“There are two ideas that are considered American that we grow up with,” Aaron Moorhead tells us. “That we are raised to be kind of anti-authoritarian for the most part, we’re supposed to be, at least. We idolise that, even if a lot of people are followers. But simultaneously there’s the arrogant idea that everyone else might have it wrong and you have it right, so it’s like ‘There’s this organised religion, that’s not right but the 12 of us with all our guns in the woods, we’ve got it figured out!’ That’s anti-authoritarian but it’s also like this arrogant idea of ‘Oh, really, that guy has it figured out! OK!”
We’re talking cults and authoritarianism with Moorhead and his filmmaking partner Justin Benson, the duo behind excellent genre-bending indies Resolution and Spring, because their new film The Endless follows two brothers (played by the duo) who decide to return to the doomsday cult they escaped from as kids. Aaron (Moorhead) is disaffected with the way his life has turned out and idealises their time spent in the small commune in the woods, while Justin (Benson) is far more sceptical. When they arrive, Aaron finds everything to be even better than he remembered, while Justin is convinced that something very bad is going on behind the smiles and camaraderie. What exactly is this this higher power they’ve devoted themselves to?
It’s not too much of a giveaway to say that there’s something unnatural happening somewhere in The Endless. To say exactly what that something is, however, would be to give away one of the film’s most enjoyable secrets, but we can tell you is that the two filmmakers are very much aware of how we as approach movies about cults.
“There’s so much content available about cults,” Benson nods. “You can tell the story exploiting what people’s knowledge probably is. Hal [the cult’s leader] is a handsome nice guy who smiles at the beginning and you’re like ‘He’s up to something!’ You can totally play with that through the whole first half of the movie and make people feel unnerved. There is a secret, there’s something unspoken and thus that’s where you get your uneasy feeling.”
Much of the tension in that first half of the film comes from the disagreement between Justin and Aaron over the cult itself. Once we arrive, Aaron’s viewpoint actually seems to be more reasonable, and it’s interesting that the “get out there and do your own thing” idea was actually the impetus behind the film getting made in the first place.
“The more we talk about it the more we realise that it filters down to every single thing,” explains Moorhead. “The whole idea was to make a self-reliant movie that nobody could stop us from making, so that’s one of the reasons we’re in it and one of the reasons why it’s so low-budget. That idea of: go change your life, choose to do it, take charge. Then we made a movie about that thematically and there’s two sci-fi ideas in it that both have to do with ‘Change your life, reject authority.’ And then there’s the very literal idea of cult authority, and [Justin and Aaron] are in an emotional cycle that is in some ways antagonistic and need to break out of their own emotional cycles. It was weird how this one idea seemed to end up filtering through everything.”
That relationship between the two brothers really is at the core of The Endless and the performances from Benson and Moorhead are excellent (“Because we don’t suck as actors in this movie, the default is ‘Oh I guess they’re just playing themselves!’” laughs Moorhead). As big and as challenging as the ideas get in the film, it’s that central bond through their antagonism that keeps it moving forward and keeps us invested.
“Something I’d observed in brothers who are close in age is that they talk so much shit to each other or there’ll be a quiet simmering life-long anger. Not in a dysfunctional way but being zen so you don’t kill each other because you’ve been around each other so much growing up!” explains Benson. “But when something really big goes down, a big family tragedy or something, a lot of love is expressed. I think there’s something really interesting about that when you put it in a dramatic structure.”
Finally, we have to address the L word. Benson and Moorhead’s work, particularly Spring, has consistently drawn comparisons to HP Lovecraft and they tell us that it’s not a particularly conscious decision. “When Resolution and Spring were developed, neither of us really had any knowledge of Lovecraft,’ Benson tells us. “We’d read the reviews and be like ‘Oh, Lovecraftian, we should check that out!’ I think one reason is that there’s things in it where he explains it just enough that you’re like ‘That might be real. Maybe that could be.’ And then he leaves everything else in the unknown.”
Being left in the unknown is definitely the best way to go into The Endless, and it’s certainly an experience you won’t forget in a hurry. Indeed, you’ll want to relive it as quickly as possible… It definitely confirms Benson and Moorhead as two of genre cinema’s most exciting talents, and they tell us that they do have bigger projects they’re working on.
“We’ve always had those projects going, it’s just that those projects are almost always cast-dependent,” explains Benson. “You need to get a big celebrity. We make very small films, but I think oftentimes there’s this perception of ‘Oh, Spring’s like this indie phenomenon that probably gave you all these opportunities,’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah, it does but it doesn’t make Jake Gyllenhaal read your script! If we wanted to do something that’s really traditional and had a script that was ready to go, we could probably get something like that made but it’s just not what’s in our hearts. We want to do something bolder and oftentimes the material that we generate ourselves, it’s the analogy of the custom fitting suit versus getting one off the rack.”
The Endless is in cinemas today and released on Blu-ray from Arrow Video on 2 July. Read our review here.