Following their well-received 2012 debut Resolution, co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have crafted a romantic monster tale in Spring, mixing elements of horror and science fiction to explore love and relationships. The story centres on Evan, a young American who runs away to Italy after a bereavement. In a beautiful seaside town, he meets the seductive, free-spirited Louise and falls helplessly in love. But he will soon come to realise that Louise is hiding a dark secret.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead at the London Film Festival in October 2014 where they discussed stem cells, new monsters and romantic inexperience.
Virginie Sélavy: Spring is part romance, part horror, part science fiction, and it’s very obvious that you made an effort to avoid genre clichés. Why was it important for you to have horror and science fiction elements in a romantic love story?
Justin Benson: I know this is going to sound like a cop-out answer but in the writing process we never discussed the genre it came in. At the very basic level there was the desire to make a monster movie but there’s something fun and rebellious in making a new monster. It’s so ingrained in writers and storytellers to use the same half-dozen or so monsters and mythologies that no one even attempts it. And as far as her mythology and the system by which her body works, the whole thing was trying to create a monster that has an emotional resonance like Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an exploration of sexual repression in Victorian society, or Frankenstein is about fear of science. And if you really think about it you can’t separate the monster component of our movie from the emotional component.
What is your monster about for you?
JB: It’s a little more surface level than metaphorical. She quite literally uses men to regenerate herself. She’s survived for 2,000 years by just sleeping with men and you don’t see that in cinema very often. She’s still a normal girl, but for self-preservation she’s willing to continuously sleep with people without emotional attachment. Thematically the movie is about the idea of rebirth, and that’s something we tried to photograph as well with all the insects and nature shots.
Aaron Moorhead: I think also every time she does that is a rejection of eternal love. And the stopping of the monster is the acceptance of eternal love, so accepting the complications and making sacrifices is what that represents, and the monster going away represents love as something more than just chemical.
Louise is an inexplicable, random, sometimes frightening creature governed by irrational forces. Was this also about women and their unpredictable nature with their strange bodily transformations?
JB: It was but that’s actually a low-hanging fruit in terms of representations or metaphors because every monster story is about that. The hope is that, as audience members who are not monsters, you highly identify with the situation because we’ve all been with someone where you wonder, ‘who is this person actually?’ and you also see yourself as a monster sometimes in relationships. And that’s something that’s been explored through countless films. I hope we did it as effectively as we can do it. However that’s a pretty well-tread path of symbolism.
You make great effort to anchor your story in the natural world and to give a scientific, rather than supernatural, explanation to your monster. Why was that important for you?
JB: For me it’s just that anything that is pure supernatural is less scary. Because there’s the idea that maybe something like Louise could actually exist in the world, without it being beyond the five senses, and that’s a terrifying idea. Our first movie plays with that a little, it’s a bit more metaphysical. In a lot of horror movies, there’s a point at which somebody set up the five rules of the monster, you can look at it, when you run it runs, things like that, and it’s completely arbitrary. In this case there’s just one singular idea and all the rules expand from that because it follows scientifically.
AM: The other interesting thing about it is that at any given time when a monster mythology is invented it’s over time that we start to accept it even though it doesn’t entirely make sense. For example at the time Frankenstein was written sewing a bunch of dead people’s body parts together and reviving it with electricity was almost plausible, today we don’t believe it. But now we know that stem cells basically provide you with immortality, so if one could metabolise stem cells it would follow that they would provide immortality. So if you’re going to develop a new monster it does make sense that you’re going to use something that makes sense from a modern perspective, whether it’s spiritual or scientific.
Justin, you said in the Q&A that you went to medical school.
JB: We made this a year before I went to medical school. I wouldn’t say it has a direct influence on my storytelling outside the fact that I was raised by parents who think very scientifically and I had scientific training. My mind works like that, I always want empirical evidence for things. But as far as my formal medical training goes, I read this article in Time magazine.
There is a strong connection between Louise and nature through all the insert shots of bugs. What was the thinking behind that?
JB: I think in many ways because she’s a freak of nature, she’s very singular, she’s got such a strange and powerful body, it would follow that she’s skipped a few steps of evolution. And so you might also see that if someone can control things outside of themselves like pheromones, or affect them in some way and connect with the world, that would follow from further evolution. It’s not quite so nailed down as that, it’s more like a mutation of some sort, but it seems to make sense that someone who has that kind of ability may also have the ability in very light ways to influence what else is happening around her.
There are a lot of aerial shots of the town and coast as well as close-ups on bugs and the monster’s animal body parts. It seems that you wanted to inscribe your story both in the large scale and the small scale of the world. Is that fair to say?
