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Home / Film / Interviews / Cosmic Horror and Cult Communes: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead on The Endless

Cosmic Horror and Cult Communes: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead on The Endless

Joseph Perry and Cohen Perry collaborated on this article, and on the interview questions with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.

One of the defining aspects of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s films is the recognizable and cohesive universe that spans across the duo’s work. It’s almost as if their 2012 debut Resolution, their 2014 sophomore feature Spring, and their latest effort The Endless are slowly converging on one another — perhaps literally, in the latter film. As might be expected from the pair, The Endless is a mind-bending, worlds-colliding horror tale that delivers plenty of thought-provoking headiness along with its chills.

The Endless sees Benson and Moorhead star for the first time in one of their own films, in addition to their usual directing chores, with the screenplay written by Benson, and Moorhead performing the cinematography. The duo portrays two brothers — Benson the older brother named Justin Smith, and Moorhead as younger brother Aaron — who fled from a cult several years earlier. Now down on their luck and living hand to mouth in a menial job, Aaron longs for the easier days of living with the cult, with three meals a day and a roof over their heads, surrounded by the great outdoors. He wants to go back for a one-day visit, but Justin is hesitant, having different memories of their experiences at the cult headquarters.

Justin reluctantly agrees to Aaron’s wish, and the brothers soon find their trip extended, with such increasingly odd occurrences happening as cult members displaying repetitive patterns of odd behavior, and photographs and tapes appearing from the air and in water. Something ominous and eerie is going on in the area, and a sense of dread looms over the proceedings. Benson and Moorhead once again blend horror, science fiction, and psychological chiller elements into a film that is wholly the original voice of its creators.

A quote from Lovecraft opens The Endless: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” What is it that attracts Benson and Moorhead to these elements?If you’re making a movie and you can’t make your audience feel some kind of emotion, you’ve failed,” explained Moorhead, “and that happens all the damn time. There’s an enormous spectrum of human emotions to choose from that your film can operate on — we like to choose ‘all of them,’ if we can —  but a deep-rooted, keep-you-up-at-night conceptual kind of terror is what makes the most sense to us for making a movie that lasts. It works on your body and on your brain. Visceral jump-scares are awesome but they only last a second; laughter, the same. But a memorable character and an idea you haven’t heard before? That will infect your mind.”

“It’s difficult to accomplish, and requires a lot of careful thought and just plain hard work,” Moorhead continued. “The degree to which we succeed on that is up for debate, but that’s the tiny target we’re shooting at. The one greatest thrill you can give an audience, the best roller-coaster ride, is to scare them — and not jump scares, not violence necessarily, but to actually make them scared. If you can do that, you don’t even need celebrities to get people to go see the movie.”

Backing up a bit to the Lovecraft reference in The Endless, the filmmakers mentioned in their July 2017 Bucheon (South Korea) International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) Q&A session that their films are often said to have a Lovecraftian feel, but that neither of them had actually read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction until working on their latest film. We asked the duo to expand on that for this article. “We once met someone that told us our films are Lovecraftian, despite our protests that we had never read Lovecraft,” said Moorhead, “and being slightly insulted at the idea of being copycats or making an homage, we rejected that idea. But he said ‘No, you don’t understand — even if you don’t read Lovecraft, all of the writers and filmmakers you love, did.’”

“Now we fully understand and agree,” Moorhead continued. “We all stand on Lovecraft’s shoulders, know it or not. So yes, we decided to do our due diligence and read his works, and we completely understand the comparisons, and take pride in them. The cosmic fear and weird fiction he represents are absolutely in our blood, too. We’ll still never overtly copy or pay homage to him, but we hope to make his ghost proud.”

Like the protagonists in Benson and Moorhead’s previous outings, Justin and Aaron Smith tend to follow a modern version of the classic hero’s journey. First there was Chris’s journey through rehab with his friend Michael in Resolution, then Evan’s journey to Europe where he met Louise in Spring, and now the Smith brothers’ journey back to the cult’s commune in The Endless. The ultimate obstacle and conflict for the filmmakers’ protagonists seem to be abandoning their heroic quests to save themselves.

