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Interview: Directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson of “SYNCHRONIC”

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 | Interview

By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS

SYNCHRONIC is the latest film from indie horror directing duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (Spring, Resolution, The Endless). Continuing their pattern of recontextualizing classic genre themes amongst modern settings and modern anxieties, SYNCHRONIC ties together drugs and time travel with terrifying outcomes. The film has heart and some incredible effects, and uses its scifi bedrock to build up a new way of examining the universe. We got to talk to Benson and Moorhead about the mechanic of time, New Orleans, and climate change.

What sparked the idea for SYNCHRONIC?

JB: We have these long stretches of being sort of unemployed. We had a long stretch of one of those after our second movie Spring. There were a lot of converging premises in the way that time travel is treated in this thing. We read a lot of Alan Moore, and he seems to use block universe theory quite a bit in his works. In both Watchmen and his novel Jerusalem. Between completely failing at filmmaking and Aaron and I’s career together, I had briefly gone on a path to go to medical school, and I had gone to premed. You have to take a lot of physics, and I was really mad at it. I could grasp the theories of it, but was not actually good at the math of it. I remained fascinated with the idea of the way time is treated in SYNCHRONIC. One day, on a stretch of not doing the jobs we are known for, we were sitting at lunch. What if there were a pill that allowed you to see time as described in block universe theory? Time isn’t a flowing river, it is a frozen river. That was our first conversation about it and that was 2015. The script was written that year, and three years later we got to make it.

Why set the film in New Orleans?

AM: If we are going to tell a story of an eternalist idea of time, we couldn’t think of a place in the United States where there were the most layers, and the most different layers, that is New Orleans. And it had to be the United States because that’s where designer drugs are more of a “thing.” New Orleans has the most to explore how time is an antagonist to us all. That’s like an oil painting that has been painted over five or six times, with a different painting every time. New York doesn’t quite look like that. Los Angeles doesn’t look like that. You go back 100 years and it’s almost all farmland. We also thought, “Where do we want to shoot?” We just shot in Italy. We talked so many times about how New Orleans is a filmmaking hub.

You definitely get a sense of the brutality of history in SYNCHRONIC. To Steve (Anthony Mackie) the past really sucks.

JB: The hope was that without anyone saying it, you could interpret it as a monster movie where the past is a monster. Some of that was a reaction. There have been a lot of political and social movements that romanticize the past. That’s part of most far-right movements. But beyond all that, in film, there is an uncomfortable romanticization of the 1950s, for example. I get it, because the filmmaker might be looking back to their childhood. But it seems to not be acknowledged enough that it was only good for you, but it sucked for most people.

“… you could interpret it as a monster movie where the past is a monster.”

How did you develop the visual language to convey time travel?

AM: We talked a lot to our visual effects company, BUF, and our art director Kati Simon. We wanted to combine three things. Our reference point was a sequence at the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When they are running through the memories and things are disappearing. For us, that was the terror in our film. The fact that nothing is happening, and you think maybe you got sold bad sugar pills. But then you hear a waterfall and you look over, and there is a waterfall right there. You look up and your apartment is gone. It is a very scary idea. I wanted to present it as one long shot the first time it happens. So there was that idea combined with a few other reference images. It is hard to describe them, but they are like psychedelic body horror. They are these weird animated gifs that are created by AI. We put those in almost all of our visual presentations. These images meld into each other without noticing. It is like a magic trick.

Did you write the characters of Steve and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) with the actors in mind?

JB: We have actually never written with actors in mind. Oh! Resolution was written for our two friends. But other than that, we’ve never done that. The characters didn’t change at all from off the page. To be honest, in our films they usually do change a bit, because usually we have a very long rehearsal process. We tailor the material to fit exactly to the performer. SYNCHRONIC was our first movie where that wasn’t available to us. There was no time to do any kind of rehearsal.

AM: Besides Jamie and Anthony being incredible people they are true actors. They can take what is on the page and give you exactly what you are going for.

Both actors seem especially comfortable in their skin.

JB: Steve and Dennis are both very flawed people, and that is intentional. But they are ultimately very kind people. Anthony and Jamie are extraordinarily kind. Maybe that is why you see them being comfortable in those parts. They are very giving.

What scares you?

AM: I want to give you something that is primordial, and less topical. Unfortunately, right now the thing that scares me is climate change. It scares the absolute hell out of me. Not just for the idea of it hurting me or making my life uncomfortable, but for not being able to make the plans that you normally would. That really bothers me.

Well, that should bother everyone.

AM: What I want to talk about is death and infinity and the death of my loved ones, but right now it is climate change.

JB: Gosh. It is weird. I don’t think I have any anxieties. I mean, climate change isn’t real [laughs]. I’m appropriately also scared of climate change. But I want to have a good answer for you. In being forced to think about it, I am afraid of a mass turning away from progress and education. It feels like education is increasingly becoming not urgent. That seems like a fundamental thing that goes along with climate change, mass delusion, and turning away from investigation and critical thinking.

Deirdre is a Chicago-based film critic and life-long horror fan. In addition to writing for RUE MORGUE, she also contributes to BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., FILM THRILLS, and HIGH DEF DIGEST. She's got two black cats and wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero.