Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (2016)

Spring, an acquisition by Drafthouse Films, explores the relationship between two people and how that relationship is affected when one of them turns out to be, quite literally, a monster. Part love story, part horror film, with a little bit of Italian travelogue thrown in to the mix with the fantastic visuals, it tells the age old story of boy meets girl, boy courts girl, and boy experiences the extreme possibility of being eaten by girl. We’ve all been there. Some of us, twice.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the co-directors, Justin Benson (also writer) and Aaron Moorhead (also cinematographer), regarding the genesis of the script, where their film fits in with modern horror, and the challenges faced filming such a unique take on multiple genres. Having just watched the film for the second time, Moorhead reversed roles, beginning with a question for me…

Aaron Moorhead: So, did you discover anything different in your second viewing than you did in the first?

Jason Howard: I definitely picked up a lot of humor the second time around that I hadn’t really focused in on when I saw it the first.

AM: For sure. There’s a lot of jokes that go by really fast that a lot of people won’t catch their first time. Did you catch the subtle joke, right before he meets Louise – the Italian guy is saying “I hooked up with a girl once that looked like that.” It’s subtitle really quickly after saying “your sister looks nothing like that.” Real highbrow stuff! (laughs) There’s a lot of little jokes like that.

AM: So, did you discover anything different in your second viewing than you did in the first?

JH: I definitely picked up a lot of humor the second time around that I hadn’t really focused in on when I saw it the first.

AM: For sure. There’s a lot of jokes that go by really fast that a lot of people won’t catch their first time. Did you catch the subtle joke, right before he meets Louise – the Italian guy is saying “I hooked up with a girl once that looked like that.” It’s subtitle really quickly after saying “your sister looks nothing like that.” Real highbrow stuff! (laughs) There’s a lot of little jokes like that.

JH: It’s good to get away from the highbrow sometimes. Speaking of Louise, you guys created an entire mythology from scratch for her character. How in depth did you go when putting that together? Is it just what is presented on screen, or is there even more backstory that we’re not necessarily privy to?

AM: We have a pretty good idea of Louise’s history. I mean, not exactly in terms of where she’s been, but more her mythology and how she works and where she comes from, from her beginning about 2,000 years ago. But, also, why exactly she transforms into what she transforms into. All of that actually has a very, very vaguely scientific basis, stemming from our own human evolution. So, we still have that little bit of DNA that we used to be amphibious, which is how she turns into the amphibian creature. And, the DNA that used to be primate, which is why she’s covered in fur. Of course, that’s a red herring for the Universal Movie Monsters, but we tried to bridge it with an evolutionary science idea. So everything stems from that idea that she can metabolize her own embryonic stem cells in order to remain immortal. She can heal quickly and live forever, but the drawback is that, when she gets pregnant, her body freaks out worse than anyone else’s body.

That is basically the mythology, but we’ve kind of tracked that throughout the ages of how that would affect her. In terms of her mythology as a human life extended out over 2,000 years, she hints at a lot of things, and there are a lot of things that she declares outright in the third act that would suggest she’s a skeleton key for myths we all know like vampires, werewolves, Lovecraftian creatures… There’s also a couple of deleted chunks in the movie. There’s one in which she talks about her life during the Black Plague. And, another where she compares life in the Middle Ages to now. Those will all be on the DVD. They are fun, but ultimately, they slowed down the third act a little bit. She’s an interesting character to hear her point of view on those times.

JH: Another running motif that seems to be the juxtaposition of beauty and the horrific, both visually and thematically.

AM: That was one of the absolute central ideas of the whole movie. Although it’s not a theme, exactly, the big idea is the feeling that it gives you when something that is supposed to be so perfect is so perfectly spoiled by something so grotesque. It creates a really odd push/pull inside of you and that works visually, but also thematically. Here’s Evan in this perfect, idyllic village, but also this horrific imagery. Thematically, you have this seemingly perfect romance with this seemingly perfect girl, but spoiled by this horrible secret. It goes all the way down into very broad emotions. The juxtaposition of that was one of the central tenants of why we thought the movie would work.

