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Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead on Their Genre-Bending Trip Into the Strange

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead talk DIY filmmaking and share insights about their film, "Resolution," a cinematic fusion of horror / buddy pic / supernatural that is unlike anything you've ever seen. "Resolution" opens in Los Angeles this Friday and is available now on VOD and digital platforms.

Since its world premiere at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, Resolution has toured the Festival circuit, delighting both domestic and international audiences. Combining their considerable talents, co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead present a mesmerizing blend of genres that results in a taut 93-minute ride into the unexpected. The film centers on the friendship between Mike (Peter Cilella) and Chris (Vinny Curran) who are at an impasse in their lives. Mike is living with his girlfriend and making plans for the future while Chris has sunk into a deep and violent depression, fueled by his addiction.

In one last attempt to save Vinny, Mike stages a rather unorthodox detox plan that requires them both to inhabit an abandoned cabin on the edge of an Indian reservation for a week by themselves. Strange things begin to occur and soon the two men realize that they face a bigger threat to their health and well-being than Chris’s nearly unshakable drug addiction. In talking about their film, Benson and Moorhead candidly share interesting facts about their humble beginnings and their influences. They also offer sage advice to aspiring filmmakers everywhere.

Resolution opens this Friday, January 25, in Los Angeles at the Arena Theater with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead planning to attend every show opening weekend. If you’re not on the West Coast, you can rent the film on VOD or digital platforms now!

Note: This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Resolution. How would you describe the movie?

Benson/Moorhead: In the most general sense it’s a creepy horror movie like no other. We take a lot of pride in working in what we think is the most diverse, inventive genre. But it’s also a funny, heartfelt story about lifelong friendship and control.

TRIBECA: What inspired you to make Resolution?

Justin Benson: The conception of Resolution was the result of several nearly simultaneous events. There was a motivating speech that Pete gave me in a bar one night about making our own film. There was realizing on a low budget commercial how well Aaron, Pete, Vin and I work together. There was my dad telling me the planning department wouldn’t make him tear down his half finished cabin if we called it a film set. There was me realizing that after 10 years of trying that I might never direct a feature film unless I used 3 years of saved up production asssistant wages. But one of the biggest things was realizing that the basic premise of some phenomenal movies such as Evil Dead II , made no sense to me.

I grew up in Southern California, so the idea of a couple hot girls driving out to the woods with some buddies and I for Spring Break, is some pretty far-fetched movie logic. Movie logic that I adore and would never dare criticize, but movie logic nonetheless. The only reasons I’ve ever heard for someone actually going out to the San Diego boonies for an extended period of time are to smoke crack, shoot guns and avoid paying their taxes. 

Aaron Moorhead: I’ve been an indie film cinematographer since I arrived in LA, but I’ve been directing movies for a decade. When I met Justin, I told him about how much I love directing, and cinematography is the closest thing to it that pays the bills (besides being quite a passion of mine). Justin and I recognized that, while we work great when I shoot for him, we’re pretty much a top-to-bottom creative team and my input wouldn’t start and stop on set. I started giving script notes and working with him holistically. When he approached me about Resolution, I didn’t hesitate to jump aboard.

TRIBECA: I found Resolution incredibly hard to define, which is a good (and refreshing!!) thing.Your film is at times a drama, a horror movie, a buddy comedy, and a thriller—an interesting mix to say the least. Justin, was it difficult to balance this unusual blend of genres? What were some of the techniques you used to insure that you were telling a consistent story?

JUSTIN BENSON: It actually was not difficult at all. Developing dynamic, realistic characters and relationships is a powerful device in telling a scary story. It does several things. It makes the audience care about the characters, so they invest emotionally in their well-being, and, if done really well, it can distract the audience from over thinking the scary stuff. The main thing we used to keep our odd tone consistent despite the emotional shifts, was the actors. And when you have two truly gifted performers like Pete and Vinny, it’s really easy to see when the tone goes off course. Vinny and Pete made that so easy that we felt a bit guilty at times.

