With the venerable David Lynch, film’s singular master of heady, bewilderingly indecipherable thrillers and kind-of-horror movies, in the midst of a self-imposed break from the director’s chair, there’s been a noticeable void in the world of cinema; frankly, filmmakers aren’t making us scratch our heads and revel in creepy ambiguity enough these days. Which means that the lane is wide open for a crop of new moviemaking imaginations to carry the torch, so to speak, and, through last year's Tribeca Film Festival, we just might have found the forebearers, or at least fresh faces operating with the right amount of potential.
The evidence is a super-low-budget and massively bold little genre mash-up called Resolution (opening in limited release and VOD today), the feature film debut from California-based co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead. Starring the shotcallers’ longtime friends Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran, Resolution is a multi-layered, sneakily funny, and often eerie piece of work that’s totally independent and refreshingly imaginative.
Cilella plays Michael, an average Joe whose best friend, Chris (Curran), has been going on drug benders and firing shotguns for no reason while shacking up in an unfinished cabin that’s located on a Native American reservation. Michael, determined to help his friend sober up, pays Vinny a visit, cuffs him to the wall, and imposes a get-clean scheme. Once Mike heads off into the surrounding woods to do a bit of exploring, Resolution quickly grows stranger and freakier, with an assortment of bizarre run-ins (i.e. UFO cult members and a philosophical French eccentric) and various clues left by who-the-hell-knows that crescendo into ancient horrors that bring to mind something H.P. Lovecraft could’ve imagined if he’d studied under Syd Field.
During last year's Tribeca press rounds, Complex had a chance to sit down with the foursome of Benson, Moorhead, Cilella, and Curran for a spirited conversation about Resolution’s humble beginnings and the benefits of building scary stories around real-life locations.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Let’s start from the beginning. Justin and Aaron, how did the two of you first connect and decide to become co-directors?
Justin Benson:We were actually both interns at Ridley Scott’s commercial production company, and it was my last day and it was Aaron’s first day, and they don’t let you go and be anywhere important—they make you sit at these tables that are in front of the receptionist. We sat there, and I talked about how I wanted to be a writer/director, and he talked about how he wanted to be a director/DP [director of photography], and we just shot the shit after that. Over time, we started working on projects together, which started off small and got bigger and bigger. One day we woke up and we were co-directors. And Pete I’ve known for years, too.
What made you guys decide to go with a project as ambitious as Resolution for your first feature?
Benson: Some of the ideas in the script are things that I wrote down in a journal, like, ten years ago. I literally had a journal with notes that read, “Girl in a window,” and other things we used in the movie, but then we burnt it—that’s the journal that you see burning during the end credits. [Laughs.]
Why’d you burn you actual journal and not some replica?
Benson: Because we wanted some pictures next to the credits at the end of a burning journal. We never did any cutaway shots, that’s why there aren’t any inserts. We thought it’d be fun if the audience saw what Michael was looking at in the journal; it’s like you’re seeing the aftermath of that journal burning down. And as far as why we used my actual journal…
Aaron Scott Moorhead: Because it was the only one that looked like it. [Laughs.]
Benson: Yeah, I didn’t want to go to Barnes & Noble and buy another leather-bound journal, so we just burnt that one. [Laughs.] But, yeah, there’s a lot of things in it that were taken from my journal from when I was in my late teens, and these were random images and ideas I thought could be really scary if I’d ever get the chance to turn them into realities.
The rest of it, I had some other ideas that I thought were really interesting, but what really made me pull the trigger on those ideas was… A lot of the times, I was writing the script around the amount of money I had in my checking account, at least initially I was. So it became a question of, How do I make this as scary as possible, as funny as possible, and as compelling as possible given the resources we have? And I think a lot of the story did grow out of that.
Aaron, when Justin brought his finished script to you, what was it about the story that made you want to do it as your first movie?
Moorhead: Well, I’m a DP as my “day job,” but I’ve been directing a lot, too. I’ve been wanting to do another feature, and Justin and I have worked together so well on a lot of other projects. So when he came to me with this idea and told me that he had the financing, the script, and that he knew where we were going to shoot it, it was like, “Hell yeah!” And then, of course, you read the script and it’s stellar, so there’s absolutely nothing to lose. It was the greatest project that I could possibly sign on to.
Being that you and Peter have been friends for a long time, did you write the script with him in mind for the lead role?
Benson: Yeah, and Pete actually has a good story about that.
