Interview by Ben Buckingham @dissolvedpet
The Endless, screening in select cinemas around Australia, is the third film by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, a duo who are shaking up indie & cosmic horror. All-rounders, who take the piss out of their co-directing/writing/lensing/editing/acting/did-I-forget-anything in this hilarious promo short, Moorhead & Benson make the complex seem straight-forward, divising fascinating narratives filled with the kind of characters one lovingly remember years after viewing & cannot wait to return to. If you haven't had the pleasure of their essential debut, RESOLUTION, or their powerful follow-up, SPRING, now is the time to investigate now. These are movies for now, & for the future, building new possibilities for one of the oldest genres, layering in the uncanny, the monstruous, and, above all else, the humanity that confronts such things with emotional maturity & intelligence.
1 What are the strongest influences on your aesthetic, both in cinema and in other art forms?
Our films aren’t very referential to other works of cinema if we can avoid it, but we have ungodly respect for the DIY filmmakers that have paved the way for us to hopefully someday break out to a larger audience. Trailblazers like Soderbergh, Amy Seimetz, the Duplass brothers, Greta Gerwig, anyone who seemed to have picked up a camera and started shooting and let the details fall into place naturally. They just make their movies for a small enough budget that there’s no compromise, they do as much as they can themselves, and they consistently make great cinema.
In literature, it’s not so much Lovecraft as people would suspect, but rather, those who read Lovecraft. Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Mark Danielewski. Also, deep-dives on fringe culture in Wikipedia have populated our most unsavory nights.
2 There has been a lot of discussion online of what precisely is a horror film, with many attempting to slice films out of the genre as it gradually shifts away from the dominant forms that developed in 60s and 70s America. Have you personally experienced a sense of this change, in your own creative process, or from the films and filmmakers you have come into contact with?
The debate of “what is a horror film” has been alive since we became filmmakers. For example, when people say they don’t like horror films, what they often mean is they don’t like slasher films -- a very narrow subgenre that has co-opted the word “horror” in many peoples’ minds. So, audiences are surprised when a film doesn’t do exactly that, and the debate rages on.
Our films have always been on the cusp of being considered “true” horror or not, and sometimes derided for not having enough violence. This is ridiculous. The genre label should only be applied in order to have a way to be talking about the same thing — descriptively. But sometimes fans get caught in a trap, making it something prescriptive instead: “it’s only good IF it hits these checkboxes”, rather than “it hits these checkboxes, therefore it is horror”. It doesn’t take the movie as it comes on its own, it’s placing a framework the unwatched movie must subscribe to.
For us, genre’s just a label that’s applied by the marketing department at a distribution company. We want to make films that give you a true sense of being frightened, but sometimes we want to spend time with our characters or dive into our environment, things that can emotionally build the scares when they come but aren’t directly frightening themselves. All that said, the majority of our viewers connect with the film because they subvert genre expectations, not in spite of it.
3 When making an independent film there are always uncontrollable elements, which are often multiplied when you take on so many varied roles in the production. What was something that was beyond your control but ultimately helped create the final product in a positive way, like a happy accident?
So much of the making of our movies happens in pre-production, and our producer Dave Lawson is so amazing, that we’ve never really had anything happen that was beyond our control besides weather. It’s not all that interesting of an answer, but something we’ve learned is that in no budget indie filmmaking, maybe the best thing you can do is just prepare. Have everything you can, especially script, performances and shot lists, dialed in before you start shooting and time is ticking away. It doesn’t mean some magical jazz won’t happen, and when it does you’ll still get to make your day and finish the movie without compromise.
4 Narrative progression both as structure and motif has been integral to all of your films so far, with even the titling suggesting stages of a journey (Resolution, Spring, The Endless). Your characters often become lost within the narratives that they construct around themselves. Were you cognitive of this in your creative process, and if so, what influenced this direction?
Not something we’ve been doing consciously, but we do know that sometimes people describe our movies as “meta”, which is unintentional, but maybe that’s why it seems to usually be something that people reference in a positive light. We’ve theorized that maybe “meta” only really works when you don’t know you’re doing it. Also, as we’ve gotten involved with a lot of projects that work more traditionally within the industry development process, it’s interesting to see how many traditional rules we’ve been breaking and didn’t really know it. Some of it we knew, but there’s always something from like a screenwriting book or something that you never read that gets used as the vocabulary of development and it’s honestly just interesting. It’s cool to learn why movies that go through the traditional business filters turn out the way they do, for better or worse, and to know that in working outside the system you’ve learned that there’s other ways of doing things.
5 Have you ever been a member of a cult? If not, would you consider joining or starting one, and if so, what would your ideal cult be?
Never been involved with a small spiritual group with a charismatic leader or anything like that, but being a cinephile sort of has cult-like things about it -- having a huge, arguably excessive admiration for these very specific, often esoteric films and everything affiliated with them. Don’t think we’d be very good at starting a film cult of our own though, because we really actually love film, and it seems that cult leaders who truly believe their own dogma tend to not do as well. Aleister Crowley truly believed in magick and died broke and nearly alone. Also, you probably get very little rehearsal and prep time for sermons, and anyone who has ever seen us try to improv know this is a very bad idea.
The Endless is currently screening at Cinema Nova.