Like in all movies about romance, the two main characters in Spring get into an argument at one point—your standard lovers' quarrel. But unlike every other movie ever made about romance, that disagreement is followed by a scene in which a random male stranger gets mauled. To be more detailed, the attacker rips his penis off and leaves his corpse sprawled atop a beachside rock. Cue the horror movie score, not the wistful violins.
That kind of extreme duality is what drives Spring, the excellent second movie from indie filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the pair behind Resolution, a cabin-in-the-woods horror subversion that's the best 2013 genre movie you most likely haven't seen yet. Resolution was made on the super-cheap and shot in the outskirts of San Diego; a sign of Benson and Moorhead's massive ambitions, Spring, on the other hand, was shot on location in Italy and includes a few elaborate practical effects shots that look pricier than they actually are. More important than those shocking visuals, though, is Spring's central love story. It's the sweetest body horror movie imaginable—severed schlongs and all.
Lou Taylor Pucci (recently seen in the Evil Dead remake) stars as Evan, an aimless twenty-something dude whose mother has just passed away from cancer. After her funeral, he unleashes his anger on the face of someone in the local bar with his fists, further complicating his life and, once the cops show up at his doorstep, leading him to take an impromptu trip to Italy, the place he and his deceased father always planned on visiting but never made happen. Traveling down the country's coastline, Evan stops in a scenic, oceanside town and meets Louise (first-time German actress Nadia Hilker), a confident yet approachable beauty he pursues long enough to finally score a date. Which leads to more dates, and a physical relationship, but there's something up with Louise—she won't let Evan get in too close. Though the reason why is a mystery to Evan for most of Spring, Benson and Moorhead let the viewers in on Louise's secret: if she doesn't inject herself with a syringe, she'll turn into some kind of monster, or "creature from our evolutionary past." And she's been dealing with that issue for 2,000 years.
There's much more to Louise's nightmarish situation than just that, but unraveling her dilemma alongside Evan is one of the many pleasures of Spring, which has been described as "Before Sunrise with a supernatural twist" for good reason. Similar to how they kept Resolution unpredictable and unclassifiable, Benson and Moorhead have constructed a beautiful, funny, and intimate romance story with plenty of intensity and ghoulish scares, but the horror elements are complementary, not all-consuming. Nothing in Spring unfolds as you'd expect it to—everything you've come to expect from both the horror and romance genres gets freaked and tweaked.
In Toronto, where Spring had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival over the weekend (its currently seeking distribution), I sat down with Benson and Moorhead to discuss how they pulled off a creature feature geared towards the Before Midnight crowd.
I re-watched Resolution before coming out here to Toronto, and now that I've Spring, it's clear that you two don't make traditional horror films. The genre elements are always there, but the focus is on the characters much more, to the point where Resolution always feels like a straight-up comedy while Spring is a romance. Is that by design?
Justin Benson: Yeah, in the sense that we genuinely just never discuss what genre we're working in. If it seems interesting in the moment, then, yeah, we'll do it—we'll take that turn. I don't think either one of us even has enough of a history with horror films to even do "homage" if we wanted to do. I don't know if it's so much a thing where our movies are, "Oh, look, they've turned left when most other horror filmmakers would have turned right," as it's really just, "We didn't even know there was a right turn there." [Laughs.]
Aaron Moorhead: Exactly, we just do whatever makes sense to us. We just like movies that we think are interesting and cool and good, so we're not opposed to doing a straight comedy, or just a straightforward anything—well, I don't know about us ever doing a musical, though. [Laughs.] We'll do anything—it's just a matter of doing something that makes sense to us. It makes sense to make you laugh, to make you cry, and to make you scared.
Now, I will say that we do have a little bit of a bent towards fantastical stuff, just because we find that interesting. Like, I was raised on Stephen King, so that influence will always be in whatever I do. But it's not for any particular reason other fascination. One of my favorite movies in recent years is Children of Men, so that fits right into the fantasy side, but I also love The Assassination of Jesse James and No Country for Old Men, and those aren't necessarily in the fantasy genre.
Justin, you said that you don't think either one of you has enough horror history to ever do an homage. You guys didn't grow up as horror kids like most other filmmakers working in the genre?
Benson: I've seen enough horror movies to often get the references, but, honestly, a lot of times I'll read the reviews for Resolution, and now the Spring reviews, and I'll read what the presumed inspiration is, and I'll have to look it up. [Laughs.] I don't even know what the movie is this writer is referencing.
Moorhead: That happened with Resolution, where critics would say, "It's very Lynchian," and I'd then say, "Shit, I haven't even seen a David Lynch film yet somehow! What the hell is wrong with me?" [Laughs.]
