The Endless is, in one sense, about a crazy UFO sex cult situated in rural California. It’s also, however, a rumination on rebellion, the cyclicality of life, and the dangers of becoming trapped in corrosive, repetitive patterns of thought and behavior. Moreover, it functions as an intricate portrait of the ties that bind siblings, and the way those familial bonds can both hold us back—from finding ourselves, and a place in this world that we can call home—and set us free.
And it also features a demon god that may or may not be malevolent.
Suffice it to say, The Endless (in theaters April 6) isn’t your run-of-the-mill scary film. However, it is most definitely recognizable as a work by writers/directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, whose prior collaborations—2012’s Resolution and 2015’s Spring—similarly mashed up genres in ways that were unexpected and exhilarating.
For their latest, the duo star as close-knit brothers who, years after escaping the aforementioned cult, make a return visit to it in the hopes of attaining some clarity about, and purpose for, their unfulfilling lives. Narratively speaking, what follows is a one-of-a-kind descent into head-spinning otherworldly craziness that’s intrinsically linked to their feature debut—and proves that Moorhead and Benson are two of supernatural cinema’s finest, and most distinctive, voices.
We sat down with the filmmakers to discuss cults, their shared movie universe, their distaste for homage, their work’s self-referentiality, and the unanticipated autobiographical elements of The Endless.
The Endless is a companion piece to your debut, Resolution. Did you always intend to craft a Moorhead/Benson Cinematic Universe?
Benson: We made this movie called Resolution that had a very small release, and very few people saw it—or will ever see it. But it was successful for what it was, and it does have a bit of a cult following. For whatever reason, we just kept talking about what happened to those characters and that story, and talking about some of the mythology that was left on the table. We knew that people could feel the things we intended in Resolution, with regards to the mythology. But there was something really exciting about telling a story where we were actually more conspicuous with it.
It was never a plan; we just unintentionally stumbled into this thing that inspired us—this first film that no one saw. And whether it was the mythology of the story, the characters themselves, or the unseen antagonist, we had all these parameters that we had to stay within to not negate, again, this tiny movie no one saw. But those parameters augmented the inspiration we already had for wanting to tell more stories in this world. Hopefully going forward, in 5-10 years we’ll do another story in that universe, and it’ll be slightly bigger.
Moorhead: I thought you were going to say “slightly better.” [laughs]
Benson: It’s funny, we go pitch TV shows when we’re at home, trying to get into that world. We had this TV show we’ve been working on for a year, and we’re pitching it to this big company, and they go, “That was really great. So, your rep sent us The Endless. That’s a TV show.”
Moorhead: I think one of the ways to avoid making a generic movie is to make it very specific, and one of the easy ways to get specific is to access a world that you’ve already gotten into. This mythology has a lot of roots. The worry, of course, is that we’d have a movie that was really insular, or that no one understands, or that feels like an inside joke. Or worse yet: a sequel to a movie that nobody ever saw. [laughs] But we found that, as long as we were really careful and very particular about not doing that, we would create something that felt lived in, and real, and like it might just be out there. I think that was the big idea.
When did you decide the access point back to this world was the cult characters from Resolution, who are only in that film for a single scene?
Moorhead: When we were on the festival circuit for Spring, we brought a camera and sound gear with us while we traveled the world, and we were going to make a no-budget sketch comedy thing about UFO cult members, starring ourselves. It sounded like a good idea at the time. Then we looked at the footage, and we didn’t want to admit it to ourselves, but it was extremely unfunny. It was the least funny thing. [laughs]
Benson: When Resolution hit the festival circuit, sometimes it would be described as Lovecraftian mumblecore. We didn’t know what mumblecore was, or at least I didn’t, and I looked it up, and it was like, “Oh, it’s scrappy, and they use the lighting that they have, and they do a lot of improv.” None of our movies have any improv, and we tried to do this improvisational thing, and it was horrible. It’s cool that people think our stuff’s improv, because we spend a lot of time in rehearsal so it feels that way. But what we learned is we have no business ever doing improv.
Moorhead: At least ourselves!
So how did you get from there to The Endless?
