Interview with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, co-writers of V/H/S: Viral
BlueCat: How did you two meet?
Justin Benson: We were both interning at a commercial production company called RSA. It was his last day and my first day, and he showed me the ropes. He said he wanted to be a writer/director, and I said I wanted to be a director/cinematographer. We slowly started working together on projects; I would start shooting for him, and we realized that we worked a lot better holistically. I started to collaborate on his scripts, and we ended up making “Resolution” together as co-directors. Once “Resolution” hit, that’s when we decided to keep doing it. The stuff we made together seemed a lot better and more cohesive.
BlueCat: Do you have any formal education with screenwriting or a film background?
JB: Aaron went to Florida State University, and I went to UCLA in the film program, where I learned screenwriting. One of my professors (Richard Walters) always told us that a screenplay should have a beginning, middle, and end. We mainly just read and wrote a lot of screenplays, and that’s how we learned. It was a very simple approach that had us learn by doing, and I really respected that.
BlueCat: Tell us about the process you went through making V/H/S: Viral?
Aaron Moorhead: When we decided we wanted to make V/H/S: Viral, we saw Brad Miska (curator of the series) at a film festival and we introduced ourselves and he asked us if we wanted to do a segment of V/H/S: Viral. We said we wanted to, but we think he was joking (laughs). We pitched six or seven cool ideas, and the one that ended up sticking was “Bonestorm.” How it works is that you pitch them, and if they like it, they give you a budget and you go make it and turn it back in. They have influence in it, but it’s not a director-for-hire assignment.
BlueCat: Tell us a little bit about your movie, “Spring?” Did the reception go well?
JB: After Toronto, FantasticFest, and Austin, the response has been universally positive. Most people see “Spring” as a progression from “Resolution,” but this movie works on a bigger scale. There’s something about making a romance work, because you can literally get tears in the room.
AM: The film doesn’t really follow many of the genre conventions of either a romance or a horror film. What’s nice is that you feel good when you’re watching it. Of course you feel worried bout your characters, but there’s something that’s really nice as a filmmaker knowing your audience can fall in love with the characters and location. Whereas a lot of the time we’re trying to entertain or freak out the audience, but we were able to just make people feel good with this one.
BlueCat: How does the writing process between the two of you work?
JB: We have a very unique relationship as filmmakers. I’m the credited writer on our films, but everything I do is heavily filtered through Aaron. Aaron more and more takes on the traditional role of a creative producer role in terms of his relationship with me as the writer. As jobs get bigger and bigger, everything gets filtered through Aaron. No note comes through unless it comes through Aaron – you would see a very big difference in my writing if Aaron wasn’t there to help the process.
AM: I think one of the key things that keeps our relationship working is the fact that we’ve made an agreement we’ll never take a writing note that we both disagree with wildly. That’s one thing that’s so nice about me being his co-director; it’s like I’m an extremely intense manager when it comes to writing. If I disagree with something flat out, he will never even get the note or know that it happened. A lot of things are an open forum for discussion, so we can know that certain ideas will work since two people like it. Things can end up getting slanted without another eye [on the writing].
JB: As the scale gets bigger and bigger, we can maintain that “personal [factor]” that really makes people feel [when watching our movies]. It’s not a huge compromise between thirteen people, so we’re able to hit emotional heights doing it this way.
BlueCat: Does your working relationship give you an advantage over other writers who may not have the same type of collaboration?
JB: It’s a huge advantage, because it makes two people care about the script extraordinarily. We love everything in these scripts because there’s no compromise.
BlueCat: Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters who want an entrance into the industry?
JB: This may be a frustrating answer, but I don’t think there’s really any secret. Just do it for tens of thousands of hours, and you’ll get really good at it and have success. I know that sounds like I’m dancing around the question, but I truly believe that. Work for tens of thousands of hours, and you’ll build complicated pathways in your brain. Someone will get lucky once or twice, but if you want to be a really good writer, you just have to do it.
AM: The rules are meant to be broken in screenwriting. The best scripts break the rules but also conform in the right ways. I think that’s part of the tens of thousands of hours thing. You need to do it enough, read enough, and be aware enough so you know what’s happening in the writing scene. What are trends going on right now that you need to subvert? When I finish reading a book about screenwriting, I am being told there’s a formula I can use to write an awesome screenplay, but it’s just not that. It’s building the framework in your mind about why some movies work the way they do. Movies will come along that don’t follow those conventions and will still work critically and financially. Also – drink a whole lot of coffee!
BlueCat: What’s next for you two?
JB: We’re on a promotional festival tour until the end of the year. We’ll be in London next week with Spring, and when we’re there, we’ll scout for our next movie. It’s about an infamous early 1900s occultist named Aleister Crowley.