With their critically celebrated films Resolution and Spring behind them, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have already established themselves as the kind of innovative genre filmmakers studios should be throwing money at. But their third feature film, easily marks their most ambitious, entertaining effort yet. Using the lens of a fractured relationship between two brothers, The Endless digs deep into the cosmic horror Benson and Moorhead excel at, bringing a sci-fi/horror perspective to the cycles of destruction people trap themselves in. This time around, the filmmaking duo step in front of the camera as brothers who return to the cult they escaped as kids in search of answers and find stranger truths than they bargained for in the mysterious mountainside they used to call home.
I first saw The Endless back at Fantastic Fest last year and was totally blown away by it. As a fan of Benson and Moorhead’s previous work, The Endless is without a doubt their slickest, smartest and most cinematic film yet, and it leaves you with plenty to mull over once the credits roll. With the film arriving in limited theaters this week, I recently sat down with the creative duo for an in-depth chat about the movie, from the origin of the concept to the final execution, and all kinds of other fun tangents along the way. We talked about how the film connects to their first feature Resolution without being dependent on it, the TV version of the project that never came to be, and a whole lot more.
Since The Endless is only in very limited theaters for now, I’m holding off on the spoiler portion until it rolls out to more locations next week. There are some minor spoilers of the film, but nothing major so check out part one of the interview below and stay tuned for the spoilery deep-dive soon.
You guys spent the better part of the last year going around the world with The Endless at festivals. How have those conversations and the ways people have reacted to the film affected your own understanding or perspective on it?
JUSTIN BENSON: It was funny, I was telling my dad this the other day actually, that in the process of doing all the press for a film, something that happens that’s really useful is that it doesn’t change what the film was, or what the process … You don’t really have epiphanies as to like, “Oh, I didn’t realize here’s where it actually brought us through emotionally in the end.” It’s more like the reinforcing and really internalizing the best and hardest lessons of what you did. Because you can do it, and then a year goes by, and you don’t think about it. But if you’re forced, if you have a reason to talk about it, you will internalize it more and carry it forward in a longer timeline. It’s like you study it harder or something. It’s a nice thing.
AARON MOORHEAD: Someone talking in a meta way about their own creation sounds really pretentious to me, for the most part. For the most part, it’s just like create, let people talk about it, all that. If they just did that without the context of say, an interview, or anything like that, or audience interaction. If they felt the need to just comment on what they’ve made. But it does actually really … You realize in an academic sense what your film did. It’s something that you thought might’ve only been instinct at the time. Luckily, we haven’t really had a film so far, that we did something and people got something completely different out of it. It’s always surprising, the little things, but it’s never completely missed intent. But it’ll happen eventually.
BENSON: When we’re not promoting the movie, it’s always a mad dash to get new drafts of scripts done and stuff. Usually, if I’m not talking how I’m talking now, I’m sitting in here in front of that computer writing something, which is lovely and at the same time, it’s really actually nice once you get to talk to a human being. [Laughs]
I understand. I mostly work from home, so it’s just me and my screen most of the time.
BENSON: Exactly. Just me and the screen.
Have you guys had a chance yet to really talk to people who’ve seen it multiple times?
MOORHEAD: Yeah. Mostly, it’s just to thank them. [Laughs] Whenever somebody finds a movie worth watching more than once,We’ve already 111 minutes of your time. You Know? There’s some people actually I’ve seen who’ve seen it every chance they’ve got. Something like five, six times. Or they have a link. Really wild. And the movie definitely has a lot to excavate. Question. Have you seen Resolution, by any chance?
I have. I did Resolution years ago. And then, I saw The Endless at Fantastic Fest. And then, right before I talked to you guys I went and re-watched both of them.
MOORHEAD: Wow. Jeez, we’ve taken a lot of your time. Thank you.
No, it’s good! I think they’re great.
MOORHEAD: What’s interesting is, there’s people who have watched The Endless multiple times and haven’t seen Resolution.
MOORHEAD: And that’s interesting because if they were into it enough to watch it multiple times, they’re going to excavate a whole lot out of it. You get to see the OG.
That was interesting to revisit, because it had been a while since I had seen Resolution when I saw The Endless for the first time. So I didn’t put a lot of the pieces together until this re-watch I just did.: There is so much more overlap than I picked up on.
BENSON There’s a couple of weird, I don’t know if you want to call them psychological … Psychological experiment’s not the right word [laughs], but there’s this odd thing where the movies are engineered to be completely separate things. You don’t have to watch one to understand the other or anything like that. And a lot of it too is like we’re not delusional. We understand that most people have never seen Resolution, most people never will. It’s a tiny movie with a zero marketing budget. But it’s interesting, like the first time people see The Endless, sometimes they think that the only point of continuity is Chris and Michael. And then if you watch Resolution it’s like a thousand points of continuity.
They don’t rely on each other for comprehension. It’s just they’re actually like a thousand little pieces of things that all fit together. And that was fun. And I think that was a huge part of the creative process in making The Endless, was just setting up parameters for ourselves where weren’t negating this tiny movie we made five years ago.
MOORHEAD: I remember during the development process, we had this weird thing where we needed to get the opinion of the script from people who had never heard of Resolution, or us, or anything like that. And I know that’s not hard to find in the world but when you are us, we don’t know those people because they all know us. You know? So it’s kind of funny to be like, “Hey do you know anyone that would read a script and you trust their opinion, but they’ve just never heard of Resolution?”
And that note call was really fun. it was odd, we’d start to call them back thanking them of course, and being like, “I know this is weird because we’re not going to ask your opinion on it at all. That’s not what we’re after. I just need you to repeat the story back to me. And make sure that it makes logical sense.” And that was it. And once we go to that point, thank god everybody was able to repeat the story back.
They got it right away?
MOORHEAD: And they didn’t need to have seen Resolution to understand what the hell was going on.
That’s something I was curious about; making two films that are complementary and intertwined but are not dependent on each other. What were the guidelines or almost stop-gaps you put in place for yourself when you were writing it and shooting it to make sure that, like you said, you weren’t undoing something you already did or relying on previous knowledge?
BENSON: Staying within the parameters of the mythology that we invented and again, making sure we didn’t negate things from Resolution. Or making sure if people are watching back to back can be like, “Okay.” For example, like what if Justin and Aaron, the cult members from Resolution, were played by different actors in the movie. That’s not the only reason why we cast ourselves but that … Just try to, if you can, avoid those things that will make people go, “Wait a second. I thought … “
You know, kind of inventing your own mythology and staying within like the pinball game bumpers of all of that. It’s pretty easy. And it’s sort of like making low-budget films. Like this low-budget film. The constraints of the budget actually force you to do something that is probably better than you would have done with a billion dollars. And that’s how developing this script was and everything. It was like, “Oh.” Yes, there are things you can’t do but there’s always a better way forward.
MOORHEAD: And we’d occasionally bump up against the stuff you can’t do but we were able to actually weed it out before anybody else saw it. We were able to nail those things that added complication rather than mystery. We were able to nail that out before anybody else saw the draft.
I know you guys have said you have this whole mythology totally down from top to tail. Was that something that you had already achieved at the time of Resolution or did that come later?
BENSON: It’s definitely expanded.
MOORHEAD: The rules didn’t change.
BENSON: But like with Resolution there were … In both of these movies, there have been massive documents of things that people never see. And it’s really cool because we’re pretty sure people feel these things in the movie. The things that are into that. But like in the case of Resolution, for example. The unseen antagonist of Resolution, which is the same unseen antagonist in The Endless, obviously. Except in Resolution, the point of view of the whole film is from the unseen antagonist. There was like a massive document that went into everything about that “monster” that went to our sound designer to help them design the sound of the whole film. So that existed during Resolution and there are things in that document that ended up more conspicuous in The Endless than expanded upon. That’s just like one example of one thing.
MOORHEAD: We played with other little things through the course of… not developing The Endless, although it turned into the development of The Endless. But after Resolution, for example, we’d joke around about what a sequel to Resolution looked like. And that was actually a joke. We’d get drunk, and we’d get some friends, and we’d just like, “What does it look like?” And what we came up with some kind of an anthology by a whole bunch of different filmmakers that watched Resolution once, but never got to see it again. Or like see the script. And then they just had to guess and recreate it. And then, we did this sketch comedy thing that was supposed to be a feature film, actually. That we were shooting while we were on the road for Spring, with us as UFO cult members. The biggest flaw with it was that it was extremely not funny. And we realized that and we killed it. [Laughs]
BENSON: Yeah. It’s weird sometimes people will ask if our movies are improv and they’re not. Everything’s scripted. But we tried to do an improv movie. That was it. And it was fucking terrible. So, we learned. Early on-
MOORHEAD: We think people bounced off each other all great. And no, it’s not funny at all.
Different types of comedy, improv and scripted.
MOORHEAD: Yeah. And what else. Oh, we did all of the Resolution TV show. That exists kind of in the same world as The Endless, in a way.
BENSON: It actually, it ended up in The Endless. And that the TV show was about Mike trying to get out of the loop and get back to his wife. But that was the thing of the whole show. And then, every episode it would reset and there’d be like some new circumstances. Usually, some sort of form of horror movie trope and they had to get out of it. But the only thing that survived from that, so far, is that within The Endless it’s still a journey back to his wife.
MOORHEAD: It was like Wristcutters meets The X-Files.
It’s a good concept. This sort of accidental franchise or shared universe you guys have built has so much potential. And I know you’ve said that you’re interested in returning to it. When I watched The Endless for the first time I was like, “Yeah. This would make a great TV series,” thinking I’m clever or something, and since then I’ve seen that like everybody in the world has said that to you.
MOORHEAD: It’s good to hear. No, it’s good to hear. Hopefully, somebody with a whole bunch of money will see it and be like, “That would make a good TV series.” So.
Is that something you’ve invested any time in beyond the concept of it?
BENSON: That TV show idea was probably the most half-baked, shallow thing we ever did. But we didn’t go that far into it. And at the time we were a little more naïve about developing TV. And how intensive and how long it actually takes.
MOORHEAD: Seemed like everybody was getting TV shows, so we were just like,
BENSON: “Oh! We’ll just pitch an idea and we’ll get a bag of money!” We’ve since learned. We’re working on several TV shows now. We’ve gotten some of them pretty far along, but that is a very long process.
MOORHEAD: One of them actually, we put so much work into it. And we went and we were set up by our agents to go pitch a big company on it. And I remember, it was either when we were walking in or walking out of the pitch. They were like, “Oh, we watched The Endless. That’s a good TV show.” [Laughs]
BENSON: God damn it.
How do you guys balance working together? As cinematographer/effects, it seems Aaron sort of handle more of the visual element and as the writer, Justin handles more of the story elements. How do you guys bounce back and forth to create the final product?
MOORHEAD: There’s not really any walls that we create. That kind of the thing. We each contribute as much as we possibly can to every side of it. So it’s not really any kind of a dividing line. I think it’s just like a lot of conversations where you hang out a lot, stuff comes up, and we read different things and watch different movies. And they’re very rarely within a very rigid … I mean, we’ll read or watch anything. I probably watch just as much documentaries and comedies as I watch horror movies. Something like that, say. And read as much non-fiction as fiction. That sort of the idea. And ultimately it kind of just comes from a large amalgam of like gathering little data points about the human experience. And we luckily, have the same taste. We were both raised on kind of the same fiction. Stephen King. You know, Alan Moore and all of that. And so, that’s probably where we’re able to form our working bond.
BENSON: Yeah. It’s weird. It’s something we get asked a lot. And sometimes the questions are asked in the context of like, how much do you guys argue? And we don’t actually even really argue about creative stuff. We’re human beings so every six months we’ll have an argument as friends. But it’s interesting. I was reading this review that came out today. Luckily, he was being very nice…
MOORHEAD: Oh, yeah. I know what you’re talking about.
BENSON: But they said like, “Oh, you can almost see them arguing about minutiae of filmmaking within this dynamic between the brothers.”
MOORHEAD: And anybody who’s ever been on set with us would be like, “No.”
BENSON: And it was a weird thing where it’s like, “Oh. I get. I get it.” Because people have different taste in performances. But if you think the performance is good then you go to, “Well, then they must have just sort of been playing themselves.” And we definitely were not playing ourselves, at all.
MOORHEAD: We don’t bicker or anything like that. It’s not like that at all.
BENSON: But it’s funny, the bickering specifically was based on Aaron and our producer Dave.
Oh, really? Smiling Dave?