Josh sat down with the directors of the new genre-bending romance/horror movie Spring.
Spring, the latest indie project from the interesting directing duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (Resolution), is a unique juggling act of tones, story and genre elements unlike any other I’ve seen, and in honour of its release here in Canada – more info on when/where you can find it below – I got to sit down with them to talk about how they pulled something like this off and in classic me fashion we instead ended up talking about what makes a great genre movie, some industry tips on indie filmmaking and our love for Spring Breakers. Enjoy.
[Note: contains some spoilers for Spring]
So the thing I adore so much about Spring is how you how clear and focused the story you guys are telling is, but you still manage to consistently subvert expectations through genre thrills. What is it about genre, and weaving in genre elements that appeals to you as filmmakers?
Justin Benson: That’s a tough one.
Aaron Moorhead: I grew up on Stephen King and Steven Spielberg and both of those guys have done genre movies and genre books but I don’t think anyone thinks “Steven Spielberg, Master Of Horror,” they’re more like “Oh, it’s a character movie that happens to have dinosaurs in it.” So, you know, it’s rarely about weaving in – like putting one genre into another – as much as it is about… like it’s just the story that makes the most sense for us to tell.
So it just stems organically.
Aaron: Yeah, yeah. And it’s way more fun when we get to play in another world. We like fantasy just because our upbringing, probably.
Justin: Yeah, yeah. And another thing too is when I think about movies that I saw that made me want to become a filmmaker it’s Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, Pulp Fiction: all genre films. You don’t think about that but they’re all ultimately genre films, right?
Justin: I think sometimes when people refer to genre film, when they’re talking about it what they’re really only talking about are these very strict-
Aaron: Like Friday The 13th.
Justin: Yeah, like a werewolf movie, but ultimately genre film is sooooo much more.
Aaron: Can I say something really pretentious?
Aaron: We learned a term in Europe… They don’t call it genre film they call it cinéma fantastique and it’s like, that is way more beautiful sounding but is also much more encompassing so all the film festival over in Europe are called “fantastic” film festivals instead of “horror” film festivals and it just means fantastic like… When I first heard it I thought they were just literally saying “these movies are fantastic” [laughs] and it took us having our European premiere of Resolution at one of these films festivals to realize they were referring to the root word “fantasy” and we were like “Ohhhhhh, that’s way more all encompassing.”
Yeah, like you can get so many different kinds of films. So another thing I really liked about Spring is how you guys mirrored these shots of the monster with actual organic life (nature, bugs and plants), can you talk a bit about bringing this monster to life in a way where you could mirror it with organic things? Cause that’s got to be a difficult thing to pull off.
Justin: Yeah, well the way our monster operates, the conception was just the idea that if a woman could use her embryonic stem cells from getting pregnant then in theory she could have immortality to a certain extent because they replicate infinitely. So there was that idea but not as like speculative fiction more as like a non-campy, pulp thing – it’s not supposed to silly but it is pulpy, you know. And it’s a fun idea. So it started there and then we got into how her body operates and how it lashes out we started thinking about creatures and our evolutionary past and all that, and the cool part about it was that it connects to stuff like… Why the Xenomorph is so scary, cause it’s nature-based, right? Parasitic. So once we had that then we had the chance to visualize it – something that’s highly visceral that should give people this emotional, psychological kick because it is nature-based and then on top of that; in showing other things in nature, not only to be people emotionally respond to that whether it’s “ew, gross, creepy” or whatever, those are important to the story but they’re also foreshadowing what she is. So it serves several purposes in the story showing all that stuff.
Yeah. So I also noticed some other motifs in there, again, going off of the monster, of things like rebirth and how it relate historically to the mythology of the creature. I was wonder how you go about inventing something as unique as that, cause those two characters talk about that mythology and at first I was so lost but it all came together as they sort of explored one another, so can you talk a little about that?
