Interviews · Movies

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead Discuss Our Repulsive History in ‘Synchronic’

We chat with the Rustic Films team about how escalating budgets cannot alter the creative spirit of a project.
Rustic Films
By  · Published on October 1st, 2019

Synchronic, the new film from Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson, has only just hit the festival circuit, but the enthusiasm for their latest effort is already fervent. On the strength of their last two films (Spring, The Endless) the duo has quickly developed an intense following, and the demand for more product has set in. We’ll buy whatever they’re pushing. The trick becomes not spoiling the experience for the folks who won’t have the opportunity to partake until months from now.

Our own Rob Hunter purposely reviewed the film without revealing the genre engine that’s driving the narrative, but as he states, the plot is all right there in the title. Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan play a pair of New Orleans paramedics who stumble into a mystery when they connect a series of deaths to a new designer drug. Mackie’s character was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor plopped atop his pineal gland (at this point, your Lovecraft-senses should be tingling), and as a result, he’s able to push his investigation deeper than others.

The film is a bold reach for the filmmakers. The casting of Mackie and Dornan as their leads allotted for a little more spending cash, but not that much more, and most of the dough was spent in areas you can’t even see on screen. Otherwise, Synchronic falls right in line with their previous efforts. Moorehead and Benson mix and match various genres and use the backdrop to tell character-driven stories that are anything but pedestrian.

Bringing Synchronic to Fantastic Fest was a big deal. Here are Moorehead and Benson’s people. They could handle the pain if the audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival spurned their movie, but if the Fantastic Fest crowd turned their backs, the directors would be heartbroken. When Lisa Gullickson and I sat down with Moorehead and Benson as well as their Rustic Films producing partner David Lawson Jr., there was a nervous but excited energy to the conversation. Synchronic had played the night before, and the reception was warm. Phew. Relief.

Our conversation begins with that satisfaction but quickly digs into the mechanics of the movie. We do not ruin anything that the first trailer won’t inevitably spoil, and we let the filmmakers take us there. That being said, any cautious individuals reading this interview should tread carefully.

Here is our conversation in full:

Lisa: How are you feeling after the screening? It was amazing.

Justin Benson: Oh yeah, it was great. Wonderful. Yeah, we’ve been having the most fun. Every time we come to Fantastic Fest, we have one of the best weeks of our lives. We’re having one of the best weeks of our lives hanging out with friends. It’s so beautiful, and Lou [Taylor] Pucci from Spring is sleeping on our couch, and he’s a maniac. Dave’s always with me. We’re never apart. We went to Park Springs, went swimming. All this stuff. But in the back of your head, you’re always like, “Oh, but we’re here to screen our movie. What if everyone hates it? It’s screening late on Sunday. What if we just leave on Monday?

Brad: You were coming off of TIFF. You had to have some idea.

Justin: You never know. Even if you think you know, you never know. It’s a different movie for everyone, and you just never know how it’s going to go. We’ve been to a small film festival in Spain, that’s beloved. We love it. We played our first movie there, and we were literally booed out of the room. People were yelling in Spanish, “Kill the directors!” And we left that screening and we were just so shell shocked.

Aaron: I thought people liked our movie! I didn’t know that people could hate it that bad!

Justin: The important part of the story, though, is three days before, we were in Toronto watching it with a crowd, and they loved it. The point is everywhere you go, the movie is different for the audience. You just never know.

Lisa: But it has inspired passion! In both places.

Justin: That’s true, sure. [C. Robert] Cargill said a few days ago that at Fantastic Fest it’s 1500 of your closest friends watching your movie. So, you can show it to a bunch of strangers and it’s one thing. It’s kind of like karaoke. If you bomb in front of a bunch of strangers, we don’t know them, there are no stakes. But if it’s all your friends…

Aaron: …It hurts.

Justin: Then you’ve got to talk to them afterward, and they’re going to be like, “Oh guys, I’m so proud of you for completing. It’s so hard to get a movie made, like no matter how it turns out.” If that’s your conversation for the next few days, you just want to die. We’re very happy that people seemed to really enjoy it.

Brad: Ok, so, it did well here, but how do we even talk about this movie? I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

Lisa: I came up with this long list of questions and Brad was like, “No.”

