Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead returned to the Tribeca Film Festival last week with their indie mind fuck The Endless, in which they star as two brothers who return to the cult they fled from years ago. The duo broke onto the indie horror scene with the slow burn psychological thriller Resolution, and went on to direct the Lovecraftian Spring as well as one of our V/H/S Viral segments, “Bonestorm”.
While attempting to play by Hollywood’s rules, they needed to vent their creativity because, in their own words, they’re filmmakers, not meeting takers. So, while they work on their first studio project, they continue to dole out wondering indie productions that are building towards something quite unique (massive spoilers here).
Below is our exclusive chat with Benson and Moorhead, free of that mega spoiler you can find in the aforementioned link.
BLOODY DISGUSTING: What was the genesis of The Endless?
JUSTIN: After the success of Spring we had a lot of opportunities to go do bigger stuff that we just couldn’t quite bring ourselves to dive into as what we do is so specific. We also have a lot of bigger movies and TV shows in development that just take a very long time to get made. We’re infinitely grateful for it all, but we decided one day that we’re filmmakers and that we’ve always been better filmmakers than meeting takers, so we have to just go make a movie. And even though we didn’t consciously know it, we had been developing The Endless for over five years. The movie is years and years of conversations of what we think is scary or thrilling or heartbreaking or interesting about people, funneled through a fraternal relationship, exploring themes of conformity and history repeating itself.
AARON: Yeah, in a way it began as a desire to roll up our sleeves and create a movie our damn selves, no matter the cost or effort, hand-over-fist, even if it was just the two of us or a few more shooting on iPhones. But then it snowballed, slowly, into what it is today…we started getting more and more excited to dive back into where we started (in more ways than one) while hoping that the potential success of this could push forward the other future projects we love so much. When we developed the idea, themes, and the script, though, in our hearts it stopped being a side-project and became the main event — it felt like we were on a mission to tell this story.
BD: How much of your own personal life experiences influenced the story?
AARON: In a way the themes of the movie are pretty strongly reflective of how we felt at the time: a desire to return to one’s roots (us wanting to make a DIY movie), and the feeling that you need to take immediate, drastic action to break out of history’s awful cycle of repeating itself (making THIS movie rather than waiting on someone to give permission).
JUSTIN: The writing of the script was inspired more from observing sibling relationships and family dynamics in general, rather than my own personal experiences. A lot of that was friends I had growing up with siblings closer in age. But some of the ways that Justin and Aaron interact — especially the bickering — was lifted from watching the real Aaron and our producer David Lawson during all the location shoots and travel we’ve done together. We all love each other but they just love to argue and it’s so circular and based on semantics. Also, Aaron and I are basically brothers in real life at this point so it seems people detect that in our on-screen chemistry.
BD: What is something the two of you refuse to let go of?
JUSTIN: Probably humor and general levity, but to be honest I think maybe we’re pretty stubborn about the authorship in general. That said, we take pride in being easy to work with, and while we’ve had full creative freedom and final cut on Resolution, Spring and The Endless, we also take a lot of feedback that we value to no end.
AARON: Probably also being what you’d call a multi-hyphenate. We find it hard to exclusively do the job of directing, we feel the need to get our grimy paws on everything because we know we’ll miss something if we don’t. For example, I love shooting the movies we direct, because we know we’ll get exactly what we want. Collaboration is obviously key for us (I mean…there’s already 2 of us, so it better be), but another way to look at it is why Soderbergh does it: “One less conversation!”
BD: When did you decide to both star? What’s the story behind that decision?
JUSTIN: From the time we decided to do it we made a pact that nothing would stop us, that we just do everything if we had to. So the script was written for us specifically, we rehearsed it for months, and as the project got bigger luckily no one objected to us remaining in the lead roles. We both have some training as actors, but the best prep in the world has been working with Vinny Curran, Peter Cilella, Nadia Hilker, Lou Taylor Pucci, and so many others over the years. Then editing those performances and just seeing what ultimately worked in the final product. But, our producer David Lawson did make us perform some scenes for him before he was totally behind casting us. That was a nerve-wracking audition, but it went well!
AARON: And although this definitely was only a small part of the deciding factor (what Justin wrote is much more of the meat of it) there’s also a weird continuity answer to that as well that is a bit of a spoiler for the film, but if you know what I mean then you get why it literally had to be us.
BD: Was it difficult acting and directing?
AARON: It felt surprisingly natural. Acting is inherently high-pressure because more rides on your shoulders in that moment between action and cut than anything else, but because we rehearsed intensely, trusted each other and our collaborators, and it was written tailored for us, it made that load a little lighter. I think also being the cinematographer added a level of complexity that in some rare moments felt overwhelming, but mostly was just helpful because, well, it’s easy to make the shot work when you’re in it.
JUSTIN: Everything in filmmaking is really hard. But acting in a scene that you’re directing actually isn’t all that much harder than just directing. Conversations with someone else get replaced by your own preparation for the role, and being in a scene with the other actors actually makes giving direction a bit easier. You’re right there with them emotionally and otherwise, literally closer than you could ever be as a director. It’s really enjoyable and feel privileged that we got to do it. However, Aaron also being the director of photography… That’s harder than I had it.
BD: The movie is really a mind fuck, was it difficult making sure you captured everything on film and also assembling it?
JUSTIN: Our pre-principle shot-listing sessions are pretty intense and many days long. We always have every little thing planned before we get to set. That said, we edit with this amazing guy Michael Felker, and we’re so, so lucky that he starts doing the first cut while we’re on set. He’ll sometimes catch stuff while we’re there on location that we can go back and grab and make sure we’re getting everything we can out of a scene.
AARON: Agreed, the only reason that worked was because we were also the DP and the editors, so as it happened we always knew what the shot looked like and how it would cut in. We’re constantly cutting the film in our heads as it’s being shot, it’s one of the most fun parts of our jobs is the anticipation of what you think it’ll look like. And again, our crew saved our asses about a million times.
BD: Can you talk about your process of doing your own effects work and how you approach it in your films?
JUSTIN: The only thing I can speak on here is I think I direct VFX pretty well, and understand in the scriptwriting process what is possible and visually interesting and makes sense story wise given the resources available. But the most important thing is, is that Aaron is a VFX genius.
AARON: I got started as a VFX artist so it’ll always be in my blood, but I wish I got started as something more character-oriented so my mind wouldn’t jump to it so quickly. We try not to use VFX for spectacle as much as to bridge the gap between the possible and impossible. The process of actually sitting down and working at your desk with a small team and DOING the VFX is initially satisfying (feels a bit like mowing the grass, y’know? Just getting through them to the end, way fewer impossible decisions to be made like there are on set). Then after week 6 when you hand has transformed into a claw from holding your stylus for hours on end, I just kinda wanna be done with it, but the inner filmmaker won’t LET me be done till it’s actually done.
BD: You guys really are do-it-all-yourself kind of guys, can you speak to that kind of filmmaking?
AARON: It was a bit easier back in the earlier days of film to only be a director, but now in indie film since the barrier to entry is a bit lower, a lot of the time the films are done a disservice if you don’t at least have a mental handle on what the other departments are doing. Taking it one step further, if you actually do perform all those roles yourselves, you’ll be a bit more sleep-deprived but ultimately the product, by definition, can’t help to be much closer to what you want than if you do it any other way.
JUSTIN: We’ve gotten to the point where we have collaborators who know what we want and more than capable to take the lead, but the truth is the doing is now part of the creative process… For example, Michael Felker could just edit our movies on his own, but Aaron and I need to have our hands all over the footage, exploring editing options, temping in sound and all that so we can better communicate the sound mix we want from our sound genius Yahel Dooley. Acting in scenes helps understand the tone and the screenplay on a deeper level that informs the whole movie moving forward. It’s all connected and helps us work with the other departments so that we’re all constantly elevating the movie. And selfishly, it’s a very fun privilege to get to do all this stuff.
BD: You’re clearly Lovecraft-obsessed, what is it about H.P. that connects with you two as filmmakers?
JUSTIN: Even before we were as familiar with Lovecraft as we are now, we always had instincts to be innovative in our mythology building. A part of that is the idea that if there is something otherworldly, it’s probably beyond our five senses, and how much can we communicate about this incomprehensibly massive, often times scary unknown and keep it thrilling? And while we do show and tell a lot of new ideas, there is a ton of mythology we only talk about behind the scenes that never makes it to the screen but does inform the process. Hopefully, there’s a feeling in our movies of something out there that’s so ancient you’d never find it on Wikipedia. Someone the other day called our stuff feel good cosmic horror and that was pretty rad.
AARON: Also before we knew who Lovecraft was, we found the Unknown to be the one thing the two of us could always latch onto as the most frightening possible idea. We are pretty humble about our place in and knowledge of the universe, and there are so many amazing and horrifying things that we don’t even know about yet — and since that feels real to us, we want to explore that. Come to find out, there was some dude named Lovecraft doing it a hundred years ago.
BD: You guys have your own aesthetic to your films, but are always doing something different. What’s next?
We’ve got several TV shows and movies at various stages of development. We probably have something like 8 completed TV pilot scripts and movie scripts ready to go as soon as the business side lines up. So, hopefully, one of those. We’re especially interested in TV as it seems to where most of bold, character driven stuff is these days.