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When it comes to low-budget genre films, filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are an interesting unit that have created a nice niche for themselves. Between them, they do almost every function on their films, and that’s even more true on THE ENDLESS, their third feature as filmmakers, since they also star in the twisty thriller.
Spring-boarding off the characters they played as cameos in their 2012 film Resolution, Benson and Moorhead play brother “Justin” and “Aaron,” who decades earlier escaped from the cult-like Camp Arcadia community. They’ve decided to return to Camp Arcadia to tie up some loose ends and find closure after receiving a cryptic video message that warns them of a mysterious event as they once again become entangled with the group, its enigmatic “leader” Hal (Tate Ellington) and an unseen creature they all worship.
It’s best not to know too much more about The Endless going in, but if you like movies that deliberately screw with your mind – imagine if David Lynch directed an episode of Lost — then there’s lots of fun to be had in trying to figure out what exactly is happening as Justin and Aaron get deeper and deeper into the mysteries surrounding Camp Arcadia and its people.
Although Benson is credited as the film’s writer, between the two of them, they perform most of the functions on the film including DP and editing, but starring with them in the film are Callie Hernandez, Emily Montague, Lew Temple and James Jordan.
The Tracking Board sat down with Benson and Moorhead at the Metrograph Commissary on New York’s Lower East Side to talk about making smaller micro-budget films that offer big ideas but still keeping things fairly intimate. They offered some interesting insights on making independent films on a budget but using the film festival circuit to help promote them.
I first saw The Endless at Fantasia Fest without having seen Resolution. When I finally saw Resolution and then rewatched Endless, I realized that while not a sequel, it offers a resolution to the open ending from Resolution. When you made Resolution, did you always have this bigger idea in mind that you would want to revisit?
Justin Benson: There’s a lot of really big ideas in Resolution that are more of a feeling within the film. We had huge ideas of what the mythology of this world was, and we also set out to make a movie where not a lot is said outright. There’s a lot of emotional conversations about the two characters, but in terms of the greater mythology around them and the other worldly aspects, it’s all so inconspicuous in Resolution. For us, it was in the form of… to our sound designer we would create this huge document all about this unseen antagonist to help him sort of hone in on what it would sound like in the sound design and things like that. Now, was there ever an intent to make another movie in that universe? No, we didn’t decide that until six or seven years after the fact. However, we had been talking about what happens to these characters, just interesting details about the mythology and its unseen antagonist for many, many, many years, not realizing we were actually developing another micro-budget indie for us to just go out and do at some point. We know that very few people have ever seen Resolution, and very few people are ever going to. So from when we were writing the script and we were editing the movie, the note sessions with test audiences were often times like … Of course, you want the normal notes back that you get from these types of things, but there’s also like, “Just tell us exactly what happened.” And making sure that comprehension was very high from people who had never seen this tiny movie no one is ever going to see.
Aaron Moorhead: We really didn’t want to seem insular, because it assaults our humility for us to have made a movie that requires you to have watched a movie that nobody else saw. We would’ve just felt incredibly uncomfortable with that idea thinking that the movie was worthy of a sequel, but the mythology just haunted us in a way, so we just made sure that the two movies are airtight together, but I don’t even know, which one is better to have seen first.
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When I first saw The Endless, I understood the relationship between Michael and his wife from their dialogue, but I had no idea they appeared in another movie. I guess at screenings of The Endless, you can’t just say, “Okay, before we show you The Endless, we’re gonna show you Resolution.”
Aaron: We say it in Q & A’s sometimes. Just in the Q & A, because somebody will inevitably ask a question about Resolution — the two people that saw it, they’re always in the screening somewhere — and they’ll ask about it, and you kind of hear the rest of the audience going, “Huh?” So we have to explain, “What he’s talking about is this…” We found a pretty good spoiler-free way to do it. We just say, “Hey, remember that scene in the cabin? There’s a whole movie about those guys.”
You two played the cult members in what’s an interesting but uneventful encounter in Resolution, so what made you want to make them the center of this movie? Was it just a matter of ease to have two of your actors be yourselves?