Peter Cilella: Yeah, basically, we met years ago through my aunt; Justin was her assistant, and she was like, “He’s an up-and-coming writer/director, and you’re an up-and-coming actor, so you guys should meet.” And he happened to have a short that he was doing at the time, which I went in and auditioned for but actually did not get the part. [Laughs.] But for mostly everything since, we’ve worked together.
We did a spec commercial for Fat Cat Lager, for the Internet; it was this three-minute, epic commercial where Vinny actually convinces me to jump out of a plane on my birthday, and the premise is, “What would you do for a Fat Cat beer?” Actually, the guy who plays Ted Tellensworth [Josh Higgins], who plays the real estate agent in that scene in Resolution, he was my sky-dive instructor, too—he’s a San Diego-based sky-dive guy. But, anyway, we’d just finished that…
Moorhead: For the record, by the way: He did jump out of a plane. [Laughs.]
Cilella: Yeah, I did. [Laughs.] Justin made me jump out of a plane. So this was right after that, and Justin was like, “You know, we were all really happy with how that commercial turned out, so I want to do a feature with you and Vinny.” And I said, “Well, I think the best way to do it would be to make it a contained thriller, you set it out in the middle of nowhere, and go from there.” Then, like two months later, he had a script, and he’d been raising the money the whole time. So it became, “Whoa, OK, we’re doing this!”
Benson: There were so many things, actually. That low-budget beer commercial was a really big part of it, just realizing how well Aaron and I work together, and how much better the work is when Aaron and I work together. And then, also, seeing the chemistry between Peter and Vinny, so that was a big part of the conception of Resolution. There were other things, too. I knew I was saving up money to shoot a feature at some point, and I had about three years’ worth of production assistant wages, which didn’t cover everything, but it was just time. It was like, “If we don’t do this now, I’m going to get hit by a car or something and then have to pay hospital bills. I’ll never direct a feature.” So that was a big part of it.
But the other thing was, my dad acquired this property out in San Diego, under really strange circumstances. So he has this property, right, and there are four cabins on it; he wanted to build a fifth cabin, but apparently, due the county of San Diego’s rules, he couldn’t build a fifth structure unlessit was deemed a film set. He was already halfway through, so he just stopped construction, and Aaron walked in and was looking at the way it was half-finished. He realized that it was actually perfect as it was, for rigging lights and everything.
That cabin is so fucking creepy, because it doesn’t look like the cabin from Evil Dead, or Cabin Fever, or, of course, The Cabin in the Woods. It doesn’t look like those cabins, but there’s something creepier about it because it doesn’t quite meet those expectations.
So that also led to where the story eventually ended up, and then there was also, as far as the conception of the story, the fact that… In San Diego, and I know if this is the case for all of California, but it definitely is where I grew up, no one ever goes out to cabins in woods to, like, party with a bunch of hot girls for spring break. I’ve always seen that in movies and I’m like, “Damn, who are all these hot girls who go out with you and all your buddies to cabins to drink beer?” [Laughs.] “This has never happened!” So we’ve got a great cabin, we’ve got great people, and we’ve got the financing, so I just thought, Why would someone go out to a cabin in the woods, in the boonies of San Diego? And the only reasons you ever hear are to shoot guns, avoid your taxes, and smoke crack. [Laughs.]
Which leads nicely into Resolution’s great setting, this really bizarre, creepy, and unfamiliar wooded area that acts as one of the film’s most important characters.
Cilella: It’s a landscape that’s so bizarre, right? I’ve lived in California for ten years, and I’ve driven through many parts of California, but I’ve never seen a landscape that unique. It’s not the woods and it’s not the desert yet—it’s kind of this in-between.
Moorhead: It’s beautiful and odd, and, also, the people who live out there… I feel like they just sort of throw their creativity out there, like, “I’m going to go and make this thing today,” and then they just don’t finish it. They put two days into a 50-day project and then they stop. [Laughs.] They’re just like, “Fuck it.” But you saw that weird tractor trailer thing that Peter’s character finds the roll of film in, right? Where did that come from? [Laughs.]
So that’s how it all looks in real life, too?
Benson: Yeah, the geography of the story is almost, probably 100% how it is in real life. Like, what you probably feel as a viewer is what the geography of this place that the characters are at actually is. That weird tractor trailer thing is actually a five-minute walk from that cabin, and it’s in this weird river bed.
Moorhead: Yeah, and it’s like, “How on Earth did this thing get there and staythere?” It’s all built-out, and there are rugs and weird, old history books in it. It’s really creepy.
Did you guys read up on the actual history of the property?
Moorhead: We wrote our own history! [Laughs.] No, I’m just kidding.
Benson:When my parents first acquired that land, there were some caretakers living there, and they were named the Buckners—I’ve actually never told you guys this.
