Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead discuss the high-concept suspense of their microbudget indie thriller The Endless, its connections to previous films, and the freedom of working on both sides of the camera.
Since the modest release of their mind-bending 2012 debut Resolution, indie horror filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have carved themselves a nice niche as masters of suspenseful, darkly funny Lovecraftian mind-benders, all without the need for a huge budget. In their latest, The Endless (which premieres this week in Chicago), Benson and Moorhead step in front of the camera as well, playing two brothers who contemplate a nostalgic return to the “UFO sex cult” they escaped as teenagers. While there, they not only confront their personal demons as the smiling, mysterious denizens of the commune lure them back; they also draw closer and closer to solving the mystery of what exactly the cult worships.
What results is the kind of thought-provoking, dryly funny and sophisticated horror you come to expect from Benson and Moorhead – along with some unexpected connections to Resolution (which we’re wary to spoil). Still, I sat down for a phone interview with Benson and Moorhead to discuss the film, its connections to their other works, and the thematic connections that bind them.
BEWARE – minor spoilers for The Endless follow. Read with caution if you haven’t already seen it.
There are a lot of connections between The Endless and Resolution. Was that always the plan, or did you start with The Endless on its own and decided to wrap those connections into it?
BENSON: There’s a lot to The Endless that’s the culmination of seven years of mythology and what had happened to the characters in Resolution. I know you’ve seen Resolution, but you’re in the vast, vast, vast minority. It’s a movie that had a tiny release.
MOORHEAD: It was never meant to be seen by that many people – it didn’t have to do huge numbers to be considered [a success]. It’s like, “Oh, here’s this little indie movie on VOD that’s a success.” But luckily, people have discovered it over the years, but not that many. We’re very aware of that.
BENSON: There was never a thought that, “we’ll franchise this.”
Yeah, the Resolution Cinematic Universe.
BENSON: Yeah, there was no commercial reason to do that at all. But what we found was a creative reason to do another movie in this universe. We just realized, after seven years of talking about it, we were still interested in those characters and that universe.
MOORHEAD: One day we just kinda decided we’d do another do-it-yourself indie film, like we always have. The same thing with Resolution, it’s like okay, time to do it again – pool all our resources and go make something. We were able to put all those conversations, and that inspiration, into this film.
That said, even though we never thought to like franchise it, if that’s what you wanna call it – actually, to be honest with you, there’s not really a word for how these two films are related. But there was never a version of The Endless that was not rooted in Resolution.
This is also your first time really headlining one of your features, in addition to being behind the camera. What was it like adding that extra challenge to the film? Did you feel you had to divide your attention between responsibilities?
MOORHEAD: You know, it’s funny, a lot of people ask us about balancing our responsibilities or dividing our duties and things like that, which conjures this image of someone carrying a bunch of tea cups on a plate and adding more tea cups that are all about to spill over. And it just becomes more difficult.
It’s not really like that – we don’t carry different tea cups or anything like that; we just both share holding the tray, so it’s lot more stable. Yes, I’m a cinematographer and he’s the writer in that regard, but we don’t say, “hey stay out of my room, I’m writing!” or ‘hey don’t touch the camera!” It’s just that, technically, it works better when there’s only one, and the other’s always over the other’s shoulder.
Actually, it’s better, because you’re able to make these independent films that are as original as we know how to make them – without going into anything we’d call ‘arthouse’ – and keeps that vision pure. You used to think someone would take these roles away from us, and that we wouldn’t want to, but also that we wouldn’t have to do so many. What we’ve learned is that it’s just part of our process – it makes it so much better.
Adding acting into that, for example, wasn’t much of a burden, and just made things easier. Yeah, technically, you had to pull some longer days, and you have to think about your role and all that. But beyond that, there’s a practical element to it – when you’re in a scene, you’re feeling it with your scene partner, and it’s easier to talk the talk that they need, and say what they need to hear. And honestly, you don’t have to walk as far to talk to them; it’s just a faster, smoother process.
Everything’s difficult, there’s no way around it. Indie filmmaking is difficult, esp,. if you’re doing more than one role. But it didn’t make it more difficult; in some ways, it made it easier.
