Interview: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Directors: “Resolution” and “Spring”)

When Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead met, they were interns at Ridley Scott’s commercial production company. Soon they were working with each other on a variety of short films and spec advertisements, and when Justin approached Aaron with a genre-bending horror script called Resolution, they decided to pool their talents and resources to get it made.

Shot in 17 days on a tiny budget, the film snagged the attention of the Tribeca Film Festival and has since garnered rave reviews. Now available on iTunes and Netflix streaming, Resolution is scary, funny, conceptually unique, and definitely worth a watch.

I recently had the chance to speak with Justin and Aaron about the making of Resolution as well as their upcoming film Spring.

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So you guys just got back from Italy?

Justin: Yeah, we just got back two weeks ago. We were there for six or seven weeks, shooting Spring.

So you’ve just shot principal photography then?

Justin: Yeah, we just finished. And we did a few days in the U.S.

Let’s talk about your first film, Resolution. What was your budget, how big was your crew, and what were the day-to-day logistics like?

Justin: Uh … I don’t remember, actually.

Aaron: I think we had ten people on set most of the time. For the final scene of the movie we were up to about eighteen people.

Justin: It was really small. The entire budget of the movie was tiny. Tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny. It was just our checking account.

That’s impressive. It really does not look or feel so cheap.

Aaron: The budget on Spring is literally … twenty-seven times the budget of Resolution.

(laughter)

Justin: But I think we can honestly say, from Resolution to Spring, you can tell on set we were getting more because we had more money. It looks like a much more expensive movie.

So on Resolution did you just have crew camp out at the cabin, or did they stay nearby and that place wasn’t as remote as it seemed?

Aaron: We actually worked out a deal with a Christian children’s camp. I’m not joking, they put us all up for some really, really dirt cheap price, I forget what it was. Like, $1,500 to house the entire crew for the whole entire shoot. Something like that? And it was a five minute drive to set. We got really lucky on that one.

Tell me about how you did sound on a shoestring budget.

Justin: What sound?

(laughter)

Justin: You’ll notice Resolution doesn’t have any score, so that approach required incredibly crisp sound. So we had this incredible field mixer, who is also a composer, named Dan Martinez, who rocked it. And we had another guy who was our re-recording mixer. Nobody worked entirely for free, but they might as well have, basically. So our re-recording mixer was this guy named Yahel Dooley who is like a third director to us, to be honest. He is one of the “must haves.” Some people don’t understand our movies until Yahel gets to it. Really, his sound is so critical and crucial to everything that we do, we absolutely need him. So he designed everything. Resolution had almost no ADR (Additional Dialog Recording), it had like a couple lines here and there. And it was all for clarity, it wasn’t even for beefing up the quality of the audio. Sound is of paramount importance to us. The mix was like fifty hours long because we were pulling a favor. We were sneaking into a post house to do it. So it was an insane thing. And Yahel just went with it, he was right there with us.

Aaron: He’s incredible, he’s our secret weapon.

You shot on the RED. At any point did you discuss using DSLRs to save money?

Justin: We did. We use DSLRs all the time for new media stuff, but there are things for example … actually, I’m going to let Aaron answer this.

Aaron: There are disadvantages to those little cameras. You can shoot features on them, The Battery was shot on one and it looks awesome. You can barely tell that it’s not a RED. But I love shooting features in 4k. Especially low budget indie stuff, because if you need more coverage you can punch in to a close up, or if something is too dark you can move stops … you just have more freedom going into post production than you would on a DSLR. And with DSLRs … you need other pieces of equipment to make them look good, you can’t just grab one and go shoot with it.

Justin: There is something about the small camera look that seems campy … it’s almost silly to debate the differences between DSLR and RED, nobody is going to say a DSLR is better than RED.

Aaron: When we were making the choice it was all just coming down to budget. I’ve shot five or six features on RED and we’ve shot about a million different things on DSLR, so it’s not even a choice beyond “can we afford it?” And we got it hooked up.

Justin: Also, as a story reason, Michael is also holding the film you’re watching on 35mm film. So there could have been a story reason as to why it’s not on film, but it’s a lot easier to swallow if it looks like film, and RED looks a lot like more like film than DSLRs.

What are some things you learned from Resolution that you’ll take with you on future projects and what are some things you’ll never do again?

Justin: Well, we had a script supervisor this time.

Aaron: Usually it’s more like we’ll pick up something during the process that we’ll take to the next one.

Justin: With Resolution there were no big continuity errors by some miracle, but there was one scene where we realized we had shot the end of the movie without Chris wearing the bandage he should have been wearing. It was like amateur hour.

Aaron: Our script supervisor was this document we made way in advance that listed the things we needed to watch out for in a scene. And we could just check it before every scene.

Justin: Sometimes we wouldn’t check it.

(laughter)

Aaron: Just dumb shit.

