You’re encouraged to have a ‘next thing’ ready to go and it’s supposed to be the one thing you’re so on fire about that you’re willing to die for it.
The Endless is the third entry in the micro-budget and visually sumptuous universe devised by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. The filmmaking duo got their start in 2012 with Resolution, about a man trying to save his drug-addled friend who ends up needing a different kind of rescue from supernatural forces. In 2014 came Spring, about an American tourist in Italy who strikes up a romance with a woman harboring a dark, primordial secret. Spring in particular received cult-status acclaim, not least from Guillermo del Toro who empathically tweeted, “Just in case I wasn’t clear: Spring is one of the best horror films of the decade. And the only Lovecraftian film that has blown me away.” That’s one hell of an endorsement. The Endless, a continuation of and a pseudo-sequel to Resolution, is as ambitious and resourceful as their two previous features—just twice as much.
Benson and Moorhead also star in this third outing as brothers Justin and Aaron, who escaped a so-called “UFO death cult”—an eerie desert commune where the two were raised after their mother perished in a car crash—ten years ago by the time The Endless begins. The crux of the story is that, after receiving a mysterious videotape from a presumed cult member, Aaron convinces a reluctant Justin to take a trip back to where they came from to find some sense of closure. Upon their arrival, they begin to realize that there might be some truth to the group’s otherworldly beliefs. Then all kinds of hell breaks loose. The Endless truly defies categorization. It’s a family drama, comedy, horror, Sci-Fi, and thriller all rolled into one. It’s an original script that might puzzle even the most seasoned of development interns while trying to break it down for their attention deficient bosses.
The Endless opens in select theaters on April 6.
It’s been a year since you premiered The Endless at the Tribeca Film Festival. I’m actually curious about your experience at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival last summer in South Korea because it’s lesser-known and specifically a genre event.
Aaron Moorhead: That was actually our third time in South Korea going to that film festival. We’re always blown away by the scale of it. That festival is huge. It’s insane. I assume there’s so many people at that film festival that a lot of the country has experienced it.
The cinephiles at least.
Justin Benson: That was one of the first times where we’ve gone out of the theater and we were mobbed by people trying to grab autographs.
Aaron: We felt like stars for once in our stupid little lives. We don’t usually win awards and we won at that film festival [the festival’s top prize, Best of Bucheon] so that was cool, too.
I had great fun watching Resolution, Spring, and The Endless back-to-back over the weekend. You guys were always resourceful with so much ambition. First of all, did it feel like a quantum leap going from Resolution to Spring?
Aaron: Honestly, not really. With Resolution, it’s rough around the edges because there was a story reason for it. It’s deliberately a lo-fi movie, but we aren’t inherently lo-fi filmmakers. We grew up on all of the same stuff that everybody else has: a good, healthy mix of Kevin Smith and Steven Spielberg. Spring felt more at the scale of what we wanted to make. Resolution couldn’t be more than it was due to budget reasons, but luckily due to story reasons, too, it didn’t feel like it was held back by its budget. We love doing everything ourselves, but ultimately, we still very much like to present a very cinematic experience. We can only make something like Resolution once. If you only ever made a movie like Kids over and over, people would get sick of it.
Justin: Obviously, Spring and The Endless are bigger budget movies compared to Resolution, but the budgets are still tiny. We try to get as much scale as we can out of the money we do have, but with Spring in particular, everything looks really expensive because we shot that in Italy. We have yet to make anything that’s actually big budget.
Spring surprised me. I guess I wasn’t expecting to see quite that much in terms of the visual effects. You show a lot and what you do show looks really, really good.
Aaron: I come from a visual effects background in terms of how I really got started in filmmaking. So that’s where our mindsets go to: “How can we accomplish this with 3D compositing?” Basically, I can’t generate a 3D Godzilla, but if we shoot an element of a tail moving around on green screen, I can put that in another scene. So we were able to do 90% of it with practical effects using this company called Masters FX. They’re incredible. They were the gold standard and we luckily somehow got them to work with us on our scrappy little movie.
