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:

It’s an Animal Thing: Why Riddick is a Franchise with Teeth

You aren’t afraid of the dark, are you?

Less than a year after The Matrix caused a sci-fi frenzy, Universal dumped its low-budget space flick Pitch Black into the desert of February film releases and left it to die. But like its feral anti-hero, the film survived, earning over twice its production budget and building a strong fan base.

The movie’s breakout character, Riddick, was a charismatic barbarian with a messy code of ethics and a wicked tongue. When he wasn’t spouting tough-guy dialog and shaving his head with a piece of shrapnel and axle grease, he was waxing poetic in voice-over narration. The result was a clever, layered character who was played to perfection by a relatively unknown Vin Diesel. The role got him into the Fast and the Furious franchise which launched a year later, propelling him into stardom.

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Everyone standing behind him … not so much.

The film itself is a lean, mean endeavor. On the surface it’s a basic “crash and survive” adventure tale, but underneath David Twohy honed a wonderful script about guilt and second chances, basing his story on work from Jim and Ken Wheat, a sci-fi writing duo who worked within the Star Wars and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises.

Early on it’s clear Twohy (who also directed) is great at two important (yet often neglected) elements of great genre storytelling: he writes colorful, layered characters and puts them in rich, unique settings.

From the opening scenes where Radha Mitchell’s space pilot, Fry, attempts to jettison all of her sleeping passengers in an attempt to save the ship, it’s clear there’s more going on than the average adventure flick. When she’s thwarted by the other pilot and still manages to land the ship safely, the character drama ratchets to intense levels as the survivors laud her with praise for saving their necks, totally unaware she tried to kill all of them.

It’s a gutsy way to open the movie. Expectations are low, with audiences needing only screams and blood to justify the ticket price. By setting the bar so high so early, Twohy forced himself to dig deep for the payoff, and it resulted in a wonderful, richly rewarding ending.

When asked about his film Cabin in the Woods and why he and co-writer Joss Whedon decided to reveal early on that the entire scenario was controlled by a scientific facility, Goddard replied:

“Put all your cards on the table right away, and then that will force you to come up with new cards.”

Judging by the fantastic ending to Cabin in the Woods — which manages to genuinely surprise its audience without coming completely out of left field — his comment is true. Still, it’s often the harder road, so Twohy’s opening sequence to Pitch Black is commendable in a sci-fi market that so often saves character reveals to create a forced sense of mystery (I’m looking at you Oblivion, John Carter, and Star Trek Into Darkness).

Another element that sets this film apart is the production design. The art department created an extraordinary world on a tiny budget, from the sarcophagus filled with contraband booze and ancient weapons (again the theme of dark secrets) to the strange bone trees rising from the skeletons of alien behemoths, to the Lovecraftian demons that lurk under the soil, the Riddick universe was quickly established as wild and imaginative, yet strangely realistic.

PitchBlackCritterIt’s no George Lucas space pig, but it will do.

The crowning moment of Pitch Black is not the awesome monsters, it’s a scene between Fry and Riddick in the warm glow of a waiting escape shuttle, debating whether to face the darkness and rescue the other survivors… or escape now and save their own necks.

It’s here that all the deft character work pays off. Fry’s motivation is clear; she feels guilty for her previous actions and wants to save the remaining crew, but needs Riddick’s animalistic fighting skills in order to survive the mission. But when Riddick has the opportunity to fly the ship away, he decides instead to debate Fry on the merits of heroism. There are lots of scenes like this at the ends of films and few of them feel realistic and justified. Why would the characters stop for a chat in the middle of all that mayhem?

The thing is, Riddick isn’t screwing with Fry just to be melodramatic, he’s testing her like a child testing boundaries. It’s here that Riddick’s backstory comes into play. Abandoned in a dumpster, raised in the prison system, hounded by immoral mercenaries masquerading as officers of the law, Riddick is pushing back against Fry’s moral outrage. He knows she almost jettisoned her entire crew, so why the change of heart? When he finally pushes her to the limit, making her admit she knows she will fail to save the crew but must try anyway, he utters a single word: “interesting.”

This is more than a cocky one-liner, it’s the first time Riddick has seen a true adult. In this moment, Pitch Black coalesces into a bloody, brutal coming-of-age story.

Pitch_Black_vin_dieselJust like the works of Judy Blume.

Of course he decides to help her, and the final line of the movie sums up his entire character arc. As the survivors fly off into space, someone asks Riddick what they will do if they are found by the authorities, who will want to arrest him.

He replies with a shrug, “tell them Riddick’s dead. He died somewhere on that planet.”

I’ll kill you with my teacup.

Pitch Black did fairly well in theaters but incredibly well on DVD. This, coupled with Vin Diesel’s rising star power from a certain car racing franchise, paved the way for a very strange sequel.