Brad: I wanted to hear their point of view. We don’t even have a trailer for Synchronic yet.

Aaron: Or a poster.

Justin: Here’s the thing, it’s in the early stages here. It’s played to film festivals, we’ve been trying to hold on, hold back the time travel component of the movie as much as possible because it’s obviously a reveal that happens well into the film. Now, when the movie is actually marketed to the world, I just don’t see an ad where there isn’t a time travel pill on the poster.

Brad: Sure. Agreed.

David Lawson Jr.: Can’t have a trailer without that wooly mammoth. We paid big bucks for it.

Aaron: We paid a lot of money for the wooly mammoth!

Brad: Got to get that wooly mammoth.

Lisa: Yeah. We’ve all been in a room with a paramedic. Less exciting than a mammoth.

David: Oh my gosh, we have? Wow.

Lisa: Yeah, life’s hard.

David: Yeah, life is hard [Laughter]

Brad: Okay, all right, so you feel comfortable talking about the time travel element?

Justin: It’s genuinely up to you because you would not be the first person to blow it.

Brad: Well, great, it’s blown. Lisa, do you want to ask your question, then?

Lisa: Sure. Well, the time travel in this film is based on Einstein’s special relativity. Is that the germ of the idea that started the script?

Justin: I was pre-Med before we got into filmmaking — before we were lucky enough to get into filmmaking. You have to take a couple of semesters in calculus and all that. I was really bad at it. I’m not good at math, I’m not good at calculus, but I’ve been fascinated by the idea that you can take a derivative and you can explore the relationship between velocity and accelerations and derivatives. That fascinated me. The idea of special relativity, where it’s like, no literally, time travel to the future is literally possible, you deserve it if you have the right instruments. This idea that there really is some sort of distinction between the past, present, and future. It’s just the way we experience everything and that in reality, we’re in this very, very complicated four-dimensional mosaic. Everything you’ve ever loved is just kind of right here. It’s all there still, it’s just the way you’re experiencing it. I think that’s very beautiful and elegant and spiritual and it’s also something that most physicists believe in. It’s one of those real-life things that give you — I don’t think spirituality’s the right word for it, but heart palpitations? It terrifies people! It makes some very uncomfortable. I personally find it actually gives me comfort.

Lisa: And also relating it to the Pineal gland…

Justin: That part there was funny. That was one of the times we were actually directly inspired by Lovecraft to some extent –

Brad: Stuart Gordon!

Justin: Yeah, but more the short story than the From Beyond movie. Not knocking the movie at all. Just the idea in that story is if you stimulate the pineal glad a particular way, you can see these other dimensions but there would be a consequence to that. I think that that is part of Synchronic in some ways.

Aaron: Yeah it’s fun because the pineal gland has forever been seen as the third eye seed of the soul. That’s a line in the movie but it’s treated like a throwaway. But that is a thing, for a very long time the third eye has been depicted in a whole bunch of religions. The pineal gland which has a lot of mysterious endocrine functions, and being able to somehow tie that together with how you perceive time, how to tie that together to somebody who is facing the end of their own life, and how that all wrapped together was part of the central pursuit of trying to make the movie. We wanted it to feel very ouroboros like where it all wrapped together. You perceive time, via a drug, perceive it with a pineal gland that is on a countdown timer as you grow old and die. This person has an accelerated version. He is a paramedic who experiences death on an everyday basis. He is now experiencing his own death. He is now able to perceive time.

Lisa: Was there always going to be an African-American lead?

Justin: Yeah, right from the beginning. The script was always about the fundamentals, the principle of all of it was like, “Hey! What if we could make the past a monster? What if we could make the past the antagonist of the film?” That would be the case for anyone especially with time travel taking place in North America. If you are not a white heterosexual male, the past will become a monster in most situations. What if we did make Anthony Mackie, for example, as a white character but he’s gay? He’s going back in time. You would have roughly the same situation but it would take more time. When you are visibly different from someone else, you can get to the conflict faster, unfortunately.