Justin: With production you don’t think, “oh I need a script supervisor!” you think “oh, I need a camera!” But our script supervisor on Spring was … I’m not shining anyone on, but I don’t think there are better script supervisors out there. I don’t think they exist, we got the best one.

Resolution was totally your movie but I’m assuming Spring had more outside funding. Did other people have a say in the finished film?

Aaron: That’s a great question because that was our worry. Resolution turned out well because we got to do what we wanted. We took whatever risks we could and tried to make a really interesting film. So on our next film, it was like “how are we going to do this without getting into bed with the wrong people? Do we want to make another film or hold on to our scruples?” And we ended up getting really lucky by not having any outside interference again. We have a financier that pretty much lets us do what we want and a cast that’s incredible. There’s always the game of casting for sale value versus talent and stuff like that. But Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker, Evil Dead remake) is the most talented mother f*cker on the planet and he’s awesome, really awesome. He just dives right into the role. In many, many ways we got super lucky. And we just have to keep hoping we get as lucky as we keep getting.

Talk about how the next film happened, since you made Resolution completely on your own. Did it help you get an agent or manager that hooked you up?

Justin: For Resolution we got really lucky and made it into a major film festival just by submitting. And then you end up surrounded by people on the business side of things that you build relationships with. Most of the people we did Resolution with were people that we ended up making Spring with, on the business side of things. As far as agent and manager, not so much. We have kind of a manager now but the thing is, as far as making stuff like Resolution and Spring, you make that stuff outside the system and it’s kind of separate from your agent and manager stuff, in a lot of ways. There’s basically a budget range at which you can make … let’s call it “unique material.” And once you go over that it’s like … you’ll get offers for remakes or things that are a very slight variation on something that already exists, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you definitely can’t make stuff like Spring or Resolution within that system.

If someone offered you one of those remakes would you make it and learn on their dime, or would you rather plow ahead with your own stuff?

Justin: Honestly, it’s a delicate game of playing in both worlds because they both have their advantages.

When I watched Resolution I was really taken with how you used different types of scares … do you have a philosophy about what types of scares to use? And why? Or do you just go with your gut about what’s scary?

Aaron: There’s a little bit of theory behind it. We have kind of a cowboy approach when it comes to the tone of our films, where we just kind of go and make whatever the moment is work. If it’s scary we make it as scary as we can, if it’s funny we make it as funny as we can. And for scares … it’s very rare that we’ll time a jump scare. That’s not really our thing. Sometimes it happens, but if it happens every five seconds and the person (in the movie) is like “damn, you’re always trying to fool me!” to be honest that’s like the worst jump scare in the world. And it happens way to often. But if you can get it right it’s just awesome. Our favorite thing, honestly, is just tone. When you can scare people with just the tone of dread and building unease and combine that with something that is conceptually unique and frightening, that’s our favorite thing. If we can find that and really scare people with it, that’s really cool.

The one jump scare that stands out is when Michael (Peter Cilella) goes into the cave, but even though it’s not “the monster” of the film, it’s still a scary scenario.

Justin: With supernatural horror, the hardest thing is to sit there and try to come up with new things that are scary. It’s really tough. Even if you watch something like The Conjuring which is effective, but every single thing in it has been done before. It’s tough to break new ground. When you really think about it, we’re living in a world where people have been trying to make myths since [civilization] has existed, so 4,000 years of people trying to outdo you and you have to sit at your desk and try to think of something that is hopefully not derivative and can still scare people in a new way …

Aaron: Or if not scare you then resonate with people and make people think a little bit about their humanity. Anything that can turn that on its head … and that’s the thing about Justin’s writing, he’s always trying find a way around what’s already been done. That’s one of the reasons we both get along so well, because we both mutually feel like you could do things that have been done before really well and people may like it, but it’s just already been done so it’s uninteresting to us. Not that we’re the most original filmmakers in the world, though we strive to be, but you can never get away from your past.

(pause)

That sounded way more epic than I mean, but you know what I mean.

*laughter*

Aaron: It’s always funny when people say our stuff is original and we say that’s what we’re striving for … but on the poster is a cabin in the woods.

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It’s a tough balance, because the audience does come back to see tropes. I remember seeing the poster with the arm handcuffed to the wall and thought it might be “torture porn” (which it isn’t). But while having a character handcuffed to the wall is a major element in the story, it’s not the whole movie, though I can see why they chose that image to promote it.

Justin: We mostly made that poster ourselves and we were trying to get something that was very evocative, that you’d look at and have kind of a visceral reaction. In hindsight it might sell the movie differently than it is, but what it does do — because right now it’s the DVD cover — is that it intrigues a lot of people. And even though that’s slightly different sometimes than you’re expecting, how do you sell the visual of Resolution? What is THE visual of the movie? Well, it’s a voyeuristic mind twist … how do you find the visual for that? You know?

Absolutely. To be clear, I didn’t know you guys designed the poster and I wasn’t trying to critique the quality.

Justin: No, we feel the same way! It’s totally fine.

It’s so true that Resolution has a complex idea behind it. Can you talk a little bit about how you juxtaposed the supernatural force in the movie with the addiction of Chris (Vinny Curran)? Was that your plan from the start or did it develop along the way?

Justin: The supernatural mythology came first and the character drama came second, just in the writing process. But then in the total making of the film they’re of equal importance. But to be totally honest the first thing that came to my brain was the mythology. And it’s weird. Aaron and I have made three of four things now with some kind of supernatural mythology, and with two out of those three there’s so much done with suggestion. There are whole worlds of mythology we’ve developed in at least two projects — one is a short film we’ve got coming up — that go really deep and there’s a lot suggested … but it’s fun not to get too far into it in the actual story. In Spring we get pretty far into the mythology. We talk about it explicitly quite a bit.

So much of horror is about what you don’t know and mythology is a tool we use to explain things. Do you fight for the balance to have enough info for the audience to make sense of things while keeping things vague enough to be scary?

Justin: With everything in film making you have the issue of how much you are showing and how much you are telling. I think what Aaron and I have found with the last few projects is that you just have to do both a lot. You can do the kind of film school thing where it’s just showing and you end up with something like “wow, it’s so Lynchian!” And that’s great, but if you’re not doing a story about a vampire or a werewolf or something, with a mythology that people have engrained in them, if you’re not talking about what you’re showing it’s a very different experience. And the degree to which people comprehend what is going on will be much lower. But that’s always a challenge, showing versus telling, and how much to do each.

Aaron: Whenever you think about a film with no dialog you think “impressive! Cool!” But every time I’ve ever watched a film with no dialog, I think “this is weird and they trying really hard.” The only time I’ve seen it work is in like the first nine minutes of There Will Be Blood. And why? Because he’s alone! Then as soon as he’s with people he starts talking.

Justin: At this point you could probably do any variation on the zombie mythology without dialog and people would get it. (laughs) That might be kind of an interesting thing, a really meditative, poetic zombie movie. People would totally get it.

I think a lot of indie films get basic coverage of a scene but don’t have the time or money to select shots that really get the film to the “next level” and have meaning to them. Were there sequences in Resolution that you wanted to film but couldn’t?

Aaron: Honestly, that was one of the reasons when Justin came to me with this script, that I came on board. We weren’t going to be like wearing our father’s shoes with the story, because it required the aesthetic. If we had a hundred million dollars to shoot this movie, it would have looked exactly the same. It’s the only way it could have looked.  It has to be this kind of voyeuristic, naturalistic thing. It has to look this way because there’s a story reason for it. So when Justin and I were talking about how to approach the movie, we spent a lot of time on location and we figured out what looks the best. At least so we’re not looking at garbage, you don’t hate looking at the movie because it’s a bunch of plaster white walls and shitty lighting. We were designing an approach of beautiful naturalism. We didn’t actually reference any movies, but the one person who does this really well is Terrence Malick. Now the movie doesn’t look anything like Terrence Malick, but his approach is the same. You don’t think “oh, that was well done lighting” or “oh, that gaffer was great!” instead it feels like “oh, that gaffer didn’t have to work very hard because the lighting was already beautiful.” Now our gaffer did work very hard, but we worked to make it look as natural as possible. The camera work had to have a natural point-of-view look that actually was in the script. It was written as “halfway between Steadicam and handheld” and we got this big rig that kind of looks like a scorpion that hangs the camera off my shoulder and we were able to kind of get that look. Here and there the rig doesn’t hold up, but mostly it did. And we shot Spring the same way, we ended up liking it that much.

 I’ve read that you had three months of rehearsal time with your main actors. How essential was that to the finished product?

Justin: Yeah, I think the most important part leading up to production is the rehearsal time with the actors. We actually re-write the script, the dialog, and tailor fit it to the actors. That’s how you get it looking like it was improvised. There’s almost nothing improvised, we just go through a really long rehearsal process and make sure everything is really naturalistic and conversational. Actually, it’s a thing that’s kind of scary, because as we move up in budget we’ll have to go to producers one day and say “we want to bring our actors to set three weeks before filming.” I think we save our producers money, though. Everything is really worked out before we get to set.

Aaron: It’s no joke. I don’t think any producer would believe it but that’s only because they don’t ever actually get three weeks of rehearsal so they don’t see the results. But we barely ever have to clear the set for blocking or work out kinks, because they’re already worked out a week ahead of time. It sounds like we’re just being idealistic, but actually as producers ourselves in addition to directing, we would insist on it not just for the performance but it also saves a lot of time on set.

Justin: We did nine hour work days in Italy. That’s just what they do. Normally it’s twelve over here, twelve plus, so losing one quarter of our day, the only reason we were able to make it was because our actors were so on point. And the same thing with Resolution, we had short days on Resolution. They just knew their character and walked right into it with very little adjustment. That was worked out so much earlier they had been able to think about it and process it. Honestly, I’ll say it again. With Resolution and Spring we just got super lucky because with Resolution we had that cabin accessible, so we’d just go block it out in the cabin. And even if we couldn’t, the guy’s handcuffed the whole time, you know? In Spring we took over that little city basically, that little town we were shooting in, and we were able to just go to every single location to block it out. That said, we know we can’t always block it out, it’s just always preferable.

Aaron: And it’s better for the actors, not just for timing but to be able to actually see where we’ll be shooting.

Justin: I wanted to say another thing about the way Aaron lights, is that it’s doubly impressive. I think as far as the realm of indie film goes, he is in my opinion the best DP. Everything looks amazing. But what’s especially impressive is that when we get to set he lights in such a way that he’s thinking about how we’re not going to be able to do a major relight as we establish all these things, yet he’s still making it look really good.

Aaron: The reason Soderbergh shoots all of his own stuff is because it’s just one less conversation. In our case, obviously both of us are really into aesthetics, as a filmmaker you have to be, but always when a choice comes down to more time shooting an actor’s face or more time lighting, the good news is that because I’m directing and shooting and Justin is right there with me, we can always make the right choice which is shoot more time with the actor’s talking. The actors are going to look beautiful because they’re beautiful people, and as long as my lighting isn’t garbage then we can do something for them. But, getting them more takes, letting them “feel it” is so much more important than saying later “at least it was lit beautifully but the performance was off.” No one ever says that.

Speaking of which, I thought the acting from secondary characters in Resolution was very good, notably Zahn McClarnon who played Charles. Did you have to change your approach with him given the fact you didn’t have three months of rehearsal?

Justin: Always with day-players or people that come for just a couple of days, you spend a lot of time casting. What is that saying, 90% of directing is casting? In the case of day-players you just do a really thorough audition process and hope you get your first choice (which in that case, Zahn was our first choice). And then you pray and then they come to set. You can say a few things to them, but there’s to trick to directing. You need to speak clearly and be a good communicator, but once you tell them what you want … you just hope.

Justin and Aaron are currently in post-production on Spring. If you’d like to watch their current work, check out Resolution via iTunes or Netflix streaming, or check out their short films on YouTube:

The Science of Story: Talking about Gravity with a NASA Engineer

I had the opportunity to watch Gravity this weekend with Robby Stephenson, Senior Engineer in the Mechanical Engineering Division at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Afterwards we talked about the science on display in the film, what they got right and what seemed off. More importantly, we talked about how these things affected the story.

We also poked fun at George Clooney a little bit, just because.

Joining us in the conversation was Regan Hutson, a photographer and science buff who had some great things to contribute.

Warning: This article is for folks that have already seen the movie. We jump around a lot in the chronology of the movie and give major SPOILERS.

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James Roland: Okay, tell us what was fake. Or what stood out to you, not just the science but whatever.

Robby Stephenson:  I’m not usually an emotional person for a movie, but my emotions were all up and down. In a regular blockbuster or something, it’s like “yeah, things are blowing up but they’re not in danger” but I guess the realism was just so good … I was getting tense and I would catch myself not breathing and gripping my arm rests.

James: I did that too and it was my second viewing.

Regan Hutson: There were points with all the debris that it almost felt like a Michael Bay film.

James: Like the second time the debris comes she doesn’t get hit at all but everything around her gets destroyed.

Regan: Right.

James: Which they kind of had to do because if that capsule even gets pierced once she’s be out of commission, so they kind of had to fake it.

Robby: The biggest thing that sticks out to me was when Sandra Bullock lets George Clooney go … there’s nothing that pulls him away. They’re in space, they’re just floating. They’re not on the Titanic!

James: I was curious about that, because they stop sharply …

Robby: Yeah, so once you stop, you’re stopped. Nothing’s gonna make you move any more.

James: Clooney says the ropes are too loose and then you see her giving way …

Robby: But there’s nothing pulling on him.

James: My thought was they did such a good job with the physics in the beginning  …

Robby: I had the exact same thought.  When they were on the space shuttle everything looks really good, with the bolt floating away and her twisting around … but once they got on the space station I felt like the quality suffered a little bit.

James: A little bit, yeah.

Robby: All they would have had to do was have something hit the space station and it was rotating, then you’d have the centrifugal force. That would have been enough to pull him away. But it was fairly stable from what I could see.

James: Yeah.

Robby: But they got a lot of stuff right.

James: What about the fire, did that seem realistic to you?

Robby: Yeah, fire is one of the biggest dangers up there and they’ve had a couple of small ones.

James: And it’s orb-like?

Robby: Yeah, you should watch some of the videos they have with the physics of flame and candles and water in zero gravity.

James: Someone pointed out to me that even though you have pressure from your body, your intestines are used to the pull of gravity so they are affected as well. They’re essentially floating inside of you, something I hadn’t thought about.

Robby: Space is a constant feeling of falling.  It’s like going down the side of a roller coaster.  Something like half to two thirds of astronauts get sick, they expect it.  I think they don’t plan anything for their first day up there.

Regan: One of the things I couldn’t get out of the back of my head was  out of the entire international space station … nothing breached it. So the entire thing is still full of oxygen.  Which is kind of necessary for there to be some hope for her to survive, but it seems really, really unlikely.

James: Unless there was a hose inside she could plug into for oxygen, but I don’t know if that even exists.

Robby: Yeah, I don’t know a lot about the suits. But I do know you can’t take them off that fast.

James: That’s a good example though of where they needed to fake some things for the sake of story.  Later she sees she has seven minutes before the debris comes again, and in the next scene she’s outside the ship and I’m thinking “just seven minutes to get the suit on and get outside, you’re gonna rush and forget something.”

Robby: Yeah, everything was really compressed.  They don’t do anything fast.

James: To me, stuff like that is a given in a movie. If you go in nitpicking that then you’re missing the point.

Robby: I’ve observed space walks and it’s corn growing … I mean, it takes two hours to do anything. You want to see the highlights!

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James: It’s interesting. You could argue that because the whole movie evolves (or devolves, depending on your world view) into a story of faith, that as she goes along it gets more and more incredible and less realistic.  I don’t know if that’s intentional or if I’m just reading into it.  Like, what do you feel about the re-entry scene? Sandra Bullock’s character says she has a fifty-fifty chance, but I think I remember learning it’s a lot less than that … isn’t there a really narrow window where you won’t burn up?

Robby: Yeah, there really is.  I think the Soyuz are fairly foolproof, I mean they’re Russian so they’ve been flying them for 40 or 50 years. It’s an automated system. But you gotta hit a narrow window and get everything oriented the right way.

Regan: Wasn’t there a mission where just a small piece of damage to the shielding caused the entire thing to collapse during re-entry? Just knowing that, the probability seem very low [she’d survive]. But I guess the capsule was internal through the whole thing until she starts to re-enter so the shielding could have been protected.

James: My take on it was that wasn’t how it was supposed to go down, but because it was already falling she went down in the wreckage and then it broke apart around her. But then she was spinning and it righted itself, so I’m assuming that’s automated.

Robby: It is designed to right itself, a heavy side down kind of thing.

Regan: So the aerodynamics keep it oriented so the shielding carries the brunt of the heat.

James: What did you all think about the fire extinguisher scene? In a way I think the filmmakers fought against themselves because they did such a good job showing how fast they are moving and how hard it is to grab on to another moving object that it ultimately seems impossible.

Regan:  I think the question in that scenario is would a fire extinguisher have enough thrust?

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Robby: At the end when she ran out, she threw the can away from her to get a little extra thrust, I thought  that was a nice touch.

James: So that would actually work?

Robby: Yeah, it’s a change in momentum. You can throw anything and you’d get somewhere.

James: When she launches from the ISS and goes to the Chinese space station and makes the leap … presumably that’s incredibly fast, right?

Robby: If you think about it … it took her about an hour to get there so … orbital dynamics are funky.  Once you point in the direction you’re going you just coast. You see that when the two astronauts are tethered together.

James: Is there a certain amount of friction from solar winds?

Robby: There’s enough friction that you have to care about it when it comes to satellites, but it’s minimal. It would take like a month to slow down.

James: So how fast would you say that they were going?

Robby: Relative to each other? They’re all going 20,000 miles an hour. But the relative rate … a couple miles an hour? One to ten miles per hour, something like that? Which is enough to jerk your arm pretty good, imagine trying to catch someone rolling down a hill.

Robby: So what happened to the Chinese astronauts? Did they evacuate?

James: I assumed so, but why did they leave an escape pod?

Regan: Wouldn’t you want any evacuation system to be redundant in case the first didn’t work?

James: Good point. As near as I can tell, because I’m not an expert, all the points where they fudged the science were for story points.

Robby: Yeah.

James: Like when she gets thrown off at the beginning, the chances of him finding her seem so slim.

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Robby: Yeah, you couldn’t see anything out there.

Regan: Maybe the way she was spinning she was the only intermittent light source.

Robby: Yeah.

Regan: One thing that bothered me … do you remember the Radiolab episode where they’re talking to the astronaut, and he talks about how black the shadows are?  Having a photography background and paying attention I kept thinking “there’s definition in those shadows, that shouldn’t happen!”

JamesBut that’s just such an amazing opening and they have to get themselves out of it somehow. Probably every step of the way the filmmakers would ask “can we do this?” and the science adviser would say “no” and they’d say “well … we’re going to do it anyway.”

Robby: They don’t really have a jet pack like that, though.  I mean, they have maneuvering units but you don’t have nearly that capacity for flying around.  I don’ t even think they use them anymore.

James: The key word is “prototype”, George Clooney calls it a prototype.

Robby: Yeah, they throw that in there to justify it.

James: My thought was that it’s such a big deal to un-tether, what if the jet pack failed? But that’s sort of George Clooney’s character in this, he’s really out there. Kind of one note.  It’s maybe the most one note character he’s played … when they get to the dream-version of him, there isn’t even any hyperbole, that’s just him!

Robby: I have to admit (regarding the dream sequence),  my first thought was “he couldn’t have done that, that’s really stretching it!”

James: And at first you can’t see the astronaut’s face, so you think maybe it was another survivor or a rescue mission … then they open the hatch.

Robby: And you can’t do that!

James: And I thought “are they really doing this, going for a bleak, dark humor ending?” He climbs inside, looks at her dead body, and goes, “whoops.” At first you can’t figure out what’s going on, then as he starts to talk it dawns on you that there’s only one option … and it’s cheesy.

Robby: Yeah. I half expected her daughter to appear.

James: She’s hanging outside the window, “Mom! Mom!”

*Laughter*

James: From then until the end is where they just pour on the cheese.  I actually felt the earlier stuff is more powerful. When they’re just floating by and he’s talking to keep her sane, and she has that little monologue about her daughter dying. It’s so incredible.

Regan: I think one of the things I appreciated because it was in the same tone but it doesn’t hit you over the head as much was when she gets to the ISS and she takes off her spacesuit and just floats there.

James: So beautiful.

Regan: The shot turns into her as a fetus in the womb, down to even the umbilical cord!

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James: And it’s a shedding of the cocoon with the space suit … I felt that shot was powerful and earned. I thought the one at the end that didn’t work as well, because it was kind of a repeat thematically, was the “evolution” shot when she crawled out of the water.

Regan: Her struggling to get up on her feet was pretty justified.

James: True, but the angle they chose to film it was very specific.

Robby: Then they shoot up at her as she staggers off.

James: You half expect to see a monolith and she starts dancing around it with a bunch of apes.  It’s a beautiful shot, but it seemed a little on the nose to me.

Regan: That’s funny, that association didn’t occur to me until you said it.

James: I’ve heard other people talk about it, but maybe it’s more subtle than I thought.

Robby: I just thought it was cool they acknowledged how hard it is to walk after being in space because of the muscle loss.

James: I love when Sandra Bullock laughs because of the irony of the moment.  She has some good dialog and some cheesy dialog throughout the movie, but she owns all of it.  There’s so much talking to herself.

Robby: That’s got to be hard for an actor.

James: It is. And her character changes SO much by the end, she’s great.

Regan: It’s like a miniature version of Castaway with a female lead once George Clooney is gone.

James: George Clooney is Wilson?

Robby: “I’m coming for you!!!!!”

Gravity-Clooney

James: She goes and buys a cardboard cutout of him when she gets home.

Regan: So that’s why his character’s so one-dimensional.

Robby: There it is!

James: Wow. Ouch. 

Regan: I wondered about when they get back to the space shuttle after everything’s destroyed, it didn’t make sense to me that there would be things floating around inside. I thought every loose object would have been evacuated when the hull was breached.

Robby: They do keep things tied down.

Regan: But there were little things like the Marvin the Martian doll and pens, all floating freely.

Robby: Yeah, so that should have been blown out, I think you’re right.  I will say this, the realism that they miss, which most people won’t notice …  is the orbital dynamics. The space stations aren’t all that close to each other.  The Hubble is in a completely different orbit.  And orbital dynamics are weird. I took classes in this. ‘Cause to go faster you first slow down and get in a lower orbit, then speed up and get to a higher orbit. When you trade altitude for speed, it’s all completely counter-intuitive.  So flying an approach vector, when they dock to the space station or something, it’s very non-intuitive.

James: So you go faster when you’re lower? In the same way that the outer edge of a record is moving at a different rate of speed from the center?

Robby: It’s the reverse of that, because on the outer edge of a record you’re going faster,  but in space when you’re in a higher orbit you’re actually going slower.  So to go from a low orbit to a high orbit you speed up, but by the time you get to the other side of the orbit you’re going slower and you would shoot your rocket in the opposite direction of what you might think.  It’s weird.

James: Wow.

Robby: So they dock from beneath, from the Earth direction, but it’s counter-intuitive, you can’t just point where you want to go and shoot your rocket.

James: And [the space stations are] at different altitudes.

Robby Yes. But even if they were, you can’t just speed up and go there, because as you speed up you’ll change orbit.

Regan: It make sense to me that something orbiting at a lower altitude needs to be moving more quickly so that the centrifugal force is countering gravity, but if you are at one orbit and you just push yourself down, are you going to increase in speed for some reason? Or do you have to push yourself to increase speed so that your orbit doesn’t degrade?

Robby: The weird thing is that it’s a little bit of both. So if you’re in a circular orbit your speed is the same everywhere.  But if you’re in an elliptical, if you go oval, your speed varies quite a bit.

gravity_clooney_bullock_tether.jpg.CROP.original-original

James: In the movie they make it seem like they could just shoot around and visit each other up there.

Robby: And that was definitely necessary for part of the story.

