Moon Knight directors break down that mind-bending hospital sequence and Indiana Jones homage
Warning: This article contains spoilers for episode 4 of Moon Knight.
Moon Knight is already a weird show. The first few episodes of Oscar Isaac's Marvel series have brought us time-shifting star magic, ancient lunar gods, and a villain who stuffs his shoes with broken glass. But the fourth episode might be Moon Knight's trippiest installment yet — an ambitious, genre-shifting story in which the show's main character apparently dies, and it's the least weird thing that happens.
Episode 4 finds Marc Spector/Steven Grant (Isaac) facing off against Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), and the soft-spoken villain shoots Marc in the chest, seemingly killing him. But Moon Knight is a six-episode miniseries, and we've still got story to go! So Marc wakes up, moments after his apparent death. Instead of lying in a dusty Egyptian tomb, he's in a stark white mental health facility, and his entire reality has shifted.
Here, Marc isn't an adventurer but a mental health patient. Locked in this hospital, he's surrounded by familiar faces: Layla (May Calamawy) is a fellow patient with a passion for bingo, while Harrow is the facility's head doctor, rocking a beige sweater vest and a delightful mustache. All around Marc are objects that seem to hint that all his experiences have just been inside his head: the Canopic jars in Harrow's office, the goldfish floating in a bowl, the white-caped action figure he's been clutching in his hand.
And on the TV, there's a VHS tape playing. It's a campy movie called Tomb Buster, and it looks like a made-for-TV Indiana Jones knockoff, complete with a John Williams-esque score and vintage VHS fuzz. The name of the film's swashbuckling archaeologist hero? Dr. Steven Grant.
Eventually Marc stumbles upon a sarcophagus, and there he finds the real Steven imprisoned. The two alters embrace, finally getting to meet in person, and as they attempt to flee, they run headfirst into a towering hippo deity. (Again, we said it was weird.)
"I remember I really wanted to stay in that drugged mode," Isaac tells EW of filming the mind-bending sequence. "I came to on set in my all-white, grayish clothes, and I could feel people were like, 'Whoa, he looks effed up, man.' I wanted it to feel like the audience is just as drugged as Marc is in that moment. It's a total mind melt that happens when you realize the possibility that everything you've been watching is not what you thought it was."
EW caught up with the episode's directors, Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, to break down the trippy episode. The duo are no stranger to wild, reality-bending stories, helming films like The Endless and Synchronic, and they're also on board to direct the second season of Marvel's Loki.
Here, Benson and Moorhead open up about bringing that crazy final sequence to life, from the Moon Knight comics they used as inspiration to the delightfully campy Tomb Buster scenes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the inspiration for this mental hospital sequence?
AARON MOORHEAD: The end of episode 4 is actually a gift of the script. It came from wanting to do the least expected thing and completely disorient the audience, while also being completely true to the character that we've built over four episodes. Also the comic book character: There's a run of Moon Knight written by Jeff Lemire, and [Greg] Smallwood did the art, and it has a lot of similar feelings and visuals to what happens at the end of episode 4. So we're really glad to be able to honor the original comics, the ones that we were the most drawn to when we were trying to crack Moon Knight. That's where the inspiration came from, especially visually and tonally.
The entire scene has this wonderfully unsettling quality to it. As directors, how did you want to amplify that feeling?
JUSTIN BENSON: We have a general philosophy in scenes where we're trying to unsettle or fill people with dread: Slow is creepy, fast is exciting. Obviously, what is more exciting than being creeped out?
MOORHEAD: It's obviously not a visceral scene. It's not kinetic, it shouldn't be moving fast. It should feel surreal. It should feel like the point of view of Steven/Marc in that moment. That's where I think over a decade of our prior films really came in handy. We had that toolbox of making those types of stories, that make you feel full of dread and unsettled.
I spoke to Oscar Isaac about this scene, and he said that with his performance he wanted the audience to feel as confused and as drugged as Marc in that moment. It sounds like you wanted to do the same with how you filmed it.
MOORHEAD: A lot of what we do is chasing what Oscar is doing. We feel like the show is at its absolute best whenever we're marrying what we're doing to honoring what Oscar's doing. I think that's pretty clear to anyone that watches Moon Knight. We've talked about this scene feeling like it's underwater, not just because he's been sedated, but because the entire audience has just been subjected to an entire worldview shift of what this show is. Why is there a weird Indiana Jones knockoff movie right in the middle of Moon Knight?