Our goal was to make the funny stuff as funny as possible, the dramatic stuff as effective as possible, and the creepy stuff as terrifying as possible, while maintaining a high level of realism. I think if you can get the audience to believe in the scary stuff for about 90 minutes, you’ve done your job. To do that, you need to give them some other awesome story components to distract them from logically deconstructing the stuff they fear. But honestly, I really just set out to write a really good scary movie that we would want to see. And that was a lot of pressure, because there really are so many amazing horror films out there if you seek them out.

TRIBECA: So much of Resolution depends on the relationship between Michael and Chris. Can you tell us about the general casting process and how you found Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran?

BENSON/MOORHEAD: The characters of Chris and Michael were actually written for Vinny and Pete, respectively. We discovered their chemistry while making a commercial for a small beer company we had cast them in. A lot of the way they play off each other in Resolution is authentic to their relationship in real life – it’s fascinating to watch. Finding the supporting cast was a long audition process.

One interesting story, though, is how we found Bill Oberst Jr. When we brought him in to audition based off a headshot and nice email, it turned out not only had he just starred in a movie for a director Aaron shoots for, but he had presented a jury award to Justin for a short horror film he directed and Aaron had shot. He had Byron’s 6 page scene memorized for the audition, with accent, character work, everything. And he had some stiff competition, too, till he walked in the room and blew us away. It felt like we were watching an actor’s absurd fantasy of how they wish an audition would go. It was later that we found out he’s a bit of a horror icon—and rightfully so.

TRIBECA: How did you find the location for Resolution? It was so eerie. Did you have to do any scouting or did you already have the place in mind? How much of the set pieces had to be built?

JUSTIN BENSON: My family actually owns most of the locations. My parents acquired this strange property in deep East County San Diego under some pretty bizarre circumstances. Even that horrifying cave is theirs. Much like the movie was written for Pete and Vinny, it was written for all these weird places I found wandering around the area as a child. A lot of the macabre atmospheric stuff was gleaned from a journal I kept during that time. Which was fun because it was the 10th feature I’ve written so it was cool to have a compelling reason to revisit some of my earliest ideas.

TRIBECA: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production [for better or worse]?

JUSTIN BENSON: Honestly, no lightning strikes on set, but we lived in a children’s camp that was EXACTLY like Camp Crystal Lake. Hallways lined with old, sun damaged Polaroids of 1970’s camp councilors and all. It was the only place we could afford, probably the only place located near set that could house a whole crew, and so much fun.

AARON MOORHEAD: As the summer camp, we had a beautiful campus to roam. One night, we weren’t calling particularly early, so we got the whole crew together, gathered our flashlights, and decided to climb the mountain next to the camp in the dark. On our way up, we found a stunning overlook of the area. We all climbed on this big rock, bundled up right next to one another, just chatting and enjoying the solitude. It was a transcendently beautiful moment, and we all knew it.

Then we climbed all the way to the top, and there was a tiny, scraggled campfire area with a wooden cross and an ammo box. Inside were scores of childrens’ letters to God, and a really giant scary spider.

TRIBECA: Aaron, for all those young filmmakers/cinematographers reading, what camera did you use to shoot Resolution? Can you talk us through the challenges of filming a project like Resolution on a low budget?

AARON MOORHEAD: We shot the film on the Red camera with the MX sensor upgrade. The whole film is supposed to have a specific look to the motion of the handheld, but the camera’s so darn heavy! To save my back and also give the film the look we wanted, we shot on the Easyrig 3. It’s a system that attaches to my back, and sends a big “scorpion-looking” tail over my head, which hooks onto the camera with a pulley system from above. It redistributes the weight of the camera to the hips, and makes the camera float a little more smoothly.

It also helps to know how to take a film from the beginning to the end. To keep all our costs down, Justin and I co-edited, and I did the visual effects and coloring. That saved thousands, and besides, I feel far more creatively satisfied because I got exactly what I wanted!