JH: Absolutely. And, speaking of those two central characters, Evan and Louise seem to have very specific viewpoints on a lot of topics during their conversations, ranging from relationships and sexuality, to religion and evolution. Are those characters proxies of yourselves and your personal viewpoints, or is their back and forth purely fictional?

AM: Hmmm… I don’t know. I think it was more about creating characters that complement the drama of the situation. But, they’re personal in a way that if you have on character who’s a hard-lined scientist and another who’s agnostic and put them in a discussion in a cathedral, then that’s interesting. That’s personal. We find that interesting about spirituality and about the idea of science vs. magic.

I think, for example, if we hold one personal viewpoint, and we have whichever character in the movie that represents that viewpoint win over the other one, then that’s the difference between moralizing and just exploring a theme. We try not to moralize in any way with our movies. But, we love the discussion. We just don’t want to get to heady with it. These are just two characters talking about something that’s pertinent to their situation. But, also something that we find genuinely fascinating in this world.

JH: You mentioned science vs. magic – it seems to me that a large percentage of horror movies rely on a belief in religion, specifically Christianity, in order to scare an audience. But, in Spring, it’s more of a belief in evolution that drives the fear.

AM: The mythology of Louise does rely on an understanding of evolution. It’s much in the same way as if you were to watch The Conjuring – nothing would make sense in that film if you’re not familiar with the Biblical aspects. You wouldn’t understand why they’re so concerned with a Baptism – “what’s a Baptism?” Many horror movies do assume that the rules of Judeo-Christianity apply, whereas, in Spring, we’re acknowledging at certain times that our monster girl was around before that existed. So, you can’t operate by the rules of the Bible, because she’s older than that. Coincidentally, that’s one of the reasons that The Exorcist works. Most people still think of it as exorcising a Catholic demon, but what’s so terrifying about it is that the Catholic priest has no power. They can’t figure out what the hell it is. They’re trying to narrow it down to a Biblical demon, but it’s not, and that’s what’s so scary. It’s an unknown.

JH: You’re 100% correct! Now, Spring combines a romantic love story with a horror/fantasy tale. Did the story evolve from one genre into the other, or was the framework always there for it to be a combination of the two?

AM: The very first idea of Spring was the idea of a girl who uses her own stem cells to remain immortal. But, very shortly after that, we got into the mechanism of how that works. How does she get the stem cells? Well, she’s going to have to have sex with a man. So, there you are – you’re in a romance. Yes, the genre/monster component came first, but that very idea does not operate without love. Making love. (laughs)

We actually realized later, while we were developing the script, that the concept of the story implies that Louise has never been in love before in 2,000 years. It’s an interesting idea. So, why? Maybe love is that elusive, and maybe that’s what’s so special about what’s happening very specifically in this movie.

JH: Along those lines, it seems to me that the gender roles are almost reversed as far as what we normally see in a romantic movie. The reason becomes obvious why later, but Louise is just after a quick fling, whereas Evan is pursuing the serious relationship.

AM: We didn’t really see it as flipping gender roles on their head. More than that, before they’re male and female, let’s just make them human beings. It’s not androgynous. They’ve got to have their own guy and girl problems, but they’ve also got to have human problems. Once you flip gender roles as the target of what you’re doing, it turns into something that doesn’t actually represent real life, because gender roles are gender roles. Not for a reason, but they exist within our paradigm. So, let’s find our paradigm. Something that works for us that nobody’s going to question. We wanted to find something that works within what is already there.

All people are complicated. It’s a trite expression, but it’s true. If one were to make generalizations about men and women, one could be correct. But, that being said, there are outliers, too. There are men that have traits that we think of as being more feminine and women that have traits that we think of as more masculine. One problem you can get into in storytelling is when you write a woman as a man. You write her like how your buddies talk.