Justin: This is our third feature we’ve done, and obviously, we’ve never had a big budget or anything like that. We make these tiny, micro-budget movies, and after our second tiny micro budget movie, this movie called Spring, we realized that we were just taking meetings, and we weren’t making films anymore. We were just like, “It’s time. We need to go make a film.” If the Duplass Brothers, who, yes, are way more talented than us and way more successful are making tiny budget features in between making their bigger stuff and TV shows, there’s no excuse why we shouldn’t be doing that. So it was like, “Okay, it’s time to go make another small movie,” and part of the ethos behind that was that we’d be totally self-reliant and performing in it became that. Where it’s like, “We’re going to commit to this. We’re gonna rehearse it for months ahead of time, and we’re going to act in it on set while we’re doing cinematography, editing, writing, directing, visual effects. Let’s do as much as we can, and make sure this thing actually gets made, and we don’t have another project that’s just waiting on cast or waiting on financing.
That’s probably true with all movies that after you write it, you still need to put it together and get everyone’s schedule aligned, so between the time you decided to make this movie and finishing it, how long a period was that?
Aaron: We made the movie as about as fast as a movie can be made, I think. It’s kind of odd to say it because it is about to come out in theaters a full year after it played at the Tribeca Film Festival, but we thought of it in March 2016. Basically, greenlit it even before the script was written. We just said, “We’re gonna do it.” We shot in August, and then it played in Tribeca that next year, so basically one year from conception to film festival premiere. That’s really fast. And then it’s been one more year since then, because indie films don’t have very big marketing budgets, one of the ways that you can mitigate that a little bit or subsidize it, is by giving the film a really long festival run, because film festivals, they’re press machines. On top of that you get to go discover new things and meet new people and do interviews and all of that. That was something where the film is now kind of leaked out into the consciousness and genre film pretty well, so that hopefully, come this weekend and next, all of that will pay off.
A lot of the scenes are just the two of you, so was there a location nearby where you could go shoot all of those scenes and then did the rest as the other actors were available? How did that work into a shooting schedule?
Justin: We’ve never been able to make a movie where we can just kind of piecemeal it, do reshoots and stuff like that. What you see on screen is within a block of roughly 18 days getting everything you can possibly get. What we do is we rehearse for months ahead of time, and so we rehearsed all these scenes for several months before we ever got to set in my living room, and out on our front lawn. So much of the movies we make are made in pre-production, and that included the performances. For example, the sort of emotional climax in the movie of us pushing the car. We did that pushing the wall in my apartment, and my downstairs neighbor called the police because she thought something was really wrong.
Aaron: [We were] screaming at each other.
Justin: It’s funny, because you asked, “Did you go off and shoot it when you could?” We actually shot a bunch of our scenes in rehearsal. I remember going back through the rehearsal footage and the rehearsals were so similar to what actually ends up on films. It’s interesting.
Aaron: In our behind the scenes, the editor cut together one of the scenes that we rehearsed, and it’s weird because I thought it would just be kind of goofy because [it’s] just in his apartment and we’re just wearing whatever and the coverage is terrible because somebody was just holding a camera. No, we actually had basically the same performance in rehearsal. I mean, that’s just how we work.
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Where was the main location for Camp Arcadia? Was it the same general area where you shot Resolution?
Justin: Yeah, the main inspiration point for making this film was we were very much inspired by the world mythology, but once we were like, “What if we went back and did it?” and just looked at the logistics of it, all those locations were still available to us for cheap to free, so making a no-budget indie film, that works out very, very well.
Aaron: We couldn’t have made it if they didn’t have those locations, so it would’ve been impossible.
Justin: It’s a little town called Descanso in East County, San Diego. It’s a neat, weird, little place.
Aaron: One grocery store, one restaurant, one bar, one library. That kind of thing. It’s really cool.
You don’t see many other people in the movie, so it literally seems like the middle of nowhere.
