Apartment Stories: Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson on Something in the Dirt
While the line “I want to believe” is most associated with The X-Files, today’s onslaught of conspiracy theorists and ravenous fact-deniers change that mantra to the more desperate “I need to believe.” After all, who needs objectivity or visual proof to confirm a preconceived notion that we wish to be true when some dude on Reddit can easily prove it for you? With a flare for endless questioning, tinfoil hat conspiracies and alternative views of history, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s two-hander, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival NEXT selection Something in the Dirt, burrows in and digs deep. Here the two turn the camera on each other, casting themselves as Levi (Benson), a laidback barback with a rap sheet who has temporarily relocated to an ominous apartment complex, and John (Moorhead), a recently divorced wedding photographer who lives downstairs. Due to a series of odd, not-completely-explainable events occurring in Levi’s pad—a radio and television on the fritz, a levitating ashtray and couch, a plant that sprouts an oozing appendage—the two team up to document their paranormal activities, growing further engulfed in the hidden occult history of Los Angeles in the process.
While Tobe Hooper’s 1982 horror blockbuster Poltergeist presented a suburban haunting in Simi Valley, Benson and Moorhead’s portrait of two amateur sleuths who just need to believe shifts the action to the Laurel Canyon region of the Hollywood Hills. What transpires is hard to explain, even (and most importantly) to its lead characters. Dedicated to “making movies with your friends,” Something in the Dirt is an enjoyable exercise in minimal cast and crew, pandemic-era filmmaking. A few days before the film was set for theatrical release courtesy of XYZ Films, I spoke with Benson and Moorhead about how their own living arrangements influenced production, their appreciation for English occultist Aleister Crowley, successful ways of blending fact and fiction and more.
Filmmaker: Justin, I believe this film was primarily shot in your apartment. Aaron, you also live in the same complex right downstairs. What is the geography like? Were you both thinking about how to get a film off the ground during the pandemic and brainstorming the simplest way to do it with the smallest amount of means?
Benson: Yes, our personal geography is the same as it is [in the film]. We’re so different than the characters we play in the film, though.
In terms of how the geography related to our production during the pandemic, we knew that in order to make an independent film the methods we’d used on previous features would now be considered cost-prohibitive. Most of the budget would have to go towards protocols we wouldn’t be able to afford. Therefore, while the movie was constructed to be shot during the pandemic, we also wanted to make sure that we weren’t being too minimalist and weren’t repeating ourselves, as we had already done a chamber piece with our first movie, Resolution. It then became about figuring out ways to use Los Angeles as a character in the story, within the movie’s scope, and being able to use locations, outside of our apartments, that we wouldn’t be able to use under other circumstances.
In terms of where our apartments are in relation to each other, one of the things that attracted to us to this film was that there’s something fun about being able to shoot a movie that would go between two apartments and being able to do it in real time if we wanted to. The audience can have some idea of the actual geography of the situation as long as the story remains set in a relatively small space.
Filmmaker: When you’re in the early stages of planning a film that uses familiar locations, does your mindset change as to how you view these spaces? For example, do you begin to look at the corner of your living room as ideal for a canted angle? Does your view of these spaces change when you are thinking about using them in a film?
Benson: Yes, our perception of where we live changed while we were developing the film and musing about what it could be. We started looking around the apartment and found that it was really weird in an off-kilter, evil sort of way. It’s not overt, though. One day, the front of the building was painted black. On another day, when we were walking through the courtyard, we noticed this little doorway that’s a foot-and-a-half above the ground. We thought to ourselves, “Why is that doorway a foot-and-a-half above the ground? Why isn’t it just on the ground like a regular door?” We include that in the film. There were a billion little things like that and, like you see in the movie, we do actually have a weird, evil squirrel that tries to attack us whenever we go outside. There’s just something up with this place, so we started connecting these threads when the idea for the film was first gestating.
We’re often asked, “What’s the advice you would give to a young filmmaker?” We always respond with something like, “Make two lists. One should be a list of themes you find interesting, and the other a list of resources that are readily available to you, not resources you hope to obtain in the future. Start drawing the lines between those two lists, then see how they can combine into a story to film.” We didn’t intentionally do that with this new film, as we use a process that’s more organic to us now. But the planning was the same, especially once we realized that the things in our environment that were clearly interesting to us were things we hoped others would find interesting, too.