“It’s funny, we certainly seem to like having our main characters leave their everyday lives to go somewhere in the first 10 minutes of our films,” Moorhead agreed. “It’s not a conscious choice to make a hero’s journey as much as it’s something that we just imagine we would do in the same kind of situation. In each film, our two protagonists have optimism and pessimism as some of their opposing traits, which makes for good conflict and is relatable as hell. Character-wise by the end of the films, they always seem to choose the more optimistic route, but situationally it could end either way.”

Another fundamental theme running through their universe is that of isolation. Reflecting on this, Moorhead offered a quote from the end of The Endless that Justin penned: “The character Mike muses, ‘Y’know, it’s so strange the way we isolate ourselves from the ones we care about.’ Considering that all of our films feature a strong relationship between two people, it’s befitting that our films would examine what happens if we didn’t have those other people with us, literally or emotionally. Our goal is to make you connect with the people onscreen so that when bad things happen to them you actually give a damn —- hopefully ending in an emotion that sits between tension, anxiety, intrigue, and fear.”

One thing that Benson and Moorhead cannot be accused of is relying on empty archetypes as murder-fodder. With The Endless as in their previous films, their protagonists are in limited quantity, and there isn’t a need to mentally construct a death pool to cope with the impending casualties —- you only have two protagonists, and you invest everything in them. Moorhead is careful to distance their thematic use of isolation from the mainstream, however: “Many films considered ‘horror’ that have people going into the middle of nowhere don’t end up wanting to talk about the emotional consequences of doing so, and just use it as a really surface-level excuse to answer the question of why the police aren’t there. Seems like a missed opportunity to us. One of the silliest things we do as humans is to isolate ourselves and, often in doing so, hurting ourselves, so we wanted to shine a light on it.”

On the topic of isolation, Benson and Moorhead have, in their three feature films, created an archetype of a modern hermit who is a product of rural poverty. Benson explained where this archetype come from: “I grew up in San Diego, which people usually associate with beaches, Sea World, and surfers; stuff like that. But the truth is, you go just 15 miles east of the ocean almost anywhere in Southern California, and you may as well be chilling outside that house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

“Rural Southern California is a collection of often extreme right wing subcultures that I’m fascinated and terrified by,” Benson continued, “and it’s been mined by so few storytellers, so there’s the thrill of giving something to an audience that they haven’t quite seen before. You see rural cultures in the context of the South and East Coast quite a bit, but for whatever reason this side of California is rarely portrayed. It’s less a commentary on rural poverty, though, and more the observation that the cultural divide in America isn’t just in places like the Bible Belt, and I’m fascinated by people who move out to the boonies to do more drugs, shoot guns, and avoid paying their taxes. That environment gives a danger to the story. Now all that said, there are also perfectly lovely people out there who don’t seem like they’ll murder you, but they unfortunately don’t contribute to making our movies scary, so perhaps we’ve underrepresented them a bit. Shitty Carl just demands so much screen time.”  

Having read, heard, and seen in person previous interviews with Benson and Moorhead, including two Q&A sessions at South Korea’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan), both filmmakers have mentioned that they usually have more than one project in the works at the same time. The Endless was no exception, according to Benson. “The general idea of a UFO death cult movie has been circling since Resolution,” he said, “but the idea and script for The Endless came about in March 2016. We shot it in September 2016, and premiered at Tribeca in April 2017. Pretty darn fast.”

The greatest challenge in bringing The Endless to cinematic life was deciding to make the film, according to Aaron. “After the success of our last two films, we were working on a lot of higher-profile, larger-budget projects,” he said. “But what we realized is that the financing, casting, pitching and such inherently took a lot longer than indie films, and in the meantime while waiting for those to green light, we weren’t making films anymore!” The duo decided to make another DIY, micro-budget, self-financed film in which they would try to do as much as possible themselves  — including being in it and paying for it —  so that they could make the film, no matter what. “That was a hard decision,” Aaron said, “because there was no way to know how this film would be perceived. A step back? A pointless oddity? A waste of time? Would it get the people who have invested in our careers upset at us, and would our own performances be viewed as self-indulgent or downright bad? Thankfully that isn’t the case so far, and also thankfully, the script Justin wrote got us more legitimate financing. Although it’s still a very low-budget film, it’s just not asking our longtime collaborators to once again work for free.”