Justin: In order for the psychology of the piece to work, we needed to show this person who the main character is being intimate with as being grotesque. It wasn’t all about what you don’t show. With this movie, you gotta show the grotesque amongst the beautiful and the erotic. Again, with Spring, we didn’t have the type of budget where we could ever afford the level of designer that you would need to show a monster. What we could do is totally lean into designs pulled from nature. We could send to Masters FX pictures of diseased pigeon legs, for instance, and just find things from nature that would hopefully elicit the psychological reaction we were going for.
Were you already thinking about The Endless when Resolution was conceived?
Aaron: We didn’t really think when we were making Resolution, “We made this micro-budget movie and people are really gonna wanna see an expanded universe of this tiny movie!” [Laughs] We were so broke. We didn’t think we would be able to make another movie again. In that sense, no. But after making Resolution and for the years that passed, we would still toy with ideas and talk about what this world really looked like. We realized that the characters and the story and the mythology hadn’t quite left us. We attempted a TV show based around Resolution, but didn’t develop it as far as we would’ve liked. We shot a sketch comedy thing and it just wasn’t funny so we canned that. We weren’t trying to keep rebooting Resolution. It’s more that we had this really rich and deep mythology to develop from where nobody had to have seen Resolution to understand it. It felt like there was more story to tell. It was in March 2016 when we decided it was time to actually revisit Resolution. That was when we sat down and said, “We’re going to go make a movie. Let’s do everything ourselves. It will be so DIY that we’ll be in it.” Right after that we were thinking, “If it’s DIY, we need to lean on the resources we already have in terms of locations and actors and all of that.” Again, nobody would need to have seen Resolution in order to understand it. God forbid, if anybody thought that, that would be terrible.
Justin: There’s like a thousand connections between Resolution and The Endless—things that would probably take multiple viewings to even catch. None of that was just popped in there. It wasn’t like, “There’s this element we could’ve used the first time around.” Resolution was an interesting point of inspiration, but those inclusions aren’t arbitrary. We didn’t change the mythology of Resolution to accommodate The Endless. Everything is perfect continuity. Setting up those creative parameters were just as useful as not having the budget for things where you have to figure out a way to make it work with what you have.
There’s a central theme at the heart of your work: conformity. All of your characters are on the fringe in many respects. I wonder how that relates to you on a personal level.
Aaron: It’s something we didn’t quite realize we’ve been messing around with in a lot of our projects. Resolution deals with it in some ways: the loss of control and power. A lot of the future stuff we have coming up, like the TV shows that we’re working on, all have something to do with the virtues of rebellion versus morality tales against it and how it can go too far. We feel it in our careers because there are a lot of people telling you how things must be done. These are more on the business side: “Get a big star in your movie or you can’t have success” or “Do one for them, one for you.” Stuff like that come from studios. Nobody really has any idea what’s real. All they know is what’s happened before. On a personal level, it’s the same thing. The rules are constantly being rewritten in your life at all times. Making movies is a way to both reinforce that to ourselves that it’s something healthy and also to put a check on it like, “Remember we made a whole movie about this. We better be the ones rebelling.” You can’t then go and conform and sell out.
Not to undermine your actors or even your presence in your own movies, but did you ever have discussions about the possibility of casting a big star? I adore Lou Taylor Pucci and he’s certainly a recognizable name, but—
Justin: We’ve been in enough situations where projects have taken a really long time to get made because you’re waiting for a celebrity cast. We don’t have those types of relationships. We made a couple of independent films. If Jake Gyllenhaal gets ten scripts in his inbox, we’re the 12th one he’s probably going to read, you know? With The Endless, we were specifically like, “We’re not gonna do that this time,” to the point that we’re actually going to perform in it and do it ourselves. Now, that obviously comes at the price of having less money to make a film, but you get to make one instead of waiting forever for this actor to say yes. I’m sure that will probably happen eventually, but not making movies waiting for that to happen—what’s the point of that? When it happens, it happens, and we’ll do something bigger.
There are common threads in your work: subliminal images, aural and visual loops, the use of jump cuts on comedy, and themes concerning immortality and self-preservation. You can really see the makers’ touch. Are these things inextricably bound to your filmmaking?
