Fantastic Fest: Talking ‘The Endless’ With Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead talk 'The Endless,' time travel, and the pervasiveness of cults in popular culture.

The Endless Justin Benson Aaron Moorhead

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead talk ‘The Endless,’ time travel, and the pervasiveness of cults in popular culture.

The first thing you need to understand about The Endless is that it’s not a sequel to Resolution. Sure, it features several of the same characters, takes place in the same shared universe, and chronologically exists after the events of the first film, but a sequel? Not exactly. The second thing you need to know about The Endless is that it’s an absolutely staggering example of DIY science-fiction, a film that weaves together a complex combination of time travel, childhood trauma, and the occult into a single heartfelt narrative about a pair of brothers looking for closure. We sat down with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead at Fantastic Fest and took a deep dive into the Lovecraftian world that they had created.

Fair warning: there’s not much in The Endless that isn’t spoiled by this interview.

I have to ask: you know there’s going to be people that are going to see The Endless who may not have seen Resolution. Do you guys have any thoughts on how that might alter the viewing experience?

Aaron Moorhead: To be really clear, and because that’s a question, obviously, we get quite a bit: the only people that think you need to have seen Resolution to understand The Endless, or enjoy The Endless, are people who’ve seen Resolution. It was very carefully designed so that it would be very fresh coming in, and watching Resolution would be like something that would enrich your experience, either before or after, because the two stories are very different. One is not the continuation of another story, it’s just like the two roads that converge at one point, you know? We did it because we love that universe, and we think we’re going to still play in that universe. In some ways we’ll probably start connecting a lot of our movies. Not like that, per se, but we’ll start building a deeper mythology.

Sort of like a Stephen King-type thing?

Moorhead: Yeah, maybe. It wasn’t a really conscious, like, “Let’s start building a universe!” It was more like, “Let’s return to something that still haunts us in a way,” because Resolution is so open-ended, and what happened to those guys? That world still exists out there. What does that world look like in a bigger place? Not just in a cabin. But that said, here at this screening at Fantastic Fest, it was the coolest because about half the people in the audience had seen Resolution, and we knew that going in, because we asked that during our intro. Or I think that [programmer Luke Mullen] did. So hearing the gasps when that moment happened was really, really satisfying, because that was the first time that we’d seen that from an audience. Most of the time it was like a tenth of the audience, or less. So that was really cool.

Have you found there’s kind of a difference in reception, or the way that people think about the movies, with some of the larger festivals that are maybe not genre-specific?

Justin Benson: Not so much as you’d think. The only difference I’d really point out here at Fantastic Fest is that when the quote-unquote Resolution scene happens, two guys in the cabin, you can hear that people in the room recognize it. There’s not many rooms you can go into, even at genre festivals… most people have not seen Resolution. They have no idea. So I hear, there’s an audible noise, that you can hear lots of people actually recognize those characters.

I made that noise, so I think I know the one you’re talking about.

Benson: But most places you play it, people… very few people have seen that film. Very few people will probably ever see that film. So, that’s one difference. But, interesting enough, often times when people say their favorite scene in the movie, they’ll say the scene in cabin, with the guy handcuffed in the cabin. And usually that’s like, they had no idea there’s another movie about those guys. So that kind of warms our heart.

They must be really excited to find out there’s a whole movie about them.

Moorhead: That’s something that can cause a stir at other festivals, is saying something like, “You know that scene? There’s a whole movie about those guys!” That, at the Q&A, often gets a little rumble, which is interesting. If we seem to have engaged them with the universe, that there’s like, there’s a little bit more, you know?

Is it strange to now be playing in that same kind of sandbox, but inserting yourselves in there as actors?

Moorhead: There’s definitely a lot of pressure, I suppose. It’s more of a public reception thing than it is an actual ‘can we/can’t we’ thing, you know what I mean? When people found out that we were going to be in the movie, I heard – through the grapevine – there was some side eye. It was like, “Why are they doing that?” For the most part, people were just like, “That’s exciting, go ahead.” But there’s a lot of pressure. Spring and Resolution are always lauded for good lead performances and good chemistry. So, if it’s us, and we fuck that up, that would be particularly embarrassing. Not just because we’re the lead actors, but because our other two movies were very specifically about the two lead actors.

