Interview: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead talk The Endless and the fear of selling out
Ivan Radford | On 02, Jul 2018
Benson and Moorhead. Two words that send a shiver down the spine of any genre cinema fan. Not just because you expect the filmmaking duo (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) to come up something spooky, but because you also expect something excitingly original – and The Endless, their latest offering after Resolution and Spring doesn’t disappoint.
A mind-bending sci-fi horror about two brothers (played by themselves) who get caught up in a cult, the pair serve up exactly the kind of low-key, original, intimate horror that has won them fans on both sides of the Atlantic – not just thanks to cinema releases, but also thanks to VOD. (Read our review of The Endless here.) We caught up with them at the UK premiere of The Endless at the London Film Festival to talk telling personal stories, finding their audience on Netflix, and not selling out to big studios.
After Spring’s focus on a romantic relationship, it would be easy to assume that The Endless’ brotherly bond makes for a more personal story for Benson and Moorhead. Is that actually the case?
“All three of our movies are equally personal,” says Justin. “If you’re making an indie film and people are allowing you to be bold and allow you to tell a personal story, in some ways, it’s your responsibility as an independent filmmaker. You won’t be able to do that when someone gives you $100 million, you have to have much more populist sensibilities.”
“For really high-budget filmmakers, it’s like ‘Yeah, the Avengers is actually really personal, there’s a lot of myself in that…'” chuckles Aaron. “Do people even try that? Do people swallow that?”
“We hang out a lot outside of work, but we’re kind of always working.”
Given that they’re in front of the camera as well, though, do they consciously bring any similar personality traits to their characters?
“We keep joking around that it’s like, so we act in this movie, and because apparently, to most people, we don’t suck, it’s like ‘I guess they’re playing themselves’,” laughs Justin. “But it’s not us. At all.”
“Not only were we not in a cult,” chimes in Aaron. “He’s not a total asshole to me. I’m not a guy who’s twitchy.”
“He’s got a really high IQ actually,” grins Justin.
They talk over each other a lot, as they bat answers back and forth – an amusing, infectious cocktail of respect and mutual affection. When we venture to wonder who ends up taking charge more when it comes to work, it soon becomes clear that they’re not just like this when being interviewed: they’re like this the whole time.
“There is no ‘in charge’,” says Aaron. “That would be, there would be no point.”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” nods Justin. “The only thing that makes me the writer is I’m the one typing into the keyboard, but it’s still a very collaborative thing. There’s an interesting thing too, where Aaron is the cinematographer. He’s very much the cinematographer, I don’t do the lighting schemes or operate the camera. However, I do work on the shots.”
“If we were just to reduce our credits to ‘A film by…’,” continues Aaron, “that would be fine for us, but it just doesn’t work that way – and we’d get even more questions!”
Does that relationship ever get exhausting or too much for either of them? Do they see each other much outside of work?
“We hang out a lot outside of work,” says Justin, “but we’re kind of always working. The reason people complain about artists being asked to work for free is what artists won’t admit is their job is incredibly fun. So that’s why people are just ‘Oh, you’ll be doing it anyway, so you might as well do it for free’. So a lot of the time, when we’re just hanging out, a lot of what we do just blends together into hanging out, work, fun, discussions, whatever. But if I go see a movie and it’s not a date night, I’ll definitely be inviting Justin. That kind of a thing. But we also see each other for work five days a week minimum.”
“Yeah, I agree,” adds Aaron. “That’s exactly what I would have said.”
“We kept thinking about [our first film] and going deeper in the mythology.”
It’s fitting, then, that The Endless came about as a result of the pair just chatting – and, specifically, chatting about work.
“The conception of it is five or six years of conversation between Justin and I, about the mythology and the characters of our first film, Resolution, and we kept thinking about the ideas and going deeper in the mythology or more expressly expressing the mythology of that film. It’s a totally separate film, you don’t need to see Resolution, but the idea of making this film is a result of the two of us being inspired by that film.”
Benson and Moorhead’s films are always notably grounded in relationships, in the everyday, in something tangible and recognisably human. How does that balance between the weird and the mundane work when developing an idea into a film? Is it a conscious case of always trying to ground each new idea?
“In the case of our first two movies, it was more about a high concept sci-fi idea that, immediately, a millisecond after the sci-fi idea, came the relationship that would fit that best,” explains Aaron. “This movie, it started with the theme of conformity and what naturally follows that is a brotherhood, a hierarchy with a dominance, a cult, and this antagonist we invented with our first film and exploring that further. As pretentious as it sounds, this one did actually start with theme.”
With such strikingly original, unusual movies on their CV, do they conform much in their real lives?
“I do it more than I’d like to do in my day-to-day life,” reflects Justin. “Weirdly enough, the movie suggests the idea that younger people are more likely to rebel, older people try to fall in line, but I find that as I get older, I realise nobody knows better than me. I used to think ‘Oh, they’re older than me and so they know a little better’, but as I get older, nobody has any idea what they’re doing, so I’ve become a little bit less conformist than I was, but more conformist than I wish I was.”
