“We Made a Cult that People Might Have Wanted to Join”: Five Questions for The Endless Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Offering a blend of psychological seduction and physical threat, cults have provided charged settings for a number of recent movies, both fiction and doc. But The Endless, the latest feature from innovative independent genre filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, puts a new spin on the cult-film genre; they writers, directors and stars make their “UFO death cult” one in which the very ambiguity of its danger is just one of their film’s existential menaces.
Benson and Moorhead play Justin and Aaron Smith, brothers who escaped the California cult years ago. Aaron has fond memories of growing up in the cult, while Justin went on to trash it on TV news following their escape. Receiving a mysterious video message from the cult, the brothers decide to return for a visit. Aaron hopes it will bring closure, while Justin nurses a residual anger. Once there, however, the cult seems less dangerous than the land it occupies, which seems charged with an eerie, otherwordly power. Indeed, an opening title card containing a quote from H.P. Lovecraft tips the filmmakers’ hand here, as what they’ve tapped into with The Endless is the type of cosmic dread found in the horror novelist’s work, one in which individuals are swallowed up by the enormity of a hidden world that suddenly seeps from within the seams of reality. Most interestingly, the filmmakers — whose previous film was the supernatural relationship drama Spring — have circled back here to their debut picture, Resolution, giving it a third act reprise that suggests an independent version of the kind of universe-building that is de rigeur in contemporary blockbuster cinema.
Below, I talk to the two filmmakers about acting in their own work for the first time, designing a film around their own VFX abilities, and bringing something new to the cult genre. The Endless is in theaters today from Well Go USA.
Filmmaker: A lot of metaphors about filmmaking have to do with family, whether that’s the insta-family of a film set or the birth metaphor when it comes to making a film. In The Endless, you are directing together, as usual, but also both acting and playing brothers. So, how did that deeper level of involvement with each other — as not only directors but also scene partners — play off, or against, the relationship you have developed between yourselves over three films?
Benson and Moorhead: We’re gonna co-write this response, so forgive if it’s weirdly in third-person. We’re not biological brothers, but we’ve spent so much time we might as well be. But our onscreen personas, and our relationship outside of its lived-in quality, is totally fabricated. The familial side of it is based off brothers that Justin knew growing up, and the bickering is based off Aaron’s love for debating the meaning of words with our producer David Lawson. In real life, we don’t really argue, and neither of us feels like the other is domineering.
A lot of people find it kind of weird that we’re not actually brothers: we’re the same height, similar features, we like the same things, have all the same stories, and on phone interviews no one can tell our voices apart and a lot of things end up falsely attributed to the other. If, on set, you ask us the same question individually, you’ll get the same answer. We’d do great in a police interrogation like that. We aren’t sure why that is, but thank god it is. We’re different people of course, which lets us challenge each other and bring our own perspectives to projects to, hopefully, make them better. But our relationship is the exact opposite of contentious.
Filmmaker: The film starts with an H.P. Lovecraft quote, and then, later, with the scene looping back to your first feature, Resolution, embraces the idea of the interconnected cosmology undergirding his work. At what point did you conceive of this earlier work being part of a larger tapestry?
Benson and Moorhead: We’re pretty proud that we might have the lowest-budget “universe” out there. We got a superlative award for it at a film festival last year. We didn’t intend to expand on the mythology we made in our first film, but the characters and the whole environment haunted us. We’d have drinks and joke about what a sequel would look like (although The Endless isn’t a sequel). We thought up a TV show in that world. We did a no-budget sketch comedy thing with caricatures of the Aaron and Justin characters (and abandoned it).
So when we decided to go make another movie hand-over-fist with total self-reliance, it came naturally to play around in that pool again. There’s no business reason to do it — no one saw Resolution — but the fact was undeniable to us that there was a completely different facet of that universe left unexplored and it was scratching at our minds a bit.
