Ever relive a moment over and over again until you realize you’re in a UFO-obsessed death cult?

I’ve been asking around at parties, and it seems like an uncommon experience. The downtrodden feeling of being stuck in an unending rut governed by an unseen force, however, is a relatively relatable sensation.

Crafting a well-thought out, highly enjoyable science fiction film is one thing, but doing so within the confines of an independent moviemaker’s budget is an entire other alien race’s ball game. Luckily, The Endless knocks it out of the sky. Science fiction is at it’s best when acting as a hyperbolic metaphor for the mundanities we never think to articulate. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s The Endless is a masterclass in articulating the contemporary rut-filled state of the autonomous-less governed.

The Endless follows brothers Justin and Aaron (played by directors Benson and Moorhead) as they revisit the aforementioned death cult their characters grew up in. This is the collaborative pair’s third feature, following the success of their well-received Lovecraftian horror flicks Resolution and Spring.

But don’t let the frequent Lovecraft comparisons fool you. Moorhead and Benson are a fresh, unique cinematic force whose creativity and ingenuity have established (as they describe it), “the lowest budget shared universe of any movie series,” using a brief cameo of Resolution stars Chris and Mike in The Endless.

MovieMaker met up with Moorhead and Benson at their apartment, where they dished on everything from the conceptual ideation of their script to the practicality of filming a timeless science fiction indie.

Justin (Justin Benson) and Aaron Smith (Aaron Moorhead) discover a relic in their hunt to uncover the unseen force driving the cult in Benson and Moorhead’s The Endless. Image courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

Grant Vance, Moviemaker Magazine (MM): The cult members in The Endless are very charismatic and believable, with each member standing out with their own unique character traits. How did you write these characters?

Justin Benson (JB): We’ve never done something where so many important characters had so little screen time. But we still spend a lot of time with the performers, developing and talking about each character’s backstory. If you would have told me before this movie that a character like Tim (Lew Temple)—who is on screen only a few times and says almost nothing, just appears and looks—that people are going to detect some big backstory because we gave it to him? That sounds like some fu-fu director trick, right? But it’s real. It totally works. It’s a magical thing. I’m not saying it would have been uninteresting or there wouldn’t have been a river running below the surface, I just didn’t realize how much of a difference it would make.

Aaron Moorhead (AM): Approaching it we had the idea that 99.9% of people in cults aren’t bad people, just people ensnared in something. Normally the bad one is the cult leader, because they’re thinking with their dick. Or they like the power, because they’re not actually talking to God. That’s just a fact. They’re not. They’re a cult leader. So we supposed we cut out the leader. So 100% of the cult are good people or at least their intentions are good. The idea is that God talks to all of them directly. That’s why this cult feels like somewhere you would actually want to stay.

We knew we wanted to make a movie about anti-conformity. It was the way we were feeling at the time. So there’s the big broad theme that informs every scene, and on a top down level there’s two sci-fi ideas. Well, they’re technically the same idea: time loops, and an antagonist that governs the loops. Both of those things have to do with breaking out of your cycle and challenging authority. And then there’s the really on-the-nose version: it’s a cult. There’s nothing more authoritative than a cult. Then there’s the interpersonal relationship where one of them is domineering over the other.  

Leering cult members gather at the edge of Camp Arcadia in The Endless

MM: Are you both long-term fans of H.P. Lovecraft or sci-fi horror in general? Did this have any influence on the writing and set design for The Endless?

AM: It started with reviews of our very first movie, Resolution. One specifically called it “Lovecraftian mumblecore.” It was the first instance of many throughout the last six years where I’ve had to look up what descriptions to our movies were. I didn’t know who Lovecraft was or what mumblecore was.

JB: Since then we’ve read some. In the case of our first movie, there’s a Lovecraft short story called “The Unnamable.” It’s literally a story about two guys having a conversation, and at the end realize there’s an unseen antagonist watching them have the conversation the whole time and attacks them. In general, that’s what our first movie is about, and we had no idea this short story existed.

