Meet the Bold Sci-Fi Directors Behind Marvel’s ‘Moon Knight’
Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead open up about their Sundance film “Something in the Dirt” and landing their big next project: Marvel’s superhero series “Moon Knight.”
Genre filmmakers don’t come more daringly idiosyncratic than Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, a duo that splices horror, science-fiction, fantasy, comedy and just about everything else under the sun into uniquely self-reflexive dramas about human relations and our contemporary sociopolitical reality.
To a degree even greater than with The Endless and Synchronic, the directors have gone way out on a ledge with their latest, Something in the Dirt, a head-spinning whatsit—which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival—about two Los Angeles apartment-building residents (played by themselves) who witness a supernatural phenomenon in one of their homes and endeavor to make a documentary about it. What transpires next is so bewildering that no plot synopsis can do it justice. Nonetheless, with a go-for-broke flair that’s far too rare in today’s cinematic landscape, Benson and Moorhead plummet deeply, and thrillingly, down a rabbit hole of conspiracy-theory madness, resulting in a layered and fractured portrait of our current, collective inability to distinguish truth from fiction.
Shot during the pandemic with a minuscule crew, Something in the Dirt tills familiar soil for the filmmakers, whose two-hander is the sort of hallucinatory meta-textual gem on which they’ve made their names. Even as they keep working to the beat of their own out-there drum, however, Benson and Moorhead have also continued to lend their behind-the-camera talents to collaborative ventures, highlighted most recently by their contributions to Netflix’s Archive 81. Such endeavors have now attracted the attention of Hollywood’s heavyweights, and on March 30 the pair will make their big-leagues debut with Marvel’s Oscar Isaac-Ethan Hawke Disney+ series Moon Knight, the story of an identity crisis-plagued man who finds himself ensnared in a mystical, multiversal adventure. For all its high-profile pedigree, it’s a project that sounds innately attuned to Benson and Moorhead’s particular interests, and thus one destined to further accelerate their own professional ascension.
Naturally, then, we were eager to sit down with them ahead of Something in the Dirt’s Sundance bow to talk about our fake news-infested present moment, their love of making movies with friends, and their leap into superhero spectaculars.
How do you describe Something in the Dirt, because it’s a lot!
Moorhead: After finishing the movie, our editor described it as “absolutely demented,” and I think that was my favorite way to say—as you said—it’s a lot [laughs]. I think that’s a very good descriptor for it.
Benson: Getting into specific genre names, you could describe it as unsettling science-fiction with a lot of dark comedy. We have a category for that now, right? [laughs]
Is such genre-blending a conscious process, or just part of the stew that materializes?
Benson: Stew is a good word for it. It’s a stew that just happens, and then a lot of it is stuff that we have to, ourselves, deconstruct after the movie’s done. Deconstruct our own psyches: “Where did that come from? Let’s track it back.” A good example would be, you could broadly say this movie shares DNA with a haunted house movie. There’s a place, a thing happens, and the story goes on and how do people deal with observing this supernatural or paranormal thing. On the topic of how our movies are hard to categorize, from the time our first movie got out into the world a little more than a decade ago, and since it could generally be categorized as horror or science-fiction, primarily what we got from the industry at large in terms of director-for-hire stuff were more traditional things like haunted house movies. Not necessarily these projects specifically, but stuff like The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist or The Conjuring.
Being guys who like to remain employed as much as possible, we kicked around ideas about how we would approach a haunted house story. We did that off and on, on different projects, for over a decade. A lot of the ideas that we couldn’t sell to the industry at large, who couldn’t get on board with them—and rightfully so, I mean it probably wasn’t what they were thinking! [laughs]—we developed over the last decade and a lot of them wound up in this movie. When we were originally at the point of, let’s pull the trigger and write this script and do it, we weren’t consciously thinking about using all those ideas. When it’s all done, you look back and you’re like, that was it. That was the thing we’ve been scratching at.
Moorhead: I just realized this for the first time, because we talk a lot about how our films blend a bunch of genres into one, and how it makes them hard to categorize. But the best of the best four-quadrant movies do that too. If you look at Jurassic Park, it’s funny, it’s got drama, it’s got horror, it’s literally a sci-fi movie, it’s a creature-feature. It doesn’t have a romance, per se, but Pirates of the Caribbean, same thing: adventure, straight-up horror with skeletons, comedy, romance, drama, action. So the blending of genres is definitely nothing new. But I think in independent film, for us, it’s just following an instinct to its most logical conclusion, and sometimes that’s funny, sometimes that’s heartbreaking, sometimes that’s scary.
The film is rooted in conspiracy theories and the hazy line between truth and fiction—and the madness that comes from searching for meaning in the inexplicable. Was that specifically born from our present moment?