Aaron: It’s a little less isolated than we make it seem. There’s a lot of houses getting framed out, but, yeah, we definitely wanted to make it seem like they were going into absolute nowhere. In some ways the place does look like Mars because there was so many fires there. It burned down, so there’s not much living, and it has a desert climate while still having trees, which is something that isn’t really in a lot of films. Often, it’s either lush pine forests or sand desert and nothing in between. So weirdly enough, having such a unique location looking like that gave us production value.
Obviously, I’ll be really careful about spoilers, but what made you want to focus on the cult aspect of the movie and having two brothers returning to that community?
Aaron: Going back a little to what he was saying, but when we were starting the film, we almost never start our scripts with a theme. Normally, it’s starting with a character plus a plot, and then we let that unfold, and then derive what we were really trying to say, why we were attracted to it. But weirdly enough this one did start with a theme because a lot of our work deals with … and our future work actually, stuff we’re developing, deals with rebellion and conformity and all of that. And so, again, without spoilers, there’s a big sci-fi idea that very much involves taking responsibility for yourself and your own actions and rejecting authority. That’s very much the sci-fi idea of a movie, and then the very on the nose version of that is the cult. It’s one of the best ways you can do it, and then one of the subtler emotional sides of that is the relationship between the two brothers — one of them is domineering over the other. On all three of those levels, we’re able to talk about this one thing we want to talk about, which was the virtues and the dangers of conformity and rebellion.
You guys are kind of a self-contained unit, because you do everything including visual FX, but you’re solely credited as the writer, Justin, so do you guys spend a lot of talking about ideas and then you go off on your own to write?
Justin: First, I just want to say that [even though]I’m just credited as writer, it’s very much a collaboration. What happens is we come up with the concept together and then we’ll just make lists and lists and lists of stuff. Whether it’s just things we’re interested in generally, or things that we find creepy or scary, or things that Aaron can do with 2D composting and visual effects, and resources we have available to us. That’s a big thing. Even if it’s just like a location, it’s a pretty wide shot, “What could we use that for?” Lists and lists and lists of all these things, and we’ll talk it through, and we’ll talk through just the basic plot, and then at some point I’ll go off on my own for two or three weeks and hammer out a first draft. Send in the first the draft to get lots, and lots of notes. “This sucks. This sucks. I hate you.”
Aaron: I just rip out page and pages. I burn them at his doorstep and make him put it out with his foot.
Justin: He’ll draw a picture of a monster that’s really ugly and write this, “This is you.” What does that note mean? He’s like, “You figure it out.”
Aaron: I’ll go into the dropbox and I’ll delete the master file. I’ll just be like, “Do it again.”
Justin: “Start over.
Aaron: “Do it again.” No, I’m just kidding. I’d never …
Giving notes is way more fun than actually writing.
Aaron: Oh, yes. It’s easy to be a hater, it’s hard to be a creator. Was that a rhyme?
Publicist: That’s a good line.
Aaron: Put that on my tombstone.
Justin: Make sure when you write this that he said “h8er” with an eight.
Aaron: And cre8or.
Justin: But then at that point after the first draft stage, the drafts get pretty intensive and [we have]really long conversations, and Aaron, at that point becomes traditionally what a development producer would do. That’s what Aaron’s doing at that point, which is a very good situation to be in for both him and I. [It’s] probably horrifyingly frustrating for development producers who come on board with us later on, but yeah, that’s basically how it goes. Depending on the script — and we’ve had scripts that are in development that we’ve been working on them for … F*ck, how long have we been working on… ?
Aaron: Oh, you mean, like working, working, or when did you write it?
Justin: Well, now, I guess seven…
Aaron: You wrote it in 2012.
Justin: Yeah, so there’s been stuff that’s been going a really long time, and then there’s stuff that goes a little bit faster.