What are the referenced movies you've had to look up from the early Spring reviews?
Benson: I had to look up an Italian horror movie called Possession, and I've had to look up Dagon.
Oh, Possession with Sam Neill? That one? That's a great film.
Benson: Is it? We don't know. [Laughs.] Dagon, funny enough, was produced by a friend of ours and we still haven't seen it.
Moorhead: But we have seen Before Sunrise, and that's a film Spring's been compared to more than any other. But I had not seen it when we decided to take on this Spring project. I watched the first one, and then immediately watched Before Sunset and then got myself into a screening of Before Midnight. I was like, "Wow, that was incredible."
Benson: That's one where it's like, when you see a film like Before Sunrise brought up in an article about Spring, I say to myself, "OK, please don't keep bringing up one of the greatest movies of all time when you're talking about our little movie." [Laughs.] "Please, please, just stop making that connection."
Moorhead: Yes, Spring does also have walking, talking, and beautiful things, and there's romance, too, but it's not a direct homage or connection by any means. All that approach did was give us a license to make a movie that doesn't have a chase scene at the end. The fact that people liked Before Sunrise showed us that, yes, we can make a movie about people talking and getting to know each other and people will like it. That just gave us confidence but it was not in any way meant to be an homage or an inspiration.
Benson: It's like, if you made a gangster movie, you don't want people bringing up The Godfather. [Laughs.] Because if you're expecting The Godfather, or Before Sunrise in our case, you're most likely going to be really disappointed.
When we talked for Resolution, you mentioned how that story and setting came from your own upbringings, and how that helped keep the costs down. But Spring is major leap forward. Was the idea to make a movie of this geographical scale already in your heads before Resolution or did the opportunity to make it directly come from that film's success?
Benson: There have been four or five features written since Resolution, and this was the first one. This was written when we didn't even know if Resolution was just going to be sitting on our hard drives for the rest of our lives or not. We were mixing it and submitting it to some film festivals, hoping it would get into one. In some ways, the story was a reaction to early screenings of Resolution, where we had this unexpected thing where people would keep guessing what the monster would be at the end of Resolution, and it was always one of four things.
Spring, where you think it's a vampire, and then you think it's a werewolf, and then you feel like it could be some Lovecraftian creature. And, by the way, "Lovecraftian creature"—I didn't know what that was until people said it during the Resolution time and I then looked it up. [Laughs.]
Moorhead: And now we're like, "Lovecraft's the greatest," but at that point we had no idea.
Benson: It was a very immediate reaction to the early response to Resolution. And, in fact, structurally the two movies are very similar when you look at their scripts. They're very different as far as concepts and characters, but if you break the scripts down to their structures, it's almost exactly the same framework, where there's a central mystery to the movie that's revealed at the beginning of the third act, and that pretty much how the two characters' relationship will move forward from there.
Moorhead: Also, when you talk about, "OK, we have to make this movie that's a leap up from Resolution," that's why we chose to do Spring out of all the scripts Justin had written, but it's hard to pinpoint how it feels when you are a completely unpublished director, because you don't interview those people, right? So nobody knows who those people are. They don't exist until they come on the scene and they get interviewed. When you have a movie where you don't know what's going to happen to it and if you're just going to go back to your day job, that's all you're worried about. There was no, "We have escalate from Resolution." We didn't know if we could escalate from Resolution. In our opinion, we could just take a DSLR camera, head to Italy, and run around the streets making this movie guerrilla style. Now, we could not have possibly done that, but that was the idea and where our mentality was.
I's hard to nail down the mindset of "What's your next movie?" when you don't know if your first movie is even a movie.
What's really interesting about the Louise character in Spring is that she's a mystery throughout but her secret isn't saved for the third act and used as an end-game surprise or shock. What was your rationale behind that?
Benson: A few things. One is, it's just so much fun and so easy to toy with an audience's expectations of what she's going to be. We can visually hint at all these different monsters that have been recycled over the last 60 or so years, whether it be a vampire, werewolf, or whatever, and trick the audience into thinking it's one of those things. There's a lot of fun in that. And then as far as the reveal going into the third act, there's just something so cool and so fun about inventing a new mythology, which no one ever really seems to do anymore. To have the mythology of that monster be so closely tied to the romance, that's a fun way to acknowledge the monsters of the past. The best creatures of all time have some sort of human element and resonance.