Justin Benson: Yeah, like she does cool things like play video games.

AM: Exactly. It’s like, thank you for being progressive, and I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, but it just comes across like you wrote a girl like a dude.

JH: And, yet, there’s a lot of that in film. That’s what struck me about Evan and Louise – you took a more nuanced approach. Back to the mixed genre aspect of the film, was there a particular pressure that you felt to appeal to fans of both romantic films and horror movies? They aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but at the same time, someone who’s entering into the experience as a fan of romantic films may not have a tolerance for horror, and vice versa. Horror, in particular, can be divisive.

AM: It’s hard to describe, beyond a gut feeling. There’s something about when Justin and I are watching the edits, we just kind of know what clicks and what doesn’t. At least, for our own taste. Rather than trying to serve a genre or serve an audience, we just serve, maybe myopically, ourselves and hope that everything else falls in line. So far it seems to. We keep in mind the comprehension, but we don’t worry so much about “hey, the horror fans want blood, so let’s give them more blood. The romance fans want more kissing.” The worst thing that can happen to a horror fan is a producer sitting in a room saying, “I know what horror fans like, and you’re going to have to do this, and put a jump scare every seven pages, and there’s got to be a certain amount of blood and this many boobs.” Horror fans are smart people, obviously. They’re human beings – they like good stories. They like fresh ideas and for things to be unpredictable. If there’s a voice in the room pushing the horror tropes on you, it’s never a good thing.

JH: You guys definitely avoided the majority of those tropes and trappings. It certainly pays off in Spring, but did you feel there was a particular risk in your horror elements relying more upon tone and atmosphere than just throwing in fake jump scares and unlikable character that audiences can’t wait to see added to the bodycount?

AM: There was definitely a discussion, but I think it actually still went back thematically. It wasn't just, “we want to scare people, so how do we do that.” The story is, inherently, a dark one. I mean, it’s sweet, but it’s dark. So, what we wanted to do was put a storm cloud around the movie, almost as literally as possible. We shot it in the winter, and it was dark during the rainy season. We had thought it would be kind of interesting if they were in this paradise, but it was raining all the time. That was something we would have had to live with in an indie film. I think a lot of it starts off as dismal as possible for poor Evan and slowly improves, but the paradise that is Italy never really materializes as much as the romance with Louise does.

JB: As far as not following the models, conventions, and techniques of horror so closely, the world already has one James Wan. He’s incredible at what he does, but the world doesn’t need Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson to use all the same stuff that James Wan does. Even if we did it as well as he does, why not just go watch a James Wan movie?

JH: Agreed. And, it seems just to be a bit of a simplification to just call Spring a ‘horror’ movie anyway. On to more of the filmmaking technique itself, there’s a particularly intricate and impressively long tracking shot in the film. For fear of spoilers, I don’t necessarily want to talk about what the characters are discussing, but can you talk a little bit about the mechanization that went into creating this scene?

AM: That was definitely the most rehearsed scene, because it was basically the exposition dump and, simultaneously, it’s one of the biggest cruxes of their relationship. The decision to keep it in real time was because we needed to kind of convince the audience that what was happening was something plausible and a real problem. When you think really deeply, we don’t really like ‘Movieland’ and excusing actions for things by saying, “because it’s a damn movie.” We thought, “what would convince Evan to stay?” Because, she’s literally a monster. He just saw it and it was horrifying. So we wanted to try to convince you by showing it in real time, without any cuts. Then, it actually does cut on the thing that convinces him. That was the whole point.

What actually went into it? It was three days of rehearsal. We took two days to rehearse the scene with the actors, and a third day to rehearse the entire scene with the camera department and the production crew. They actually pretty much shut down the entire town for us. We never had anybody walk through the shot or anything like that. Our Steadicam operator, Will Sampson, who also operated all of the drone photography, shot, I believe, 14 takes of it. I don’t know if you know how Steadicams are, but that’s an incredible physical feat. That would sink just about any man, and Will nailed it.

