Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead released their first film Resolution in 2012 and have been impressing us ever since with their ingenuity, genre-hopping, and incredible talent in wringing amazing-looking movies from small budgets. Resolution acts as a prelude, sequel and counterpart to the grander vision of The Endless, but both inform the other. You can watch them in any order and learn more about the world that I like to call the “Shitty Carl Cinematic Universe.” Spring—released between those two films—is on the face of it a monster romance tale, but that belies the emotional complexity and messages within the film.
This investigation into what is important in life, and choosing the right path is a thread that runs through all their films, and no less so in Synchronic, which was shot in 2018 but has only recently been released. Justin and Aaron very kindly took time out of their busy schedule to answer some questions from us.
25YL: First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. We’ve been waiting for Synchronic for a long time now so it must feel good to finally get your movie out there finally?
J&A: It feels incredible. The film was conceived and written in 2015, shot in 2018, and now released at the end of 2020. The world has had seismic shifts since then, as have our lives, and the meaning of the film keeps getting redefined.
Of course, no one wants to release a film during a pandemic. At the same time, we’re happy that many people are finding emotional resonance for themselves in the film, at a time where we all are looking for things that help give us meaning. At one point in the film, it’s said “The present is a miracle.” And although it sure doesn’t feel like it sometimes, it’s helpful to find peace in that.
25YL: What challenges did you face with a bigger budget and more well-known actors. Did that increase the pressure on you at all?
J&A: It didn’t increase pressure in the way one might think. We weren’t worried about any extra scrutiny, or the need to over-perform, or that our haircuts wouldn’t look good in the behind-the-scenes. This is possibly because while, yes, the budget was larger than our previous films, it wasn’t that much larger, and truth be told Synchronic was the smallest film shooting in New Orleans at the time—by a long shot.
It was still an extremely independent, do-it-yourself film. There are scenes in the film where it’s raining; it’s one of us holding the hose and spraying it into the air, and the other operating camera. We still took on a lot of the VFX work ourselves. So by that metric, it still felt like making films the same way we’ve made all our other ones. If you put us in an MRI, all the same parts of our brain that fired during The Endless, Spring, and Resolution were still lighting up during Synchronic.
And as for working with well-known actors, Anthony and Jamie became friends of ours and each other so quickly that it never felt like we had to think of them as “the talent.” They didn’t need kid gloves. We all worked together as equals, collaborators, and as friends. They didn’t disappear into their trailers or run back to their homes after wrap—we’d grab dinner all the time and just keep getting to know each other. Anthony said somewhere in the behind-the-scenes it was the best set he’s ever been on. That can’t possibly be true, but we’ll take it.
The pressure that did go up was all about coordinating with a larger team. We had to make sure that the very specific way that we wanted things to be didn’t get lost in a game of telephone. Many interconnected pieces were moving very quickly and there wasn’t any extra money that could fix the problem. Luckily, intense prep is a huge part of how we work together, so bringing that level of preparation to a slightly larger set helped us get ahead of any icebergs before we smashed into them. In many ways, we’d scrimmaged these organizational situations so many times before on smaller films that we found out we were really cut out for it.
25YL: How did you decide on the different time periods and situations you would show in Synchronic?
J&A: A big part of the genesis of the film was that instead of romanticising the past in the way that many films do, we would present the past as it often was: a monster. So that led to much of what you see but also trying to remain visually interesting with a tiny budget also guided those decisions.
25YL: There are more action-heavy scenes in Synchronic than previous movies. What sort of challenges did you encounter there?
J&A: The biggest challenge was just getting on-set what we had spent months developing pre vis on our iPhones for, but luckily we plan so much that wasn’t so hard. We’ve done action sequences before, but here it was just about staying focused on it being interesting but making sure the characters react in very human, often clumsy ways, as opposed to looking like characters in an action movie. Keeping it human even when among the extraordinary was a big focus, making sure fights look sloppy like they usually do in real, stuff like that.
25YL: Do you two think of the high concept/plot first, or do you focus on the characters before the plot?
J&A: They usually materialize at roughly the same time. In the case of Spring and Resolution, they came at the same time, while The Endless the characters came first. Maybe here the premise came a little before, but Steve and Dennis came very shortly after, and we always spend a lot more time on the characters.
25YL: Your films seek to essentially focus in on the relationship between two people (although you widen the net in The Endless and even more in Synchronic) What drew you to that dynamic particularly? Was the singular focus purely a budgetary concern initially?
J&A: It’s incredibly accurate (and astute) to recognize that movies between two people are more affordable than ensembles! Our indie producer brains are always ticking away at that on some level when we’re coming up with films. We always want to know that we can accomplish it for the money we think we can raise.
But it’s also a simple math problem, albeit involving human emotions and connections to make-believe characters. We get about 90 minutes to have our audience believe a character is real and thus attach their emotions, hopes, and fears to them to have your story unfold in a way that actually sits with you after it cuts to black. The more characters we introduce into the 90-minute film, the less time we spend getting to really know any individual character.