Filmmaker: I believe you both have an interest in the late English occultist Aleister Crowley, and have previously spoken about wanting to eventually make a film about his life and career. Was your initial inspiration for Something in the Dirt also thanks to your fascination with Crowley as much as it was your physical location?
Moorhead: It definitely started more with Aleister Crowley than the space. We spent about a decade trying to make various movies and television shows about Crowley and got so far down the process, doing so much research and writing so many scripts [that haven’t materialized]. There are so many otherworldly ideas within his stories that we’ve wanted to tell for so long, and Something in the Dirt was an opportunity to express some of those ideas. If the film isn’t an exact [representation of his] ideas, it’s about how his ideas served as springboards for other ideas that were developed while we were trying to make a movie about him.
We haven’t cannibalized the prospect of a movie about Aleister Crowley too much. That’s something we’re still chasing and it’s definitely our white whale. We actually just started reading a new book about him that’s really comprehensive, City of the Beast: The London of Aleister Crowley, by Phil Baker. When you read a tome about a particular figure, it’s usually either highly judgmental of the person or reads as though the author is a follower of them—it’s really hard to find an in-between. While this book is not that in-between (it’s highly critical of him), it’s amazing that a century later removed from his heyday, Crowley is still considered controversial.
Filmmaker: As you’re both the leads and DPs of the film, I kept thinking of how these two jobs might get in the way of each other. In the lengthy dialogue scenes, how are you pulling off things like shot/reverse shot and eyeline matching? When you’re someone’s acting partner as well as their cinematographer, it must be a hefty amount of additional work.
Moorhead: Thank you for recognition of the technical difficulty involved. When I was performing in front of the camera, Justin would be the one holding it, filming my side, and vice versa. Our eyeline matches were merely via a spot on the wall, and we each had to deliver a performance that at least felt like the viewer was in the same setting throughout the scene. When it was one of our takes [in front of the camera], the one behind the camera had to remember what the other was doing in the previous take so that we’d position the camera in the right spot to match. Simultaneously, the person behind the camera would be using his left hand to pull focus. On a technical level, pulling this off was one of our proudest achievements. Hopefully it’s completely invisible.
People have used the word “chemistry” to describe a lot of the characters in our movies and it’s quite accurate. On set, it was just us and our producer David [Lawson Jr.] in the room and a remote art department outside. While it was difficult running things that way, it was extraordinarily gratifying. I think that other movies can and should be made in a similar fashion, and I hope this film might serve as a proof of concept. As long as there’s an idea and some drive, it’s possible to make teeny, tiny movies that don’t just feel like, “Alright, do you want to watch the indie movie with two people talking?”
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the optical effect that produces a shimmering light reflecting off (or in) Levi’s ashtray. The two men think it might be the result of a ghostly apparition in the apartment. Was that created via a combination of natural light and lamps? How did you achieve that effect?
Moorhead: About half of the light that’s coming through the prism was made as a 3D effect that was subsequently put through a projector. We had this tiny little portable projector that we’d position to [project] against the wall and shine back on the characters’ faces. There were, of course, different patterns and speeds used depending on the scene we were shooting, then in post we took it the rest of the way with some VFX.
Filmmaker: Earlier you mentioned having the art department stationed outside [away from set]. Were there other instances of various production heads dropping things off outside the front door? Adhering to COVID health and safety protocols, how did the rest of your crew work? Remotely, off-site?
Moorhead: Yes, and I think this film is a good example of how departments can work remotely. How we worked with our art department was pretty traditional, up to a point—they read the script and we discussed our ideas and different ways to achieve the sets and props. They did all the things an art department does. The only difference was that, through principal photography, if we were on set, we would have to leave so that they could come in and dress the set. We would then come back to perform and shoot. If we needed any big changes [to the set] during the day, we would leave again and they would come back and redress the set, or do whatever they needed to do. We wouldn’t all be in the room at the same time. It’s also worth noting that they were the only crew members [on the film]. That’s the entirety of the actual in-person crew. Lighting and sound were done between Justin and myself.
Filmmaker: The film is partly presented as a faux documentary in which authoritative “talking heads” ominously discuss (in the past tense) the plight of our two leads. It almost takes the form of a government debriefing, placing each piece of a horrific tragedy in its proper context while the viewer scrambles to make sense of it all. What was it about this structure that interested you? Did it serve as a way to expand the story beyond a single location and beyond the two leads?