Brad: I love the rules you erect around time travel. Different locations will take you to different eras. By filming in New Orleans, the mechanics of the plot are dictated. If you filmed in LA, the narrative would be different. But then, once the viewer realizes that, then they start to expect certain moments from history. I’m expecting a certain thing to happen and it does, at the climax of your film.

Justin: Oh really, you were expecting?

Brad: Hell, yes! If you’re doing time travel in New Orleans, that better show up!

Justin: I think most people would think Katrina better show up.

Brad: Shit, that’s actually probably true. I’m a terrible person. [Laughter]

Justin: No you’re not.

Brad: I didn’t think about that at all. Huh. But was New Orleans always the location?

Justin: Yeah it was always New Orleans.

David: Can I tell the story?

Justin: Sure.

David: I was filming a movie in New Orleans at the time when they were writing this, and it was awful. It was an awful, awful experience, and I was like can we set this anywhere else, and they were literally like “Nowhere else has the fuckin’ rich texture of history that New Orleans has.” Once they explained it I was like, “Fuck, you guys are right.” And that was not fun for me to realize.

Lisa: A lot of the focus of this film surrounds the bigger budget. Or, the slightly bigger budget. What is an example of something you could do on Synchronic that you couldn’t do with your other films? And then, what is an example of something that was just utterly the same as your lower budgeted films?

Justin: Instead of Aaron doing all the visual effects himself, there was enough of a budget to work with some extremely talented visual effects artists in this great company called BUF. Very privileged position to be in. That was amazing. But for the most part, even though the budget was bigger, most of that budget went to fundamental union things and a whole bunch of really big vehicles that when you get to set, none of this stuff actually goes on screen. It’s just the things you run into once you get into a certain budget range. There was literally a day where it was just Aaron running out with the camera, and me with the hose, and we were making a rainy day. It’s not in the movie now, it may end up in the final cut, but I remember, despite all of this there are gigantic vehicles everywhere. We’re on a sound stage, there should be a hundred people here, people were late to set that day and so me and Aaron…

Aaron: Me with the camera, you with the hose.

Justin: …Like the good old days, were running around, doing the most — if you saw it you’d be like, “This is how do they make movies? They look like children.”

David: I stole the ambulance to do a lot of the driving shots. There was a lot of stuff that was very similar to how we do it because we’re just going to make this movie as best as we can, regardless of what you tell us. You can give us all the rules you want, we’re going to break some.

Aaron: Actually, a really fun, simple way to put it is, we got one of the best VFX companies in the world to do a 150 VFX shots, which is really exciting for the budget, and I did the other 150.

Brad: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

David: Mo’ money, mo’ problems.

Brad: Your films all look visually connected. From Spring to The Endless to this movie. I see your vision, your color, your compositions.

Aaron: That’s cool to hear, thank you.

Brad: It’s also clear that you want to have connections to your films narratively as well. Is that important to you, universe building?

Justin: We’ll never just completely betray our own universe for no good reason. If we can connect it and it is not a cuttable line basically, or a cuttable moment, we’ll do it, because I do think that all of our ideas come from the same place. There is actually some central hub of what’s happening that forms a mythological world view. I don’t think any of those are in conflict with one another so we’ll probably never negate it unless it just happens. Ultimately the story and the story we want to tell will trump whatever happens. But yeah, if we can slip it in, we’re going to, as long as it’s not a cuttable line, because we’re not just going to drag the poor viewer who has not seen our movies — which is everyone — through having to justify itself into our entire universe. I do think that everything probably will fold on itself.

Brad: Did you do a tone book or look book for this film? What were you guys thinking when constructing the visuals here?

Aaron: I don’t actually remember that one. Thank you, we haven’t actually gotten that question.

Justin: I’ll give an example, pointing to a pretty striking visual in the movie, that I hope most people would agree on. It’s the first time that Steve takes some Chronic. He walks up to the TV and the statics up and the firefly goes by his face and he turns around and you see his apartment basically morphing into the swampland that his apartment was on centuries before. That was created from the beginning, from the conception onward. And writing it was so specific to telling the story and trying to get this visual across that hopefully, no one has quite seen before. But there literally wasn’t a comp that we could go to.