Regan: We’ve all been watching movies set in the future where they fly around in space like they’re in planes.

James: I’m curious. Everyone’s been talking about the realism and all the things they can find wrong … but I don’t remember people talking this much about the realism of Apollo 13 when it was released, do you?

Regan: Oh yeah, I do.

Robby:  I read things about how they had the wrong patch on their suits!

Regan: Do you mean picking it apart the same way?

James: Yes. Or lauding it.

Regan: I remember seeing an interview with Ron Howard where he talked about the premier and how they invited folks that worked on the Apollo missions and how they couldn’t believe some of it was done with computer.

James: Not to knock Gravity at all, but when everyone was talking about how realistic it was I just thought “well, Apollo 13 did it years ago.” But they also  had actual events to build on, Gravity is a fictional event.

Robby: That debris problem is very real up there, though.  There’s lots of junk up there.  And NORAD has to track everything down to the size of a basketball or something like that.  And every now and then they have to move the space station out of the way to keep it from getting hit.

James: Does the Earth’s rotation affect all this? Can you put something in orbit counter to the Earth’s movement?

Robby: Yes, but it just takes a whole lot more fuel.  Launching eastward is a whole lot easier than launching westward.

James:  So [in the movie] the debris is traveling the same direction as they are.

Robby: If you have an explosion it’s going all over the place.  The movie said something about the debris moving at 20,000 mph relative speed, which means it’s actually going about 50,000, I don’t know if it could have gotten that fast. But if you go look at the Endeavor space shuttle down at the science center and look at the windshield, it’s pitted.  That’s specks of dust going 20,000 miles per hour.

James:  Seeing it a second time I was determined to figure out how they did certain shots, but it’s a testament to the story that I got sucked in again and forgot to do that.

Robby: They got the northern lights in there.  That made me catch my breath. A lot of astronauts talk about seeing that. *pause* It really is a great movie.

James: Despite how terrifying it is, there’s gonna be a huge influx of applications to NASA.

How I Almost Met Edgar Wright (Twice) and Why His Films are Important

The windows look like frames on a filmstrip as faces whiz left to right in a blur, folks staring out the train windows as it pulls into the station.

It slows down enough to distinguish individual people, revealing a man with sunken cheeks, a ghastly scowl, and a suit covered in blood. The effect is startling.

Life size decals of zombie torsos, plastered to the windows to create the effect of a subway laden with the undead. Amidst the ghouls, the hapless face of Shaun appeared, on his way to work in a white shirt with a spot of red.

That was the first time I saw Simon Pegg.

ImageAnd this was the second.

It was April of 2004 and I’d just spent three weeks bumming in a borrowed flat in Epping. Days consisted of filling my backpack with cheap food, riding the Underground to London, and finding all the things I could do for free.  The marketing for Shaun of the Dead was everywhere, a punny title that riffed one of my favorite movies of all time.

The tagline “A Romantic Comedy. With Zombies.” earned the film an eye-roll from me, but after a week of exposure I decided it wise to spend some of my precious money on a British-made zombie film while I was in England. I found a poster and checked the date. It released on April 9th, my flight left on April 8th.

I consoled myself with seeing the Dawn of the Dead remake instead, which just happened to be in theaters at the time. If I had it to do-over again, I’d call the airline and pay to extend my ticket.

When I finally rented the DVD, I was stunned with how good the film turned out to be. Not “good for what it is” or “good compared to what I thought” but genuinely, quantifiably great. The story takes standard zombie fare and remains true to Romero canon, while finding natural humor that twists the ideas in a new direction. The acting manages to be comedic without being self-aware and the film ranges from laugh-out-loud hilarious (Nick Frost winding the disposable camera for a second shot) to heart wrenching (Shaun killing his own mother).  But most of all, it manages to be both funny and scary, an almost impossible task.

I Googled Edgar Wright and was surprised to find only one other film credit to his name. I read some blog comment about how good his show Spaced was and managed to download a single, low-res episode. It was fun, but hard to understand out of context, so I eagerly awaited his next film, Hot Fuzz, to see what else he had up his sleeve.

ImageIt was a bit tamer than the last one.

The film was more of a deconstruction than Shaun, veering into near spoof territory in the final scenes, but it still showed a stunning control of editing and cinematography for such an early film in a director’s career (his third, after Shaun and his little seen A Fistful of Fingers).

When Hot Fuzz hit DVD I snatched it up and devoured hours of behind the scenes footage and interviews, so when I heard a familiar voice behind me while waiting in line at the Hollywood Arclight theatre I instinctively spun around to say “hi”, not realizing why I recognized the voice until I was facing one of my favorite directors with my hand raised and my mouth hanging open.

He gave me the “I know you know me” look and I turned back to face the counter, not having a single thing to say to him that wouldn’t sound stalkery.

This is the first time I almost met Edgar Wright.

The second time was just a year later, at the 2008 Comic-Con. I’d scored an interview with Wright, Pegg, and Jessica Hynes for the American DVD release of Spaced.

