Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead Discuss The Endless, Resolution, and Red Marijuana
If you read my recent 2018 Q1 State of Horror Report, you know that The Endless is one of my hot-picks for the second quarter of the year. It’s the 3rd movie from filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who took the indie world by storm with their debut feature Resolution in 2012. Their sophomore offering, Spring, was a potent mix of star-crossed romance and Lovecraftian body horror.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Benson and Moorhead to discuss The Endless, now playing in New York and Los Angeles with plans to expand to additional markets throughout the month.
This interview contains spoilers for The Endless, Resolution, and Spring so proceed with caution!
Two brothers receive a cryptic video message inspiring them to revisit the UFO death cult they escaped a decade earlier. Hoping to find the closure that they couldn’t find as young men, they’re forced to reconsider the cult’s beliefs when confronted with unexplainable phenomena surrounding the camp. As the members prepare for the coming of a mysterious event, the brothers race to unravel the seemingly impossible truth before their lives become permanently entangled with the cult.
Aaron Moorhead: We met when I came to work at RSA, Ridley Scott’s production company. It was my first day and Justin’s last day. I came to LA convinced I was going to become Ridley Scott’s protégé, not realized I’d never meet him, that I’d just be moving papers around and making coffee and stuff like that. So I was placed at a table with Justin and he quickly dissolved the notion that I was ever going to meet Ridley Scott in person, much less learn how to become a better filmmaker from him. But he helped me out by talking about his own experiences as a director. So we kept in touch; we started working together more and more on low-budget commercials and that sort of thing. At a certain point, Justin throws the first draft of a film called Resolution at me and that was our first film which took off at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Justin Benson: I was thinking about going to Medical school actually. Making Resolution was just something I wanted to do so I could check making a movie off my life’s bucket list. Through the course of making Resolution with Aaron, it became obvious that I’d be much happy doing this with my life. I’m not sure I would have made a good doctor.
DC: I know you have a lot of fans who are glad you choose filmmaking over medicine! I loved the fact that The Endless is a continuation of Resolution. Congratulations on keeping that fact kind of under wraps, by the way, but I’m curious: Since The Endless doesn’t fit the traditional definition of a sequel or a prequel, how would you describe its relationship to Resolution?
JB: We actually spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the word is for that relationship because it’s not necessary for you to have seen one before the other. We liked the idea of creating an indie micro Universe; we hadn’t seen anyone else who had done that. So actually, there’s even more continuity between the film than most people realize. It’ll probably take several viewings to catch all the little things. But ultimately, the two films can exist entirely independent of each other. You’ve obviously seen Resolution and you find that connection interesting, but the thing is, most people haven’t seen it and probably never will because it had such a tiny release. It’s not something most people are even aware exists. But, man, we like the idea that Resolution might come on HBO in the middle of the night and someone who’s seen The Endless will be, like, “I had no idea this whole world existed!” It’ll be a surreal moment.
DC: I had that surreal moment you’re talking about and it was awesome! Well, what you just said explains my next question, which was why you guys didn’t market The Endless as a follow-up to Resolution. It was a conscious decision on your part.
AM: I wish I could say we were that dedicated to avoiding spoilers, but it has to do with the fact that almost nobody saw Resolution. So if The Endless was marketed as a sequel to a movie you haven’t seen, you won’t want to watch it. But besides the marketability reasons, it also has to do with our humility where we don’t really want to rely on a past movie for the success of our current one. Anyone who liked Resolution will, of course, like The Endless (I think they absolutely have to), but we’d rather people just go in and discover it for themselves than to have someone coming in as a fan of something that already exists the way franchises use their characters.
DC: The geography felt really important in The Endless; there were deserts and forests in close proximity. Can you speak a bit about the location and how it affected the tone and themes of the film?
JB: The setting for The Endless started as a practical decision. Resolution takes place in the same place and, for lack of a better word, the same universe. So we had this location available to us basically for free, about an hour outside of San Diego in a high desert, rural area. When we filmed Resolution there, we realized there were areas available to us that we hadn’t used, like where we housed the crew. We realized there was still a lot of interesting potentials there. So when it was time to shoot our 3rd micro-budget film, The Endless, the space was still available to us. At a certain point, though, we realized there was something special about this place. It’s not a traditional setting for a horror or sci-fi movie. There’s something very eerie about the landscape and the light in those places.