Moorhead: I think, also, if we had done it as just a third-act reveal, one, people would just be giggling—it's this straightforward romance for 60 minutes and then suddenly it's like, "Whoa, what the hell?" [Laughs.] People would be very disappointed, and that would also level the criticism of, "Well, is it a romance or is it horror?" In how Justin has written it, though, the horror is integrated throughout the story and into the relationship. Once you find out what's up with Louise, which is, like, four scenes into meeting her, every conflict afterwards is related to the fact that she can't come closer because of her secret. Once that happens, it becomes clear that this is a Moorhead/Benson movie, it's a horror-romance, and it's one cohesive thing.
Benson: There's a very big difference between people interpreting your character as straight metaphor or as simply a real person. I think, in some ways, you can look at her character as being representative of how people feel in new relationships: "Is this person some kind of monster? Do they have some secret?" But in our movie, she's quite literally a monster, so if the audience doesn't know for sure that she's a monster, it might play like it's a metaphor.
Moorhead: There might be a question of, "If you show that she's a monster so early on, what does the movie have to give from that point on?" Well, what we have to give is the fact that she is a monster who's never existed before. You've never seen it before. And not only is it explained to you, but you get to see the monster a lot, and it's really cool. Our third-act reveal is not that she's a monster—it's that he knows what she is now, and how will they deal with that? Is she going to chase him around as a monster? Or are they going to work it out? That still leaves way more possibilities considering that he is in love with her.
Benson: One of the most impactful things about the film, at least visually, is going from these very either beautiful or erotic situations, and then the next scene you're slammed into this grotesque creature. There's something about the psychology of that with an audience that really has a lot of impact. It's going from a beautiful sex scene into something you'd never want your penis to touch, ever. [Laughs.] It was fun to play with that throughout the movie.
That's not the only thing that's like that in the movie, though, where we're playing with juxtaposition. Again, it's the setting itself. It's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen—it's turquoise water, it's 13th century sun-bleached buildings. And then a scaly creature or a dead body with its dick ripped off. It was really fun to play with that visually.
Is that why you chose Italy for the setting?
Benson: That was 100% it, yeah.
Moorhead: And that's not just, "Oh, it's a fun visual." There is that, of course, but it goes deeper than metaphorically. We're making a movie about love, in that, yeah, there's the angels-and-roses version of Italy, and then there's real love, which is complicated and ugly and nasty and still wonderful.
Benson: Yeah, it's more like the ghetto of Naples.
Moorhead: That's the feeling you get when you're in love, right? It's not always the butterflies. There's just nastiness and wonderfulness—it's all a part of the same thing. You can throw all of that on the same image, and, yeah, it's a really cool image—sure, throw it on our demo reel. But then underneath that, that gives you one more little edge towards understanding what we're trying to do. We're trying to make this movie that's about love, lust, and relationships, and it being all this big ball of awfulness and wonderfulness that can't be summed up in one sentence.
For all of its genre elements and interesting use of monster mythology, Spring is ultimately a romance movie, and for someone like me who usually hates how trite and formulaic romance movies are, it's the best romance I've seen in a movie in a long time.
Benson: A big inspiration for making this movie and for the choices the Evan character makes were definitely reactionary to a lot of movie romances that are out there.
There are so many that are great, too. I think most people would say that Garden State is a good movie, or The Science of Sleep is a good movie, but one thing in those movies that, at least for me, hasn't quite rung true is that it's always this kind of ultra-sensitive artist fantasy of what a romance is. In The Science of Sleep, the dude is up in the bunk-bed crying and the girl is trying to go after him, and in Garden State, he doesn't go after the girl in the lobby—she goes after him. Part of the inspiration for Evan throughout Spring was to make him be the instigator in the relationship, where he's always going after her. Yes, it's part of his healing process, but he was the proactive one.
It was also about making Louise a realistic character, too, someone who my mom and her friends can see and say, "We're proud that Justin and Aaron made that female character like that."
Moorhead: A lot of times, when people say, "Oh, we've written a strong female character," they mean that they wrote a dude who's been turned into a woman for their story's purposes. [Laughs.] I personally think Justin nailed it, though. Louise is a strong female character who has human flaws and feminine flaws. It's a big Venn diagrams of flaws, and also in the same way that Evan has male flaws and human flaws. But she's still a girl and not some macho, so-cool-and-can-kick-your-ass kind of character. A lot of the movie have these big themes of masculinity-versus-feminity, and she is able to represent the alpha female without having to be Queen Bitch. And that's pretty damn cool. I've never gotten to see that kind of female character so much in movies.
She's a strong female character who's not The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen, in other words.
Moorhead: Exactly, where it's like, everyone's following a 17-year-old girl into battle. With Louise, no, that's not going to happen, but she's still a strong person who can make her own choices but sometimes follows because she's a human being. There's a big give-and-take, and I think Evan and Louise are very much equals.
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