Directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have been making creative leaps in independent film for years now. From their debut, the two-man show “Resolution,” critics have been stoking the flames of their work, though the audiences have remained cult-like in their following, even with big names such as director Guillermo del Toro singing their praises. With their latest, most ambitious film to date, “Synchronic,” they’re further announcing themselves in the film world with impressive and disturbing set pieces and big-name talent in front of the screen with Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. Our critic called it “Egghead indie sci-fi at it’s best,” writing “’SYNCHRONIC’ is the kind of brainy, absorbing, all-out thrilling cinema that’s in dangerously short supply these days.”
To say much about the film is to do it the disservice of possibly spoiling it. We spoke to both directors to talk about how time has played into their writing, creating a film in quarantine, and how they drew inspiration from “Atlanta.”
Firstly, congratulations on the film. Although you got to premiere it with a live audience at TIFF last year, has it been weird promoting it with everything going on?
Aaron Moorhead: We view our film festival run as a crucial part of a film’s life, and our own lives’ to be extremely honest. I would say since we started circuiting “Resolution,” many things in our subsequent films have made their way in there because of our experience going to those festivals. Not even little things, I’m talking about big ideas that come up by talking to the right people at the right time that just hits you like a lightning bolt. “Synchronic” got cut halfway short by the pandemic, but I feel more deeply for the films that got completely cut, like SXSW getting canceled and films we helped produce got locked out. But we did get to see it with several audiences, which is a total privilege because this is coming out almost a year after we premiered, and we recut it.
Time seems to be a theme to a few of your films now, is that something you are just inherently drawn to, or has it come out pretty organic in your writing?
Justin Benson: I mean it was pretty organic. We thought about this before but it is true and we never even realized it until people kept telling us. Our first movie “Resolution” had less to do really with time, but “Spring” starts to because it goes back to Roman times and explores that a little bit and was shot in Italy, where it’s impossible not to look see the layers and textures of time all around you. “The Endless” deals heavily with time loops, and now with “Synchronic,” we worked with that again in a different way, but “Synchronic” was written before “The Endless.” I wonder if we were in a phase where we were obsessed with time. Actually, we are working on a project right now, does that deal with time?
Moorhead: Not much time stuff, but a whole lot of other stuff!
Benson: Maybe a better way of putting it is between 2015 when “Synchronic” was written and 2017 when we started “The Endless,” those were our obsessed-with-time years. There’s a quote about Richard Linklater that I’m very jealous of, which does not describe us in any way but I wish it did. It was something like how a lot of people make movies about how people move through time, but Linklater makes movies about how time moves through people and I think that is the most accurate description of the “Before Trilogy” and of course “Boyhood,” and “Everybody Wants Some” actually. That general thought of the interaction between time and your existence is definitely the base of a lot of conversations we have. But in some ways, we do want to avoid that because, like “The Endless,” you start to repeat yourself. There’s plenty you can say but you only have one voice, although I guess we have two – one combined voice! We want to make sure we get to explore all the fun stuff we are interested in before we die. We have an unmade movie that we’ve had sitting around for years that literally deals with space, not outer space but just space.
How did the idea for this movie first come to you and what kind of evolution did it take along the way?
Benson: It’s actually a few converging things. One was a sort of obsession with Alan Moore, partly in the obvious way that Dr. Manhattan sees time as it’s described in “Synchronic,” like at one point I sat down with Aaron and just said, “What if bath salts made everyone Dr. Manhattan.” I failed at filmmaking, striking out at just about everything when we started out, so I started going to medical school and had to take a bunch of calculus-based physics courses, and certain theories of time that you learn in those early classes just really stuck with me and the idea of what some people call eternalism, or block universe, which is basically that the experience of linear time is more of a simultaneous event that we just experience sequentially. In “Synchronic” we have the record, where if the record is time you have a solid object but you can move the needle to a different place and it never stops moving. There are a lot of reasons for that theory but one is that mathematical time doesn’t have or need a direction and that is something we shouldn’t even try and figure out in the modern age. So it’s all of that and then Aaron and I spent a lot of time working jobs to make a living when we’d rather be making these movies we make, and during that time we’d comfort ourselves by spending a lot of time talking about all this weird stuff, and this was one of those things that came out of that.
Does that inform the two main characters then, who spend all their time working together and get to talking about all these weird subjects and lofty theories on their off time?
Benson: Any time you tell a story and it goes out into the world and it’s about two characters and the creators are two people, it’s impossible not to look at it and wonder how autobiographical it is. Anything you create can be autobiographical to some extent obviously. That said, there is so very little to Steve and Dennis that comes from Aaron and me, but at the same time, there is probably more than we realized of us in them. There are always little things. After a screening of “The Endless” once someone came up to Aaron and asked him if it was a documentary.
Moorhead: I paused for a long time and then asked if she thought it was based on a true story, and she said no is it an actual documentary. I think about that every day. I’m like well thank you for the compliment on the naturalistic cinematography. No, I think maybe she meant was it based on something that happened to us, like did we escape from a desert cult? Which, again, is a huge compliment that she thought it was so authentic.
I wanted to talk about the look of the film, because I thought it was really interesting that some of the eeriness and misery in the drug-induced sequences seemed like it started to blend into the real world. I was wondering if there was a want to make the more “human and real” moments feel just as unsettling as those more suspenseful scenes?
