Genre fans will immediately recognise the names Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead; the pair have been making a name for themselves in the genre circuit with their films Resolution, Spring and The Endless. Soon it won’t be just genre fans who will recognise the director duo as Benson and Moorhead have just been announced as the directors for Marvel’s Moon Knight series for Disney+, starring Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke.
Before they sink their teeth into superheroes, they bring us Synchronic, a mind-bending sci-fi about time and humanity, two recurring themes in their work. Synchronic stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan as paramedics Steve and Dennis, who come across a strange new designer drug called Synchronic. When Dennis’ daughter goes missing after taking it and Steve discovers Synchronic allows you to travel back in time, things get very weird.
How did Synchronic get started?
Aaron Moorhead: We were working on a new media ad for Sesame Street or something like that. That sounds like it’s like kind of special, but I promise you we were not even making enough to make rent that month to shoot it, there’s some shockingly low budget Sesame Street stuff out there. And it was at lunch. Justin was just like, yeah, you know this concept Alan Moore has, Einstein has this concept as well, where the past, present and future is all happening simultaneously, and we just perceive it in a linear way. And we talked about it before, but it was like what if there were just a pill, you could take that unhinges your mind from this linear way of doing it, and you do see it in that way. That was kind of where it was born, because we just got both kind of frightened by that idea. It was just like that is a particularly chilling thing if done right. We realised it was like, this is a concept we want to explore, it scares us, it’s not too weird as to be completely uncommercial if we do it right, so it won’t be just this abstract thing. And then a lot of it just kind of sprung out of that conversation.
All your films revolve around death and this idea of finding meaning in your life. Is that something that you’re scared of?
Justin Benson: It’s part of human development for most people. There’s a moment where you’re like I’m going to die someday. And if you don’t have a quick answer to go to, that you were raised within your culture, or your family, or whatever it was, that you will just never stop thinking about what happens after you die and trying to find things that comfort you with that and in the things that suit you specifically, that will give you comfort. In Synchronic, Steve is someone who finds comfort in something from theoretical physics, in the same way that someone who is from an Abrahamic religion, for example, might find comfort in something like heaven. But I think everyone, you hit a point in your childhood and you start thinking about it, and you find the ideas and the things that give you comfort, and we just make movies about people who latch on to the comfort.
AM: It’s this interesting thing where somebody that you care about deeply dies. Let’s say, in Christianity, you get comfort by thinking, they’re in heaven. You hope that they’re in heaven. And that brings you comfort. I’m going to get to visit them again, someday, they’re happy, their souls are no longer tortured, and all of that. But there is no answer for that as in the immediate thought of what if there is no God? If it’s an uncaring cold universe, there’s just no answer for that. But what does give you comfort is the fact that again, in physics, like Einstein himself says, time still exists. It’s not this highway where every time you drive past a building, it just crumbles into dust, those buildings still exist behind you. You just can’t access them, which means that your loved one is still alive somewhere, but in another when and it’s real. It’s a physical, tangible other when, we just can’t perceive it that way. And that’s really comforting. Obviously, our movie is not a form of comfort, it’s also a form of existential terror.
JB: You just gave the optimistic thing where it’s like, okay, anyone I’ve ever lost, anything I’ve ever lost, it’s there, if I shuffled the deck differently, I can still find the card there. But if you’re a cynic, it’s every horrible experience I’ve ever had, it’s still here.
AM: But it’s all for a past you, which is weird.
JB: Theoretically, I was about to say it implies that there’s no freewill, but that would be for the past version of yourself. There is also a theory that there’s the past and there’s the present, but the future is still being determined by things that are still in the realm of subatomic particle chance, which implies freewill possibly does still exist, just not for past versions of yourself, which is the one that we subscribe to in Synchronic, which is why he doesn’t go to the future, which is why he doesn’t change things in the past, which changes the future.
A lot of your films feature a pair of protagonists, does your own dynamic ever bleed into those characters and their relationships?
