TAMPA — The directing duo of Justin Benson and Tarpon Springs native Aaron Moorhead have lived up to a past boast.
“Everyone wants to work on a bigger scale and have everyone see their movie, but we have to do it in a way where we are not totally sacrificing what we have spent years building,” Benson told the Tampa Bay Times four years ago when asked if they hoped to one day delve into the superhero genre.
Since then, Moorhead and Benson joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as directors of the Moon Knight series now streaming on Disney+.
Moorhead and Benson directed episodes two and four of the six-part series. A new episode will be available every Wednesday through May 4.
True to their word, they did not sacrifice the filmmaking style for which they’re known.
Moon Knight stars Oscar Isaac as mild-mannered museum gift shop employee Steven Grant, who learns he has dissociative identity disorder and lives a second life as globetrotting mercenary Marc Spector. And then he finds out their shared body is used as the avatar for the Egyptian god of the moon and vengeance.
Moorhead and Benson have shared a directorial body since they met in 2009. Since then, the duo have made five movies together.
The characters and plot devices of their films mirror those in their Moon Knight episodes, which were provided to the Times in advance.
Mythical creatures? Check.
Dark tone? Check.
A blurred line between what’s real and what’s not? Check.
Horror and suspense? Check and check.
There’s also a cult, exotic locales and the question of whether we have control of our own destinies.
Time travel might be the only signature theme explored in their movies that is not in their Moon Knight episodes, but that will certainly be a part of their next MCU project: Season 2 of Loki, which follows the title character’s jaunts through time.
“The bones of a major crossover between our style and Moon Knight’s style was already there when we came on board,” said Moorhead, a 2005 graduate of Palm Harbor University High School and now a Los Angeles resident. “I think that’s why they wanted us to do this.”
Did Anthony Mackey, known by MCU fans as The Falcon, perhaps put in a good word for them, too? After all, he starred in their time travel movie Synchronic. That movie was released in October 2020.
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Moorhead said they had a meeting with Marvel executives the following month.
“We like to think that Anthony had such a good experience that he went directly to” Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, “and said you have to work with these guys,” Benson said with a laugh.
But the truth is that they landed on Marvel’s radar by directing quality independent films. MCU projects then came along that fit their creative skill set.
“There is no path directly into the MCU from where you are right now, except for one,” Moorhead said when asked what advice he’d give to filmmakers who want to make a similar leap into blockbusters. “It is not looking to Hollywood or to wealthy people or anything like that for help. It’s ask your friends if they want to make a movie with you. That is the path.”
Moorhead and Benson became friends while interning together for the Los Angeles-based production company run by Ridley Scott, the man behind such films as Alien, Blade Runner and Blackhawk Down.
They had an eight-hour window to meet. It was Moorhead’s first day as an intern and Benson’s last.
They immediately felt a synergy. Both wanted to direct, but Moorhead was more focused on the cinematography side of filmmaking and Benson the screenwriting aspect.
Their first movie was Resolution, which is about a man who, in trying to save his best friend from drug addiction, ties him up and holds him captive in the home in which he is squatting, only to learn the residence is built on a burial ground and their presence may have angered the ghostly inhabitants.
Then came Spring, a monster and romance flick. That movie landed them on Variety Magazine’s list of “10 Directors to Watch in the Year 2015.”
Their latest movie, Something in the Dirt, is making the rounds at film festivals. According to IMDB, it is about neighbors who witness supernatural events and realize “documenting the paranormal could inject some fame and fortune into their wasted lives.”
With the MCU’s current story lines delving into the supernatural and spiritual realms, Moorhead and Benson said the transition into the world of blockbusters felt seamless.
It is “similar in tone to stuff we are accustomed to making on our own,” Benson said.
Still, would they have really rejected a Marvel offer if it was not?
“Truth be told, it would have been very hard to turn down anything Marvel asks you to do,” Moorhead said. “Of course you want to be in that world. But also there is this trepidation that you would do it wrong, especially if it’s not in your wheelhouse. We couldn’t believe when we read it that it was so much in our wheelhouse with really mind-bending imagery and highly complex character-focused drama. Those kind of things are a lot like our independent films.”