Moorhead: After Spring, it felt like every door was open to us. We got all the big scripts, we got sent on all the big meetings, we met everybody…and nothing happened. The big scripts were bad scripts, all the big meetings were like, “I love Spring, love Resolution, but your next scripts, I don’t want to do. Will you do my crappy script?” It kept happening. And we’re still in that world, by the way.
We realized we were waiting for somebody to take charge of our careers. We were meeting takers, and email answerers, rather than filmmakers. So we decided, why don’t we just go make a movie again like we did with Resolution? In doing that, we’re going to be completely self-reliant, and we’ll do as many things as we can: we’ll write, direct, and produce it, with all our regular collaborators, and I’ll be the cinematographer. And because we don’t have money to pay actors for rehearsal, and to go out into the woods for three weeks, we’ll be the lead actors.
Benson: As to why those cult members from Resolution, there’s two reasons. One was, we realized all these projects that weren’t getting made were thematically linked by being about rebellion, or conformity/anti-conformity. So we’re clearly interested in this theme. So what have we got that we keep talking about all the time? Those cult members. And what’s a cult? A cult’s an exploration of authority and all these things!
Then, we’ve got to make this cheap, and we’ve still got all the locations from Resolution, because my family, under some strange circumstances, owned some properties out in the boonies of San Diego. Furthermore, when we were shooting Resolution, we got to know the people who run a children’s camp there, so we knew how much it would cost to house our crew. Plus, I had a mental image in my head of how to shoot at that camp. You start constructing the story by the locations you have, and within 30 minutes of all these places, there are locations that give you the magic and scale of cinema. And they’re places that have never been put on film, because no one thinks to shoot movies where all the hillbillies live outside San Diego.
How much did you actually research cults?
Moorhead: You’ve probably read [Chuck Palahniuk’s 1999 novel] Survivor, you’ve probably seen a documentary about Jonestown or the Heaven’s Gate cult—or at least read their Wikipedia pages. You’ve probably seen the deprogramming documentary on Netflix. We didn’t go much deeper than stuff that anyone with a morbid passing interest in cults—which is everyone in the world—would have done. And the reason is this: We really didn’t need to, and it actually could have been a little harmful if we did. Because what we wanted to do was generate an everyman cult.
Look at all the hallmarks of a cult. You have a charismatic leader that is probably evil that says they can talk to god; you have uniforms; you have ceremonies; you have isolation; and you have weapons and a threat about if you leave. We took every little element of that and said, “Why do people join cults if those exist?” We wanted to cut the heads off of those. You realize that every cult member just thinks they’re in a commune, and that there are lots of communes that aren’t cults. We decided to use that, and just make everything that the cult believes true, and fill it out from that idea. Then we could explore ideas of conformity, and authority, and what if God is actually out there? Would you stay? Is it that important?
Benson: To just make a movie that depicts “cults” negatively again, I don’t know if I’d actually want to do that. I agree that cults do lots of bad stuff—Jonestown is bad, and Heaven’s Gate is bad. But I remember when I was in undergrad sociology talking about the definition of a cult, and you kind of land on the fact that the only actual difference between a religion and a cult is numbers. Every religion starts as a cult. Even though I in no way condone anything cults have done in the past, I’m not sure I want to make a movie condemning them, because I know there are small groups of spiritual people who do no harm.
How much of an autobiographical element is there to your work?
Benson: As the person behind the keyboard writing everything we talk about and develop together, if I had one autobiographical thing as a screenwriter, it’s that Resolution is about a guy who imprisons his estranged junkie best friend in a cabin in the woods and forces him to have a week of sobriety—and that was inspired by my mom, who had a lot of substance abuse problems. I wrote that story with the thought that other people probably feel like the only thing you can ever do, if you have someone you love with a substance abuse problem, is this. Then with Spring, my mom had almost passed away several times from [substance abuse], and she had been severely depressed from lots of other things, so I wrote this story about, what would I do if I was in her position? I would take off to Western Europe and try to start my life over.