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When you got on set and start working with other actors, is there a specific way you guys split up the duties? Aaron, I know you’re the credited DP…
Aaron: Yeah, but again, same thing with the writing where only one person can really do that, so we don’t split that part of it. But with actors, most of what we do as co-directors happens in rehearsal. Kind of going back to the thing he mentioned earlier, we find the performance in rehearsal, and then we’re just trying to make sure we didn’t lose that on set. And on set, there’s so many more things going of course. There’s lights, there’s cameras, there’s time ticking down, so the time for questions is mostly over. When something’s not working, we all stop, we take a moment and figure it out. But for us, the reason that co-directing works for us is that we don’t split up duties, but we do spend time in rehearsal. I think if co-directors spend a lot of time arguing or figuring out stuff between themselves on set, I personally – and I could be wrong — but I think that demonstrates a lack of preparedness that a lot of actors will then view as lack of vision, which makes them lose faith, which is really, really hard. You don’t want your actors losing faith at that point. So that’s why we do so much rehearsal.
I want to ask about some of the other actors like Lew Temple playing Tim, kind of the bombastic leader role, so how did you find him to play that?
Justin: Well, it was interesting. Again, this is our third micro-budget, almost no budget, tiny feature, but for this one there was a casting director, who reached out to us. Basically, did charity work for us, and helped us find some performers in supporting roles.
Aaron: His name is Mark Bennett. You want to look him up. He’s awesome.
Justin: Yeah, amazing guy, and he found Lew for us, and actually, I can’t remember now, Lew didn’t necessarily audition.
Aaron: He didn’t audition. Are you talking about Hal the cult leader or are you talking about the silent guy, Tim?
Oh, you’re right. I was thinking of Hal.
Justin: Okay, so Tate Ellington — we can cover both of them. They both have all the same adjectives attached to them. They’re both guys who are … Man, I’m going to say this. I’m going to sound like that director talking about their actors. They’re generally really, really amazingly talented people, and they’re also just really, really good nice people who came out on this movie that has no money and just got involved and gave us these amazing performances. Most notably, the most unique thing I thought it was for both of them, was that in both cases they gave us all this time in production to talk for hours and hours and hours about the characters and for us to give them a backstory to the character, and then to collaborate with them on that backstory. In the case of Lew Temple, especially, he only has three lines maybe in the whole movie, but that character really resonates with people. There seems to be a really, really deep backstory to him. And it was one of those things where getting a character a backstory, something really elaborate, and then just having them onscreen doing almost non-verbal performance where … I mean, what is Lew Temple’s screen time do you think? 30 seconds or something?
Aaron: He’s got a little better than that, but he doesn’t say anything during it, yeah.
Justin: But he’s there so little and says so little, but all those discussions and that whole backstory, it seems to really come across onscreen for most people. That’s a really neat thing. If I hadn’t lived that dynamic with a performer and done it, and then seen people’s reaction to it, I might think that, that was just sort of a kind of maybe for lack of a better word, like a New Age-y director trick. Like, “Yeah, sure. People are going to see. He’s not saying anything. They’re just going to see it behind his eyes.”
Aaron: You’re going to see a backstory, yeah.
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Justin: But there does seem to be something there. Obviously, Tate’s character Hal, he talks a lot, but there’s still something there, and as the movie goes on and we reveal what’s happening with time, we’re also revealing that these people are much, much older than they appear, so it’s especially important that people detect that there’s a lot of years behind these people despite the years you see in their face.
Aaron: I just realized something about Lew having so few lines. Him coming out to work on our movie is particularly interesting, not just, “Oh, he doesn’t have many line or not a lot of screen time.” There is no way for him to use any individual piece of this movie for his demo reel. He couldn’t use it, so it’s not even just, “Oh, I only have one scene, but I’ll do it because I can maybe pop it in my demo.” He just did it for the love of the film. It’s pretty incredible for an actor to do [that]for such a small film.
I don’t want to keep harping on the Resolution connections, but were all the original actors readily available to shoot new scenes? How do you go back to actors that you worked with five years before?