Moorhead: Yeah, actually, that was exactly the idea. We did have individual plans for the pasts of Steve’s and Dennis’ worlds, but they’re always blending together and shaping how they interact together. One of the things that was really important to us was that it wasn’t psychedelic, it wasn’t glowing colors and instead felt tactile and real. We really wanted to blend our past and present in such a way that felt hand-over-fist as opposed to just a bunch of computer graphics and that also went for things like putting the camera on someone’s shoulder to make it a little more verite. Especially in the long takes with only one cut, there’s several of those in there but I think that only one is actually noticeable and I’m both very proud of that, being able to bury a flashy one shot, while at the same time being like “that was so hard guys, somebody notice it!”
Benson: Another thing interesting visually, we don’t usually use a lot of story counts that you usually have to do to market it in the way that you have to say ‘this means this.’ That’s something we don’t usually do that in the development process and that’s true even visually, we try not to pull too directly to try and keep everything as individual as possible. The things we did pull from that might not be too obvious though are “Atlanta” and “True Detective.” “True Detective” might be pretty identifiable, but “Atlanta” was a little more under the radar.
Once you said that I could absolutely see it, it’s something I wouldn’t have thought while watching but it makes total sense as a visual reference point.
Benson: Right? And we, as every human should be, are massive fans of “Atlanta” and especially the visual side of it.
Moorhead: I got to call up the DP of some of their episodes and got to chat him up and I told him “I gotta be honest with you, I’m just gonna take and use a bunch of what you’re saying right now.” I don’t think anyone would compare these things but we did soak in the visuals of things like “The Wrestler” and “Children of Men,” which are cinematic and visual masterworks, so we touched on those especially for things like our long takes. And “True Detective,” which is extremely different from everything we just mentioned, captures bayou New Orleans in this extraordinary way that you can’t really ignore if you are going to shoot down there.
The shot of Dennis playing basketball with his daughter felt so dreamy and surreal even though it was completely grounded in reality was what really got across the kind of visuals you are describing, and was a scene I found fantastically shot.
Benson: That’s something that we spent forever on it, and there are two reasons why. It looked like how we shot it to our eyes, but didn’t look anything like that in-camera and was driving us crazy. We had a wonderful colorist working with us, Mitch Paulson, who is Roger Deakin’s usual guy, and we were like “Can you please just make it look like a popsicle like it looked on set?” Make it just these beautiful blue shadows and pink highs, it was the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen in my life and the dailies just didn’t reflect that and he was just like “I got you covered.” He was able to bring that all back in. Everything in that scene was shot to make something as mundane as a dad and his daughter shooting hoops together to feel as epic as “Gladiator.” To make the mundane feel profound.
You both seem to continually wear a lot of hats, beyond even writing and filming you’ve edited, acted in, and have had your hands all over your work. Is this something you do out of necessity or is it just how you prefer to operate?
Benson: Both. It started as something of pure necessity, like when we made our first movie “Resolution” thinking ok, you’re going to do it just this once, then you get to go make movies like a grown-up and focus on just being the director and realize it’s going to take more than that to get to that point. Then you do your second movie sort of like your first one, wearing all the hats, and then you’re unemployed for a long time after your second movie and you think well, I’ve got to make another one somehow, so you end up wearing all those hats again. Then you realize it’s not about getting to the point of what people identified as being a director in the 1960s, this is our process and how we make discoveries and work best. We are working on a project right now where we are directing, writing, acting, camera operating.
Moorhead: It’s actually kind of absurd. We are doing it with just three people though, that’s why we haven’t been wearing masks around each other during this interview; we’ve been quarantining together while working on this project. We can’t talk much about it but that’s why his hair is blue and he’s covered in tattoos while I have a shaved head, which I would never have done in real life. But that’s just part of it, you just get your hands super dirty. We get asked about this a lot, about how we take on so much of the jobs and do so much. We usually answer the question directly but it needs to be said that we have a massive support team around and behind us, so yes we do wear a lot of those hats but we are never alone. Although I guess for the new upcoming one we pretty much are. But without everyone around us, everything would fall apart.
For the new project, was that born out of quarantine, or was it something you were sitting on for a little while before everything got shifted? I’m so impressed by the people who have stayed motivated and creative during all of this and very much understand the opposite being equally as true.
Benson: You know it’s interesting, because when this started people kept asking us if we were going to do a quarantine movie or something on Zoom and we really resisted it. For one, we had already done a chamber piece with our first movie and felt like we had covered that minimalist ground, but that was a brief resistance. We realized there were lots of ways to approach this and be creative while still socially distancing and being responsible. We figured out how to do something small that still has some scale to it, it didn’t just have to be lo-fi or repeating ourselves.
Moorhead: We were thinking that it would start out as just a project, something to keep us busy and would come along while we passed the time. Not that it is improvised or developed on the fly or anything that drastic, but it was something where it was an evolving work. It was nice to think that if for whatever reason we got too tired to go and do something or one of our larger projects suddenly existed, we could just drop this and it could just go and we could come back to it at any time. But we also wanted to make something that no matter what we would be happy to make and would be doing whether or not we were in quarantine; it was designed to be made during quarantine but the format or runtime could change. We could just drop it on Youtube! All of these things are possible, and honestly working around and doing that is way more invigorating than just sitting around and waiting things out.
“Synchronic” is now playing in select theaters and drive-ins.