Interview: Jeremy Gardner, Christian Stella and Justin Benson on ‘After Midnight’

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Released in June 2020, After Midnight constantly subverts expectations by refusing to commit to one specific genre. To find out what it was like making the film, I spoke with one of the producers, Justin Benson, who previously collaborated with Aaron Moorhead for ingenious films like Resolution, Spring, The Endless and Synchronic. I also chatted with After Midnight co-directors Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella, the filmmakers behind the low-budget marvels The Battery and Tex Montana Will Survive!

Leslie Hatton: You’ve talked about how you and Aaron were interested in working with Jeremy and Christian because you both make films that are sort of “genre fluid.” Were there other reasons that you felt you wanted to help them get After Midnight made?

Justin Benson: To be honest, the script was the biggest thing. I read a lot of scripts. A script can be really good without being emotional. But that said, I read so many unemotional scripts. I might be like: this script has a good structure, and it might be an interesting idea, but the characters — and this isn’t even a criticism — the characters just seem like movie characters. What I care about it is when you’re reading it and you feel yourself tear up. It’s so rare that you get to have that kind of experience reading a script. 

I think if you tried to write scripts like that for the spec market, you’d probably be doing yourself a disservice, and you’d probably never sell a scriptBut in the world of independent film, these scripts are out there, and Jeremy wrote one of them. And it seemed like they were kind of having a hard time getting the movie made for a while, and that’s why I was excited to get on board.

LH: You have written, directed, produced and acted. And now you apparently also perform karaoke? What was the decision on the song you sang in the karaoke scene? Were you like “God, I really need to sing ‘House of the Rising Sun’ at a karaoke party in a movie, and that’s the song I’m gonna go with.” Or was that something written in the script?

JB: This answer is gonna be so boring. Obviously, when you make independent films, music is particularly tricky, and the rights for most songs that people recognize are much higher than, like, the total budget of the movie. So, the Lisa Loeb song [“Stay”] had been worked out way ahead of time. With my song, I don’t think it was worked out. But we only knew that “House of the Rising Sun” was a public domain song because of working on The Endless]. It just so happens that The Animals version is the most popular version of the song. As long as you don’t make it sound anything like the original, you can do whatever you want, which also means that if I sing it as karaoke, I have to make sure that it sounds especially bad so it doesn’t sound anything like the version that everyone knows.

LH: Do you feel that wearing all of these different hats in filmmaking helps you do a better job of doing those individual roles? Do they positively impact each other? So, for example, you have the insight of a writer when you’re producing and vice versa.

JB: Yeah, I would say that. It’s weird, but I feel like I would get worse at filmmaking if I weren’t doing several different things. I don’t know how to direct without acting or when to say “cut” if I’m not editing. It’s funny, but I don’t know how sustainable it is! As you move onto bigger productions, they probably don’t want you doing five jobs on set.

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LH: I think that’s good because it gives you insight into other things. There are always people who might be managers but don’t know what it’s like being a grunt because they never had to rise up through the ranks. Knowing more is always better than not wanting to learn more. 

JB: Yeah, I think so. I used to work in a lot of restaurants and, obviously, I’ve bussed tables at a lot of restaurants. In those jobs, the people who wait tables who used to bus tables are usually a lot nicer to the bussers and the host.

LH: That is absolutely true! I know people who have gone back to waiting tables from management roles because they got tired of paperwork and the stress of sitting in an office, and they just wanted to talk to people.

JB: Also, if you’re good, I feel like you almost always make more money than you do in management because you can make tips.

LH: Too bad it doesn’t work like that in filmmaking. “You’re a really good filmmaker. Get those tips, man!”

JB: I know. Around the time we made Resolution, I was able to stop bartending or working restaurant jobs. But I remember thinking “Oh, am I still going to be able to write if I’m not bussing tables or bartending?”

LH: Yeah, like if that’s all you do, can you still do it?

JB: Yeah.

LH: Because for so many people, that kind of job is like a side project. You’ve got your day job, and you’ve got your writing stuff, or whatever it is, on the side. It’s like the Guns N’ Roses thing: they were so gritty and raw because they were these junkies living on the street, and that’s what they sang about in their lyrics, and then they got all rich and famous and what are they going to sing about now? “Look how many drugs I’ve done and all the supermodels I’ve slept with.” That’s when bands get boring. 

I’m not saying you’re like Guns N’ Roses! It’s different with music. But if you were Guns N’ Roses, which member would you be?

JB: I don’t know! I haven’t been able to cut my hair in a while, so I feel like I’m closer to the hair length of Slash than Axl.

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LH: Speaking of quarantine haircuts or lack thereof, how is it going with your filmmaking? How is it affecting distribution and getting stuff made? 

JB: It doesn’t really affect my making movies all that much because right now I’m just writing anyway. The lifestyle of writing movies is somewhat similar to quarantining: you feel extraordinarily guilty if you leave the house to do other things instead of staying home and writing.