“I’m like the opposite,” says Aaron. “I will also say that generally, in an often unhealthy way, people conform more as they get older. In my case, I’m not quicker to conform to things, I’m quicker to co-operate. Instead of rebelling against everything and being angry about being told what to do, sometimes, it’s just being co-operative in a good way. I’ve had to learn that as I get older, but I’ve had the experience of being an adolescent, and the music that’s lightning for me, that strikes me, it’s rap music and punk rock music. I don’t even know what they’re rebelling against, I just like it! I think that’s a virtue and sometimes, it’s hard to grow out of that and look closer at maybe, sometimes, it’s better to co-operate. Maybe it’ll help your career. That said, nobody would argue we’ve sold out!”
“We’ve done the opposite of that!” laughs Justin. “Our bank account is like ‘Please sell out!’
“We had a friend who was working on a big movie and he was fighting and fighting with his producers, and he did mushrooms, and had a realisation: ‘They’re just trying to get this movie made, just like I am, they just want the movie to get made.’ All of a sudden, he wan’t confirming, but he was like ‘I’m going to assume you don’t hate me, and I’m going to try and get this movie made with you’. And he learned, in that drug-addled moment, the value of conformity. But then again, we just made a movie about the value of anti-conformity. We used to have a movie script about Aleister Crowley. That guy, his greatest virtue was he stuck the middle finger up to everything. And that destroyed him. So while he could have been at least a counter-culture icon, which he still is, he still died a penniless heroin addict, because he just took it too far when people wanted to love him and help him. That’s the idea in The Endless: don’t join a cult, these people don’t love you; do sort it out with your brother, because that person does love you.”
“A lot of stuff comes out in theatres that we’ve turned down.”
Justin pauses to share a vignette that’s just popped into his head – “This happens sometimes…” – and begins to recount a vision of Aaron on the phone to a studio offering them the script to a feature film reboot of the sitcom Full House.
“Aaron’s just done this bunch of acid and I’m listening to Aaron take the lead. ‘Guys, I read it and I think it’s time…’ And I’m like ‘No! Don’t listen to him. He’s just did acid! We’re not doing Full House!'”
“My pupils are as big as my eyeballs…” joins in Aaron.
“He’s a liability to shareholders!” cries Justin. “He’s on drugs right now!”
As much as they joke about the idea of selling out, though, it’s a dilemma they’ve had to consider several times in their career – their distinctive writing and frequently jaw-dropping visuals are precisely the kind of thing that brings Hollywood head hunters calling. How many big projects have they passed on?
“Lots and lots,” says Aaron. “A lot of stuff comes out in theatres that we’ve turned down. It feels cool because it’s like ‘Well that’s worse than if we did it, and it would’ve been bad if we’d done it!’ Except for a few occasions, when it’s better than what we would have done, because they understood it in a way where we saw something easy and boring, they saw something everyone’s gonna love, which we didn’t.”
“They pass on all the obviously good stuff to Denis Villeneuve or Yorgos Lanthimos,” he jokes. “Those two guys get everything.”
Nonetheless, The Endless once again demonstrates their knack for visuals that are bigger than their budget. Do financial constraints help or hinder with those kind of effects?
“Let me put it a different way,” says Aaron. “What it is is writing to what we know we’re able to do. I’m really good at a special type of visual effect, and those are all over this movie! But if you asked me to make Godzilla run around, I would not be able to do it. We only want to make a movie that we can make 100% of the way. Like,, Justin literally wrote me an email and said: Tell me all the stuff you’re good at. And I just wrote him a list and it was just ‘Here’s your toolkit, you can grab from this whenever you want.'”
The Endless was released in cinemas this weekend, at the same time as it dropped on VOD. With Spring making waves in the UK when it arrived on Netflix, where do they stand on the value of digital platforms, in terms of accessibility, versus the goal of being seen on the big screen?
“Man, it’s a really good question and it’s a really tough one to answer,” begins Justin. “In order for Spring to be a movie and you walk out in the street and people say ‘Hey, have you seen Spring?’, that’s got a $21 price tag on it. To go on the street – and let’s not even put a qualifier on that – for people to be aware of it is millions of dollars. The marketing budget of Spring was $100,000 in America and well below that in the UK. So there’s this thing where it’s like would we have had a major pop culture success had a distributor been ‘Let’s try it’? We’ll never know. But we’ve got the alternative, which is it’s in places where people can discover it and tell their friend about it, and in that sense, it’s about as successful as those movies become, and we’re very grateful for that.”
“So Justin started writing Resolution around 2010 and we shot it in 2011. We edited it through the end of the year, it got into Tribeca in 2012, it was released in 2013, it hit Netflix halfway through 2013. It was three years from the idea of the movie to people actually, generally having a vague familiarity with it. That was when it really popped. Spring was a slightly different thing, where it was more of a rolling rumble, but talking to beginner filmmakers about what advice we would give, it’s start right now. Because you’ve got three years before anyone’s even heard of your first movie! And you need three at least, before people start knocking on your door. So we were happy and proud of the bump.”
It’s a philosophy that feels all too apt for a duo who have just made a film about a fear of conformity. Perhaps, for them, not doing things their way would be the scariest thing of all.
“It would be awesome to have a box office smash hit, but also, it’d be so incredibly terrifying to have a lot of money riding on your box office, rather than just knowing it’ll just filter in through your VOD,” laughs Aaron. “Especially if it’s original. Terrifying!”
The Endless is available on All 4 until 22nd February 2021.