BENSON: Also, connecting it back to the Lemire run, there are so many iconic single panels within that run. But there's one sequence in particular where our hero has been trying to escape from a mental health facility. He finally gets out. He jumps out, but it turns out he was on an airplane, and he's free-falling. Obviously that doesn't happen in this show, but we really feel like what we did captures the spirit of that distilled image into something that is not literally that but has the same feeling.
MOORHEAD: Actually, not to completely spoil the Lemire run, but at the very end there's this image that completely lit our hair on fire when we first read it. It's Marc Spector hugging himself, and he says, "Goodbye, Marc." It's as he's achieving integration and understanding who he is. Now, we're not at the end of our story here, but we just felt like there's this antagonism between [Steven and Marc], and they're starting to learn to work together and gain some mutual respect. So when they first see each other in person, they would instinctually just embrace. That was something we were really leading towards with all the other episodes. We wanted to earn that moment.
There's that great conversation between Harrow and Marc in the hospital, where Ethan Hawke comes off as calm and patronizing while Oscar has this confused, manic quality. What do you remember most about filming that?
BENSON: I remember in the preparation of that scene, Ethan would talk about how he was feeling inspired by Carl Jung — by some of the most famous photographs of him and the pop culture interpretation of who he is, if nothing else. We remember showing up to set and suddenly seeing Ethan in that mustache, with that hair, wearing the glasses, and I just thought what a wild transformation that was from Harrow.
The energy to his acting in that role was impressive — to the point of being exhausting to watch. [Laughs] Watching him do that scene over and over and over with such precision was a very special thing to get to witness.
MOORHEAD: He has 99 percent of the dialogue in that scene, and we shot his coverage first on that day. What's funny is we assumed that because he is doing all the talking, that scene would just kind of be about him, with a few cutaways back to Marc. But once we turned it around on Oscar and saw what he was giving us and figuring out his eyelines, we realized how active it was. There's this wonderful take where a fly lands on his hand on accident. That's a real fly! He chased it.
It's funny because we assumed we were going to be cutting the whole thing around Harrow, but we completely refocused the edit in our heads to be back in Marc's experience in that moment — because Oscar was giving us so much.
You mentioned the wonderfully campy Indiana Jones knockoff. How did that come together?
MOORHEAD: Production on that was really interesting because you're working on a Marvel show with literally the greatest filmmaking technicians in the world, and now you're asking everyone to intentionally make something that looks like it was made with toothpicks and papier-mache. That was a very interesting experience. Everyone had a lot of good laughs that morning. Everybody was just having an absolute blast, being as cheesy as we possibly could.
That must've been fun. You get to take a break from making Moon Knight and instead spend a day making a ridiculous '80s adventure tale.
MOORHEAD: We realized that we didn't know if we would see the TV again [later in the episode]. So we actually asked the writers to write an extra minute of the scene so that it could play in the background as needed. We actually got to shoot twice as much of that. Now we want to make a whole series of it. It has some of the most ridiculous dialogue that they could come up with.
BENSON: It was essentially someone sharing way too much information about their parental relationships for way too long.
MOORHEAD: I remember the Dr. Steven Grant character said, "Sometimes I wish I had chosen my birth mother instead of nature to raise me," or some goofy thing like that.
The episode ends with Marc and Steven coming face to face with a giant hippo deity, and they just scream their heads off. Tell me literally everything about that shot.
BENSON: It's funny. We only had one or maybe two shots with this [hippo] character. She showed up to set, of course dressed in a goofy greenscreen outfit, and we just tried about two dozen different takes on that scene. We just kind of stood off to the side, and she immediately trusted us and took the direction in stride. Even though we had met only just minutes before, and she just screamed for us every which way.
It was really interesting from a technical standpoint. The way we shot that is there are three performers screaming in that scene, but there were never two people together. We had someone pretending to be a hippo, screaming by themselves. Then we had Oscar Isaac as Marc, screaming by himself. Then we had Oscar Isaac as Steven, screaming by himself. None of those people were together. It's like an opera of screaming.
Moon Knight has two episodes left. What can you tease about episodes 5 and 6?
MOORHEAD: I think if you were surprised by episode 4, get ready to be surprised again by episodes 5 and 6. I know it just sounds like a nice little tag, but I promise you that's actually the case.
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