In terms of distribution, I don’t know. The idea of releasing movies in theaters right now? I just don’t know how that’s going to be possible for a really long time. I wonder about things: like what do you do with all of these contracts that say certain movies have to be released in theatres during a certain quarter? It’s very strange.

Movies not being released in theaters is one thing that sucks, but I feel bad for filmmakers who have their first film in a film festival. A movie will always find its way out into the world, but I can’t imagine what it must be like having a movie at South by Southwest this year, since it didn’t happen.

LH: What is it about making films that don’t necessarily fit into any one genre that still appeals to you after all this time? 

JB: It’s funny, and this may sound dumb, but — in my head — I always thought we were making horror films. Like yeah, we’re trying to be scary and build these scary moments. But I also understand that they are left of center in a lot of ways; they are weird little horror movies. I guess I say that because I’ve never consciously thought, “I want to mix horror with comedy and drama and all these things.” I just thought that putting levity and putting drama into the same movie contributed to the horror. Because then you felt more of a reaction to the characters. For one thing, I don’t know how to write any other way! I’ve tried to write in a more traditional, studio-movie kind of way, but it’s not something I’ve done a whole lot of.

LH: Well maybe you’re like the Ramones then, instead of Guns N’ Roses. You find your thing, and you stay with it, and then you keep improving on your thing.

JB: Well, yeah, that’s what I’ve been telling people.

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LH: You’re going to create your own niche and keep being the best at being your own niche that you can be.

JB: Yeah, I like it when you put it like that. I think the aim is sort of like Jaws. I think Jaws has good drama and levity and those things, and I don’t think people have a hard time categorizing it as being a horror film, right? Would you say Jaws is genre-bending or would you say it’s a horror film?

LH: No, I think it’s a horror movie. But I wonder if that has to do with this weird thing that comes from non-horror fans. People who don’t really watch horror movies might think all horror movies are slasher franchises. I feel like this was a conversation when the “elevated horror” discussion was taking place a few years ago. People like horror but don’t realize that they do because they think it’s something other than what it is.

JB: That’s true. Horror is funny like that. It can be something like The Exorcist, which might equate with something like The Godfather. It’s a very classy, amazing piece of cinema. But when you look at stuff like The Cabin in the Woods, that’s an example of a really fun horror movie. But those are almost like two different genres within a genre.


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Leslie Hatton: You have talked in interviews how the two of you have similar approaches to making films as Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead in terms of mixing genres. What other aspects of the way that they make movies interested you in working with them?

Jeremy Gardner: For me, a lot of it is the way that the relationships onscreen in their movies feel organic; it almost feels like they allow the characters to breathe a little bit. Especially the first time I saw Resolution, I realized that it almost felt improvised in a lot of ways, but I know that it wasn’t heavily improvised. Well, Vinnie [Curran], of course improvises tons because I’ve worked with that asshole and he won’t let anybody talk; he’ll just ad lib a million times over you. But there are organic, realistic performances that they get out of people that just feel kind of lived in, which I’ve always loved. And then it’s the way that they work together specifically.

I remember Spring was probably the first real set I was ever on — being able to watch [Justin and Aaron] work so confidently together and know what they want going in and the way that they pull each other aside. There’s never any drama; everything seems to be moving very smoothly and each one of them kind of tackles a certain aspect of the on-set process. It was really informative.

Christian Stella: I’m really impressed by what they can do with budgets, especially. We made The Battery for $6,000, and I think Resolution was made for something like $20,000. They are the only other filmmakers I can think of that are making features at that level. There are plenty of people working in the $100K to $200K range, but what they can pull off with barely anything is amazing, and I feel like that is a perfect fit for us as well.

LH: After Midnight definitely feels like a movie made by you two. It feels like The Battery in that you can tell it’s the same people that made it. It’s so distinctive in that way.

CS: That was a big thing, for me anyway. How do we get a crew and a bigger budget than we’ve ever worked with — and it’s still an indie budget — but not lose that makes us us? And also that wouldn’t have been possible without Dave [Lawson, Jr.], Justin and Aaron as producers. Because they let us take these risks that you don’t normally get to take when you’re working with someone else’s money.

JG: I’m super happy to hear you say that it feels like it’s of a piece with our earlier stuff. To their credit, they fought with the financiers to make sure that we had final cut. They knew that there were certain things that we would fight for that they might not agree with. But their whole point was if you let them make this movie, and then you don’t let them have final cut, it’s going to feel like a movie about a guy in a house with a monster. But if you let them have final cut, there’s going to be quirky, characteristic, very specific point-of-view moments that are going to make it bigger than just “a dude in a house.” 

We have goofy sensibilities; we like things to be funny when they probably shouldn’t be, and we like things to be romantic when they want it to be scary, and that’s the kind of stuff that speaks to us. To their credit, they were willing to know that they were going to fight with us down the line over some edits, but they let us have creative control.

