We chat with Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson about love and rehearsals and life and more rehearsals at Tribeca.
The Shallow Pocket Project is going to Tribeca (in spirit)! We’ll be chatting with several independent filmmakers making the trek to New York for this year’s film festival. Stay tuned! Check out our last chat with Ted Geoghegan (Director of ‘We Are Still Here’). Special thanks, as always, to In The Mouth of Dorkness, Lisa Gullickson, and Darren Smith.
Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s The Endless premiered Friday night at Tribeca. I’m here to tell y’all, they’ve upped their filmmaking game. While still writing, directing, shooting, and producing, they’re also starring in the film. Because why not? I don’t know how they do it. I’m tired just putting words on a page. They play Aaron and Justin Smith, brothers, who return to a cult they escaped nearly ten years before. They’ve spent the intervening years regularly attending deprogramming classes to qualify for benefits, like you do, and cleaning houses to make ends meet. Their life is a struggle, and they wonder if they can find answers by returning to what they think of as a home. Don’t be confused by the use of their real first names. The Endless ain’t meta. They were quite emphatic about that in our chat. This is not, they assured us, a confession that they have sought solace in a cult. But, it is personal. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve seen their previous works. It’s what they do.
This is very much another “duo” focused film. Resolution was about friend love, Spring about romantic love, and their latest is about brotherly love. However, the supporting cast in The Endless is larger than their previous films and plays a more essential role. These guys explore human relationships. And the actors in the supporting cast bring so much heart to this story that I can not imagine the film with a different cast.
Their chemistry and the finished product feels effortless in its coolness. We sat down with them for an hour and learned, basically, that this could not be further from the truth. They’re pretty cool, yeah, but those dudes are working hard. Full disclosure, their last film Spring is one of my heart movies, and I am not shy about explaining why I love it so. Give it a look, it will become one of your heart films.
“Friends tell each other how they feel with relative frequency. Siblings wait for a more convenient time, like their deathbeds. – Unknown, from ‘The Endless’
This is not their first journey to the Tribeca. Their first film Resolution premiered there in 2012. I love the story of how it got selected. The way they tell it, they submitted their package, and it got tossed in the garbage. A junior selector for the festival noticed it and literally pulled it from the waste bin. After watching the film, he successfully advocated for them to catch a spotlight slot. Five years later, they’re back at Tribeca and in the US Narrative Competition. Wild. But, not surprising.
The Endless is special. It’s an emotionally affecting story about brotherly love and coexistence. One’s a control freak, and the other is passive to a painful fault. The chemistry between the actors makes the movie sing. They feel authentic and genuine. And that creates the attachment and the space required for emotionally deep moments to punctuate the film.
That’s essential for them. Moorhead and Benson are making films about love and loss and life and death. And they use well-drawn characters and crackerjack dialogue to lead us down these philosophical paths. They excel at what I think of as the Mysterious Unknown. They are creating new monsters with their own sets of rules to follow. With some films the mystery is the shine, and once it’s solved, you don’t care to go back. Not so with them. The Endless was every bit as engaging on my second watch.
“Fear of the unknown makes a lot of really pretty stuff, though.” – Lou Taylor Pucci as Evan in ‘Spring’
Fear of the unknown really does make a lot of pretty stuff. But, it can also build walls. Open a newspaper. We live in challenging and frightening times. How will we acquit ourselves on the field of life? Will we find a space that’s just us and think about how long it takes to master one thing? Or, will we go out and challenge ourselves? One of those leads to a much messier life that is both exhilarating and terrifying in its lack of a safety net.
That’s both the theme of the movie and some of the subtext of our conversation. They call this their most challenging project yet. I agree. I respect anyone who constantly pushes the limits of what they are doing. It’s the only way we improve as people. And it is scary as hell. When I said I don’t know how they do it, I meant it. I am always looking for opportunities to expand the horizons of my ability. I have my most fun and my most anxiety inducing moments in life scrapping for success in new ventures.