Benson and Moorhead have both acted in films before, including their own Resolution, but The Endless sees them in their first starring roles. According to the filmmakers, they knew they wanted to be in the film before they even had a concept. They felt that they needed to make a movie they could almost do with themselves and a sound mixer, so they wrote the screenplay with themselves in mind as the leads. “It’s a bit of an odd way to kick off the casting process,” said Moorhead, “but it helped because we were able to write roles that we knew we’d be able to perform well, and talk about emotions we were familiar with. It would’ve been really stupid to write roles for ourselves playing gangster mob bosses with Russian accents, but we could knock these roles out of the park. We knew our individual talents and wrote to them; for example, Justin’s a strong swimmer, hence the lake scene, and I’m an Eagle Scout, hence the knot tying, fishing, and so on.”

“If the movie had basically no budget like the original plan,” Moorhead continued, “we also weren’t sure if we could ask two actors to give us dedicated weeks of rehearsal followed by weeks of production in the woods for free. They might have; there are a lot of talented and ambitious actors out there that might have done it, but we weren’t sure. And it’s something we always wanted to do, so we didn’t see any point in denying ourselves the privilege if we were controlling every aspect of the production. When we brought on executive producers and the film received real financing, we were so far along that it still made the most sense to keep ourselves in our roles, and we never really discussed doing it otherwise.”

Some other highly talented actors appear alongside Benson and Moorhead in The Endless, including a few faces familiar to genre-film fans, such as Callie Hernandez of Blair Witch and Alien: Covenant, Tate Ellington of Sinister 2 and Red Hook, and genre-film stalwart Lew Temple, who has appeared in several of Rob Zombie’s films as well as The Walking Dead television series and horror movies such as last year’s Home.

Benson and Moorhead were extremely involved in casting, as they always are with their projects. They feel that, besides the script, casting choices are the most important decisions that directors will make for the success of the movie. For The Endless, “we had the honor of working with one of the best casting directors on the planet, Mark Bennett, who cast films like The Hurt Locker and It Follows,” said Moorhead. “We’re kindred spirits. He sent us an email one day after he saw Spring, we grabbed drinks, and now he’s our guy. Everyone he brought in to read for the film was spectacular, so working with him guarantees a cast that will humble you.”

“There were a few people that were cast as the film was being written, rather than through Mark,” Moorhead continued: “Justin and Aaron, of course; Smiling Dave (David Lawson Jr.), who is also our producer; Shane Brady, who is an amazing actor and magician, and my best friend since high school; and Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran from Resolution. But having the privilege of a legitimate casting director who sees all the up-and-comers and knows who’s great and can somehow convince them to work with us has now completely spoiled us for the rest of our films.”

With The Endless being the first time for Benson and Moorhead to work both in front of and behind the cameras as the lead actors, it might seem that the duo found themselves facing new challenges or adjustments in the filmmaking process, but they said that everything went “shockingly smooth.” “A lot of planning and rehearsal made it possible, especially with our producer David Lawson Jr. at the helm,” said Benson. “We already had prepared ourselves, we knew what to expect out of our fellow actors, we’ve been shooting long enough with this crew that we know what the frame looks like. It wasn’t even slower in any way, which was a surprise. We thought we’d have to watch playback and get a sense of what was happening, but we quickly realized that unless the shot was quite complicated, we could trust that our camera operator Will Sampson was getting exactly what we’d set up. Also, we’re not in the same scenes together as much as you might think, so one of us could often step behind the monitor and keep a close eye. Everything in filmmaking is very hard; acting as a director doesn’t really make it more difficult.”

The paradox of Moorhead’s bright and open cinematography is also intriguing. Horror is usually associated with darkness and confinement, but The Endless is quite the opposite, with the story unfolding in bright, vast, outdoor territory. We asked if agoraphobia was at play here, to which Moorhead replied, “Agoraphobia is not quite the word for it. The idea is more: How would you feel if you looked up into the sky and literally thought you were looking at a gigantic, potentially hateful god? It would feel crushing, it would feel impossible. Your mind breaks. So it’s not that you feel exposed, it’s that you feel watched, paranoid, cosmically uncertain.”

It’s an interesting nucleus to the directors’ work, which has often led to the aforementioned perceived association with H.P. Lovecraft — the “monster” as a manifestation of the unknown; an abstract, disembodied horror that can always affect you. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in the dark, too,” said Moorhead, “but the expansiveness in the cold light of day gives a similar emotion except that, with this movie’s concept being what it is, even when you can see everything, you still feel like you’re not. There’s an expectation that comes with darkness in a film that is categorized as horror in any way — you know exactly what’s coming next. It actually takes some of the thrill away from the darkness. It’s not just an attempt at breaking the cliches of horror cinema  — although that factored into it — but more that, if you want to talk genre, we approached this more like a supernatural Western than a traditional horror film.”

Benson and Moorhead found success on the film festival circuit early on with Resolution, and that success has only become stronger with each film they make. We asked how the film festival submission and distribution processes changed from their first film to their current run with The Endless. “Now there are more people in the festival and distribution industry familiar with our films, but we can take nothing for granted,” said Moorhead. “Every one of our films, The Endless included, has faced massive, deafeningly sad, surprising, and infuriating rejection. The big difference now festival-wise is that we send our films directly to someone doing the programming rather than Withoutabox, but those same people have also categorically rejected our films before and since. So it doesn’t get us ahead, it just streamlines the process. Distribution-wise, our films always enter into a bidding environment at film festivals, and we’re proud to say those have certainly gotten a lot more competitive each time, with new players coming to the table every day.”

With The Endless having found great success on the film festival circuit, we asked Benson and Moorhead what they were most proud of regarding the film. “I’m most proud of Justin’s performance,” said Moorhead. “There was a lot going on in production both personally and with the film itself — way, way more than you’d even guess from what’s onscreen, involving the sudden death of a parent, moving houses, financial pressures, and so on, and I’m just so proud of what he did. We were both wearing a lot of hats and it didn’t make him stumble even a bit. But I guess that makes sense; he’s the strongest guy I’ve ever met.”

“Likewise to all,” agreed Benson, “and I’m also most proud of Aaron’s performance. Neither of these characters are like us in real life at all, but whereas my character basically ramps up to a vulnerability in the third act, Aaron was tasked with that most of his screen time, which I think is generally a very difficult thing for most young men to pull off, especially in such a nuanced, diverse way. Also, we’re very close and tuned into each other, and speaking frankly, my mom committed suicide literally while we were making this movie, so he had to deal with me going slightly crazy at times. Obviously the loss of a parent to suicide is a pretty massive blow to anyone, and I hear a lot about how strong I seem, but really the only reason I got through the ground zero nuclear blast of it as a functioning human was because of Aaron and our producer David Lawson, and living on-set with all our lovely collaborators.”

Last year marked Benson and Moorhead’s third guest visit to BiFan, and it was capped off by The Endless quite deservedly winning the Best of Bucheon prize. The duo was especially thrilled with winning this particular award. “It’s the biggest and most prestigious award of our careers,” said Benson. “We’re out of our minds with happiness here,” Moorhead agreed. “We rarely win awards, actually, and are often forced to sit through closing ceremonies at festivals, resigned and bored because we know we’re only going to go home empty-handed, and we’d kinda given up on actually getting to walk up there and accept one. It’s the biggest genre film event in Asia — of course we’re so proud we can’t contain ourselves!” Having been fortunate enough to see Benson and Moorhead’s guest visit screening of The Endless at BiFan ourselves, we feel confident that this award was merely the beginning of the success that this incredible film will find as it receives its wide theatrical release on 23 March 2018.

About Joseph Perry

Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." He is a staff writer for Gruesome Magazine, the foreign correspondent reporter for the "Horror News Radio" podcast, and a regular contributing writer to "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" magazine, “Scream” magazine, the When It Was Cool website, and “SQ Horror” magazine. He has also written for "Filmfax" magazine and HorrorNews.net. He occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right. Joseph has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. A former northern Californian and Oregonian, he has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.

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