TRIBECA: You both received co-director credit on Resolution. How did you two play off one another? Describe your collaborative process for us.

JUSTIN BENSON: We both come from a decade each of DIY filmmaking. We both believe in long days, getting a script right, and then working fast but without compromising quality. We agree on nearly everything, and the rare dispute always leads to a better film. Our specializations complement each other in every part of the process, which goes well beyond my penchant for writing or Aaron’s emphasis on cinematography. It also helps that Aaron is one of the most talented, skilled, hard working, nicest dudes on the planet.

AARON MOORHEAD: The key to our collaboration is an intensely high mutual respect. We aren’t of the exact same mind, we don’t finish each others’ sentences, we’re not interchangeable on a film set or in a pitching room, and definitely for the better. It’s not that we argue (we rarely do), it’s that we can come up with radically different thoughts and throw it all into the forge of our process and see what comes out best. It fosters a really natural complement to each other, so that we’re able to build off one anothers’ ideas. Where we do intersect quite a bit is our intense work ethic. I thought I was an absurdly busy guy until I met Justin. I can hardly keep up with his drive.

TRIBECA: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?

JUSTIN BENSON: I know this might sound especially trite and annoying coming from dudes as relatively early in their career as ourselves, but just keep making films and never give up no matter what anyone says. We’ve collectively had 20 years of people telling us we’d never make it to a film festival like Tribeca without some magic connection. If you keep making film after film after film, you get better and opportunities present themselves. That’s all there is to it.

AARON MOORHEAD: To build on what Justin says, your tenacity is important, but also your focus. If you want to act, go on auditions and book acting roles. If you’re an editor, find things to edit. Directors direct. Writers write. No one sees an intern as a potential director, you can’t wait and hope they’ll pass down the torch, you have to show them what you can do! Everyone can have their “lucky chance” if you get out there, meet people, and bill yourself as exactly what you want to be, and nothing else. I say go forth and do.

TRIBECA: What are you most looking forward to at Tribeca?

BENSON/MOORHEAD: Sharing Resolution with a theatrical audience, as well as meeting like-minded filmmakers.

TRIBECA: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?

JUSTIN BENSON: What if before dinner we combined the DNA of Coppola, Richard Linklater, Peter Jackson, Tarantino, Eli Roth, the Coen Bros., Ti West, Scorsese, Fulci, Takashi Shimizu, Cameron Crowe, Gore Verbinski, Sergio Leone, Alfonso Cuarón, Jee-woon Kim, Haneke, John Carpenter, maybe a few others…

AARON MOORHEAD: How dare you ask this question. Of course it would be the Coens.

TRIBECA: What’s your favorite New York movie?

JUSTIN BENSON:  The Godfather... but American Psycho is really good.

AARON MOORHEAD: After perusing Wikipedia’s incredibly long “List of films set in New York,” I was able to comfortably settle on Leon. No wait, Glengarry Glen Ross.  

TRIBECA: What would your biopic be called?

BENSON/MOORHEAD: The Adventures of Moorhead and Benson. It would be quite experimental and boring. The first 15 minutes would be a movie shoot, then 75 minutes of us staring at our computer screens editing and sitting behind our re-recording mixer Yahel asking him to tweak ambient levels until 5 in the morning. The render scene would be particularly arduous.

TRIBECA: What makes Resolution a Tribeca must-see?

BENSON/MOORHEAD: Without giving too much away, let’s just say there’s a story component to Resolution that lends itself particularly well to playing specifically in a movie theater with an audience, and an entire audience that has no idea that it’s coming. It will be extremely fun to be in one of these audiences. We’re excited to merely witness the discovery.

Justin BensonAaron Moorhead Aaron Moorhead directed his first feature at only 19 years old. He has worked as a cinematographer, director, VFX artist, and colorist. He has shot several indie features, shorts, and commercials. Justin Benson has written, directed, and worked just about every odd job in the film industry. He has directed several short films and commercials. Resolution is his first feature.

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