That said, on a personal level, actually doing it, it felt surprisingly natural. We fell into it very fast after our first couple of rehearsals. “Oh, we got this.” We felt like we got this, and we tried it out with camera, and watched ourselves on camera, and were like, “Okay, yeah. Yeah, we can do this.” Then, in actual execution, you set up the scene as you would a director, and then when you say action you’re standing somewhere else and you start saying lines. You’re just not behind a monitor, and it’s not that counter-intuitive. But everything else remains the same. The communication that you have to make with your actors and with your crew is still the same. The only thing that’s extra is camera awareness, scene awareness, and the craft of acting. The art of acting is something that really worked its way out in rehearsal for us.

I think it’s interesting that there’s always characters in your films that are very practically trying to explain the world around them via scientific principals. What is it that draws you to, especially in this universe that you’ve created, trying to view the paranormal through scientific process?

Benson: I think it’s just a tool in the storytelling. I know people are always, “Grounded, grounded, grounded.” But it’s just making it so that, if I’m personally watching, for example, a haunted house movie and it’s like, “Oh my god, we’ve discovered that the soul of the person who passed away in dramatic circumstances is haunting the house! What do we do about this?” To me, it’s not scary because there’s no logic to it. I can’t rationalize –

Moorhead: You just made that up.

Benson: Someone just made that up, and I can’t get scared because I know that’s not possible. That’s not true. But if I’m telling a story that incorporates the otherworldly, there’s ways to explain it to where I kind of will believe in it. I’m not saying I believe the supernatural stuff that happens in our movies, but I kind of do. There’s a writer part of my brain, that I believe in it, and I find that inspiring, and science is one of those ways. Another way is making something, for lack of a better way to explain this, so old, that you couldn’t go to like a Wikipedia page to find the origin of the myth.

If I look up the devil on Wikipedia, I can find the lineage of that mythology, and it doesn’t start with the devil. It starts with other things. It’s like, “Oh, that’s invention. That’s a human invention.” I think that’s where the Lovecraftian vibe comes in in our stuff. When people say Lovecraftian it’s because it’s so old you can’t even fathom.

Were there a lot of loop ideas that maybe didn’t find their way into the film? Because it’s such an arresting idea. You could play with that in so many different ways.

Moorhead: The loops are governed by their size. If you are in a two mile large loop, it’s a very long loop. That’s like a ten-year long loop. And if it’s a very small one, it’s five seconds long, right? We had an idea of an animal that was caught in a point two-second loop, that just looked like a glitch. But it was just too much and there was no way to dramatize it. It just felt like a cool visual. But we also had a scene that was replaced by the guy in the tent, that was … in Resolution, there’s a guy that alludes to having some friends that were researchers that wandered off into the woods. So we had a scene where Aaron, instead of finding that tent, he finds them, and there’s these two researchers who have gone mad in the woods.

One of them is just a crazy, [an] angry French guy, screaming French the whole time, and Aaron, the character, doesn’t speak any French. The other person is kind of just this loopy person philosophizing about it. But they’ve set up a system for when their loop is going to reset, where like alarms start going off and messages start coming in, because It gives messages and visuals, and that’s how Aaron pieces together how the loop works. We just realized we didn’t need so much of that. We just made it a purely visual scene that was very visceral, but they had a completely different type of loop.

I think what we mostly played with was how everybody responds to the loop, and their size of it. It actually goes way deeper into the themes of the films. How you deal with these kinds of things. When you’re in a ten-year loop, most of the people are very calm. It’s just not that big of a deal. It’s kind of an easy way to live forever, with a very small price to pay, frankly. Besides the fact that a lot of people would view living forever as a curse. There’s actually one we [didn’t talk about], which is a three-hour loop, Shitty Carl, that guy who hangs himself. He’s not completely insane from it, but very frustrated. He has no optimism for it. He just wants to find some way to have fun with it. That’s kind of his idea.

The two people in the week-long loop, which is the cabin… by the way, this is so spoilery.

Oh, don’t worry.

Okay, but the week-long loop, which is the cabin. They haven’t been in it long enough, so they’re still very optimistic, and they’re trying to find the Rubik’s Cube-esque way to escape it. They’re like, “If we just kind of program it, and do the things that it wants in the right sequence, it might let us out. We don’t know what that is, it requires a lot of experimentation, but we’ve got a lot of time.” So, that’s what they do. They each have their own individual thoughts on it. One is an optimist, one is a pessimist, but they still are trying. Then, of course, the one person who’s gone completely out of his mind is the poor guy in the five-second loop.