JB: It would probably be impossible that it didn’t in some form. But I also think that if you had 10 people sitting watching our movie, and you gave them a questionnaire ‘Which aspects of these characters do the authors possess?’ No one would probably land on it, it would probably be unexpected things. We may oftentimes not even be conscious of it. It’s probably impossible, you’re always going to use some of the fabric of your own lifelong story. But all that said, I don’t think there’s any intentional autobiographical aspects to them typically.
Was the race element of Synchronic always a big part of it?
AM: Yeah, it was. It’s funny, because you asked where the movie began, and we talked about this lunchtime thing in 2013. We were at this great film festival called Toronto After Dark and we were having some bagels in the morning, probably coffeeing ourselves off of a hangover. And it had a little TV set up in the corner that was playing Back To The Future. And we made some joke about how if Marty McFly didn’t look like Marty McFly, if he were another race, or even gender, he could not just take over the band at the high school dance. It was a joke, but then it very quickly became serious. A massive oversight in a lot of time travel movies is, most of the time, it only works because they’re accepted societally, as white males basically. That thought just gestated for a little while. And then it ended up putting itself together with Synchronic when we decided to go to the past.
You recut Synchronic and the new cut premiered at FrightFest Glasgow in 2020. What prompted that?
AM: We realised that the big thing was we have a movie about how time is not linear, it does not move straight in a forward direction. But because we thought we would be confusing people, we made the movie move in a linear direction. We realised that was dishonest and not how we ever really conceptualized the movie in the first place. We were a little too worried about being confusing. And we realised no one’s confused, we should edit this movie the way that we had always, not in the script level but from just a base level, conceived of it, where you experience the movie in a nonlinear fashion. People understand the mechanics of things happening out of order in films. And there’s little context clues that we placed around the movie to do it. We realised because we developed this idea of having a quick pace, we’d lost some of our character stuff to get to the depths of the time travel stuff faster.
You’ve signed on to direct episodes of Marvel’s Moon Knight. Has that always been a goal for you, to move on to something that gigantic in scale?
AM: We can’t speak on any level about Moon Knight, what we can say in terms of our ambitions, we would like very badly to get audiences to see our movies, because as independent filmmakers, that’s always a struggle. So if that’s what scale means, that’s what it is. That’s what we’re after. However, we also like it when we can maintain our voices in it. There’s almost nothing worth it, to go and make a movie we really dislike.
JB: It’s a frustrating thing, but there’s almost no scale that’s going to replace, for a viewer, the feeling of something personal within a film. What happens is, you go spend years and years of your life making this gigantic movie. And for that movie to be a responsible financial endeavour, you need to do everything you can to make sure that it doesn’t feel like it’s only made for a very small subset of the population. But what happens is, you do end up with something that often just doesn’t feel… very rarely do these giant things feel personal, but they’re so much work. I think about like something like Batman vs. Superman. I will admit, I like Snyder’s cut of that movie. But I can’t have that conversation without people being like, ‘Hey, I dislike that.’ That movie is so much work. I can’t imagine the years and years people spent on that. And as you said, that scale, it’s so hard. It’s so much money. And if you aren’t able to hit that very small target, people feeling that very personal humanity in it, that it doesn’t hit as well as the movie that cost $20,000, that was made by 10 people, took three weeks to shoot and a couple months to edit. It’s interesting.
That’s the thing with big films, there’s hundreds of people involved, and then it sometimes gets reduced to one negative tweet. Does that scare you guys?
AM: No. People are going to think whatever they’re going to think about whatever you do, and it hurts really bad, especially early on. The responsibility of things that you worked on forever getting reduced into a tweet is… It’s just this idea where as a filmmaker at the beginning of your movie, you try to cast a spell on the audience. And if it doesn’t take, that’s not because you’re just awful at your job. It can be, but it’s just like, Oh, it’s just not for them and that’s okay and you just have to accept it.
Synchronic is out now on Premium Video On Demand