New horror film The Endless (out April 6) is an extremely difficult movie to describe without spoiling. So, how would the film’s directors, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, suggest your writer tee up their latest collaboration?
“You tell them it’s Chris Nolan’s new movie starring Tom Hardy,” deadpans Benson, 34.
“The movie isn’t ultimately about cults in a traditional sense,” says Moorhead, 31. “But I do think that a good way into the film, that doesn’t give anything away, is [to] say, it’s a movie about two brothers who fled a UFO death cult 10 years ago, and one of the brothers convinces the other brother to go back, and they get there, and they realize there may be some truth to [the cult’s] other-worldly beliefs.”
Like the duo’s two previous films — 2012’s addiction drama Resolution and 2014’s Lovecraftian romance Spring — The Endless borrows tropes and themes from the horror genre while declining to embrace its often strictly formalistic nature or generally accepted boundaries, making the result tough to pigeonhole as “horror” at all.
“In development offices in Los Angeles, the people doing the coverage, they read the script, and then they write a three-page synopsis, so that their boss doesn’t have to read it,” says Moorhead. “Then, they have a grid and it says, you know, ‘Quality of writing,’ ‘Voice,’ all of that. One of the things is ‘Knowledge of genre.’ Like, ‘How tightly does it fit within a single genre?’ And that has resulted, I truly believe, in a bunch of bad movies. What they’re suggesting is genre and quality have anything to do with one another. I just think that’s a bunch of crap. Broadly, horror has been defined as slashers, which aren’t really even made that much anymore. But that’s just what ‘horror’ is. Our movie has about as much in common with a slasher as it does with a comedy, You should feel frightened when you watch the movie — but it’s also a thriller, and it’s sci-fi, and a drama, and a comedy.”
The Endless is also the first of the duo’s movies to star the filmmakers themselves, with Benson playing the suspicious “Justin” while Moorhead is his brother “Aaron,” who remembers life in the cult more fondly than his sibling. With Benson responsible for writing the script, and Moorhead working as the film’s cinematographer, that’s a lot of hats for the pair to be wearing, although they insist that being in front of the camera did not really make the production any tougher.
“In some ways, it’s easier to give direction to other performers,” says Benson. “Instead of sitting behind a monitor trying to figure it out, you’re right there in the scene with them. There’s something about being emotionally connected and having to really listen to what they are saying, that the second someone yells ‘Cut,’ it’s very easy to quickly give them notes on what just happened and jump back into it.”
Even so, the directors admit that the decision to cast themselves in the film’s lead roles was initially born out of necessity.
“It was a practical reason,” says Moorhead. “We had made Resolution, had some success, made Spring, had a little more success. It felt like all the doors were open, and we were just about to make something huge. But then, when the opportunities would cross our desks, we realized these are just terrible movies. Pretty much all of them that ever crossed our desk, if they came out, they are bad. And we thought, Well, we wouldn’t have done any better. We realized that, by waiting for these larger things, we weren’t making movies. In a week, I had seen a couple of Duplass brothers movies — and they are way bigger, more successful people than we are — but I remember just watching that thinking, ‘Well, these guys are way more successful than us, and they’re still making like these low-budget features, and these movies are great.’ We just started talking about the idea of, ‘What if we just made a movie with whatever we had?’ I’d still be the cinematographer, we’d both edit it, we’d throw together our money to make it — luckily we did end up getting financing, and a crew, and all of that. But part of the idea of making this movie was, we would just be the leads because then we don’t have to wait around. We designed the movie so we could do it.”
Benson, who grew up in San Diego, met the Florida-raised Moorhead almost a decade ago when both were interns at Ridley Scott’s commercials company in Los Angeles.
“We never even got to see Ridley Scott — it wasn’t like that at all,” says Moorhead. “But we sat at the same table [as each other], started talking about Stephen King, and our shared love for movies that people often think suck, and hit it off from there.”