AM: We decided very early on when we were shooting this movie that, in addition to the small, personal cinema vérité stuff, there would always be these highly subjective shots, whether that be a camera panning off of them to something else the camera might find interesting, suggesting something like a presence or force, literally God’s eye view shots, anything we could do to visually communicate something bigger than them that’s possibly even outside their own belief systems. But not having them talk about it, always suggesting it photographically.
JB: One of the biggest ideas and biggest images of the movie is the comparison between the beautiful and the grotesque. And that’s constantly happening, with the bugs and all of that in beautiful Italy. But the idea is, if you’re making a horror movie that is set in an incredibly beautiful location – most of them take place in creaky old houses or a forest, places that are inherently scary – so if your location isn’t inherently scary how do you get that mood, how do you get the mood of something wrong? And so if we didn’t do that we just have a beautiful location with this other little thing happening, but nothing really feels wrong around it, and there is a sense of wrongness about the story. And that’s able to give us our more unsettling landscape without having to go down a familiar horror movie trail.
Why did you choose to film in Pompeii?
JB: We actually shot at a volcanic excavation site that was very similar to Pompeii but not exactly Pompeii because logistically we couldn’t do it. But the reason why it’s there in the story was that we wanted her to be at least 2,000 years old so she would have seen the transition between gods, which is something I’ve never quite seen in a character. Even in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles they tend to be about 500 years old, and when they speak of things like God and their place in the universe they speak about a very Judeo-Christian God. And what I find so interesting about Louise is that she’s literally seen gods change, and how she would view spirituality given that. As far as it being Pompeii, it was a historical reference point for that region that most audiences would just know and it wouldn’t need much explanation. On top of that, in her own mythology, because of the casts at Pompeii, the moment she would see the cast of her love has a lot of emotional impact. She can go there and stare at the exact moment of death of her parents. And that’s something not only creepy but with a lot of emotional impact. And also she’s had to live through lava, which would be a horrifying painful event that would probably, none of us want to die, but she would probably have an even greater aversion to it given her experiences.
The film is an exploration of love and romance, and it seems almost as if you were working things out for yourself in the characters’ dialogue. When you were asked about love and relationships in the Q&A you said that you didn’t know much about romance. Isn’t that a little disingenuous?
JB: No, it’s true. I would be worried if someone watched that movie and was like, oh I’m going to learn about love or romance from this. The only things I know about romance and love are literally from my friends. I don’t have any personal experience of being in love but I have lots of friends who are in relationships and I speak to them about relationships. Aaron has real relationships, I can talk to him about that. And that’s really where a lot of stuff in this story comes from. And on top of that, as far as women go, I know my mum well, I have some amazing female friends. So far they’ve expressed they like her character and that means a lot. No one has said ‘you’re such a sexist’ yet.
It feels like she’s a fantasy, not a real person. Do you feel you’re still working out what you think relationships are?
JB: I guess so. And in that way it is entirely fictional. I’m inventing an idea of something I don’t know anything about. But it’s cool that people identify with it and like it.
I believe you are now working on an Aleister Crowley film. What angle are you going to take on this?
JB: When you look at everything we’ve done, if you want to put some adjectives on it, it’s weird and mythic, quietly mythic. That is Aleister Crowley. He’s someone that people will immediately identify as being that guy who’s into the supernatural and the occult, but his idea of the supernatural and the occult is something so esoteric that there is no normal path to telling the Aleister Crowley story. You have to break a lot of rules to tell a story, and so you have to take new paths of storytelling and it has to be weird and it has to be mythic.
AM: And that honours the good parts of his memory. There’s plenty of bad parts so we don’t worship this guy in any way, we find him to be a very complicated and flawed and fascinating human being.
JB: And if someone were trying to simplify it into being about a demon they’d be incorrect. If you look at Aleister Crowley and you call him a Satanist, you’re incorrect. He’s not. He doesn’t believe in Satan. What he believes is very complicated. He’s not a great person but it connects with everything we’ve done very nicely.
AM: Right now we don’t have the desire to expand our scope into a full-on biopic, we will eventually, but right now we just want to keep telling a very small personal story about relationships, and this one is more about his relationship with his own ego. But there’s also a lot of people around him that he destroys, builds up and destroys again. So our story takes place in the pressure cooker of one week really early on in his life where he’s performing a ritual to purify himself. That’s the framework of it. What’s really happening is that he’s a man with a bunch of really good ideas but with absolutely no sense of moderation, and he makes these choices that lead him to become what history remembers as ‘the wickedest man in the world’. That’s our take on it, it’s a very small film with a really big idea and a gigantic character.
JB: If you want to simplify it he’s like Tyler Durden from Fight Club meets Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
Watch the trailer: