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‘Something in the Dirt’: With a Crew of Three, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead Embraced Pandemic DIY

Benson, Moorhead, and producer David Lawson Jr. discuss, at the IndieWire Studio presented by Adobe, how they relied heavily on themselves to craft their genre-bending Sundance film.

Though Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have recently been tapped for big-budget projects — including directing upcoming episodes of Marvel’s “Moon Knight” — their works since their 2012 debut feature “Resolution” have been crafted with a DIY ethos. And “Something in the Dirt,” which is premiering at Sundance, is no exception.

Benson co-directed, wrote, produced, edited, and starred in the film, while Moorhead co-directed, produced, served as DP, edited, and starred in it. Their longtime producing partner, David Lawson Jr., was back, and he also served as COVID compliance officer, while holding up couches and other items in preparation for later VFX work. The set was very close to home — much of it was shot in Benson and Moorhead’s own apartments during the pandemic — by a core crew made up of the trio.

“Everyone was really isolated for a long time, including us from each other,” Benson said. “When Dave created the protocols, it allowed us to make this film, it allowed us to be in the same room, at least the three of us together, and it made us realize that one of the primary reasons we make films is to have this thing we create with our friends.”

During an interview in the IndieWire Studio, Presented by Adobe, the three filmmakers discussed what Benson considers the most enjoyable movie they’ve made together, in a video you can watch above. “Something in the Dirt” stars Benson and Moorhead as neighbors who, after witnessing supernatural events in their Los Angeles apartment building, figure they could break free of their mundane lives and make some cash by making a documentary about their experience. Their efforts slowly but surely go off the rails as they dig themselves deeper and deeper into a series of rabbit holes.

As an entry in Sundance’s NEXT section, their fifth feature is among a group of bold films at this year’s festival that push the boundaries of cinema. So it makes sense that the film, with its meta flavor, numerology, and supernatural phenomenon, is hard to pin down.

“A person that we greatly admire is Alan Moore,” Moorhead said. “Something he did is this gigantic tome called ‘Jerusalem,’ — he does this in almost all his work — it lays a secret, mystical, almost a cultish history on top of the environment he’s in. We think we were probably inspired to do that with a secret history of Los Angeles where there’s so many films where Los Angeles plays itself, or plays a heightened version of it.”

But the vastness of Los Angeles of course lends itself to an endless number of interpretations, giving the filmmakers plenty of leeway to mash their own ideas and conversations with a wide range of references and inspirations.

“The movies we’ve made prior, they’re typically categorized as horror or sci-fi, even though they’re often hard to categorize,” Benson said. “When it’s time to get hired by a job that’s not just us, the stuff that gets sent to us, it’s things like ‘Poltergeist,’ or ‘Amityville Horror,’ or ‘Paranormal Activity,’ these more traditional haunted house stories or haunted building stories. After 10 years of thinking over how we would do that, if we were to do that, and ultimately always ending up so far left of center no one would ever say yes. The result of that was sort of like 10 years of development of this movie.”

Then there’s “The Big Lebowski” and its Southern California Eccentrics — “There’s also just a guy finding a weird underbelly of LA and following a weird rabbit hole,” Moorhead said. And “Pineapple Express,” and documentarian Errol Morris’ oeuvre, and the filmmakers’ own interest in the weird history of Laurel Canyon, the film’s setting, and occultist Aleister Crowley.

Watch the video with Benson and Moorhead above.

Presenting sponsor Adobe — with a mission to enable creativity for all — is committed to supporting, elevating and amplifying underrepresented creators, so the world can see, learn and benefit from diverse perspectives. Learn more at Adobe.com Diverse Voices. The upcoming 2022 festival marks the fifth consecutive year IndieWire and Adobe have joined forces for the IndieWire Studio at Sundance.

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