’s released in the U.S., like Kill List. The worst thing that can happen to a horror film—and luckily, Aaron and I have had very, very little experience with this—is the horror movie producer sitting in the room going, “I know what horror fans want and you need to take all that character stuff out and just get right into guts and blood and boobs.” Those conversations happen all the time. Friends that are filmmakers will tell us, “Yeah, there was a little extra character in the movie and they wanted me to remove it.” And thing is, those horror producers are actually completely incorrect. Aaron and I go all over the world talking to genre film fans, horror or sci-fi, they all just want good movies. That’s it.
AM: There’s like one or two festivals in the world where if you don’t throw blood at the screen, they will be upset at you. And the rest, they’re all after good movies.
JB: Look how It Follows did last week. That’s a really ambitious movie. That’s cool to see. It’s a little disheartening when you see the formulaic stuff still doing well. But, again, something like It Follows doing well at the box office, at the movie theater box office and not just VOD, is really amazing.
AVC: Do you two see yourselves working in the horror genre down the line?
AM: Yes and no. Genre is relatively unimportant to us and so whatever story’s next, whatever story we really want to tell, and whatever we’re feeling, we’re just going to go do. And that’s likely going to be something where there’s going to be a fantastic element to it, which is what we’re drawn to. But it’s not a rule by any means. And, you know, we’ve kicked around a whole bunch of really dumb ideas that we want to try to get made. We have an idea for a dog movie that we just really want to get made somehow. And it’s not like a good movie, it’s just an idea we love. That said, our next movie is about the occultist Aleister Crowley, it’s more of a biopic than it is a horror film, but of course it is about the darkest rock star occultist of all time. And so by default it’s going to end up in some kind of [genre] territory.
AVC: So this dog movie…
AM: Oh, that’s what I was saying, there’s no horror twist there. It’s just Air Bud. The premise of our dog movie, which we should definitely tell you right now, is it’s just a world, it’s not a story. One in every two people in the world is actually just a dog. People recognize that they’re dogs, but for some reason we give them jobs and respond to them and stuff, but they can’t talk or anything, they’re just dogs. It’s like, “Oh man, the plane just crashed. Why did the plane crash? Why did the plane crash? Oh, the pilot’s a dog. Aw, that sucks, we shouldn’t have let the dog fly.”
AVC: And so are people getting fed up with the incompetence of the dogs now?
AM: That’s a really good idea. We’re not going to pay you for that, but that’s a really good follow-up.