Multi-talented filmmakers Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have an incredible track record. Their first two films, Resolution and Spring, established the wildly innovative duo as the rising stars of genre cinema. Their newest film, The Endless, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and has been followed by heaps of praise and well-deserved attention.
The Endless – written by Benson – was directed, edited, and produced by both Moorhead and Benson, who also star in the film (with cinematography by Moorhead).
The film follows two brothers who are struggling to lead normal lives ten years after escaping from a UFO death cult. When they receive a cryptic video message from the cult, it causes feelings of doubt, so they decide to briefly return in hopes of getting some closure. While Camp Arcadia and its members reflect the Renaissance mythology of its namesake – a place “uncorrupted by civilization” – something stirs beneath the calm surface.
I had a chance to talk with Moorhead and Benson about The Endless, its ties to Resolution, and what’s next for the multi-talented duo.
Kelly McNeely: First off, I’m such a fan of Resolution, Spring, and The Endless, which I had first caught at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. So congratulations, I see it’s currently at #1 on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of Best Horror Films of the Year thus far. It’s outranked Hereditary and A Quiet Place, which is huge! The Endless was directed by, written by, edited by, produced by, and starring you guys, you’ve really put your all into this film. How does it feel to see such a positive response to that?
Aaron Moorhead: Oooh! Hard question, honestly, you just take it as it comes in. When we set out to make this film, we were ready for it to just be kind of a strange little anomaly, maybe even like a blip on people’s radar, like “oh, hey, okay they still make movies, good, they didn’t disappear”. That was kind of all that we’d hoped for out of it. And to have people really seem to dive in to its weirdness is… humbling is actually the word.
Justin Benson: It is.
AM: We didn’t quite realize how much people would want something like this.
KM: It’s got this great exploration of these deeply human themes of trust, validation, and closure, but they’re kind of layered in this crazy, psycho-cosmic, Lovecraftian dessert. As actors/directors/editors/etc, what was it like to balance all that – there’s so much going on in this movie!
JB: Well, I mean I know this is going to sound… this is something I was talking about; every filmmaker always says “character first”, but truly throughout the whole process of developing the film, writing it, shooting it, cutting it… as long as we stay focused on the interpersonal relationship between the two brothers, and as long as the audience can track the conflict and the resolution of their conflict, and the transformation in their relationship, then we felt like, you know, we’d be alright.
Of course, along the way, we are always trying to give our audience the thrill of being uneasy, the thrill of being scared, but we have our weird way of doing it. It doesn’t usually use jump scares and violence, it’s something a bit more complicated, so we’re obviously always tracking that the whole time. But still, no matter how anyone feels about the genre component, as long as the emotional component works, it’s not too hard to keep track of all of it.
KM: The Endless is kind of like a B-side to Resolution – there are a ton of seeds that are planted in Resolution that have a great payoff in The Endless. Was there always a plan to come back to that or to carry those through?
AM: There wasn’t ever a plan when we were making Resolution, mostly because we just thought we’d be unemployed after Resolution so to think to make a grand universe is delusional. But we kept on thinking about that story and talking about it, almost, as fans of the story and the mythology and the characters, and then we realized that I guess the story just isn’t really done yet because the universe seemed to exist outside of us. So we tried to find a way in, and we found, actually, several ways in, but The Endless was the one that ended up really sparking for us and for… well, yeah, mostly for us. That was the one that make the most sense.
There’s no real reason to return to the world of a micro-budget film that nobody ever saw, you know? Nobody saw Resolution, and that’s totally okay. Actually, everybody should know that you don’t have to see Resolution to understand or appreciate The Endless at all. But they cross-section at some points – or, at a lot of points – and it enriches the experience, but you won’t even know you’re missing something otherwise.
KM: So how did this journey start? What brought you to the story and the themes and ideas of The Endless?
JB: There are so many ways to answer this question with all of our films, it’s a little hard to even remember exactly. We always have like ten projects going at one time and can never remember why and where they started. But there are a couple of things with The Endless that are worth mentioning, in terms of its genesis. One is, we do have a lot of other projects in development right now – in feature films and TV – and they’re all bigger things that just take a really long time.
So about a year and a half, two years ago, we just realized, like, “aw man”, we’d just become sort of meeting-takers and email-senders, and we’d stopped making films so we need to generate a film from the ground-up that we could just be self-reliant again and could do it no matter what.
So that was part of the conception of The Endless, and then the other thing was that we realized in all of these other bigger projects, we were exploring this theme of conformity and anti-conformity. We’re obviously fascinated by that theme, so what’s a good way to tell a story about that theme – conformity and anti-conformity, and when is it appropriate to rebel.
We realized we had also been talking about Resolution for like 6 years and what had happened to these two cults members, and we thought that those cults members would be a great way to explore that theme.
KM: I love that idea of conformity and anti-conformity. The Endless has that conflict of living a life of nihilistic normalcy versus wanting to be a part of a bigger – if not problematic – whole. And I think that’s something we can all relate to.
AM: That’s what kind of what you want as a filmmaker… I think that’s what people talk about when they say, for example, Spielberg’s films are timeless. Of course they take place in a certain period and they’re a product of their era, but the reason is that they’re not talking about, like, “the dangers of social media”. They’re talking about themes that every single person on the planet can relate to. And as long as you can find a way to make those themes specific and actually have something to say about those themes, then you can make a film that hopefully could be played 20 years ago or 20 years from now and people won’t say “oh that was probably good back then”.
KM: With The Endless, this was the first time for both of you playing a major role in front of the cameras. What was the process to get to that point, and do you think you’d want to do it again?
AM: The process for getting in front of the camera was actually part of the conception of the film. We wanted to make something that was self-reliant. And we didn’t end up making something completely self-reliant, we ended up getting to work with – you know, it was modest, but it was a budget that wasn’t our own banking accounts. We got a crew that was extraordinarily supportive. But part of the ethos of making this film was going to be that we were just going to do everything, and casting ourselves was a part of that.
And of course we had the desire to do it, and we thought we could do it, we felt we were right to do it, so it was a confluence of a bunch of different reasons besides just “well there’s no money so we should do it”. But would we do it again? Absolutely. Not just for ourselves, but for other filmmakers as well.
KM: As filmmakers, what’s the most – and this is a very broad question – but what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned so far during everything you’ve done, both in front of and behind the cameras?
JB: To never treat any position on set as more important than any other position. I don’t think Aaron or I have ever done that, but any time I’ve ever had – just literally in my whole life of working on sets – I’ve never looked back and thought “oh that was kind of a bad experience” because an actor, or someone in the camera department, or something, someone behaved as though for some reason their position was more important and thus they’re going to be really unpleasant.
AM: And that’s everybody!
JB: Yeah, absolutely.
AM: I mean an actor, for example – and we can say this because we’re leads in our own film – the only reason they aren’t just as fireable as, like, a grip is continuity. You can’t fire your actor and replace them with someone else.
KM: *Laughs* It’s a little hard, yeah.
AM: I shouldn’t say that they’re completely interchangeable – they’re not, but the idea that the set revolves around any one particular role is insane.
JB: Other than that, if you’re a filmmaker, always have a film ready that you can just do yourself and you don’t need to wait for someone else to tell you that you can do it. Because if you don’t have that, you just run the risk of never making another film ever again.
KM: You’d mentioned earlier that you guys always have a ton of ideas and projects on the go, so what’s next for you both? What projects are you working on – if you can share them?
AM: Yeah! We don’t want to get too specific because otherwise this interview will last really long, because we get excited and we start talking – we have about… 4 feature films and 3 TV shows that we’re pounding the ground on. And the reason is, once you finish one thing it goes out into the world for actors and financing and all that, you just start working on another one. Or, you could just sit and wait, which is what got us into trouble with The Endless in the first place.
So we have a whole bunch of stuff. None of them are specifically in the Resolution/The Endless universe, but they are definitely all our kind of thing. We’re not making a rom-com starring dogs, but that’s next up, after that, because that would be really – actually now I’m getting kind of excited about that… that would be really cool. I just thought about dogs falling in love. But yeah, they’re all our kind of thing.
One thing that we just recently turned in a draft of to the studio that’s really exciting is we’re doing a TV show about Aleister Crowley.
AM: So that would be pretty incredible to work on.
KM: I mean, all else fails, you’ve got the dog rom-com, because I feel like that would be the best casting process.
AM: Yeah! We should pretend we’re doing it, just for the casting process.
KM: So for my last question, I want to get a little personal. I want to know what scares or fascinates you – because sometimes they’re two sides of the same coin, right?
JB: Hmmm… yeah.. Man, I wish I were afraid of more things…
AM: Oh, wow, he’s not scared of anything…
JB: I have like, really normal, logical fears. Like, I don’t like it when a car is driving too close behind the person in front of them, I don’t want to die of a heart attack so I eat healthy, and I’m just terrified of global warming.
KM: All very reasonable!
JB: I’m going to tag onto that – global warming scares me more than pretty much anything. That’s why First Reformed is the scariest movie of the year. Don’t let Rotten Tomatoes tell you that The Endless is.
You can find The Endless on Digital, Blu-ray & DVD as of June 26, 2018. Check out the trailer and the stunning poster art below!