JH: Well, you had asked me if I noticed anything the second time around, and that was actually another scene that jumped out. It was an amazing scene upon my first viewing, but the single take aspect didn’t really jump out at me until the second time through.

AM: Thank you.

JH: You two have worked on a few features together now, including Resolution and one of the shorts within VHS: Viral, all on varying budgets. Do you find that a smaller budget helps spark the creative process? Perhaps you have to come up with interesting solutions to problems that a larger studio picture might be able to just throw money at?

JB: Well, as writers and producers of our own films, the scripts have been written to accommodate the budget, typically. VHS: Viral was the only exception – that was relying on a lot of favors. In genre film, you’re always in danger of your spectacle being beyond the reach of what you can achieve with the amount of money that you have. Then, you’re fucked. A lot of movies don’t do it right. Sometimes, you can walk out of a movie saying, “good job – that effect was awesome.” But, deep down, it didn’t really work, did it? We can just see you on set doing it.

We try to be pretty intelligent about what we can do. That said, though, the first draft of Spring, which was written with a budget in mind, looks pretty similar to the final draft. If we hadn’t have had the time we had to plan it as producers, we wouldn’t have been able to replicate what was in the script. We had more time than we had money to achieve what was on the page. But, because we had more time, it all went well. If we didn’t have the time and money, then we’d have had to go fast and cheap…

JH: And, it’s not just budgets that are changing. The distribution model is also ever-evolving as well. Do you think with the addition of VOD, iTunes, Vimeo, and the like that it changes the approach to filmmaking when theatrical distribution is not the only ultimate goal for a film?

AM: I feel like that’s something for a director who’s putting out indies in the 90s. You’ve got to get that theatrical release. We've always used theatrical as a wonderful goal, but not absolutely necessary. It used to be that no one would see your movie otherwise, but that’s not true anymore. That said, all of our movies have gone to theaters, but I don’t know if we’ve made them differently.

JB: You know, it’s interesting – there’s probably a lot of movies that wouldn’t necessarily get any distribution at all if not for VOD, not because they’re bad. They can be wonderful. Like, Kill List is probably one of the best movies of the past decade. But, maybe Kill List wouldn’t have gotten distribution if only theatrical was available. The fact that VOD exists allowed that movie to have a life. It’s an incredible film. I’m just not sure it would be released in theaters if that were the only option. Theaters have a limited bandwidth. They only have as many theater screens that they have, and they don’t cycle them out every day. Whereas, with VOD, you can put as many as you want on the server. Hundreds and hundreds of choices.

JH: Very true.

JB: Actually, though, I think I just referenced a movie (Kill List) that really was released theatrically, but only in the UK. We wouldn’t have seen it in the US if not for VOD.

JH: Lastly, how did Spring come into the hands of Drafthouse Films?

JB: First off, Tim League, the spearhead of Drafthouse Films, oddly, saved Aaron and I while we were riding our bikes one night in the rain at Cannes, trying to get Spring made. Through the kindness of his heart, he and his wife brought us to their house and made us dinner one night while we were pitching it. When the movie was done, they won the bidding war. They said that they wanted to present this movie as a love story, and as a date night film. And, also as a theatrical release and for Mondo to do a poster. So, we just thought, “oh cool, so we’re not just going to go to the cheapo-horror, money-grab bin.” Sometimes that has to happen, and we understand that. We were fully embraced for it to be marketed with a giant claw or something, and instead they are actually putting it out there as a beautiful love story. It’s not really one or the other for us, but there’s a larger audience out there that can be captured and we’re really happy about that…

So, there you have it. Spring opens up theatrically and on VOD on Friday, March 20th. It’s a common complaint, especially within the horror genre, that we get too many sequels and remakes. Here’s your chance to get out there and support something incredibly and original. You can find all the latest news about the release on Drafthouse Films' Twitter, Facebook and website.