One thing about making a movie or telling any story that has cult stuff in it is that, man, that is a well-traveled path.
Filmmaking buddies Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are solid examples of envelope-pushing ambition. They are starry prospects in the world of micro-budgets especially, where only the scrappiest and the most tenacious live on. In addition to sharing the heft in getting films off the ground—co-directing, writing, producing, and editing—they put their handsome mugs on camera. A follow-up to the stand-alone Spring (2014), Benson and Moorhead flesh out their cult member cameos first seen in their debut feature Resolution (2012) with The Endless, now as cult survivors.
During a deprogramming session in The Endless, thirtysomething Justin (Benson) wonders how, a decade after escaping a death cult with his younger brother Aaron (Moorhead), they’re lives have devolved into cleaning houses for peanuts, instant ramen, and getting no lays in the real world. Seeing as their lives haven’t exactly improved in the intervening years, they’re easily lassoed back to their culty past when a videotape containing a mysterious message arrives at their doorstep. Aaron hopes to return and make peace with Camp Arcadia, while cynical Justin tags along reluctantly, confident that this trip will confirm just how fucked up it all was. Before long, they’re both witness to inexplicable phenomena that may substantiate the cult’s otherworldly beliefs.
These men of many hats, along with their longtime producing partner David Lawson Jr., sat down with Anthem to discuss a wide range of things: their discovery of H.P. Lovecraft, their as-yet-untitled film concerning Aleister Crowley, and the most terrifying story ever. Their latest, The Endless, world premiered in the U.S. Narrative competition at the Tribeca Film Festival last month.
You guys are really exciting filmmakers. To start, how did you first get into H.P. Lovecraft?
Justin Benson: This is a great question because—I know this is going to make me sound really dumb—I didn’t know who H.P. Lovecraft was until [Resolution] premiered here at the Tribeca Film Festival five years ago. I literally read reviews that said it was “Lovecraftian horror” and I had to look that up on Wikipedia. [Laughs] Obviously, the godfather of sci-fi/horror. He was so far ahead of his time. Revolutionary. Aaron and I actually first bonded over Stephen King…
Aaron Moorhead: I remember having a meeting with this guy and he was like, “So you guys have massive Lovecraftian inspiration.” We actually had no idea who that was. And he kind of gave this look like, “No, but, you do. You have massive Lovecraftian inspiration.” We’re like, “No, man! We’re super independent! We made all of this up ourselves!” that kind of thing, right? We didn’t really say that, but that was the sentiment. This guy wasn’t being condescending at all, but still like, “How could you not know your history here? Yeah, you might not have read Lovecraft directly, but everyone that you’ve read has read Lovecraft.” They all stand on Lovecraft’s shoulders and we recognize that now. The tentacles wrap their way around the world of cosmic horror/sci-fi.
Justin: We have these instincts and these stories that we want to tell, and we have our own ways of doing it, but ultimately, Lovecraftian became a good way to describe it to people.
Aaron: Even though we didn’t intend it, it’s a nice little box.
Justin: It’s a good way to describe what we do: it’s good cosmic terror.
Justin, I know you’re from San Diego. Heaven’s Gate was founded there, wasn’t it? That obviously led up to a mass suicide in ’97. Is that how you got interested in UFO death cults?
Justin: Yeah, I remember when it happened. Actually, my dad is a medical tech down in San Diego and some of his patients found the house it happened in. I was always aware of it. But I think the tapes they made before their unfortunate demise occupy pop culture that goes beyond San Diego. I mean, it was definitely a direct inspiration for this story… Are you from San Diego?
I’m not. I’m just fascinated by cults, brainwashing… How far does your interest in the subject stretch? The film makes direct reference to Jonestown. When a peripheral character talks about “millions hours of work,” it screamed Scientology’s billion-year contract to me.
Justin: I didn’t even think about that. That line in particular was actually referencing a psychology study about how it it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, which by total coincidence—I just found this out—my girlfriend is doing a study with the guy [behind that study]. I was like, “You know, my movie has a thing about that…” I thought that was kind of cool.
We have a fair amount of fascination with cults, like anyone else. One thing about making a movie or telling any story that has cult stuff in it is that, man, that is a well-traveled path. A lot of people have done it. I think we’ve exhausted every fresh cult concept you can tackle. And when people think of cults, they have an expectation of what’s going to happen. It’s really fun to play with those expectations and, ultimately, land at your own thing. The second half of [The Endless] is this really unique science fiction road trip movie. So when you ask, “How deep does your fascination go?” I think just enough to do Wikipedia pulls. It’s of course such an interesting and bizarre fringe human behavior, but what you can actually say about the very, very central concept of the movie is this: there’s a brother who feels domineered by the older brother and the older brother can’t let go because his younger brother is not responsible enough. Ultimately, it’s a question of conformity. When they go back to the homestead—the cult—you realize that it’s not quite a cult, or depending on how you define it of course. We’re still dealing with the same theme of anti-conformity.
You can really feel the maker’s touch in your movies. You guys do pretty much everything on both sides of the camera. You both act, direct, write, produce, edit… Aaron, you have tons of work under your belt as a DP and you’re also this visual effects wizard. What do you have the most fun doing and the least fun doing in the grand scheme of making movies together?