Between Resolution and The Endless, I get the impression you guys have a love of the works of Lovecraft, with characters dealing with these cosmic forces beyond their understanding. What appeals to you about that particular type of science fiction or horror?
BENSON: For example, with Resolution and [our 2014 film] Spring specifically, I didn’t really associate those works with Lovecraft at all. It’d been introduced to us by people saying our work was Lovecraftian. There’s just a natural instinct to create our own mythologies and try to be innovative, and in doing that we landed on things that are similar to Lovecraft.
To keep things simple: if there’s a monster in our movie – even though that word’s kind of an oversimplification – that feels extraordinarily old and mysterious. Something too old to have a Wikipedia entry. Something so powerful you can’t quite comprehend it. That’s it, really; there are just some coincidental similarities, and then we started seeing it.
The Endless is the first movie we made that was directly inspired by Lovecraft in that there are certain things in the story that are loosely inspired by The Colour Out of Space.
MOORHEAD: We realized we needed to face this Lovecraft thing head on, but it’s a lot looser than people think. We just didn’t want to pretend that Lovecraft wasn’t one of the many shoulders we all stand on.
Totally. Speaking to that, another element that could be construed as Lovecraftian is that cultish devotion the cult has in worshipping those older-than-time beings, and the cult dynamic is an integral part of the film. Did you do any research on cults when writing, or how did you conceive of those dynamics?
MOORHEAD: The dynamic of the cult is really a vehicle to talk about the themes of the movie – anti-conformity, rebellion. The sci-fi side of it very much has to do with submitting to a higher power, rejecting authority, breaking out of those cycles. And the brother relationship at the heart of The Endless is, at its most surface, accept [authority] or reject it.
As far as research goes, we’ve done as much research as anyone who’s kind of interested in cults is, which is everybody right now – which is awesome. So we’ve seen all the cult documentaries, Wikipedia articles, etc. It’s loosely an amalgam of Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown, and the Branch Davidians and all of that.
We didn’t want to make an extraordinarily specific cult; we just wanted to see what we could do to make a cult seem actually appealing. So we hit all the hallmarks of what a cult is – the cult leader, the poisoned beverage, the guy that wears the uniform with the creepy smile. And then we wanted to subvert them and give a good reason why, even though it’s still technically a cult, why might a reasonable person be interested in joining one?
The surface-level reason is, “maybe it’s just a commune,” which is not dangerous; it’s something that anyone might want to join if they’re into that kind of thing. But also you realize there’s a worship aspect to it – but maybe there’s something wonderful about it, because this one’s tangible. That’s what our movie does, it makes the idea of God very, very tangible.
And I also appreciate what it does to the brother dynamic – two people who have left, but test their faith, or lack of faith.
Speaking of the thing they worship, one thing that fascinates me is that, like Resolution, there’s this mysterious thing that communicates from another realm through media: photographs, videotapes, etc. It’s almost a film camera in its own right. What was your approach to that?
MOORHEAD: The very beginning conception of that was, “What if you watched an entire film, and at the end of the film you realized that everything you’d been seeing was the POV of some unseen, horrifying thing? And it’s transferring its observations to a recordable media. That’s just something that gives me goosebumps. That was the initial conception, and then the media follows.
One of the big differences between The Endless and Resolution is that [Resolution lead characters] Chris and Mike are interpreting the intent of this entity in a very different way, and Mike observes that this goes back further than analog media. It goes all the way back to cave paintings. There’s just something really interesting about that – an idea that we now fetishize.
But with The Endless, there was something about a group of people who have interpreted this media in a slightly different way than them. I’d like to see more of those cave paintings, really – and even what was between cave paintings and those early photographs in Resolution.
Me too. Honestly, I thought about the entity as filmmaker in both films – something like a more highbrow version of Cabin in the Woods, where it’s the creator, and the characters we follow are alternatively the actors in the entity’s film, and the audience trying to interpret its direction.
MOORHEAD: Another thing I just thought of while we were talking: there are a couple more points of inspiration for the film. First was reading that Nikola Tesla tried to build a photography machine where people could transfer their observations to some photographic mediums, that’s part of it. And there’s actually an episode of The X-Files that we saw after we finished Resolution where the antagonist of the episode does. That’s a lot of where that weird idea comes from.
Now, you’d been shopping The Endless around for a while now, putting it in festivals and the like. What have the responses been, especially compared to what you expected?
MOORHEAD: When we were putting this movie together, it was with that devil-may-care attitude we discussed earlier – “we’re just gonna make this movie, and we’ll do whatever we feel like,” and hope that everybody likes it. And of course, with a lot of nerve did we tie it to Resolution¸ this film that nobody saw – we were very concerned that people would think we were the most solipsistic people they’d ever met.
But I guess coming from a good place has resulted in people really, really enjoying it. Not to toot our horns, but we’re currently still 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, which feels pretty darn cool for a film we were ready to be polarizing. We’re overwhelmed, because it feels like 1) there are far more fans of Resolution than we thought, and 2) there’s more of a market for what we thought was an esoteric movie for an audience that seems to get something out of it.
Well, and it’s just so cool seeing what you can do with what was presumably a pretty limited budget. How do you think about the special effects when writing and doing pre-production – scheming what things you can get away with that doesn’t cost much, but still looks realistic and spooky?
BENSON: Yeah, every single thing in the script is constructed to be something that’s like, “if everyone else leaves set, can we still pull this off, or at least a version of it?” In a worst-case scenario, do we know how to do this on our own? That’s something we’ve done with all three of our features we’ve put out in the world.
I don’t think anyone would say that the movies lack ambition, but if you write something in the script that you can’t do within the budget of your movie, you’re probably going to ruin your movie, it’ll look ridiculous. It’ll look like a Youtube movie.
When you were writing the movie, was there ever a moment where you were like, “Someone pulling against a rope in the darkness – what if that doesn’t turn out well?” Or were you confident that you could make this work?
MOORHEAD: That’s exactly it – [Justin] wrote it thinking, “I think we know how to do this – we just don’t light the tree line and have some guy on a plate,” which is exactly what was happening. But in the first cuts of the film, it still didn’t work, it didn’t look quite right. Luckily, I’ve got about fifteen years of visual effects experience, so we were able to fix it up a bit just to make it more like it was going off into the infinite, rather than tied to some tree nearby.
It kind of looks like he’s lassoing the moon.
MOORHEAD: That’s exactly the idea! That’s why we put the moon there, moved some trees around, so it looks like a big empty field with a moon in it. It’s weird, when you don’t even have to show the field or the moon, but the way we were able to use visual effects makes you subconsciously think that’s what’s actually there.
Right – the visual effects work well, the horror elements work well, but one thing I didn’t expect was how funny it was. How much did you consider inserting those moments of levity, especially as they pertain to illustrating the dynamic between the two brothers?
BENSON: It’s funny you say that, because we really don’t think about it. It just happens. It’s always there, there’s just never a question. The idea is that, if we can create characters that you recognize in your everyday lives, then put them in a dangerous situation, then the audience will feel tension. They don’t want anything bad to happen to these people who feel very real, and you accomplish that by not just laughing with them, but having them express levity in these stressful situations.
Yeah, as someone who’s had the ‘Stop Talking’ exchange before, that really resonated with me.
BENSON: [laughs] Cool. The bickering between the brothers was based off of listening to Aaron and our producer, David Lawson, over the course of several movies. They communicate by bickering, and it can be maddening to listen to, but I’m happy that audiences have delighted in that communication method.
You’ve made three movies that dabble in very similar genres and tones. Are there any other types of movies you want to make? Do you want to branch out into other genres, or keep expanding this mythology you’ve set up?
MOORHEAD: We’ll probably expand the mythology in a decade or so – we put the whole kitchen sink of mythology in this one, so we wanna make sure there’s more to tell. But it kept on haunting us from Resolution, so it’s very possible.
As far as branching out in genre, we won’t close any door. One of Justin’s and my favorite films we saw recently was 20th Century Women, which has no strict genre to it whatsoever. If we could have made that movie, I could die a happy filmmaker. So that’s very possible.
Right now, it seems like we’re gravitating towards stuff that still has some kind of… I guess otherworldly aspect to it. It’s weird – the word is ‘supernatural,’ but whenever I say that I just leap to aliens and ghosts, and that’s not what we mean. Just something that’s not of the natural world. It’s possible we’d hit another one – I’d love to make a dog movie.
The Endless opens on April 20th at Music Box Theater.