With The Endless, I had this memory of her getting sober once for two weeks when I was in college, and we had this heart to heart where she said, “Hey, I know I made a lot of mistakes, and I just hope as your mother I taught you about forgiveness. I think forgiveness is really important, and I hope you know that.” That always stuck with me. And in this story, you have a lot of forgiveness between the two brothers, and Justin and Hal (Tate Ellington) specifically, and exploring that theme. While we were making the film, unfortunately, my mom took her own life. So in the performance, there’s something autobiographical in the way that the tone of grief is woven through the whole movie, because Aaron also knew my mom really well.
Your films have a self-referential quality to them, but not in a wink-wink sort of way—that facet seems to exist beneath the surface. Is that a conscious creative decision, or does it naturally emerge from the material at hand?
Moorhead: That’s such an incredible question, because no one’s ever asked it quite like that before, and you’re absolutely right. We never, ever set out to make a movie that anyone would call meta. Resolution was called meta, and The Endless has been too. But the reason I think—or at least hope—they succeed is because we don’t mean to. It’s a reflexive thing. We don’t make homage movies. We don’t mean to be commenting on ourselves or moviemaking or anything like that. We’re telling a story that we find interesting in the most impactful way possible; in a way that means something beyond just the plot.
We have this extreme aversion to melodrama, while still having an extreme attraction to sincerity. One of my absolute favorite filmmakers—along with the rest of the planet—is Steven Spielberg. He loves melodrama and sincerity, and he wears his heart on his sleeve. But our movies are almost the opposite of that, in a weird way. Every moment, we are aware that our movie is a movie, while we’re still trying to not let anybody know that.
Those “meta” aspects always feel confined to the story’s background.
Moorhead: That’s the thing: movies that are openly meta only succeed in a few ways. Cabin in the Woods is openly meta, and it succeeds because it’s funny; I don’t think it would if it wasn’t. And Funny Games, another openly meta movie, probably succeeds because it’s so mean and angry—whereas our movies are trying to be something that is ultimately hopeful and optimistic. I think if we set out to make a movie that was a commentary on the form, while also being optimistic and hopeful and humanistic, we’d come off as a bunch of assholes.
Benson: I think we share an allergy for nostalgia. Having something happen in our movies that wasn’t unexpected, and came from something else because you liked that something else, that is not an excuse to put it in the movie. It’s got to go. Our movies are very reactionary. We’re always trying to do that, because homage is not an excuse. You just did something stale.
How do you divvy up filmmaking duties?
Moorhead: Yes, Justin is the writer and I’m the cinematographer. And a lot of people like to turn that into: Justin is the story guy and Aaron is the visuals guy. But Justin’s edits are magic; my cinematography without Justin is nothing. Only one person can hold the camera, he’s just as good at it as I am. We don’t like to split it up. It’s like when you’re married. When you do chores, it’s not like, you’re the kitchen person and I’m the bathroom person. There are so many things to do, you split it up and do as much as you can. As a director, there’s just a huge amount of things to do. And who sends the email, who writes the note, who makes the edit—it doesn’t matter. We just get it done.
Benson: So much of our movies are made in pre-production, and we’re with these projects from the second they’re conceived to the very end. And anytime someone comes to us, they’ll get the same answer from either one of us, independently. It’d probably be really fun for people if we bickered on set, but we’ve just never done that.
Moorhead: We’ve never argued on set; it’s not like we have different ideas and have to figure it out. We’ve been directing together for eight years now, so if that eventually happens, and that’s one time in eight years? Please give us that. [laughs] So far, those problems, they get figured out in pre-production, which is long.
Is there a dream project on the horizon?
Moorhead: The way “Hollywood” wants it to look is that someone announces, “This is my next project and I’m super-passionate about it,” and then they go make that project. If we did that, we’d be homeless—and here’s why. First, we split everything, so we make half as much as everyone else does. And second, if one of those projects doesn’t go and you just spin your wheels on it for three years, you then have nothing to show for all that work.
We have a million things going. We have three TV shows, all of them in pretty good stages. We have three features, all of them at different stages. But once you finish a script, and you feel like it’s in a good place, you send it out to get a producer or an actor. And then you wait. What do you do during that waiting time? You make something else. If you’re just waiting, why are you even in this business? It’s expected that you’re supposed to just wait, because you’re super-passionate about only one thing at a time. The fact is, we have way too many stories to tell, and there’s two of us. We’re going to make a bunch of stuff before we die.