Benson was planning to attend medical school, and decided, ahead of that, to use the money in his bank account to finance what ultimately became the pair’s first film, Resolution, starring relative unknowns Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran. “Resolution was written for the $20,000 in my bank account,” says Benson. “We just went and made it. We pulled the crew together and made a movie with a script that was tailored to ‘x’ amount of money. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to medical school anyway, I’ll check making a movie off my bucket list, I’ll spend my checking account, and I’ll be living off student loans — so f— it.'”
Resolution premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and received positive reviews, with Scott Tobias at the AV Club describing the movie as an “indie analog to The Cabin in the Woods.” Though the film’s release was limited, the reception was encouraging enough for Benson to permanently abandon his medical school plans, with encouragement from Moorhead.
“Aaron really inspired me to not go to medical school,” says Benson. “Luckily, the world’s short one doctor now, thanks to Aaron.”
“And we got one more independent filmmaker,” laughs Moorhead.
“So, thank god,” says Benson. “L.A. needed another indie filmmaker!”
Their next film, Spring, was a far more ambitious project, with an Italian setting and a cast headed by Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker, Evil Dead), whose vacation trysting with the mysterious Louise (Nadia Hilker) takes an odd turn when he discovers she is, in fact, a millennia-old sea creature.
“With Spring, we did pitch it,” says Benson. “No one ever said yes. No one ever said yes.”
Spring was a huge artistic and creative leap for the pair, and the film would ultimately be praised by Guillermo del Toro, a man who knows a thing or two when it comes to films about people having sex with fish-monsters. “Just in case I wasn’t clear: Spring is one of the best horror films of the decades,” the Shape of Water director tweeted in July 2016. This being a sane and just world, Hollywood executives were soon falling over themselves to green-light their next original project. We jest, of course…
“The story of our lives, is, ‘Guys, I loved your last movie, whatcha got?'” says Moorhead. “We send them what we’ve got, and they’re like, ‘I don’t want to do those, will you do my crappy script?’ I’m not exaggerating. That is everything. To this day, people are like, ‘Alright, we love all three of your movies, we would have done them.’ We’re like, Yeah, right…'”
The pair initially planned to self-finance The Endless until producer David Lawson (Trash Fire), with whom they had collaborated on Spring, was able to secure outside finance. “The Endless was written for the money in our checking accounts,” says Benson. “But then David Lawson was like, ‘You’ve got to pay the crew this time, so let’s try to find an investor.'”
Chatting with Benson and Moorhead in a Los Angeles café, it is clear the pair have a strong bond of friendship. And the former reveals that he leaned particularly hard on his professional partner during the production of The Endless. “We really support each other quite a bit,” he says. “It can be really helpful, because some days you go to a meeting, or you go to set, and prefer to be a wallflower than talking a whole bunch, and it’s nice to have someone there who’s there to funnel all the information. I don’t want to make him feel uncomfortable about this, but when we were making The Endless, my Mom passed away, and Aaron was really supportive. I think if I’d had that experience and it was just me, I don’t know how — I don’t know, I don’t know how well I would have functioned in that environment.”
The Endless received a highly positive reaction when it premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and once again garnered favorable reviews. In fact, the movie currently has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 23 reviews. That’s doubly impressive given the project’s deeply weird plot, which finds the two protagonists exploring a bewildering hellscape — or maybe a heavenscape.
“One of my favorite reactions was someone said, ‘I haven’t felt that amount of tension since I saw Sorcerer,'” says Benson referring to William Friedkin’s much-revered 1977 tale of desperate men driving truckloads of nitroglycerin through the South American jungle. “Now he did say Sorcerer is more tense, of course. But Sorcerer is one of the most tense movies I’ve ever seen in my life. A lot of people think that the quality of being a good movie is to make it entertaining — and I sort of agree with that. But I mostly just say, ‘As long as you feel emotions.’ You know Funny Games is not an entertaining movie, but it’s an excellent movie. The idea is, as long as you can heighten how people are feeling while still feeling true, and not something that’s saccharine, you’ve succeeded.”
The Endless opens in New York on April 6 and in Los Angeles on April 13 with a national rollout to follow. Watch the film’s trailer above.