The Buckners, like the redneck zombie family in The Cabin in The Woods. They have the same name.
Benson:No shit! That’s right—that was the Buckners! I totally forgot about that. Wasn’t The Cabin in the Woods fucking amazing, by the way? So good. But, anyway, the Buckners lived there rent-free, and they were the caretakers. This place was owned by this hospital that went out of business down in National City, San Diego, and they let this couple, the Buckners, live there. They were this creepy, extremely old couple. They would always say that the place was haunted, and they were the kind of couple who’d always have these rusty, old Folgers coffee cans filled with pennies and screws all over their house.
When my parents started cleaning everything up, they rented out the places, and of course you have the young people that come out there to, probably, take acid every night. They’d say, “You hear that this place is haunted?” [Laughs.]
Peter and Vinny, did you guys have any time to explore the property before shooting? It seems like it’d actually be more beneficial to step onto that land for the first time and start shooting, to make the fears and curiosities even more realistic.
Cilella: We’d been down there a couple of times to rehearse in the space, but there were certain things that I hadn’t seen, because they were new. All that driving in the beginning, we did a ton of driving to get those shots of the lake, so I was definitely experiencing all of that for the first time. But the cabin itself, we had been in to kind of work out the space and see where we’d want to be.
Vinny Curran: But I was confused the entire time. [Laughs.] With the story itself, I had no idea what was going on during the first couple of rehearsals. It took me a long time to figure out exactly where we were going. I’m always confused, but I use that to my advantage, and since my character is on drugs in the script, I figured that I could just sustain my confusion and that would be fine. So I was confident in my confusion. [Laughs.]
Benson: The characters themselves, I think, are caricatures of Pete and Vinny.
Curran: Right, like, I’m always a moron, but in the movie I’m an extreme moron. [Laughs.]
Moorhead: But even when it didn’t really matter, Justin would take stuff like our names and work them into things like the UFO cult. And Pete really has a graphic design background, so we used that, and Vinny does come from an artist background, too.
While writing the script, Justin, was it tricky to strike the balance between when to be funny and when to get creepy? Because Resolution does a really strong job of hitting on all cylinders and without any real sense of predictability.
Benson: It was a totally natural thing. The best way I could describe it is to just call it “intuitive.” We went into every scene being like, “Let’s make this as scary as possible if it’s scary, and as funny as possible if it’s funny. Make the drama as effective as possible.” I think a lot of the tone, actually, comes out of… Aaron and I are huge fans of Garth Ennis’ Preacher books, and those books have a similar tone to Resolution. And even though we didn’t do it intentionally, we bonded over those books a lot. There’s a lot of that in there.
Moorhead: Because, panel to panel, those Preacher books can break your heart and then make you laugh. Even in the most serious situations, laughter is always a really good way of relieving that tension.
Benson: And I think we knew that, right away, we were getting such strong performances that, as long as you’ve got a great performance, you can go for the funny stuff and go for the scary stuff—you can mix it up. A lot of times we were getting three or four perfect, magical takes, and when Aaron and I went in and started cutting it, we’d look at all of those takes and shape the tone from there. There were some brilliant takes that we just couldn’t use, because maybe it did go a little too raw, or maybe the character drama was a little too prominent. I feel like we shaped a lot of the tone in the editorial stage.
It also helps a lot, from the viewer’s standpoint, that it’s such a good time to be around Peter’s and Vinny’s characters, even when they’re having serious conversations. The chemistry is so strong and their dialogue is so lively that it’s really engrossing, and then, out of nowhere, these really bizarre and creepy moments hit you when you’re least expecting them. Did knowing that you’d have the actors’ already strong chemistry to play with make it easier to place all of the scares?
Benson: Absolutely. For the scary stuff, if you can make the character stuff work and the funny stuff work, I feel like audiences have less time to sort of analyze away their fears. They’ll just take it as the “scary stuff,” and they won’t over-think it and rationalize it. It just becomes a more surface-level, primal, scary thing, and then it’s right back to some more laughs.
I want to go back to the property itself, now. One of the factors that really gives the land such a creepy vibe is all of this talk about it being a Native American reservation, which we see materialize through ancient cave drawings and strange rock structures. Is your parents’ land actually on an Indian reservation?
Benson: It’s not technically on a Native American reservation, but it’s very close to one. There were two reasons for the Native American stuff. Number one, it would be dishonest to not bring that stuff up if this guy’s wandering around one of these areas; 30 miles east of any ocean in Southern California, there’s always an Indian reservation somewhere, so it made sense. It was good for the conflict. But it was important that the scary stuff in the movie did not have some religious affiliation, and even though it remains mysterious, the audience knows that this is something very, very, very old.