Justin: Luckily, those guys, specifically… Well, yes, we are incredibly lucky that they would do it, and had done it all because it’s all basically donating time. But they were friends before we made Resolution. We had done these fake spec ad commercials that no one will, again, ever see, and we just realized that they had a certain chemistry and dynamic between them that seemed like old friends even though they weren’t. That was years before we made Resolution, and now, years later, we’re all still buddies. They’ll come out and help out.
Where do you guys go from here? I mean, obviously there is stuff in The Endless where you can follow another character, and there’s a lot more to explain about what’s going on in this movie, if you chose to. Do you want to do that? Do you want to do something completely different now and come back to this later?
Aaron: We’re going to need a little while I think before we can figure out … because the thing is, is if you look at Resolution and The Endless, they explore completely different facets of the same world. What I mean by that is there’s almost no retread ground mystery-wise between the two movies. There’s some, but not much. The thing is that a lot of the time if you’re making, say, a sequel, what you do is you take the same mystery of the same premise and you apply it to a new situation. This is just taking something even deeper than that and just acknowledging and looking at it from different sides, and it’s gonna take a while for us to figure out what that looks like, that isn’t just going back and saying the same thing the other two movies did. We’d be interested, though.
There’s that guy in the tent, who I really want to know how he got in that tent, as most people do, I’m sure.
Aaron: Yeah, he’s incredible, and he was a wild audition, too. Not easy to say like, “Okay, can you get in the chair and start screaming and running back and forth from the chair?”
Does the micro-budget thing get tiring? Do you have the desire to have more money and make bigger movies? I thought The Endless seemed drastically bigger than Resolution.
Justin: Tricked you. We’ve been trying for seven years to do bigger stuff, but I like a broken record, but the medium-size movies are gone. There aren’t that many opportunities to go from micro-budget filmmaking into bigger-budget filmmaking that isn’t a leap that you … You’re not really in an environment or a business dynamic where you’re really doing your wheelhouse, the thing that you do. You are kind of holding on and hope the thing turns out okay. Also, we’ve never had opportunities to go do bigger stuff. We keep doing these tiny movies that we can pull together, but we’ve also been able to continuously make stuff that’s personal and meaningful to us. For the rest of our lives, we’ll never regret making these films. We feel great about them. I bet there’s a lot of really big budget movies and a lot of people involved who can’t say that.
That’s true. Anyone who sees this movie and knows how much you made it for will be like, “Whoa, if we give these guys three times that much…” which still isn’t a lot on the money side of things.
Aaron: Well, it’s actually a little weird, because for example, without talking any specific numbers, The Endless, had we had three times that much, it would be basically the same movie, because as soon as you do that everything just unionizes, and you just spend it all on unions. We wouldn’t have had basically anything else, any more frills, but people would’ve just been paid more.
I think that’s it for me with questions. Is there anything else you want people to know about The Endless?
Aaron: I mean, if I were saying it not to you, but to an audience, I would say something like, if you like independent film, the only way you can support it besides seeing it, is getting loud about it on social media. Just don’t forget that side of it if you want to be an indie film warrior is to make some noise too, so that’s all.
Whenever I moderate a Q ‘n’ A, I always tell audiences to tell their friends that they liked the movie, because I figure if they stayed for the Q ‘n’ A, they must have liked it enough to hear more about it.
Justin: It’s interesting times. On the one hand, we have bolder independent films being released than ever before. On the other hand, the marketing budgets are the lowest they’ve ever been. They’re often times zero, so it’s an interesting thing. From a filmmaker’s perspective, there’s good and there’s bad to that. It’s very interesting to watch over the years to see if your movie catches on or not. Like even Resolution again. Probably almost zero marketing budget. Just kind of put out there and it’s got some fans, and it’s gotten some positive reviews, plus people have watched it over a course of six years now, people have found it and they check it out. That’s the same thing with our other movie Spring, where it’s like people are still discovering it via word of mouth because there was never an initial marketing blast that everyone knew about it. It just kind of slowly gets out there. It’s kind of fun as a filmmaker to have people constantly be like, “I just saw your movie that you released seven years ago.”
The Endless opens in New York on Friday (today!) and in L.A. on April 13.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor