Festivals, Film, Interviews
Apr 29, 2017

“The Endless” Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead Discuss Creepy Indie Horror Flick

A still of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead from "The Endless"

A still of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead from “The Endless”

If you aren’t familiar with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s work, then you need to do your homework.

The filmmaking duo who gained recognition after their directorial debut “Resolution” hit the Tribeca scene back in 2012 continues to maintain their indie moviemaking streak. While “Resolution” dealt with friendship dynamics, their followup “Spring” examined romantic relationships. Now, “The Endless”—which made its Tribeca Film Festival debut April 21—takes a deeper look into the meaning of family in an unexpected way.

“The Endless” isn’t your typical horror flick. In this genre-bending film, Benson and Moorhead play brother’s that had previously escaped from a UFO death cult. Ten years after the incident, Aaron (Moorhead) begins to reminisce on his time there and falls into a slump. To get him out of his slump, Justin (Benson) decided that it would be best to venture back to visit their former “family” to ultimately get closure. Although they initially discover that the cults beliefs are more normal then they had initially believed, strange things naturally slowly occur upon their return.

After it’s Tribeca debut, the film was quickly welcomed to praise from fans and critics alike. “The Endless” was unsurprisingly nabbed by Well Go USA Entertainment, who will be responsible for all North American distribution rights of the film. The duo’s sci-fi/horror flick is slated for a theatrical release in early 2018.

Press Pass LA had the privilege of sitting down on festival grounds with the pair and the film’s producer Dave Lawson to discuss “The Endless”, their creative and decision-making process, and the challenges of being an indie filmmaker.

Without further adieu, take a look at our hilarious and insightful interview with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead alongside the film’s producer Dave Lawson.

“The Endless” has a very intriguing, fresh concept which is very hard to do since pretty much everything has been done on some level. How do you both go about keeping your projects fresh?

Aaron Moorhead: Everything good comes out of his brain. But I also think the instinct for our films is that when something starts feeling familiar, we try to run the other way. Yes, there’s a punk rock thing to it of course, but also I can’t really bring myself to do it—I’d be bored to tears. For better or for worse sometimes, it’s an instinct rather than a natural “well, we shouldn’t”—it’s not like that. It’s not really as much of a discussion as it is of “I don’t know if we could.” If we tried, it would be bad! Our instinct—it’s a tough road from a boring business standpoint. It’s a lot easier to get a zombie or vampire movie made—there’s a lot of great zombie, vampire, and werewolf movies, and stuff like that. But it’s weird [because] we’ve been very lucky to carve this really weird niche for ourselves where now there’s an expectation and it’s invited now—which is great. We are very, very grateful.

Justin Benson: I think the first time we came out with “Resolution” and everyone was like “it’s going to be genre-bending,” that was kind of a dirty word. If you can’t fit it into a fit it into a box, how do you explain it to somebody in a trailer? How do you explain it to somebody in a poster? Now with their phones, its now become what people are expecting out of the film. It’s like “oh, we’re going to get some sort of mystery and then a really good set of characters that we really care about”—that’s what the world is going to be. It’s becoming its own little carve-out of the genre.

So, we can’t expect to see any zombie or vampire films for you guys in your future?

JB: I mean, look man…

Dave Lawson: You’re going to care about those zombies, though.

AM: You’re going to care about those zombies—it’s going to be sad.

Considering your previous collaborations like “Resolution” fall within the psychological/thriller genre, “The Endless” sounds like the perfect followup, right?

JB: Yea, I think so! I heard someone say something the other day, they were describing it. Oh, one really good description I’ve gotten was “feel-good, cosmic horror.”

AM: Yea! Feel-good, cosmic horror.

JB: Someone else also described it as the—it was sort of a slight at “Spring.” We are so proud of “Spring”, [but] they called it “the quality of “Resolution” with the scale of “Spring.’”

AM: That’s kind of a back-handed insult.

JB: I guess, generally, it feels like a progression. It feels like each movie we’ve done better and better, and we’re proud of it. It feels like with this one [“The Endless”], we’ve put it all together into our best work.

Right. That’s how you want it to be too.

AM: The movie was very hard to talk about especially [with] its connection to “Resolution.” Even the ‘this-meets-this’ of the movie, I don’t know what it is. With “Spring”, when people said “Linklater meets “Love Craft.”’ That’s how they did it, like a ‘this-meets-this’ so you can picture it. We actually tried [to do this] because we have business heads—we were trying to figure out what is the this-meets-this. The movie’s not even that esoteric, but it just doesn’t have a this-meets-this and it made it a little bit difficult to talk about. But, when it came into how we feel about it, I feel like “Resolution” and “Spring” obviously we made them and they came from us. I love them to death, but I think this puts the most fine point on like that’s the kind of film I want to make. Everything else, we were making what we could make and we were also making what we wanted to make, but “The Endless”—that’s it, that’s exactly it.   

You both managed to wear a lot of hats while working “The Endless” because you served as the producers, lead actors, and directors. What was it like undergoing this process? What exactly led to your decision to do so?

DL: Financially. The easiest one is when you can wear a lot of hats, when you can do a lot of things—like I also first AD’ed the film as well as produced it. So, we didn’t need to have a first AD because I have that skill. Aaron works the camera because Aaron can, and that’s one less crew position. You can then take your resources and allocate them somewhere you don’t have the skill set, and make sure that you’re getting the best out of whatever the resources that you are taking. I always say that if you leave anything on the table on an indie film, then you didn’t try hard enough. It should be a struggle because otherwise, you’re not trying hard enough [and] you’re not pushing it as far as it could be.

JB: I also think that doing a lot of jobs has become Aaron and I’s creative process. A good example is editing. Our editor we work with, this guy Michael Felker, is a brilliant genius—he could just do it by himself now, but I think we need it.

AM: We need it.

JB: We need it because that’s when it’s just part of our filmmaking process, as corny as that sounds. Part of our creative process is do we want some stuff, and the discovery in doing it. It could be something as simple as like Aaron’s doing his pass at the edit and he drops in a sound effect he thinks should be there—that leads to another thought and another thought.  That’s an example [where] you get to the final audio mix. We work with a lot of brilliant audio people and this guy Yahel Dooley has done the sound on all of our movies. But when we’re in the mix, we know everything that’s in that layer—what it needs to sound like, what it should sound like, we’ve played with it, we’ve had our dirty hands all over it.

AM: You can sometimes like point to the layer on pro-tools like, “No, it’s not that one. It’s that one.” Also, just by proxy, you spend so much time—literally, minutes in your brain has been spent because you’re doing it yourself.

JB: The acting is like that too. You get to know the script and the material in a different way. One thought leads to the next and again, it’s a creative process.

AM: To quote a much better filmmaker, Soderbergh (Steven Soderbergh) had this really utilitarian quote about why he does everything—he has a similar multi-hyphenated thing. It goes: “one less conversation.” It’s also really true where it’s like if I already know how to do it myself, there’s no reason to communicate it unless there’s a physical limitation to doing both things. I do want to tag on something just so it’s not like a king of the castle, Jesus, Borat [thing]. It’s not because you’re the king and you get your way. We do have a massive amount of extraordinarily talented collaborators that would work with a lot and they’re kind of able to bolster up those little holes, or gigantic chasms that come up when you’re doing all that.

DL: Even in the prep of this film in particular because we’ve worked with this crew a bunch, a lot of those things, [they] brought things to the table that filled in things seamlessly so there wasn’t that hole there. Then you’re like, “Oh wow, I wouldn’t even have thought of that. But, that just solved a problem that could’ve happened and you were really smart to think about that ahead of time.” It’s because they know Justin and Aaron’s sensibilities as filmmakers that they’re able to have the foresight of knowing: “I know what they’re going to want at that moment and if I just have that there, that problem is solved. It’s not a problem.”

I had discovered that the two of you had met when working as interns for Ridley Scott’s production company, RSA. How did meeting briefly during your one day working at RSA lead to all this? Did you guys for see the possibility of collaborating on numerous projects as you had?

JB: That’s crazy. Our lives would be completely different had we not met one day at this really kind of—useless is a strong word. It was an internship where it sounds fancy, like “Oh you guys are interns at RSA.” Kind of—we were interns in the reception area of RSA. 

AM: We get this funny kind of narrative of like “did he discover you?” It’s like, no. I don’t think I’ve ever met Ridley Scott!

DL: And he probably doesn’t know your name.

AM: No, he definitely doesn’t. It was literally like we [Moorhead and Benson] sat at the same table while we were pushing mail around—that was it. I think we just started talking about Seven King or something like that, and he’s like “Oh, I wanna be a writer-director” and I’m like “I wanna be a director-DP. Oh, we should be friends.” I’m not like, “Hey, I’m looking for a co-director.” We just kind of started working together. I had just moved out to Hollywood and I filled in as an AC on one of his shoots. Then, I shot something with him and then it just grew, and grew until “Resolution.”