The various characters that Michael meets throughout the seven days at the cabin, were they all based on people you know, too? Meaning, the Hale Bopp-like UFO cult members, the two young hoodlum drug pushers, and the creepy old French dude.
Benson: No, but Aaron should actually tell the Bill Oberst Jr. story, the guy who plays Byron [the creepy old French dude].
Moorhead: He’s stellar, right? We only have that one scene with the character, so we just thought, Let’s just audition the whole scene, which is a lot to ask an actor who’s coming for a cold read, because it’s this six-page-long almost monologue. [Laughs.] We’d been doing auditions for a couple of days at that point, and we’d seen some really stellar and unique Byron’s. Bill came in with his amazing look, sat down on his chair, had his French accent ready to go, and gave that same performance that you see on the screen, pretty much. He just absolutely knocked it out of the park, and, after he’d left, we found out that he’s, like, a rock star in the horror world. We had no idea.
Benson: You know that production company Asylum? I think he’s been the lead in two or three of their movies, or maybe more.
Moorhead: One of his recent big ones was Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, but he was also in Nude Nuns with Big Guns. [Laughs.] So he’s kind of a mainstay horror actor.
In addition to the weird side characters that Resolutionthrows at the audience, there are also some really creepy video clips and old, beat-up photos that look and feel like they’re authentically old and unearthed. How’d you go about making those little touches so convincingly? Especially those slideshow images of the old hippie guy with half an arm.
Curran: I remember that, didn’t he really have two arms?
Moorhead: He had two arms, yeah. I do a lot of visual effects, too, so I just put a nub on his arm that way. We shot all of that in the months leading up to the rehearsals.
Curran: How do you create a nub? Do you look at a bunch of other nubs?
Moorhead: Well, sometimes you find a nub, and other times you find something that looks like a nub, like…
Benson: Can that be the title of your article? “Sometimes You Find A Nub”? [Laughs.]
Moorhead: [Laughs.] I’m not kidding you, sometimes you’ll find something like the bottom of a squash—that’s what I used, actually.
Cilella: [Laughs.] That’s hilarious. Now that you mention it, it doeskind of look like a squash. But bigger. And with elephantitis.
Curran: So leading up to the day you had to make that nub, were you just walking around and scoping things out? Like, “Hey, look at that guy’s amputated arm? Can I take a photo of your nub?” How do you say that to someone without pissing them off? [Laughs.]
I first came across Resolution through its horror world coverage once the Tribeca lineup was announced, and the film definitely has plenty of really creepy and unsettling moments. But, the more I think about it, it’s difficult to classify Resolution as quote-unquote “horror movie”—it shifts tones so frequently and has so much going on in it that it seems like a trivialization to just call it horror.
Benson: I set out to write a horror movie that I would really like, to begin with, and I love horror movies more than anything in the world—I’m a big horror movie nerd. But in the actual making of the movie, Aaron and I never once discussed genre, and, in fact, we didn’t even know that we were “genre-bending” until all of the press came out. [Laughs.]
I thought we’d just made something like… You know how Spanish horror films always have that really prominent character drama? Like, I feel that Spain, France, and Italy really view their genre films as high art, right? So, I guess in my head, that’s what we were doing, but we never had that discussion.
Moorhead: There’s all these things that are the hallmarks of genre films that can pop up, and then there’s other things that people can attach to the film that they think are hallmarks of horror films but you can still do something a little bit different with them. It wasn’t an act of, like, “We’re going to get rid of other pieces of horror,” but we were subversive about it a little bit, like with all the red herring people: the girl at the window, the “devil at your door,” and the UFO cult people. All of those things are indie thriller/horror tropes that can pop up, which we love, but we were trying to set up the audience for something and then actively go the other way.
It really is all effective uses of misdirection. That girl at the window, for instance—once the movie was over, and I started pieces it all together, she’s the one element that kept throwing me for a loop and making me reevaluate everything. I kept thinking, “Does she even have anything to do at all with the overall story?”
Benson Well, she does, and this is fun. I’ll tell you this: All of these people that show up, whether it’s the UFO people, the girl at the window, or Byron, they’re all experiencing our antagonist in their own way. That girl’s crazy as hell, but she ispart of that—she’s connected to that. And I think when Byron’s in an altered state, he’s more connected to it.
Moorhead: With the UFO cult, too, think about it: Who’s their celestial messiah? Their celestial messiah could actually be the scariest monster you’ve ever seen in your life.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
To find out more: Resolution