But where do you go when at the end of the last film, your lead character changed from vicious badass to moral defender?

Twohy’s answer was to focus on the greater universe, taking his 105 million dollar budget (compared to Pitch Black’s 23 million) and showing the various planets and cultures surrounding the original story.

The result was a standalone adventure with strangely pluralized title The Chronicles of Riddick, a riotous, mildly-campy space romp that lacked the thematic focus of the original, but kept the fun dialog and fantastic production design.

Generally considered a flop, the film has its defenders (of which I am one). A great article from Little White Lies highlights the fact that in the three years between the two films, sci-fi audiences were subjected to terrible Star Wars prequels, a lame duck final Star Trek movie, Tim Burton’s infamous Planet of the Apes reboot, and Disney’s Treasure Planet. All of thse films culled from pre-established stories dating from 1977 all the way back to 1883. This alone makes Twohy’s brand new, diverse, original sci-fi world worthy of an audience. Despite unavoidable comparisons to the far better Pitch Black, taken on its own merits The Chronicles of Riddick is genuinely a good movie.

The opening sequence puts us in familiar territory: Riddick is on the run from mercenaries on a hostile planet. As he leaps across bottomless chasms that are threaded through maze-like ridges of rock, it’s clear that Twohy’s knack for world-building has returned for the sequel. The ships that chase Riddick have external harnesses holding armed men, fully exposed to the elements. This immediately tells us that these ships are not designed for space travel, indicating there must be a larger ship standing by in orbit. Simple details like this harken back to the glory days of Star Wars, when a single laser sword pulled from a basket in an old man’s hut created the sense of a greater universe far better than showing thousands of laser swords in every single shot.

Where Chronicles loses most people is with the Necromongers, a race of death-worshiping mystics that strut around in cumbersome armor and spout clunky dialog.

NecroSo, how do I look … why are you laughing?

The Necromongers may be campy but they are also clever and unique to a sci-fi franchise, diving headlong into the supernatural. Their ship design is mesmerizing, enormous monoliths adorned with Mt. Rushmore-style faces that plunge from deep space and embed themselves deep into a planet’s crust.

The Necromonger mythology also works to subvert the usual blockbuster’s adherence to the Joseph Campbell monomyth. Riddick may be the so-called “chosen one”, but he is the chosen one for a sinister, world-devouring death cult, which works well for a hero who likes to drink human blood and chase it with peppermint schnapps.

This video has a lot more to say on the subject. It’s not only insightful, but it also has a puppet so you should watch it.

After setting up the Necromongers and the fact they want Riddick dead, the movie resets itself on the prison planet of Crematoria. It’s here where some of the film’s best moments take place, as Riddick befriends a super cool lizard cat, kills an inmate with a teacup, and literally outruns sunshine.

Riddick_hellhound_Kitty!

The entire Crematoria segment feels a bit forced within the entire scope of the story, but as a self-contained section it’s top notch adventure. I know this sounds like I’m making justifications for the movie… and I am. But it’s something that I think gets lost when deconstructing story. Sometimes a scene or moment or, hell, an entire storyline, can be out of place. It can compromise the integrity of the whole.

But if it’s fun, sometimes you just gotta say fuckit.

The film’s third act is filled with more pouty Necromonger monologues and weird-ass visuals, but boasts a  game-changing twist: Riddick inadvertently becomes the leader of the Necromongers. It’s this final moment that might be the nail in the coffin for fans and critics alike, since it changes the main character from feral underdog to empire leader.

The Chronicles of Riddick is so vastly different from Pitch Black in scope and tone that it went the way of Weezer’s Pinkerton album. It was doomed to fail before it started, finding that sweet spot of hypocrisy with a voracious movie audience that clamors for something original yet often rejects new things.

Many critics missed the point, like Benjamin Strong’s review for the Village Voice which spent a whopping one paragraph dissecting the movie and the rest of its creative energy on a stupid pun for the title.  Another somewhat embarrassing review from Salon used trendy, catch-all criticisms (such as accusing the film of confusing “MTV style” editing, which is nonsense), attacked Vin Diesel personally for his career choices that had nothing to do with the Riddick films, and blatantly missed the mark by claiming The Chronicles of Riddick re-hashed tropes from The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, when in fact the movie defies and deconstructs those tropes.

While it’s clear The Chronicles of Riddick lacked the narrative focus and thematic punch of the first film, it’s still a grand, clever adventure with more thrills than the average blockbuster.

Lenser

Admittedly, this dude was a little weird.

Three down… you see where I’m going with this?