DC: The Endless uses the idea of a UFO death cult as a hook, but the cult in the film turns out to be something much different than we first thought. Was this an attempt to demystify cults and humanize their followers or was there another reason for toying with the audience’s expectations?
AM: Cults are destructive, period. They all are. Communes aren’t, but you still have a hive-mind phenomenon. What we wanted was to make sure that people believed these brothers would actually want to return (well, one of them). So we had to create this cult that was genuinely attractive while still being dangerous. We did a lot of research. But ultimately, you realize around the halfway mark [in The Endless] that the cult isn’t the actual danger, right? But we were still able to talk about things like conformity and rebellion and the virtues of breaking out of a cycle. Breaking out of cycles is kind of a rebellion against the self, and that’s the conflict of Aaron in the film. The cult ends up being a construct for the themes of the movie.
DC: The Cult in The Endless, at least at first, had a lot of similarities to The Heaven’s Gate cult, which was also active outside San Diego. I’m assuming that was a major inspiration?
JB: Like most people, we’re extremely fascinated by cults. I just watched Wild Wild Country on Netflix and it was fascinating. But, you’re right, the group in the film is most similar to Heaven’s Gate, in terms of a real-life counterpart. But then you find out the character Justin has been dishonest about their actual practices; you realize he lifted a lot of details from what we know about Heaven’s Gate.
DC: That’s what I noticed. Like castration.
JB: We actually created a website for The Endless modeled after Heaven’s Gate’s website, using the same platform they use. I’ll send you the link to use as you see fit.
DC: Please do! Anyone who sees The Endless will be struck by how personal the story feels, so I have to ask: Have either of you been involved in cults or fringe groups?
AM: Not really. I grew up religious but that’s not a cult. I think we realized when we were making the movie, though, that a cult was the perfect vehicle for a story about the virtues of rebellion. We were really attracted to the idea of a story about a person who thinks they know it all and wants to lead the world to a better place. But then it all goes wrong because it’s based on terrible things.
DC: Okay, so I’ve been dying to ask: Where did the idea for red marijuana come from?
JB: Let me try to remember… I know that I’ve always been fascinated by the odd relationship between homo sapiens and the plants that are available to them on the planet, especially those that have a hallucinogenic or psycho-active effect; whether that be marijuana or mushrooms or ayahuasca or whatever. There are these plants available to human beings that cause perceptional shifts that do affect the material world and influence behavior, giving them insights they wouldn’t have otherwise had. Now, do I do any of these drugs? I actually don’t, to be totally honest. But I’m fascinated by that relationship and what it provides. I’ve also done research into ceremonial magic where drugs are used in rituals in order to come to certain spiritual conclusions. People think they can actually commune with God, or a higher power, or an otherworldly entity. So I just had the idea, like, what if in this particular region [where Resolution and The Endless take place] produced something unique, this red plant. And the effect would depend on the person. Some would see this entity, this “God” or whatever it is.
DC: I bet there are tons of stoners out there Googling “Red Weed”.
JB: It would be a huge compliment if, years from now, somebody was inspired to grow something similar. Or just for people to know about it and talk about it.
DC: You might end up with a strain of weed named after The Endless—something with bright orange hairs and rusty undertones. It’s too bad you couldn’t have created a tie-in product for theaters in California and Colorado; you could have given out dime-bags of red weed!
JB: We actually investigated that, but the producers didn’t go for it. I don’t understand.
DC: So after I realized Resolution and The Endless were closely related, I went back and re-watched Spring [your 2nd film] in order to see if that was also part of the same universe. It fits, but I couldn’t find any direct connections. Did I miss anything?
AM: More than anything, there are tonal similarities. Spring is more about external danger than relationships. The greatest tension at the end of Spring is whether or not these lovers will become a couple. In Resolution and The Endless there’s tension, but the internal struggles are more prominent. However, if you look closely, to be totally honest, there are crossovers with Spring.
AM: Shitty Carl is mentioned in Spring and then you actually meet him in The Endless [played by James Jordan]. Also, take a good look at the t-shirt Vinny Curran [who plays Mike in Spring] is wearing.
DC: Fantastic! Is there anything else you want to let our readers know about before I let you go?
AM: We have a ton of stuff we’re working on but nothing we can talk about just yet.
JB: Just because we can’t say anything now doesn’t mean we’re retiring or going into construction contracting or anything.
DC: Good to know!