Aaron: That’s kind of weird, actually. Just taking it back to the first thing you said I feel like normally when people talk academically about a film you’ve made – or any film, really – it’s really up for debate as like “what’s the theme of the movie?” and people kinda mull it over and they go “I don’t know…” and with Resolution people would go “… I don’t know,” and we’d say “We can tell you what that is!” but people can like NAIL the theme of Spring. Everybody’s like “it’s about rebirth” and we’re like “YEAH!”
Aaron: [Laughs] “YEAH, THAT’S IT!!” you know?! And that’s pretty cool. Like what’s the theme of There Will Be Blood? “… Uh, greed?” Religion’s bad? Or like ego?” [laughs]. But we were talking about the formation of Louise’s mythology?
Yeah, and how it relates to the themes of the film.
Aaron: What’s really nice, and sometimes it can be begging the questions, but you can look at almost everything that happens in the film as rebirth, and especially Louise’s mythology as she literally births herself.
Aaron: So it starts from the most literal and it turns into something a little bit more metaphorical in terms of Evan’s emotional rebirth, the death of his mother and meeting Louise and committing to something after a life of… not. And same thing as her as she is rebirthed emotionally as well as literally in terms of someone never falling in love and finally taking the leap and then, you know, we have physically it’s changing from winter to spring, like that’s a rebirth. It ties together really neatly but we weren’t trying to hammer it, it was organic because we kind of realized it as we were going, which is always the best way. Like, if you’ve read a screenwriting book – and they can be pretty good as starting points – but a lot of the time they say to start with a theme and make a story out of it and that’s just weird, I think. It’s a good guideline for where like “Hey, where’s the story is supposed to go? Well, what are we trying to say?”
Right, like it’s good for seeing how all the pieces relate but sometimes it can block you.
Justin: It’s a good thing to eventually figure out. If you let your instincts guide you and let your characters guide you, you’ll find the theme in it and that theme will help you so much more in directing it then it does in the writing of it.
Aaron: Yeah, it seems like the theme is more of a descriptor. We’ve been realizing more and more and more as we develop our stuff that alotalotalotalot of knowledge… books, for example – screenwriting books are an easy target because everyone makes fun of them – but a lot of them have it backwards. Like they’re saying “here’s what’s in a 1st act, here’s what must be in a 3rd act” and then from there you come up with your story but actually it should be all of those other things first and then you use the theme to talk about it. And it’s the same thing with Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 like your third act is just fastest way to refer to the last 30 minutes of your movie – like besides saying “the last 30 minutes of your movie” you say “third act, ok, got it” [laughs] but like what must be in a third act?… an ending, you know.
[Laughs] A conclusion of some kind.
Aaron: And whatever’s in there, there’s not too many rules, you can break them pretty easily and as long as you satisfy yourself (as a creative) and you satisfy the audience then it doesn’t really matter.
Justin: Yeah, if it’s an indie film – this doesn’t apply to a studio film usually – but in indie film if the development person, producer comes to you and says “we have a big problem because I can’t identify the inciting action or breaks between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd acts” we would say “no, that’s a good thing.” [laughs] If you wanna pick a reference point that’s fine but you not identifying them isn’t a problem, so it’s interesting. In a business sense it could be a problem because at the studio level if they look at it and there’s no…
This isn’t a story!
Justin: Yeah, there’s this basic structure they just always use, and you’re not using it so here’s the garbage can. [Laughs]
Aaron: [Laughs] You can get away with a little more in indie film because you’re mostly appealing to an audience of cinephiles who are looking for something fresh whereas at the studio level it’s people that don’t really care about movies, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. And I don’t mean that about the studio, I mean the audience – the people that like movies but don’t like live and breathe them, they’re not like “ugh, I need something fresh,” they’re just like “please, please give me more Mad Max” and I mean that in a good way I love Mad Max and I’m dying to see it.
Oh, you’ll love it.
Aaron: That’s just what it is. It’s not like “hey, give me something fresh” and that’s the problem so they need to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to pay for the tentpole.
You’ll be amazed that Mad Max: Fury Road is a studio film.
Aaron: I’m so excited.