Benson: We should mention an Australian movie called Lake Mungo [from director Joel Anderson] that we’re huge fans of. It made us fans of the scary “fake documentary” [genre], in that you can make something in the documentary format that’s still aesthetically pleasing. After all, we currently live in a culture where there’s a new beautifully shot documentary released every day. We’re also huge fans of Mark Z. Danielewski’s [fake documentary] novel, House of Leaves, and it felt right to tell our story via a fake documentary too. It was a way to possess that feeling of a somewhat reflexive story that, as you’re “reading” it, you’re getting other people’s point of view on what happened. All of that obviously worked well to shoot the film [during the pandemic], as the documentary portion only required one [actor] and a relatively small crew. We didn’t need a huge camera or a Steadicam operator to shoot fake interviews for the documentary portion.
What’s interesting is, though it was always scripted as a fake documentary that would include talking heads, the one thing that wasn’t in the original script were the numerous cutaways we included. That was a huge discovery for us in the rehearsal process and [it] is weird that we only realized it then, as the film was always going to take the form of a fake documentary. Why didn’t we think of that sooner? Anyway, we discovered the need for cutaways in rehearsals, and in realizing that, discovered that it would require an additional 300 shots (and an additional year of photography). It’s the only real second-unit photography featured in the film.
Moorhead: We even shot the pick-ups.
Benson: I guess if you wouldn’t count the drone operator, but that doesn’t count! It was our first time having more of an actual second unit.
Filmmaker: Your cutaways feel like a commentary on media literacy and how the inclusion of archival footage is to back up and legitimize what a talking head is spewing, even if the whole hypothesis is bogus. The cutaways represent a form of authenticity or proof of what the person on-screen is speaking about, and that can be pretty dangerous. The viewer drowns in details and eventually succumbs to believing in them.
Benson: Something we discussed was the need to include more details in the film, as the more you give, the more persuasive you become. What’s really interesting about what you just said is that while we constructed a fake history of Los Angeles for the film—or at least a fake history of the occult of Los Angeles—out of a real history of the occult of Los Angeles. We included actual photographs of Occultists like Aleister Crowley and Jack Parsons, and as we spun further out into the fake stuff, it became harder to distinguish. The film provides a lot of photographic evidence that is supposedly visual proof.
Moorhead: Our characters have a conversation in the movie about needing visuals to help build [a case]. If the characters are just talking about these things without showing it, then it would be a much harder case [to prove].
Benson: But I now see the humor in the viewer’s experience [of watching the film]. As the viewer’s watching it and they’re being hit with Jack Parsons and Aldous Huxley, people and things that were real, once we hit them with the stuff that we’ve constructed specifically for the film, it becomes harder to decipher and distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t.
Filmmaker: Something in the Dirt is obviously a much smaller, more compact film for you both, especially since you recently wrapped directing episodic work for Netflix (Archive 81) and Marvel (Moon Knight and Loki). Does your on-set experience change when you’re coming aboard a larger, pre-established property versus something that originated with yourselves and that you had a hand in every aspect of production? Or is your collaboration style streamlined from project to project?
Benson: Collaborating comes easily to us, as we’re already co-directors/co-filmmakers. We have our own weird little language, of course, but the belief that your idea is not sacred is very familiar to us. And of course, running departments is a form of collaboration as well. It wasn’t this weird, mysterious, “Oh no, what are we going to do?” sort of fear when we [took on these larger properties]. As independent filmmakers, we’re stepping into a larger system, but I would say that the stress goes down for two reasons. You’d think that the higher budget (and the possibility of a lot of people seeing the project fail) would stress us out more. But I would say that the stress goes way down because our job becomes just about directing. We can focus on just that one thing, directing and communicating with each of the department heads. We’re not responsible for what precisely happens with the budget and those sorts of things.
The other reason it’s less stressful, artistically, is because when you’re making an indie film, you are the father of its success but also of its failure. If somebody accurately eviscerates the film and they see all the things that you secretly know are wrong, it hurts so much more than when it’s a collaborative effort. Nobody directly faults the director exclusively there (it’s viewed as more of a problem with the project as a whole). So, then the stress turns into, “Well, we’re going to do our absolute best, but if it doesn’t work, it’s not like it’s saying something about me as a human being,” whereas that is what it feels like when making an independent film.