Justin: I’ll back up to clarify one thing: we definitely wear a lot of hats, but the only way we’re able to do this is by surrounding ourselves with really talented people—wonderful producers.
Aaron: David [Lawson Jr.] is such a better producer than us.
Justin: We do have to say that, and not because David [Lawson Jr.] told us to. [David laughs] Oh, you know what it is? For me, the very end of post-production is by far my least favorite thing, and I don’t mean I’m sad it’s ending. It’s always the littlest things: “I can probably take care of that in two weeks so I’ll give myself four weeks” and then it takes nine weeks. It flies by. You’ve already put the finishing touches on it and you’re just trying to catch mistakes, over and over and over.
David: My favorite is production because I feel productive. That’s the making of the movie. Once you’ve shot it, it’s not going away. Once you’ve captured it, you just craft it from there.
Justin: Man, I know this is a cop-out, but I don’t think there’s one thing I enjoy most. I guess I can say that I enjoy directing, acting, and writing the most. But I don’t dislike editing. I don’t know how to make a movie without having a hand in the editing of it. It’s all kind of one thing. If there’s one thing I don’t like, it has to fall under the category being of an editor.
Aaron: I hate it. I’m like terrible at it. But it’s just part of the process and you have to do it.
Guillermo del Toro tweeted that Spring is one of the best films of this decade. Where do the creepiest stuff come from? Do you ever pull from nightmares like Stephen King does?
Justin: Not really from nightmares. I try to think things up that scare me and scare Aaron. If it scares us and we believe in it and it makes a certain amount of sense… I convinced myself that the science fiction element of Spring could be real. With [The Endless], there are these posts that look like they were formed by nature and there’s some time rift stuff happening. Again, it’s science fiction, but I convinced myself that I could believe in it enough to the point I would be scared of it.
Aaron: The things that scare me skew wildly at the ends of the spectrum. I have extremely practical concerns that are day-to-day. What I mean by that is, I’m way less scared of ghosts than I am of this feeling of absolute helplessness in a situation. If you’re being chased by a werewolf, for example, you’re not helpless. You run fast enough, you fight it, or whatever else. And if you’re stuck in an infinite loop, you’re literally completely helpless and you’re done. That is deep down terror. I’m talking about conceptual terror—that’s way scarier to me than a visceral or visual one.
Someone joked online that you guys were brave for calling your own film The Endless. I laughed at that. And I bring that up because this movie does have humor in it, despite the dominant fear factor. It would be a different movie if it was just endlessly creepy.
Justin: We try to make our characters feel like real human beings in stressful situations. I think everyone on our little crew has a good sense of humor. I think we do feel uncomfortable putting in a really dramatic scene without giving it some levity. It’s like an aversion to melodrama.
Aaron: And pretension.
Justin: And pretension. It also makes situations more real. People joke in stressful situations.
David: I know I do. I do it too often, but it’s my natural go-to reaction to crack jokes.
Justin: You can even chart it. It comes down to, “How do you make drama? How do you make people care? How do you stir emotions?” You pick them up and take them down, then up again and back down. One of the ways to take them up is by cracking jokes. Have you seen Almost Famous?
A very long time ago.
Justin: There’s this beautifully lit scene where [Patrick Fugit] is screaming at Penny Lane that she was traded for a case of beer. It’s a really dramatic scene and she’s crying and he’s upset, and then after a beat she says, “What kind of beer?” That little line makes the whole scene work.
That’s a great punch line. What’s happening with your Aleister Crowley project Beasts?
Justin: The best thing we can say about it is that it’s very much alive.
Maybe this is a tired question, but what role do you think horror plays in our society?
Justin: I don’t think that’s tired at all. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten that question before.
David: Horror movies are this weird safety blanket that we’ve all grown up with. I can track my first horror movie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, because I saw that at summer school. And when you go into a movie like Get Out, it puts you in a familiar situation, and it starts challenging your beliefs and allows you to use metaphors very literally to explore humanity and some of its darker sides. Horror films are absolutely important for society because it allows us to talk about things that are a little bit uncomfortable, while navigating the conversation in the right direction.
Justin: There’s a great tradition in horror films of social and political messaging. It’s really admirable and noble, you know? I don’t think our films do that, but I will say proudly that our films do give you some conventions of horror to explore humanity in a special way.
Aaron: This doesn’t go for the genre as a whole, but I’ll say that good horror films that stick around and have some resonance provide social catharsis. In some ways, it’s like putting the pill in the dog treat. I will dare say that some of our best horror films, in terms of talking about not just social elements but emotional relationships and such, say more about the human condition than something really preachy like Crash. I’m not trying to make Crash out to be a bad movie, but it does really try hard to nail something and the end result is that we’re preached to, rather than reaching a place of mutual understanding between the filmmaker and the film watcher.
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever heard, read, or experienced firsthand?
Justin: Let me think… This story, as I was told, is not made up. There’s this guy who chose to do like Into the Wild and hiked up into the middle of wherever. He hadn’t seen a human for months. He was a thousand miles from humanity and camping and doing his own thing. And he had this disposable camera with him so he could take pictures. When he got back to society, he developed the camera. Right in the middle of that camera roll, he found two pictures of himself sleeping.