Benson: It was made before the damage that can be done by conspiratorial thinking was really on our radar. For us, it was October 2020. I’m sure that was [on the radar] for a lot of people, but for us, it wasn’t a thing. But something that we talked a little bit about then, and have talked a lot more about since, is our shared love of The X-Files, and being lucky enough to work with one of the primary writers on The X-Files—Glen Morgan—on the episode of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone that we did. We talked to him about how The X-Files is so hard to do today because the fact that it deals so heavily with conspiracy means it’s just interpreted in a completely different way that was never intended. That was something we were already thinking about, in terms of authorship as makers of science-fiction. The same ideas we’re using in our story are the same ideas that now oftentimes have a political or social affiliation to them that you would never intend; you’re just trying to tell an interesting story. But how do you avoid those pitfalls?
What we ultimately landed on was, as long as the characters always maintain their humanity, and as long as the story has levity—and the path in filmmaking to humanity for us is levity; it’s a joke at the right time in the drama—that was, for us, the key to telling a story like The X-Files. You can laugh at them, and you can laugh with them, as long as you’re always exploring their humanity and you’re not belittling them.
Moorhead: We do think, if the viewer looks at the main characters as them instead of as people they can see themselves in just a little bit, then it becomes judgmental. The reality is, everybody, including ourselves and anyone reading this, is susceptible to jumping down a rabbit hole of confirmation-bias misinformation. We’ve all done it, and we will continue to do it. So the idea is, hopefully, it’s so easy to jump down this rabbit hole, and we just need to take a step back and breathe a little bit.
How many of the wilder theories in the film—about Pythagoras, cat parasites, and irrational numbers—are real, and how many are a product of your imagination? Did you do a lot of online research into these topics?
Benson: Wholistically, the mythology we created in the film is obviously invented. However, most of the pieces of it are true to some extent. There was a Pythagorean Brotherhood. Jack Parsons was a rocket scientist who practiced sex magic in Los Angeles. We have some imagery from Aleister Crowley; I think he’s literally in the movie, and some of his artwork is in the movie. And when you say research—how long did we research our Aleister Crowley project, Aaron?
Moorhead: I think we started in 2013.
Benson: We’ve been researching Western esotericism and the occult for almost a decade. With that said, is it represented in the movie in a way that’s factual? Not really. But there are great pieces here and there that are true.
Moorhead: Which is a reflection that the movie makes itself, right? There’s a whole bunch of partial truths, and you have to draw the lines between them and make sure those lines are correct.
Your movies are often self-reflexive, and in Something in the Dirt you add an additional meta layer through a making-a-documentary-about-making-the-documentary conceit. Did that structure come early, or did it emerge as you were working through all these influences and ideas?
Benson: The meta multi-layered part of it—that some of this is recreation by these guys with an intent to make a documentary—was in it from draft one. That super-meta-layered thing. Surprisingly, the format of a documentary was about halfway through rehearsals. And it’s so weird to think about the movie without having that. When we came up with it, it was like, “Why the hell weren’t we always doing that?” Then, when it created an additional year of photography, you realize, oh, there’s a reason why you wouldn’t do that! [laughs].
Moorhead: There’s a whole version of the movie that we heavily rehearsed that was just us in the room making the documentary but not portraying the documentary. It was very interesting. We couldn’t believe we missed that blind spot.
You dedicate the movie to making movies with friends, and Something in the Dirt was clearly created on your own terms. Yet you’ve also done work-for-hire on larger collaborative efforts such as The Twilight Zone, Archive 81 and Marvel’s upcoming Moon Knight. How do you strike a balance between those two types of projects?
Benson: There’s a really symbiotic relationship between the two of them. When you’re making an independent film the way we make them, there is this beautiful feeling of one idea following the next through a process of developing, brainstorming, writing, rehearsing, acting, shooting and editing it, and the last call is yours on every crazy idea, and one idea leads to the next, and it’s all connected. It feels a bit like when you sit down to write for eight hours, and one idea follows the next, and you had no idea that you would have gotten there during the first few minutes of the day. It’s like that, except you’re swapping mediums all the time. It’s not just writing—it’s also acting, shooting, all these things—and it’s so beautiful. It fills you with so much joy, and it’s so energizing.
Then simultaneously, there’s going to work as a director-for-hire on these wonderful projects where you get to collaborate with wonderful people you learn so much from about the art form—whether it’s acting, editing or cinematography; being around people you wouldn’t otherwise be around and getting life lessons from them. In these two things, they feed off each other. To just have one, you’d probably feel really walled-in. If you just did big stuff, you’d think, I have so much self-expression I don’t get to do! And if you just did little stuff, you’d think, I just hung out with two people all the time—who I love, but the world needs to get bigger.
Moorhead: They inform each other so much, too. For example, when you’re working on Archive 81 or Moon Knight, you’re exploring someone else’s mind completely. Here’s a good way to say it: working with directors of photography that were not myself, I now have completely new methods of working, and I’m so excited to use them. If we hadn’t done Archive 81 or Moon Knight, I wouldn’t even know to use them, and they’re going to enrich the independent stuff that we do. That also goes for acting. Oh my god, I learned so much working with other actors besides ourselves—and writing and everything. It really expands your horizons.