Aaron: It was hard. It wasn’t with our iPhones. There’s actually a decent amount of the larger pieces of the movie that exist on iPhone. Just to be able to describe what we’re talking about. The script actually does a wonderful job at being very effervescent of what we’re trying to do, but nobody completely gets it until it’s on camera. And I mean even off the iPhone you could show them that and they’re like, “I don’t know what’s going on,” because there’s a massive VFX set-piece going on and all of that. The general idea was we want to make something that when we’re in the present it has a grimy, sodium vapor nightlife quality to it, except for Jamie Dornan’s life, which was a sterile static feeling thing because that was how he felt. But when we go to the past, we always wanted it to be two things, very important identical things, which is hellish, no matter what, just a hot swampy shitty place to be — and as verite as we could get. That’s when everything in the past is always on the operator’s shoulder just chasing somebody around and that’s the only thing you’ll get out of it except for one drone shot. The idea was we wanted to make sure that the past didn’t feel wonderful. We want it to feel like a war film, even outside of the war scene.

Justin: There was one shot of Anthony on his first trip back into the swamp and there’s this one little shot of him playing with a frog.

Aaron: Favorite shot in the movie.

Justin: It’s literally my favorite shot in the movie. There’s something with the camera work, and the natural light and the frog, and Anthony being fascinated by it. That one shot is the intent of all of the flashbacks. It was if you went back in time with a documentary film camera and showed someone interacting with it.

Brad: You also have many shots of the cosmos, where the camera goes skyward. There’s Anthony Mackie’s laptop with its star desktop, and Neil Degrasse Tyson speaks out of the TV at one point. You mentioned Lovecraft earlier, and I sense a little bit of his cosmic dread in the film. Can you expand on the idea of humanity’s insignificance a bit, and how it relates to Synchronic?

Justin: I think we can assume Steve is something akin to an atheist. Where do atheists go for the mystery of life and the mysticism of it? What is this gigantic mystery of us placed here in this infinite space and all of that? I think that’s what it is, looking up at the stars. That is Steve’s spirituality, and I think that most people who are something related to atheists, probably that is where they find their spirituality.

Aaron: This is a guy who sees death every single day and has to make sense of it, and either you desensitize yourself to it and decide you don’t care or decide you care too much or you find some kind of a resonant meaning in what he finds, which is this armchair physics idea. Which you know, we’re filmmakers, not EMTs, but we’re filmmakers that also have this armchair physics idea, and where do you actually find some solace? And it’s in the fact that we’re all stardust and we’re all coming from it and going to it. And that doesn’t mean that there’s no meaning. The whole movie hopefully couched in this fun genre idea will tell you there is a meaning in all of it, but it’s self-prescribed by humans. We prescribe the meaning, not the cosmos.

Brad: On the paramedic side of things, how did you get into the headspace of those two guys, who do see death every day?

Justin: We read a lot of books, read a lot of Wikipedia articles. [Laughter]

Aaron: I did watch Bringing Out The Dead. [Laughter]

Justin: It was funny. We literally just read books and we didn’t watch any paramedic movies but of course the second the movie premieres they’re like, “It’s like Bringing Out The Dead meets sci-fi movie!”

Aaron: We did a ride-along with EMTs, and by the end of it I was like, “I’m going to quit filmmaking and be an EMT. These are the real heroes. I’m just being a total dick making movies every year and these guys are saving lives.” Still, honestly, if it doesn’t work out, that sounds really wonderful.

David: We could be Tom [the terrible ambulance driver]!

Justin: You should not be saving lives.

David: I could be Tom. You could be the paramedic guys.

Brad: After Billy [William Dass] saw the movie, he rented Bringing Out the Dead because he read those comparisons. We then talked…

Justin: That is such a disaster.

Brad: He messaged me; he’s like, “This movie’s nothing like Synchronic.”

Justin: Do you know why people say it?

Brad: Just because there are paramedics in it.

Justin: That is the only reason! That’s it!

Aaron: We were just watching Bringing out the Dead. “This is a cool movie that has nothing to do with what we’re doing.” “It’s just like Primer meets Bringing Out The Dead.” We’re like, “Oh no, that’s just not it.”

Be on the lookout for Synchronic to be distributed in the near future, and pay special attention for that Wooly Mammoth trailer appearance.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)