5 Questions With Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead of 'The Endless'
One of the most-talked about films of Tribeca this year was the intriguing genre experiment The Endless - directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead of Spring and Resolution fame. The latest entry from this filmmaking duo manages to weave in a number of different narrative formats - science fiction, suspense, horror, in such a refreshing way that makes it one of the best genre films of 2017 (check out our earlier review). The Endless follows two brothers (played by Benson and Moorhead) returning to a cult-like faction where they had been raised and later, escaped from, as adults. As the two reconnect with their past and consider that perhaps the community was not what they had originally remembered, certain truths and dark secrets come to light regarding its nature.
To promote The Endless, Justin and Aaron were gracious enough to let us ask them a couple of questions about their filmmaking background, what they learned from making their latest film, and where they are thinking about going for the future.
1. In making a story about a fictional cult, how did you go about researching other, similar groups from history?
Justin: Geographically and philosophically, the character of Justin would probably argue that they are very similar to 'Heaven's Gate'. But I think the movie generally questions the idea of cults all together in an odd way, hopefully without feeling like an undergrad sociology course. Our research came from the same sources our audience is probably consuming. There’s so many amazing docs on Netflix now and elsewhere, that almost everyone has seen to some extent, that it really helped in creating a sort of dialogue with our audience, and allowed us to toy with emotions through knowing pretty well what the expectation is at any given point. For example, the second most audience members see that the camp is brewing beer, most immediately think Kool-Aid poisoning without us hitting it that hard on screen.
Aaron: I remember when we were developing the idea that we wanted really badly to steer away from the idea that it really was a cult by all their traditional hallmarks, like a charismatic leader, making people make pledges and staying there by force, uniforms etc. And we found a word for what it was rather than just saying what it wasn’t: oh, it’s a “commune”. I was so proud of that, then I saw a doc on Netflix about cult deprogramming, and a cult member was asked if he thought he was in a cult, and the guy answers “No, no, it’s a commune” and I yelled “DAMMIT!” at my TV. A cult is hard to define and identify. But ultimately, this movie isn’t really about cults at all, especially after about the halfway mark, is it? It’s much more about a bigger theme of anti-conformity.
2. Why did you decide to star in the lead roles in one of your own projects for the first time, and what did you learn from being on both sides of the camera?
Both: It started as simply a desire and a general philosophy of extreme self-reliance on this one, because we felt like after Spring we gave up the ability to some extent to just go make a movie. After writing a script tailored to us specifically, rehearsing it for months, really dialling in the scenes, and getting approval from our producer David Lawson after he saw us perform some scenes for him, we were very lucky to get to remain the leads. I think we both learned that we love doing it, and look forward to doing it again. Also, it was fascinating to take years of learning from the amazing actors we’ve worked with, combining that with having to analyze and execute the writing in a totally new way, and seeing where the movie landed tonally.
Justin: Also fucking love Aaron’s performance, was so proud of him the entire time, and had a lot of fun directing each other.
Aaron: Well jeez, shucks, likewise.
3. The Endless opens with a quote from horror author H.P. Lovecraft, which was another inspiration on Spring. What made you want to continue exploring from that reference point, and what are some of your favorite stories of his?
Justin: We weren’t very familiar with Lovecraft when we made our first couple movies, and “Lovecraftian” became a good way of describing our movies , which was a descriptor we basically stole from critics reviewing our films. The Endless is actually inspired by Lovecraft to some extent more than Spring or Resolution, especially 'The Color of Space'.
Aaron: Someone on Reddit called The Endless “Feel-good cosmic horror” which sounds just about right. We love his explorations of the unknown, which probably provides the deepest conceptual terror to me personally. I recently learned that Cthulhu was not really intended to be a giant Davy Jones, but rather something that would drive you mad if you ever looked at its indescribable visage -- again, something way better about letting the imagination fill in the gaps than showing your hand and removing all mystery from your monster.
4. Are there any certain films you looked to for inspiration in crafting The Endless? Also, who are your favorite directors?
Justin: None consciously. But we’re probably so inspired by the Coen Brothers, Spielberg, Stephen King, Ben Wheatley, Richard Linklater, Danny Boyle, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh, and friends like Jeremy Gardner, Ricky Bates, and Sarah Adina Smith, and many, many others, that it’s impossible to say they haven’t shaped us in some way. The whole shoulders of giants thing…
Aaron: The creation of Manson Family Vacation was a weirdly inspiring one. “Hey look they’re making small movies that are really good and financially successful, we can try to do that!” So we were emboldened by the Duplass Brothers and the other directors they support. Actually, another Duplass-ism that helped, I believe, was in a SXSW keynote: “The calvary isn’t coming.” In other words, no one’s gonna help you, go make it yourself. Internalizing that helped us know that the film was the right choice to make it. Soderbergh is another multi-hyphenate whose work and work ethic is an obvious one to emulate.
5. Now that The Endless is finally being shown to audiences, what are you looking forward to doing next?
Both: We have so many projects ready to go it’s hard to say. I hope whatever it is we’re as privileged as on The Endless to work with so many amazing friends, and get to do so much of the fun stuff.