Filmmaker: After two independent films, one might have thought you guys might try to make a larger-scale movie with more name cast, but instead you are acting yourselves and creating a work that is even more unconventional in its approach to the genre than the previous two films. I asked you a similar question when we talked about your last feature, but could you discuss where you see yourselves in the current genre film landscape, and whether it is a self-sustaining one for the kind of work that you in terms of its finance and distribution?
Benson and Moorhead:The really good news is we have three smaller indie films that we can take 100% creative responsibility for — that is, we can’t blame or credit anyone’s interference for what they are. Plus, we think we can honestly claim they’ve been successful both critically and commercially. That’s a hard thing to do in indie film, it’s an incredibly high-risk high-reward thing, so we’re proud of that.
After our last film Spring, we had the opportunity to do a lot of larger-budget films. Some came with a terrible script, so we passed. A couple were scripts that Justin wrote himself, and we realized just how long those larger movies take to make. We think big-name cast are allergic to us or something. If you’re a famous actor and you’re reading this, hit us up.
So ultimately, we decided to make something smaller while the wheels of those larger projects kept turning at the pace of a geriatric goblin. We absolutely will make larger projects someday. We want to. We want to play with more filmmaking toys. We want more people to see our movies. We want to tell larger stories, as long as we keep human relationships in the center of them. But we’ll never stop making films while we wait for that to happen. Mark Duplass said it best: The cavalry isn’t coming.
Filmmaker: Could you discuss the effects work in the film, which ranges from very simple practical work to CG landscape alteration? What was your secret to designing compelling visuals on the budget that you had?
Benson and Moorhead: Even before writing the film, we knew we wouldn’t have the budget for any practical FX beyond what we felt we could do with fishing line and karo syrup and three toothpicks. But we had one thing: Aaron’s a VFX artist that specializes in 2.5d compositing. That is, any footage that already exists, we can integrate that well into other footage.
For example, lighting a building on fire is combining footage of fire and footage of a building, something we can do well — but we wouldn’t be able to generate a giant 3d CGI Godzilla. So before we even put pen to page, we wrote a list of all the mind-bending phenomena that we felt like one person could accomplish in that realm and that we’ve always wanted to have a reason to try. We used it as a resource for inspiration for some sequences in the script. There were plenty of those ideas left on the table, of course, otherwise the film would feel like a silly surreal kitchen sink, but the ones that made it in were all the more powerful because we knew exactly how we’d accomplish them before we even got started, which is a rare treat in indie film.
Filmmaker: Finally, what research, cinematic or otherwise, did you do into the nature of cults, and what was important to convey in terms of your depiction of this cult that hadn’t been portrayed before in other films?
Benson and Moorhead: We’ve probably read all the same books involving cults that you have (Survivor, The Stand, etc), watched all the same Netflix docs you have (Deprogrammed, Jesus Camp, etc), seen all the same TV shows (Leftovers, Waco) and read all the same Wikipedia articles (Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown…). This happened organically out of bald curiosity rather than full-blown research, because one of our hobbies is deep-dives into esoteric bits of historical apocrypha.
So, we’d label our research as being a bit surface-level, like cult pop-psychology. The reason being is actually suggested in your question: we merely needed to know the hallmarks of cults, the things that most cults share rather than what makes them different, in order for us to subvert those things. Reason being, if it was very clearly a cult, why on earth would these guys go back? So we found a way to make a cult that defied a lot of the staples of a cult: no evil charismatic leader; no uniforms; no worship ceremonies; no threat of harm if you leave, et cetera. But it almost has those things. So we made a cult that people might have wanted to join, one that looks more like a commune than anything dangerous.
All that is because, ultimately, our film isn’t about cults. We do explore the ideas of rebellion and rejecting authority, and a cult is a good framework for that, but by the end of the movie — spoilers! — you’ll realize that the cult wasn’t really where the danger lay, and ultimately they’re in the same danger that our protagonists are.