Yeah, we did play with a couple other types of loops, and we like to imply that there’s… there’s that one shot in the film where the projector blasts off and you kind of see, “Whoa, there’s loops everywhere.” Then you kind of wonder, you know, “Is the atmosphere of a planet also governing like a gigantic loop.” It’s kind of implying that this world goes beyond East County San Diego. But we don’t know, that’s just fan-fiction at this point.

Since we talked about keeping it grounded: how much of that did you consider when you were dealing with the cult? Because the relationships there, the scenes in the beginning where you guys are going through the de-programming process, that felt like something that had been really fleshed out.

Benson: For whatever reason, we’re living in a time in pop culture where there is so much material available about cults. There’s so many documentaries, there’s so many fictional films. There’s so many things having to do with cults, TV shows. It’s a thing that’s really easy to gather elements for and tell a story with. However, if we were making a movie, for example, about Scientology or something, that obviously is sort of an activist angle. Clearly, there’s no activism happening in The Endless. But we do kind of use everyone’s expectations of what a cult movie is going to be to use these sort of red herrings, where Hal, just because he has a smile on his face and he kind of is a little bit charismatic, you’re just like immediately, that guy’s a David Koresh. That guy’s up to something.

But really, you’ll slowly find there’s no malice. We’re just delivering more of the unexpected, which is what you usually want to do when you’re telling a story. If he did turn out to be David Koresh, or David Koresh-like, it would not be as satisfying because you’d be like, “Oh, I’ve seen this.” Short answer, I didn’t have to go live and pose as a cult member, luckily, to gather the information in this film. But it’s funny, when you get notes on the script and things like that. Often times, literally a note would be, like the de-programming scene. “Hey, so I just saw the documentary on de-programming, and here’s how I think yours is.” I don’t know if this is exactly right, but that’s just the way it is. There is so much content about cults out there that you can really play with people’s expectations, and not have to become a Heaven’s Gate cult member for a week to gather up the information to use for it.

Moorhead: Still, you did a lot of research. It was still like a pretty deep dive, in terms of how those things actually turn out. But it’s a fictional cult. The fact that the danger doesn’t come from the cult is definitely something that is built into all of our movies: the fact that you think it’s going to be something, it’s something else that’s actually been there the whole time, right? So we kind of built this laundry list of cult things, and then crossed off as many as we could while still keeping it what it had to be.

It wasn’t explicitly a cult. It was something that could, conceivably just be a commune; you don’t have to stay. Nobody’s forcing you to, there’s no church services. There’s The Struggle, but you don’t have to be there. It’s all voluntary, and all friendly. I think that was the idea, so that the danger started to go away when you start realizing that they actually want to be there.

We know what your characters did, but given, as you said, it’s a small price to pay to stay in the ten-year loop, do you guys think you’d stick around?

Benson: I would love to be immortal and live forever. I’m terrified of death. The problem with that situation, specifically, is there is just not enough to sustain me as a human being infinitely. If they were like, “You can live forever, you can go anywhere you want.” Great, perfect. But I don’t want to live… those people seem fine, and nice. I need more. I’d probably want to meet a woman and fall in love, and there’s not quite that many in the camp. There’s just not enough there, specifically, to sustain me. I think there’s a line where it’s like, “Oh, I don’t think comfort’s worth dying for.”

I think that’s where it’s like, “Oh, it would be comfortable.” But I think I’d go crazy after a while. If the loop were a lot bigger and I could live forever? I’m in. Totally in.

Moorhead: I have the exact same opinion. Maybe with a little less hesitance, just because I would add to the fact that I found, if you thought you found god out there, I think that would be very important to me. “Oh, this is one of the most cosmically important things I could be doing.” Now, if god turned out to be just a monster, that’s a different story. But, yes. If I could live forever in a bigger, better loop, yes.

You guys are telling me that the craft brew isn’t good enough to make it enticing for you?

Benson: It’s a good question, though. I do think if a person was a huge beer enthusiast, it would get them through several decades, at least.

Moorhead: There’s something that’s handled with a bit of a light touch in the film, but it’s the idea that a lot of what everybody’s doing out there is working on mastering one thing. Becoming absolute masters. There’s the million hours joke, you know. Everyone has one thing they’re very good at, and getting better and better all the time. There’s only one person in the camp that’s been in the loop long enough to have mastered something and found it unsatisfying, and then started become disillusioned with the idea of being in the loop. “Oh man, if I can master something for a hundred years, and still I’m not satisfied. Oh, no. What have I done? Why am I here now?” That’s Tim, by the way. That’s the character that looks like he’s from the 1900s, because he is. That’s just a little thread that we start pulling, but it gives everyone motivation to be there.

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.