Aaron: I think so. It’s weird… When filmmakers are told early on in their careers that they need to find their voice or develop their style, a lot of the times they sit down and try to write it out, and they fail. It sort of took us a few movies to figure out what these thing are that we instinctively gravitated towards no matter what. These are things that Justin and I love talking about and the things we both have the instincts to do in the editing room. I guess all of these weird little choices that you don’t even know that you’re making that you keep making nonetheless are what adds up to your style. So yes, I would say without a doubt that you’re gonna keep seeing a similar sort of thing. Ideally, that will never lead to the 20th movie we make where people are like, “There it is again! There’s that thing!” Ideally, these are things that stay universal. That’s why, for example, our next movie would not be about a cult or falling in love with a monster. I do hope that we remain a little bit hard to categorize just so that nobody says, “Those are the low-budget horror guys,” because then we would just never get to expand. The favorite movie that Justin and I have seen in years is 20th Century Women, you know? We would love to be able to blow open the doors.
If I can take you back for a second, I know you guys met while interning at Ridley Scott’s company, RSA, a decade ago. What had brought you guys there? Did you want to make commercials and music videos at the time?
Justin: In my case, I had a year before I would start medical school. I’d always been a filmmaker, but never explored the realm of commercials and music videos so much. I think I had this idea that if something worked out at this internship, I would maybe get the opportunity to start out directing commercials and move onto bigger things. I thought I could maybe figure that out one year before medical school would start. But what I figured out was that making commercials is extraordinarily difficult and it’s not really a starting point from which to move onto filmmaking. It’s a very attractive job to filmmakers who are already established because there’s so much money in it. I think I was coming at it from this ‘90s point of view because you hear about directors starting out in commercials and then end up directing Fight Club. You’re like, “I wanna try that!” Well, that door does not open. I would still love to do something with ads. It would have to be the right company. Most companies are fine, but we’re sometimes watching an ad on TV, looking at each other like, “What? Why? Who thought that was okay?” I mean, they literally made the Marines look like a video game—the most fun video game in the world. So yeah, there was always some thought about doing it, but it was more an exploration than a means to an end.
The last time we talked, you brought up a project dealing with Aleister Crowley. Is that still moving forward? Aaron, you have a directing project listed on IMDB titled Beasts.
Aaron: IMDB is impossible to update. Don’t believe anything you see on there. In fact, write that in all caps. Beasts is the first draft title of our Aleister Crowley feature script, which is now defunct and has become a TV show. I can’t get rid of that listing. So it’s not Beasts and it’s not a feature. [Laughs] The TV show is something we’re both working on and just one of many things that we have running. A lot of the times, you’re encouraged to have a “next thing” ready to go and it’s supposed to be the one thing you’re so on fire about that you’re willing to die for it. The reality is, especially in independent film, it takes you x amount of months to develop the script, which then goes out to casting or producing or whatever, and when you send it out, you send it out one by one. You’re not allowed to send it to both Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Hardy—you can’t send it to everyone. Then they each take about two months to get around to reading it or they never get around to it. During those two months, if you’re an independent filmmaker and not working on something else, you’re wasting time and you’re also going to be homeless.
Justin: Very unemployed.
Aaron: So we have a ton of things that we love and we’re eventually looking to make all of them. The Aleister Crowley project is one of them.
Justin: We always have these bigger projects for movies and TV that we inch forward on and trying to get made. In the meantime, we also try to have something else going on—something that we can go make when the powers that be say no. With the three movies we’ve made, no one’s really sad yes to any of them. We made them into opportunities instead of waiting for them to become opportunities.
There’s already an epic feel to your films—ideas that could only benefit from more money.
Aaron: Oh yeah. We don’t have anything that are in the Marvel Universe budget range, but we could. We have plenty that are not just ideas, but scripts that we’re currently working on and trying to get financed. It’s stuff that could be that year’s Moon, Ex Machina—the roughly 20-million Sci-Fi movie that still depends on cast, but not so reliant that you’ll die if you don’t get six A-list actors or so much a gamble as to weather or not it will succeed at the box office. We absolutely want and need to paint on a much larger canvas eventually. It’s not that we don’t want to stay micro-budget filmmakers. We’re going to stay filmmakers no matter what. You can win the lottery and get to make a movie with a big star or have a TV show, but you can also have micro-budget filmmaking that’s just as satisfying and you don’t have to wait for anybody and people still like it. They’re still profitable. It keeps you making movies. The analogy is this: We’re still working on our x start-up with our billion dollar ideas—our movies—but we’re buying a lottery ticket every week.