How did Moon Knight come about, and what was that process like, given that Marvel is known for having a very particular—and well-established—house style?
Benson: Unfortunately, we can’t say anything specific—at all—about Moon Knight. But broadly speaking, we had about a decade of making these indie films on our own before we had the ability to get jobs in the industry at large, outside these independent films, and that’s just how long it took. We didn’t have the experience where you have a movie out of the gate and then all of a sudden you’re out in the world making Titanic 2. It was movie after movie after movie after movie, and then finally, and mysteriously—we couldn’t even pinpoint how, when or why—we just started getting jobs that weren’t that. We couldn’t even tell you what that was a direct result of, except some aggregate thing of ten years’ of work, and people considering us for things like that.
Moorhead: And yet still, us making a movie is not an automatic green light. We’ll be fighting the good fight forever. I think that’s what the environment is—and it’s actually kind of nice, because you can never get complacent.
Something in the Dirt operates on a much smaller scale than Moon Knight. Does working on the latter make you want to produce your own movies on a bigger canvas?
Moorhead: It definitely depends on what the actual circumstances around our own films are. Whatever they are, we want our own films to be something that feel like making movies with our friends. If that’s a big budget because we want to be able to pay everyone ungodly amounts of money to work with us, that would be really spectacular. But if that means a total loss of control or making something that is so large that you lose the thread, it’s just not worth it. You only get to make so many movies in your lifetime, so we will probably be rather careful, especially with films—as opposed to TV—to make sure that the things we spearhead and say are ours have the same energy as making a film with your friends, as with Something in the Dirt.
Has working in episodic TV also helped inform your independent film work?
Benson: It’s more tools for the toolbox, and very different but equal. Having the experiences we’ve had, which aren’t obviously that many, you can love both [film and TV], but if you’re trying to reshape the industry business of filmmaking into your indie filmmaking, you’d be better off trying to reshape your indie filmmaking into something bigger. I think the big business of filmmaking is amazing and beautiful, but it’s set. There’s something really exciting about being able to innovate production methods in our company, Rustic Films. Being able to grow that into something bigger is very interesting.
The Endless was directly connected to your debut feature Resolution, but Something in the Dirt—despite also starring both of you—appears to be a stand-alone endeavor. How much do you want to develop the Benson/Moorhead shared cinematic universe in the future?
Benson: We’ll always continuously make movies in that same universe, and keep building it out. Some of them will be more conspicuously within the universe of The Endless and Resolution, and others—like this one—will be more of a feeling or a texture. To us, we have our own private discussions about how this movie is connected, and someone may get it someday, but it’s not important [laughs] as long as you get a feeling that there’s a bigger universe involved here. But we think and dream and constantly just hang out and talk about what will be the next story in this universe. There’s something about building that thing out—it’s like going to church.
Have you gotten more comfortable directing yourselves, and each other? That seems to be another layer to your films’ truth-fiction dynamics.
Moorhead: It’s funny—we both felt pretty comfortable pretty quickly. But it is definitely even stronger now. Learning the tricks. We have such a strong respect for the performers that we get to work with, and so to be able to play in their sandbox actually feels like quite an honor every single time. But, I’ll also say, we’re able to separate ourselves pretty darn well from our actor brain to our director brain and also to our editor brain. They’re really well-compartmentalized—not on purpose, it just happens. Looking at the editing screen, and talking about it, we refer to the people on the editing screen by our characters’ names, not as our own names. It’s just instinctual; it’s not a respect thing or anything like that. It’s just that that’s who they are to us. It’s the same thing with editing, where we are so happy to edit ourselves. What a gift. People ask if we edit each other but make sure not to edit yourselves. No, thank god you can cut out everything that you hate of your own performance! It’s a joy!
Aaron’s character in Something in the Dirt says, “Titles are important.” Why was this one important?
Benson: There’s a document I sent to Aaron—it was the first stage of writing the script, a stream-of-conscious treatment—and somewhere in the treatment it says the phrase “something in the dirt” and in parenthesis, “I just think this would be a good title. Anyway, going on…” And this is the first time ever that a first title has stuck.
Moorhead: We’ve definitely gone through tons and tons of titles. The Endless, you know how I found that? We went to Thesaurus.com and looked up a bunch of different words. And Spring, there was a lengthy attempt to change the title, because it’s big. If you don’t know what Spring is, it’s just a season. That was back when the VOD market was it, and if your movie didn’t start with 0, 1, 2 or A, B, C, you’d lose 30 percent of your revenue, because people chose their movies alphabetically. Thank God, Drafthouse Films—and actually, the same person we were dealing with there is now distributing this via XYZ Films—just said, you’re right, there’s just nothing better than Spring. They are important to us, but it’s also like lightning when one hits. We just stick with it.