Their chemistry and their performances are strong. They say in our chat that chemistry is rehearsal rehearsal rehearsal and more rehearsal. And then more rehearsal. And then, seriously, more rehearsal. Whatever hard work they did, it pays dividends. They anchor the film. And, honestly, they leave me a bit like, ‘well god damn what can’t these guys do?’ I want to be good at everything, too, you know. Well, let them tell you how they made it happen.
Lest you come away from this thinking these cats are demi-gods, let me tell you what they can’t do. Benson can not dive off a boat into a lake. And Moorhead is all passion and no tune when it comes to singing an acapella version of House of the Rising Sun. They’re doing it, though.
“Being creative is a curse. It condemns you because you can’t sustain an interest in any boring rat race job long enough to make a living at it.” – Vinny Curran as Chris in ‘Resolution’
One of the things Moorhead and Benson do well is present you with a slick story. But, they do it in such a way that you can feel the weight of the subtext that’s going on behind the scenes. You can see in the video they are clearly aware of the need for collaborators. In line with that, they made a point of mentioning the preparatory work they did with their supporting actors. Both to pitch them on their involvement in the film, but also to give them an idea of what’s really going on. So, what’s that look like? Tim (Lew Temple), the cult’s brewmaster, has a half dozen lines all of which are about beer. He’s the brewmaster. It fits! Is beer enough to get you to sign onto a project though? I mean, beer only goes so far, right? So, they got out their movie bible of all The Endless background and sat down for multiple hour long conversations with Temple to key him to the history of Camp Arcadia, the cult’s home base.
Those details allowed Temple to create a palpable presence for Tim, well exceeding his lines about beer and barley. Most of that comes from the amazing performance from Temple. And part of that comes from Moorhead and Benson clearly understanding how important it is to build that collaborative relationship with their actors. As storytellers, they argue that everything starts at the character. Everything. And there needs to be a depth to the work before it’s streamlined down to an readily consumable piece of art.
It’s no major assumption to point out that we, the viewers, can tell the difference. Without that subtext, a movie can be fast and fun. It doesn’t make it a bad film, but it’s definitely a different kind of experience. That’s what I love about what they do. They make these deep, heady movies about love and life, and they do it in a way that is both thought provoking and easy to consume.
There’s a scene in the movie where the camera hangs out with Tim for maybe thirty seconds. He’s sitting around a camp fire, holding a half-full glass of beer and contemplating it. The scene is short. He looks at the beer, chucks it away, and the camera moves on. But, you know, these quiet film moments can still feel weighty even though very little is going on. My go to example for this is always Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. At the end of the film, the scene captures him being chucked into the back of a car and driven to a destination. We watch him for a bit and then the movie ends. That’s the surface. But, really, the end of the movie is in Hoskins’ performance. It hinges on both the presence of an authentic character and his ability as an actor. Hoskins runs, without speaking, through a gamut of emotions that you can watch happen as he experiences this very cathartic moment. I’m not saying that Temple’s character is Hoskins in The Long Good Friday, but the scene has a similar kind of weight to it. You can watch Tim and have an idea of what he must be thinking about as he’s looking at this glass and the things that he’s contemplating in his life. You can see him become frustrated that he doesn’t know the answer to the question. Moorhead and Benson allude to having had similar conversations with Callie Hernandez and Tate Ellington, who also have significant roles as residents of Camp Arcadia.
What is the question they’re asking in the film? Is it Curly’s “one thing” from City Slickers? Maybe! Or, really, is it something more like what is the why? That’s up to you figure out. It’s why I love the image of that boat up above. You have to watch this movie. You have to figure out what it means for you.
The Endless is a dope new project. Seek it out and support it where you can. I dig the work these guys do, and I’d very much like to see more of it. Now, check out our chat with them. We get into the making-of details for The Endless, to include the amazing score work by Jimmy Lavalle. The significance of The House of the Rising Sun. And the details on which character is a cross of Lady Macbeth and the mom from Back to the Future. Click the link below (or here for iTunes).