“We were having coffee one time and Justin’s like: ‘Hey I had this weird idea, it’s about a pill…” says Aaron Moorhead when explaining the inception of his new movie Synchronic. We’re speaking to him and filmmaking partner Justin Benson via the magic of Zoom one early morning. “After that came the idea of the paramedics.”
Set in New Orleans, Synchronic follows paramedics Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie) who witness the effects a new legal drug, named Synchronic, has on the victims who take it. When Dennis’ daughter ends up being one of those victims, it’s down to the duo to investigate the drug.
“We wanted someone who could investigate it, but not cops,” says Aaron on the reasoning behind the paramedic choice. “We almost always make a movie that’s about two people. The more characters that you involve as central characters, the less time you have to explore it. We wanted to explore a friendship and we wanted people to investigate this pill. We then kind of took tiny pieces of emotions we’d felt before, filtered them into the characters and blew them up so they would be personal and that’s how we arrived at Steve and Dennis.”
This is Justin and Aaron’s fourth film together (they previously collaborated on Resolution, Wrecked, Spring and the more recent, The Endless) and they have got their filmmaking process down to fine art: “It’s very all hands on deck with me and Justin,” Aaron explains. “It’s very collaborative. No one takes a wildly different idea on how to do something. You’re just spending weeks or months talking through what you think prior to a movie, then when you get to the location there’s usually one pretty obvious way forward. But I can imagine (not just co-directing but filmmaking in general), if you don’t spend months prior preparing and locking in a plan, you’ll probably have a lot of conflicts. I think some people work really well in that kind of chaos and prefer it. We just prefer to talk through our movies extensively. Get them on paper. Even sometimes shoot it on an iPhone and show it to people. There’s a whole Blu-ray featurette of our low-budget iPhone versions of scenes and then the actual scene later over it. With [Justin] playing the Anthony Mackie [role]!”
Anthony plays laid-back singleton Steve, to Jamie’s family man Dennis. The duo plays off brilliantly together. “Jamie came first,” Aaron says when we ask how the two actors came on board. “We’ve wanted to work with [Jamie] since The Fall and then once Jamie was attached, the movie became a sort of ‘go’. It’s funny, we said [to Jamie’s agent], who else do you guys have? And they said ‘Anthony Mackie’. So we got Anthony on board. It’s funny though, because he lives and is from New Orleans where the movie takes place.”
New Orleans isn’t the futuristic cityscape location one would normally associate with a sci-fi movie. But this is no ordinary futuristic sci-fi movie. In fact, it’s firmly rooted in today’s society and society’s relationship with synthetic analogue drugs.
“Here in America we have lots of synthetic analogues,” Justin explains. “And the way these things go on the market is that molecularly, chemically they are just barely different enough to sell over the counter. And you have to label the packaging ‘for experimental purposes only’ or something like that. It’s all very legally muddy. When the FDA cracks down on one of those, they [can] change the chemical, the molecule, just enough and put it back out into the marketplace. So you end up with these really reckless drugs that no one really knows what they do. They’ve never been tested in any kind of formal setting at all. So it was a fascination with that kind of idea of ‘Okay so if these mysterious drugs are going out to the world, in the realm of a science fiction story, isn’t it just likely enough that one of these drugs could accidentally make a human being’s brain see time as Einstein claims it was? Where our perception is everything is happening in a linear way but in actuality, everything’s happening simultaneously’.”
The synthetic drug analogue isn’t the only thing that plays around with views on time. The movie itself is non-linear, drawing viewers into the same trippy feeling that the characters experience – though that wasn’t always the case. “The cut [of the movie] that had its world premiere in Toronto last September was much more linear,” Aaron tells us. “And after being able to sit on it for a little bit and realise nobody was having any trouble tracking the basics, we were able to bring in some more of the emotional elements of the film by making it non-linear.”
From the cult-based alien movie, The Endless, to Synchronic, a time-playing thriller with grounded roots and a non-linear plot, Aaron and Justin keep the sci-fi goodies a-coming.
So what do our dynamic duo have coming up next? Aaron is rightfully keeping those cards close to his chest: “What we can say is that it is another independent feature film that is just as scary as it is heart-breaking…” Well, we can’t say no to that.