Justin: But that’s what makes like… Look, if you go make Transformers 5 and it doesn’t have the three act structure and the inciting incident and all that I bet more people would walk away from the movie going “that was weird, I didn’t like that” but that’s what makes something like Pulp Fiction so special; cause it doesn’t do anything of those things and it has such a special alchemy that everyone is like “I love that movie.” I mean expectation-wise they should be walking away going “that was weird, I didn’t really like it” but they’re not.
That’s when you know you’ve got a GREAT movie, right?
Aaron: That’s what I’m still trying to figure out because we’re always searching on twitter for Spring so we put “Spring + Benson” (because everyone misspells my name) and all you get is Spring Breakers because of Ashley Benson and people are still discovering that movie to this day and going…
Justin: “What the fuck is this shit?”
Aaron: “What the fuck is this? This is terrible”
Justin: And you look at it and you’re like THIS IS SO AWESOME!! Like how could you not like it?!
Since I saw it, to this day, that movie is the background on my phone.
Justin: It’s so sick! But why is it Pulp Fiction pulls it off and Spring Breakers doesn’t?
Aaron: I don’t know the answer to that.
When I saw Spring Breakers – cause I actually worked at a theatre at the time and I saw those people all the time, they came out of the theatre going “what the fuuuuuck” – I thought it was just marketing. They came in thinking it was Project X: Spring Break Edition and ended up getting this provocative, artistic piece and they were like “whaaat?” and in a lot of ways it was an indictment of the audience that was going to see it.
Aaron: Yeah, that’s a really good point, actually. It brought in the people that were going “spring break motherfucker!!!” and then the turn a big mirror on it and go this is wrong.
For sure. Are there any kinds of films or genres that you haven’t done yet that really want to explore in the future? Like, what’s next for you guys?
Aaron: Yeah, again, we’re not interested in genre so much…
Right. Story first.
Aaron: Right, but it does seem like we really, probably at some point have got to do a western of some sort, or something that feels like a western even if it isn’t literally one, and we’re probably going to do something that’s a little more straightforward funny – I don’t mean broad comedy, like we wouldn’t do something like Oldschool or Anchorman, but something funny enough that like it could end up in the comedy section of Netflix.
Justin: Yeah, it’s tough because… You’ve seen Spring, and you’ll probably see Resolution too, but there’s a lot of humor in them and at a higher level it becomes harder and harder to keep in all of the jokes. We’d argue they don’t break tone as much as lend levity and humanity that’s why we like them and keep them in but it’s gonna be a bigger and bigger fight every time to keep them in.
Right. You guys want to embrace all these different elements but I’m sure people tell you to cut it down.
Aaron: Yeah, and it’s like no, that’s just a good moment and thus it shouldn’t be cut.
Justin: We understand it falls under the thriller genre but that joke is amazing, it must stay, but it’s probably gonna get cut.
Aaron: Spring would be so much less likeable. Even if it wouldn’t be a worse movie, like holistically, because the story is still good but it’d so much less likeable if you were like never smiling.
And it resets you too, right? If something’s getting too bleak you throw a joke in.
Aaron: Yeah, we do that all the time, very on purpose. And I was talking to somebody (and it was very interesting) because normally you would say tension is a string that you pull very tight, you know, and as soon as you let it go taught you’ve slipped but someone else put it a different way: tension is currency and you cash it in for a joke, and that’s like really cool – It flips it on its head and ultimately what it does is it humanizes everything.
Justin: We’ve been lucky to have final cut on the first two features we’ve made but yeah there are notes from amazing people on Spring saying… You remember at the end of the big walk-n-talk when Evan goes to payphone and calls Tommy? Where he goes “oh, you just smoked a huge bowl?” That was a recommended cut because of all the emotion that had come before it they felt the audience wasn’t ready, so we should cut it, but now that it’s done and it’s out there no one has ever said that.
Spring is playing at Cineplex here in Toronto every night this week – you can find tickets here – and it comes out on DVD + Bluray on June 2, 2015.