I’d never been to Comic-Con and it was a last-minute decision to attend. The roads were packed with pedestrians, the public transit was overflowing with bodies, the hotels were all booked (not that I could afford them) and I didn’t know a single person in San Diego. As a result, I spent the first night sleeping in my car.  The second night was unbearably hot, so I literally slept under a hedge in a park and woke up at 6am when the sprinklers turned on.

I ran my fingers through my hair, hopped on the trolly, and made my way to the convention center for the interview, hoping I didn’t reek of night sweat and fertilizer.

The staff ushered me to a small round table and there was my name and outlet … right next to a journalist from the BBC.

All I could think about was being asked to leave, like somehow they’d figure out I was living like a homeless person at night or I wouldn’t get a word in with real journalists at the table.

Hynes seemed bemused by the whole experience, not quite believing she was Stateside for a show she’d written a decade before. But Pegg is a commanding physical presence, with a bold gaze and broad shoulders, not at all the meek nerdling he often plays. When he sat down, the table fell into a vacuous silence. Not one reporter spoke, so I stepped into the void and asked them what it was like to dive back into the world of Spaced seven years after the last episode aired.

The result was instantaneous. Pegg and Hynes lit up, telling stories about writing in each other’s living rooms, a couple of twenty-somethings with no idea the successful careers they had ahead of them (Pegg is the current “hey, that guy’s in everything!” Hollywood character actor and Hynes is a successful television writer and actress, most recognizable in America as the tenth Doctor’s unrequited love from the popular Doctor Who reboot).

Through the interview, Wright pulled into himself, letting his actors take center stage. With the limited time he said very little, and it’s a shame I didn’t get to ask him a proper question.

Three years later, Wright released his first major film without Simon Pegg and Nick Frost: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

My review was glowing, but it wasn’t until a subsequent viewing on blu-ray that it finally hit home; Wright is one of the very best directors working today.

Scott Pilgrim is at first blush a silly, surface-level love song to video games and hipster slackers, but the craft is unparalleled by any movie since Kill Bill.

Any film deemed “good” has worked a miracle, weaving the disparate elements of light, sound, emotion, costumes, make-up, CGI, and dialog into a cohesive whole, but the way Scott Pilgrim integrates these things seamlessly, hanging important story points and tentpole jokes on moments that require all these elements to work, all while pushing the boundaries of these elements farther than most movies dare. That’s an utterly impossible feat, yet the film exists. It’s the definition of “movie magic”.

Re-watching the first two installments of the wonderful  “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy” it’s easier to see the mad genius underneath the silly genre trappings. Shaun of the Dead is not just a wonderfully executed zombie flick, it’s also quite a profound statement about accepting adulthood. Hot Fuzz is not just a ludicrous deconstruction of action films, it’s an unpretentious sermon about accepting people and things for what they are without judgment (and a primer in Michael Bay apologetics).

Scott Pilgrim also has a lot to say, though it does so with the brash directness of the video game storytelling it emulates. When Scott pulls a pixelated super sword from his own chest while a digital voice proclaims “Scott has unlocked the power of self esteem” there’s not a lot of room for debate as to the message. While the film wears its theme on its sleeve in bright, blinking, glowing letters, this is precisely the right choice for the story.

What makes Wright’s work to date so incredible is also his Achilles heel; his movies are so effortlessly fun that they might seem like fluff.

Which brings us to the statement that prompted this blog post, a quote about Wright’s latest film The World’s End from a fellow writer from the Movie-Moron.com forum:

Really disappointing. The laughs are few and far between and I didn’t like the absurdly over-choreographed fighting. Edgar Wright is forever destined to be a budget Sam Raimi/Quentin Tarantino hybrid.

I have three issues with this statement. One, it implies that being a blend of two amazing directors is a bad thing.  Two, it suggests that Wright somehow stole from these directors (any more that all artists inherently steal from what’s been done before), and three, it suggests that working on lower budget films is a bad thing.

To date, Wright’s most expensive film was Scott Pilgrim, a story packed with visual effects which cost only 60 million. For comparison, that’s four times less than Man of Steel, a third of Pacific Rim, about half the budget of Elysium and twenty million less than Grown Ups 2.

ImageTwenty million bucks worth of promotional chili.

The World’s End (which opens today) cost just twenty million and boasts complicated fight scenes and many visual effects.

Wright has done more with less money than any current “big movie” director, except maybe Neill Blomkamp’s first film District 9. In a time when Spielberg and Lucas are harbingers for a bloated blockbusters apocalypse, this is surely a good thing. The fact that he takes these smaller budgets and makes some of the most creative and well-crafted cinema of our time, all the better.

If early buzz is correct, The World’s End looks to be a success for Wright and his cohort, with Ant-Man, his addition to the Marvel movie universe, on the horizon. For folks that complain about a lack of imagination or innovation in Hollywood these days, pre-order your tickets now.