JB: I used to work for Dave as a Production Assistant. In fact, I was interning at another production company at the same time I met Aaron—this company had an intern policy where they forced producers freelancing through there to take on their interns for jobs. I was a must-hire—someone forced him to hire me as a PA.

DL: It was great! It worked out. The best must-hire I’ve ever had. But, that’s how we met because he was forced on me. Then, I started hiring him [more]. We worked together about two years before “Resolution” because we became friends and he’s good at working.

JB: “I met Justin because he’s good at working.”

Usually once filmmakers make real traction within the industry as you both have, they move on to make major studio productions. What has made you stick to making more indie films?

JB: It’s a long answer. We have the desire to have authorship over the films and when you take a big leap, you lose authorship. It’s probably going to happen. Today in this day and age, I can’t think of an example of someone who [has done this and not loss authorship]. There’s great examples in like the 90s. There’s tons of these guys, like: Paulson Ashton and Quentin Tarantino—not to compare ourselves to them, at all. But the thing is, it happened to them. It doesn’t kind of happen now. It happens in TV, but it’s very rare. Typically, you make a leap [and] you give something up. We don’t make homage movies, but if we had to look at someone and be like, “what kind of career would you kind of want?” [We] kind of want the Cohen Brothers [path] and just kind of creep up.

AM: You do one bigger and a little bit bigger every single time. The Cohen Brothers can make whatever movie they want [and] Marvel probably isn’t knocking on their door, but everybody knows what a Cohen Brothers movie is. It’s not like, “Oh, it’s that weird little indie film.” Everybody would watch a Cohen Brothers movie—they’re great! That is not to say that even our next project would be a giant movie, but we just kind of want to make sure that there’s literally no reason to “sellout” right now. If we do it, we’re going to want to do it.

JB: We’re funny though too. We’ve actually had opportunities to do really big stuff. Sometimes we got through these phases where we’ll be like, “It’s totally time to sell out. We’ll make something.”

AM: Then, we’ll get sent the script and they’ll be like, “ You guys, it probably needs some work. Go ahead and read it.” We’ll read it and be like,  “No.”

JB: Nope, we’re not doing it.

DL: Hard pass, hard pass.

AM: I didn’t even notice that because we have that conversation all the time [of], “Yea, we’ll do it! We’re doing it, man.” Then it’s like, “Can’t do it.”

JB: Can’t do it, I don’t wanna.

Film festivals like Tribeca have proved to be a vital player within the film world. How have you benefitted from film festivals and why do you think they’re essential?

AM: Oh man. Well, Tribeca is everything for us. We’re still an obscurity, but we’re plucked out of absolute obscurity by Tribeca with “Resolution”—[which] they have no business programming it and no reason to. They just did it because they thought it was kind of cool. That kind of risk taking is what film festivals are about. We travel with our films as much as possible, it’s not like the big premiere and then stay home. We’ll even go to smaller festivals and that’s weirdly a payoff in many ways. We get to travel like a dumb little indie band, but not as cool.

JB: Also, writing and everything in post-production is not an emotionally healthy thing for a human being—the amount of isolation. You do those things [and] you’re in isolation—I’m not going to lie, I love it. I love doing those things. Aaron loves doing visual effects, he loves editing, [and] he loves writing. But, you force yourself to do it [and] you feel like, “Man, I spend a lot of time by myself.” The film festival kinda corrects it a little bit. You’re like “Oh, I get to interact with a whole bunch of people.”

AM: There’s stuff in “The Endless” that comes from experiences we’ve had in the film festival circuit, and in “Spring.” Directly in the script, [things] came from things that happened and people that we’ve met [at film festivals].

What do you ultimately hope moviegoers get out of “The Endless”?

JB: I mean, it’s the same goal as our first set of movies. The target we try to hit is that when we cut to black, that people will keep thinking about it, keep talking about it, and that it means something to them. It wasn’t just a piece of candy and it was like, “Oh, that was sweet. It was good. We’re done.” They take something more out of it, keep thinking about it, and talk about it with their friends. Truly, we hope that it makes them think about aspects of their humanity.

DL: I still don’t understand the movie.

AM: “Resonance” is a really pretentious word, but it is actually what we’re after. Here’s a great exampleL “Taken” is really the perfect thriller movie. But when it’s done, you close the book and you’re like “Well, I’m going to go make a sandwich.” Ideally, we can make something that does still deliver some of the fun. Ultimately, when you’re done, you’re at the refrigerator making the sandwich and you’re like, “ huh.” You can kind of like pause for a second and you maybe wanna like tell a friend or talk about it, or something like that.