Nine years after The Chronicles of Riddick, Twohy got his third chance with the Riddick character. Whether it was the critical backlash of the previous film, or the smaller budget, he returned to the familiar Pitch Black set up of “crash and survive” but maintained the overall narrative thread from Chronicles.

Riddick is a great little flick that thrills and chills to varying degrees of success. Large sections border on brilliant, while others feel merely adequate. As per usual, the visuals are stunning and the dialog is snappy, and ultimately the  film feels like a sort of apology for making the Riddick character too civilized.

The story begins after Riddick is betrayed, kicked out of the Necromonger clan, and left for dead in a barren wasteland of rock. The first third is almost a standalone short film. It follows Riddick as he fights off a pack of wild dogs, treats his wounds, encounters a new deadly space critter, and journeys out of the wasteland to the fertile fields beyond.

This journey literally takes him months of story time, and it’s rare to see a genre flick take so much time to set up its tale. Slow but never boring, it’s easily the best part of the film, and a credit to Vin Diesel’s acting skills and the VFX team that made his CGI canine companion a realistic, endearing character instead of a cutsie gimmick.

riddick-3-concept-art-01It’s kind of like Old Yeller in space (spoiler).

Riddick also goes a cool job of combining the deeper meaning of Pitch Black with the in-your-face pulpiness of Chronicles.

Early in the film we see a flashback of Riddick in his Necromonger glory days, sitting dejected on a throne while four naked concubines beckon him to their orgy. The once virile Riddick spares them the barest of glances before he resumes his brooding.

It’s not exactly subtle, but if this impotence metaphor wasn’t clear enough, a few scenes later Riddick encounters this film’s space creature, a yonic, sharp-toothed mouth mounted between two legs, counter-balanced by a long, fanged tail. Dependent on water to survive, the creature lurks in shallow pools, raising its poisonous tail out of the water to strike. The sexual metaphors continue as an impending rain storm threatens to loosen the soil and birth thousands of these monsters.

Riddick-monster2It’s like Jurassic Park, but with vulva-penises instead of velociraptors.

The action finally kicks off when Riddick discovers a mercenary way station and sets off a distress beacon.

Two sets of mercenaries descend on the location, and Twohy immediately delineates between the two teams, making one evil and the other good. While the narrative paints in some pretty broad strokes — the “bad” mercenaries kill an innocent woman for fun within ten minutes of landing, for example — this clear cut delineation allows for Riddick to slaughter enough people to attain the R-rating that fans wanted while keeping the “hero” part of his his anti-hero mantle. Love it or hate it, at least they acknowledged the character work from the previous films.

Despite a few repetitive moments (the movie boasts not one, not two, but three stand-off sequences, all in a row), the movie thrives on clever kills and the weird chemistry between Riddick and the lone female mercenary named Dahl (sound it out).  Played by Katee Sackhoff, Dahl states early on that she’s a lesbian, yet reacts with mild interest whenever Riddick lays verbal claim to her body.

riddick_katee_sackhoff_vin_dieselPure chemistry.

By the time Dahl straddles Riddick with a seductive smile, the message from Twohy and Diesel is loud and clear: Riddick got his balls back. That may lack the dramatic nuance of Pitch Black (and raise a few eyebrows about the tired male fantasy of converting lesbians), but it’s great to see a summer flick that isn’t totally steralized for mass audience appeal and a PG-13 rating.

The film’s final act is the very definition of mediocre (the classic definition of “in the middle”, not the recent, bizarre definition of “worst thing ever made according to this one guy on Twitter”). It depends far too much on Pitch Black‘s finale and loses sight of its thematic through line, but Riddick still boasts some deftly handled action and general badassery. It’s final moments may lack the dramatic heights of  Pitch Black, but it still soars far above the recent batch of lackluster genre flicks.

riddick BIKE-14Richard B. Riddick
(Baldius Heroeclyes)

Since its creation, the Riddick franchise has struggled for life. From the first film’s harsh indie production in the Australian outback, to the harsher critical backlash against the sequel, to the the financing troubles of this third picture, the trilogy is the ultimate cinematic underdog. Vin Diesel even went so far as to leverage his own house as collateral with the financing company for Riddick, making him effectively homeless if they failed to finish the movie.

It’s a special sort of story that incites that kind of moxy from its creators, and despite the franchise’s detractors, the films have had consistently lucrative box-office (despite popular opinion, The Chronicles of Riddick was not the financial disaster it was made out to be), proving it’s the audience that has the final say.

Over the course of three movies, Twohy and gang have created a clever, visceral science-fiction experience that’s unlike anything else out there. It ranges from inspired drama to bawdy escapism, but it does it all with flair and fine craftsmanship. It’s a franchise that should have been dead long ago, but keeps fighting for life, and with any luck our summers will be filled with many more flawed and fantastic Riddick adventures.

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.