"What's crazier, believing every single coincidence you see, or ignoring all of them?" Taken at face value, the question posed by a character in Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's latest film Something in the Dirt is a thesis statement so perfect, I hope it ends up as the movie's tagline. A meta-pseudo-docu-thriller about conspiracies, rabbit holes, and our fractured relationship to the truth, it's easy to see why early reviews out of Sundance reach for the obvious similarities between the themes in this movie and those found in the right-wing conspiracy movement, QAnon. (A comparison which the filmmakers have categorically rejected.)
But Something in the Dirt isn't necessarily about taking its main characters or the documentary they're making around the supernatural occurrences happening in their apartment at face value. Levi and Jon (played by Benson and Moorhead, respectively) are unreliable narrators: two strangers whose inherent distrust of each other is matched only by their desire to be heard. Fans of Benson and Moorhead's previous work will undoubtedly be combing Something for hints that it connects to an expanded universe first introduced in their debut feature, 2012's Resolution, and a 2017 companion piece, The Endless. Without giving too much away, both can be read as a type of new media commentary where--to quote Marshall McLuhan--the medium is the message.
Fango spoke to the co-writers/directors/stars Benson, Moorhead, and producer David Lawson, co-founder of their Rustic Film Productions about Something in the Dirt, filming during COVID, and their move into another cinematic universe directing episodes of Disney+'s MCU series, Loki and Moon Knight.
What was the inspiration for Something in the Dirt?
Justin Benson: It originated after our first movie Resolution came out in 2012, and we started getting approached about doing movies for hire. Not a firm offer, just like 'You want to try out this script?' Oftentimes, it was a traditional haunted house or apartment story. So we'd always try to tackle that from how we could make that our own, what we'd want to see from that sort of subgenre. Obviously, the pitches were never successful, but a lot of what we wanted from those movies ended up in this one.
Aaron Moorhead: Also, one of our favorite past-times is a small glass of whiskey and Wikipedia. Just a little drink as you click on a word you've never seen before. TA rabbit-hole. You just have to remember not to take it seriously because anyone can edit Wikipedia. But Mark Daniels was such a huge inspiration, Alan Moore, everything he does. Errol Morris documentaries, we watch all of them, and it's quite a large filmography. But it's such a huge influence on the movie, from the point of view to the aesthetic. I think John and Levi view themselves as Erroll Morris characters.
Even before seeing Something in the Dirt, I was hyped that this might be another movie that connects back to the world? Entity? Whatever we're shown that connects Resolution and The Endless, but not Spring or Synchronic.
David Lawson (Producer): Reddit has started lovingly referring to it as the "Sh*tty Carl Cinematic Universe.'
Is it true that the whole SCCU is mapped out, and your movies are showing us fragments of the same inter-connected mythology?
JB: There's a much larger universe that exists in Google Docs and conversations than what you've seen in the films we made, yes. It might be interesting to know that for us, Something in the Dirt does exist in that universe, but it might take a second or third watch to see to what extent.
AM: There's a thematic reason that it's in the universe, too, beyond 'Easter eggs!" or 'These guys just like being in their own movies.' The only thing that is categorically different is that we're not playing 'Justin' and 'Aaron' [their characters from The Endless and Resolution]. We're completely different people. But even the deep, deep mythology and lore allow us to be the same people fully.
By the way, when people say that Synchronic and Spring don't exist in the same universe as Resolution and The Endless...they do. They're just not as connected.
This is your fifth feature together, and that's not including your TV projects. How did you start down the path of the 'City Sh*tty Carl' Cinematic Universe?
JB: We shot a short together called "Ann" that had a similar tone to it and some of the ideas, but it wasn't fully realized. You may not recognize it as totally in our filmography. Aaron, what would you say was the story of Resolution?
AM: I think it was just the idea of making a really honest and quiet movie that didn't need to impress anybody. I was a low-budget cinematographer to pay the bills, and I was shooting a lot of stuff that fell into the same traps. 'This is the way a movie is supposed to be.' When Justin approached me with Resolution, and we talked about it, I realized we were beholden to nobody. We could just make this movie by asking the actors if they wanted to go again, shooting normal days with a really small crew. There's no music in Resolution, so there's no diluting of any single moment. With its original approach, it felt like it was something we'd always wanted to experiment with, and it turned into the thing we always wanted to make.
DL: With Something in the Dirt, specifically, we leaned on this idea we've had throughout our partnership: 'How do we do it our way?' And stay safe. And look good; we didn't want to make something that looked like garbage.
Your movie is about paranoid thinking and conspiracy theories, something which I don't think anyone who's lived through COVID will have trouble relating to. I've certainly fallen down certain internet rabbit holes. It's hard to focus on big picture stuff when I get a hyper-focused tunnel vision. And your movie is ABOUT those holes. What difficulties did COVID bring to production?