LH: It really pays off. One thing I liked about both movies is that they are very specific to a place without being about that place. I grew up in the south, in New Orleans, so I think the films feel very southern, but not cliched. Not to say that if you haven’t lived in the south you won’t get the movie, but I definitely felt an affinity with it. The bar felt so much like a bar you might go to in Hammond, Louisiana or one of these smaller towns. Who is going to make a movie about Hammond, Louisiana?

JG: Sounds like Barlow, Florida [where After Midnight is set] to me.

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LH: Do you find that there are a lot of movies that try to strip that element out to make them more universal? Do you find that that hurts or helps?

JG: I think it definitely hurts. If you look at Fargo, it doesn’t work without its setting. Even Jaws being set in Massachusetts in that kind of environment where it’s a beach town, but it’s a northern beach town, like a fishing community. These things are important. I think when people think of Louisiana, they think of New Orleans, but they also think of the bayou. 

With Florida, they don’t think of it as “the south.” They only think of the beach. They only think of the coast of Florida. I grew up in the interior of Florida, you know, catfishing, listening to country music and eating grits, and that is something that a lot of people haven’t seen: a movie that clearly feels southern, and sticky, and hot, but there are scrub palms. You don’t often see “redneck” AND “tropical.” And I think that’s something very unique to the interior of Florida that we wanted to show, especially the dessicated citrus groves. The orange industry down here is very interesting to look at through a camera, especially with the Spanish moss. 

The script was originally written for New England, and the movie was going to take place in upstate New York or Connecticut like our other ones. When we got closer to funding, I thought, “What if we flipped this thing and made it where I grew up?” And they really liked that idea, and it helped to push it through. I think it would have been an entirely different movie if we hadn’t had that house and environment.

CS: We’ve made movies in Connecticut and New England and they were all outdoors showing nature. There are so many movies that take place in New England houses. Like pretty much every ghost movie is in a New England house. I think that would have felt like “we’ve seen this a hundred times before,” at least location-wise.

LH: Another thing that I liked but that I hadn’t seen many other interviews mention was how your voice [Jeremy’s] was so good in the karaoke scene. I did not expect it. I was like “Whoa! He can really sing!” I was really impressed.

JG: Thanks! The hard part was that I originally started singing it with, like, a country twang, and that didn’t work out. I had to just actually kinda be more vulnerable and sing it normal. I got the best back-handed compliment ever. I saw a review a couple weeks ago that was like “It’s so stupid that Hank is such a good singer.” Like, “Why would this redneck be so good at singing?” So, they like my singing, but it was a terrible character choice. 

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LH: Another thing I had not seen mentioned in other interviews with you two is the sound design. There are so many jarring sound edits in After Midnight. You’re getting in the rhythm of a scene, and there will be a really loud noise and then something else happens, and it’s such a shock. And it happens multiple times. It’s so well-done. How was the decision made to make that a transition between certain scenes?

CS: We had a really talented sound designer [Michael LaFerla]. I’ve actually done the sound design on all of our other movies. This is the first movie we’ve had in surround sound as well. I think we just lucked out and our sound designer shared our aesthetic. We flew to L.A. to work on the mix and thought it was amazing. We had very few notes, but we did sit there for a couple days and go through everything painstakingly.

I think the cuts that you’re talking about act almost like jump scares. I think that was the most important thing: to make sure that they make you jump. I’ve seen reviews now that say it’s one of those movies where you need to turn the volume up and then turn it down. And I’m like, no, it ain’t! You gotta just turn it up to where the dialogue sounds good to you and then just get hit in the face by a monster every once in a while, that’s it! Let it be loud! It’s not extremely long stretches of a monster screaming in your face, but when it screams, you should feel it. 

I love the sound design as well, and I loved working with [Michael]. It’s like the sound design is its own character. And very few people bring it up, so thank you!

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LH: I asked Justin a similar question: what is the appeal of making movies that don’t fit into one particular genre? He said that’s just like how he likes to make movies. Is there something about movies that don’t fit into one category that you like?

JG: I tend to write like real life. Right now, I’m stressed because I have to go bartend. We’re opening up during a pandemic, and I have to go bartend. But then I’ll get to work and somebody will say something funny, and I’ll laugh. And later, I’ll see my cat, and I’ll get to pet my cat. And then I’ll get to kiss my fiancée. Days are up and down, every single day. There is dread, there is existential dread, there is happiness, joy and humor.

So, when I’m writing, I never think about that stuff. I just kind of write. If anything, I’m trying to make sure that I’m hitting the right amount of horror beats. I always want to write in the horror genre or with genre elements. So, sometimes I have to remind myself that something is scary enough because the levity and the romance and the character stuff is just normal.

A lot of times you hear people say we love to mix up all these genres, but I never feel like we’re doing that at all. I feel like we’re just making movies about real people. And the fact that real people laugh and cry and and get scared… it might seem like we’re throwing a bunch of genres at the wall and seeing what sticks. But in actuality, I think we’re just trying to make something as human as possible.

After Midnight released on June 8. It’s available on Blu-ray in the UK via Arrow Video and Amazon Prime in the U.S.

Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.