There are clever ways around this that a lot of extraordinarily talented filmmakers use. Many of our favorite movies are ensembles: Pulp Fiction, LOTR, Magnolia, etc. But the fear is that in order to make up for fully understanding a character in less time, you have to make them a familiar archetype so the audience isn’t constantly confused about what their motivations are. Which, frankly, just doesn’t often work very well.
So we choose to make the cast a bit more lean with the runtime we’re given so you can spend more time with your characters, fall in love with them harder, and more fully empathize with whatever they do in the end. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s something that we’re drawn to so far.
25YL: You had total control over your first three movies. Is Synchronic something that you still had total creative control over despite having more funding?
J&A: Yes and no. We did not technically have final cut over Synchronic. However, our producers/financiers never forced us to do anything. They had notes (helpful ones!), but ultimately they trusted us with every final decision. This is a luxury, to be sure, and we’re infinitely grateful for it.
There are also a lot more departments in this film, with department heads that are extraordinary artists. Selecting the ones that jived with what we’re trying to do was one of the most crucial parts of making the film. The wrong head of department would have lead to a compromised movie, no matter how much creative control we technically had.
25YL: You both were great as the leads in The Endless. What led you to decide not to act in Synchronic?
J&A: There just weren’t really any roles in the script for us, and we were so busy once the movie was a go it would have been pretty intense to try to put another hat on and we just totally forgot about it. Justin is dragging some coffins in rain slickers in like one shot because that day we had a tiny skeleton crew and no one else to do it, and our voices pop up in the background here and there, but that’s about it. We definitely missed working our filmmaking muscles in that way, but we’ve both been acting in other stuff recently quite a bit and that’s really satisfying.
25YL: Did you do any empirical “research” into the effects of DMT or just traditional research?
J&A: Neither of us have yet had the pleasure/horror/existential peace of doing DMT. Also since the Synchronic experience has nothing in common with DMT despite the chemists’ attempt at making a synthetic analogue which they botched, it wouldn’t do us much good. The perceptions of Synchronic are way more of a science fiction hypothetical than based on a drug in actual existence.
25YL: If you’re not too bored of talking about your previous films…
Early 1900s tent guy in The Endless has such a short loop, What does the entity expect him to do? Is there a point to it?
J&A: Sorry for the cop-out here. Isn’t it so much more fun to think about it than to have us tell you? We answer all this stuff internally, and no matter how cool the answer, it’s never as satisfying as pondering the mystery.
25YL: No. We demand answers! Oh well…
In Resolution, when Mike says “Can we try it another way?” does that simply mean that he kind of understands what the entity wants, or that in that scene we are not seeing linear Mike who first entered (and was trapped in) the loop but a later Mike who has been through this a few times already.
J&A: Same. Sorry! But that final line is certainly worth exploring in light of the info presented in The Endless. One of the many reasons it might be better to watch Resolution after The Endless, as they are designed to be interchangeable in the order watched.
25YL: A follow-up on that, do you have fixed notions of what the entity wants from its subjects and can you tell us?
J&A: All that’s pretty much in the movies, but we’ll very likely make more stuff in that universe eventually that will uncover more of the mystery.
25YL: How did you get into the production business (aside from your own films)? Was it intentional? Is it something you want to make a more significant part of your careers?
J&A: Jeremy Gardner had this amazing script that eventually became After Midnight, and we wanted to help it get made and that led to other projects we felt the same way about like She Dies Tomorrow. Also, we do every movie with our producer David Lawson and always will so it seemed like a good thing to formalize it.
25YL: Big fan of Jeremy Gardener (I wish more people had seen Tex Montana—released free on YouTube—because it is hilarious). Any plans to work together again following After Midnight?
J&A: We really hope so. He and Christian are amazing filmmakers and good people.
J&A: Not currently. But that would be so cool. He’s amazing.
25YL: Aaron…in Contracted: Phase 2 you are billed as “Less handsome officer” and Justin is billed as “Handsome officer”. Seems a little unfair really. How did you both end up in that movie?
J&A: The producers asked us to come down to set for a day and pop in for a scene. It’s really fun being on any set where we can do one job for a day, and in this case for about two hours.
25YL: Will there be any more films in the Shitty Carl Cinematic Universe?
J&A: There will for sure be several more things but no idea what form they’ll take. We dream of a TV show quite a bit, but who knows.
25YL: What is a great indie film you’d recommend people watch from the last five years?
25YL: Can you tell us anything about what’s next from you and Rustic?
J&A: We’ve been working on something but literally don’t know what form it will take yet. We’re always grinding away and never know what’s going to actually get made almost until we’re getting on a plane or driving down to East County San Diego or wherever.
25YL: A final thank you for making some of my, and my colleague’s favourite films over the last few years. We appreciate your tireless and no doubt often exhausting ill-paid efforts!