When people see Lovecraft in our work they’re seeing “the monster” of the movie as something that is almost too old to comprehend or track through history. I think that idea comes from being raised atheist. For example, when someone holds a cross up to a vampire and it makes them cower…what did people use before Christianity?

AM: You don’t know that? They just died. They had no defense against them. Jesus Christ rose from the dead to defend us against vampires.

JB: So I’m just trying to create some kind of internal logic that I’m thrilled by the other-worldly. The other reason people say Lovecraft is our films are nature-based. In our last movie, Spring, the monster’s design was pulled from nature. The special effects guys referenced an albino diseased squid and a diseased pigeon leg. 

MM: You both write, act, direct, and edit, and are even credited with visual effects. What are the pros or cons to wearing so many hats? 

JB: The biggest pro is that we’ve made three movies now, and we would have made zero had we not done all of those things. This a recent epiphany I’ve had even three movies in: we don’t have celebrity cast relationships, and if you don’t have those then you very rarely get a big movie made. So we had limitations. We use all the resources we have, and we have insanely talented collaborators who keep coming back and working with us.

JB: We’ll do side work on music videos and commercials. On those things we’ve tried to adhere to the industry workflow, where we’ll wrap and then take it to an editor. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work as well on our projects if we don’t edit it ourselves. We shot it one way, and it usually only cuts together one way. When people start doing things differently it can turn into a bad rework job. There’s a general approach with someone like Michael Bay, where he just puts cameras everywhere and then finds the magic in the edit. We can barely afford one camera, so we just basically shoot it the way we’re going to cut it. Working with a third editor who will usually do the first assembly cut of our films, and he will often find things we never would have.

AM: There are no cons. My film school taught you how to do everything. There’s a line between better informing the person [you’re working with] and micromanaging. If you’re micromanaging, you might have just hired the wrong person. But you can always better inform that person.

A death cult prepares for ascension in The Endless

MM: What camera did you use?

AM: We used the Red Dragon. We very often use Red when we don’t have a tight deadline, because we tinker a lot in post. Not with the edit so much, but just little bits of frame, adding a creeping zoom here or there. I started as a visual effects artist 15 years ago, so all the extra information that you get from it; the punching in, the stabilization capabilities—all that really helps. And we shot on anamorphic lenses, which was nice. Really hard to do for a low budget film but we just knew a guy who was really kind and just hooked us up. And our B-camera was my GH4, which I like.

AM: We’ve had super talented B-camera operators, but it’s just not the right shot as A-camera. David Fincher has this quote where there’s two ways to shoot a thing, and one is wrong. I went through all of our B-camera footage, and it was really good and well-thought out, but it wasn’t the right shot.

JB: I’m not an anxious person, but the thought of shooting an Indie feature in 2K stresses me out. Just because there will be something where you should be able to punch in right there, but you’re always against a clock and it’s not a clock that if it runs out you’ll get extra money—it’s a clock that’ll run out and you won’t finish the movie. I don’t think we’ve ever left a scene where we weren’t really confident, but we’ve definitely gotten to post and thought something is feeling the tiniest bit stale, but we can punch in because we shot in 4K.

There’s the recording of Anna at the very beginning of the film which we shot with two cameras simultaneously. We used like an old ’80s High 8 camera and shot it alongside the Red. We planned to use the High 8 but we ended up degrading the footage from the Red instead. [The High 8 footage] was mixed up from the clean out [of the set] from the Cabin 3 scene (with all that media), and it got thrown in the garbage somewhere. So someone at some point is going to find a weird cult suicide tape on High 8.

Aaron plays tug of war with an unseen force during “The Struggle” in The Endless

MM: Talk about “The Struggle” scene? I really love the contrast in the scene of a rope cast against a blank, black sky and bright, full moon.

AM: We tied the rope [to a pull ring on a tree]. We wanted to make it look alien, like there weren’t any trees around for it to be tied to, so we removed a lot of the trees [in post] and then tracked in the moon. The idea is that it looks like he’s in a tug-of-war with the moon. But also, if you can see the moon clearly and there’s not a lot of trees blocking it, then subconsciously it’s like “oh, there’s no trees out there.” It’s a weird little subconscious trick, but it worked out nicely.

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