JM: Not tunnel vision. Our focus probably improved. But because the crew had to be so small, we couldn't have an additional camera operator. You'll notice we're rarely on-screen together in this film…that's because we're pulling focus ourselves. I would operate Aaron's Seagull [camera], and he would operate mine, and the way pulling focus works, it meant that we couldn't actually perform in the scene with the other person. People say we have such good chemistry in this movie, and I'm like, "That's good. I wish that was true!" I wish we'd been in a scene together. I wish there was chemistry. That would have been nice.
AM: Most of the time, we were performing to a spot on the wall. There was nobody else in the room besides Dave. We had no crew in person.
DL: And I was usually busy running around doing light gags and sound at the same time. Occasionally operating the camera, but I'm not good at it. It's not in my skill set.
AM: Hey, you know what, though? That's what we have tripods for.
DL: There were a couple of shots that I did, and Aaron points them out whenever they pop up on-screen.
AM: (Imitating) Dave Shots! Dave Shots! I do think that it needs to be mentioned: even though it's me and Justin on screen, more so than any of our other films, this movie was just the three of us, operating in a pressure-cooker situation. It was awesome. I shouldn't say just the three of us, we also had a remote team.
DL: We had two remote teams going, because we had props and editorial going. So while the three of us shot the film, the three of us did not make the film.
I feel like I've lived in this apartment before. The whole film felt claustrophobic in a way that made me very self-aware. I know people who have spiraled out into these kinds of delusions...I know I've personally had periods of, let's call it "magical thinking." More than your others, I feel like this movie is going to hit very close to home for people. Maybe in a way they're not ready to confront just yet.
AM: We very desperately hope that people recognize themselves in these characters. Because then we've got a problem, it's a "them" thing instead of a "we" thing. And we really do believe that the idea of what we were making was not "look at these crazy people but look at how this could happen."
DL: If you're an inherently curious person, you will have to recognize it within yourself before it gets too deep.
You guys have stated in a few interviews that you didn't set out to make a film about Q-Anon, but it does seem hyper-relevant to that movement, with its characters engaging in increasingly delusional confirmation bias. Levi and John are two guys who cite their sources: Quora, Redddit, message boards. They're weaving it into this tapestry of conspiracies.
But the story is presented in a very recognizable, very stylized format of a docu-drama, which is ostensibly the "true" recounting of events. What goes into a movie that goes a step beyond an unreliable narrator and becomes its own unreliable form of media?
AM: Deep question (laughs). I think it's about the different media we're playing with: you have John's camera, you have Levi's camera, you have cameras that we associate more with being reality, like a surveillance camera in the corner. We'd often be editing and asking ourselves, 'Why does this scene exist?' And it always came down to the question, "Well, who directed this moment?" The movie's point of view deliberately shifts, as your alliances are supposed to shift. If your alliance only stayed with one person, we'd be kind of subverting our own point.
You brought up something earlier about popular conspiracy theories. Everyone in the world is susceptible to conspiracy theories. This movie is not targeting anything in particular, it's targeting ourselves. It's targeting the fact that in pop culture, we all love these things, and of course they infect our minds. That doesn't mean we shouldn't enjoy them, talk about them, or question everything. It just means we're all totally susceptible.
You've now had guest-spots directing episodes for three streaming series: Jordan Peele's reboot of The Twilight Zone on CBS+, Archive 81 on Netflix, and the HIGHLY anticipated Moon Knight MCU show. Was there an adjustment or learning curve for the move from film to television?
AM: The Twilight Zone reboot was such a great first experience for directing TV because it was an anthology. We noticed that there really wasn't that much of a difference, save that TV has a much shorter prep time, and we're really big on it.
Something that happened when we hit 'Primetime,' shall we say, is that you show up on set, and it's problem-solving the exact same way. In independent films, you have to go solve the problems with your hands, by yourself, but otherwise it's exactly the same. You see something in a performance you want to bring out, and you ask them to do it.
JB: The way we approach our indie filmmaking is very much like writing a novel: one idea leads to the next; it's yours, and you do anything you want to do. And at the end you'll get something with a lot more self-expression in it. When you're a work for hire, instead of writing a novel, you're working with all these geniuses, bouncing ideas off each other, all in support of the vision of the showrunner.
AM: You worry a lot in indie films with lack of growth, that you just get stuck doing your same ideas. With TV, you get to play around in someone else's sandbox, I get to steal stuff from the brains of another DP, and I honestly think it makes you more well-rounded. Then you go back, and what you've learned impacts your next indie film, so it really helps you grow as filmmakers. There were so many things we stole from TV to put in our films, and now vice-versa.
Can we expect to see a TV series from you guys anytime soon that expands on the world set up in Resolution and The Endless?
JB: I think our goal for the past ten years and moving forward is to get to a place where we can do that tv show. Where we can visit that world in a bigger way. And even if that show is completely its own, it always has that option to go more conspicuously into this universe we've created and re-visit characters. It's something we've been building toward for a very long time, and we're not quite at the place yet where we can go and successfully pitch a TV show idea on our own. But it's getting closer and closer.
Something In The Dirt does not yet have a wide release date but you can catch Moon Knight streaming on Disney+ March 30th.