Fantasia 2017 Interview: Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson on Crafting THE ENDLESS
Recently at Fantasia 2017, I was able to catch the Canadian premiere of The Endless, the new feature from co-directing duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. As with Resolution and Spring, what they did here with The Endless was rain a whole ton of talent on just a little bit of money. That’s to say they’ve delivered a DIY film that doesn’t look or feel DIY, has a great cast with strong performances, a compelling story, and cool special effects. Even Guillermo del Toro is a fan.
I was able to speak to them in Montreal the day after The Endless played to approximately 800 Canadians. Here’s what went down -- and check out the clip below the interview.
Going into the film, I didn’t expect a return to the world of RESOLUTION. Had you always planned to revisit those characters?
Aaron Moorhead: When we decided to make another DIY movie, it was always going to revisit the Resolution mythology. It was fertile ground to explore, and resourcefully, it was something we knew how to tap back into. The ideas we started with those characters stuck with us. At film festivals, we’d wonder what happened to them, and joke around what a Resolution sequel would look like. We weren’t talking about The Endless at all, because that’s NOT a sequel.
The fact that our minds were still thinking about it meant that we weren’t done with the characters -- and Justin came up with this really wild idea that was a serious version of a sketch comedy we started about the UFO cult members of Resolution. We were in London and we decided not to make the stupid sketch comedy anymore. It was about two years later that we decided to make a serious version for The Endless.
Justin Benson: There was no logical business reason to make a sequel to Resolution. Most people who see The Endless have no idea about Resolution and they experience the film at a high comprehension. There are certain scenes that feel very lived in, but the thing is, we were inspired by that world. We wouldn’t change anything in Resolution, but while we were making it, there were deeper conversations about things happening that don’t come across on the screen.
At the time, we didn’t care much but in writing, I was trying to figure out a way to figure out how this thing, this entity, operates.
Was returning to this world tricky?
JB: The tricky part was returning to that world without negating anything in Resolution. That the continuity was right… There were easier choices we could have made, but it would have negated our first film. But like anything in indie film, there were parameters I had to stay within — and usually, that makes the script better.
AM: I just realized that one of the reasons that The Endless ISN’T a Resolution sequel is that the antagonists’ main goal is control and dominance. The idea of getting the thing to tell stories is still there, but it’s sidelined. In Resolution, that’s what the whole movie is about. It would have felt like we were retreading old ground had it been the stories thing again. Both film ideas are still there and don’t negate each other.
Let’s talk about “Smiling Dave” Lawson (a long-time collaborator producer in a small role). Was that choice (to have him constantly smile) always in place?
JB: I was working on the script on the set of 68 Kill. There was a dead boar on set, and Dave had to remove it. Dave sent me the photo of him dragging this boar with this huge smile on his face. At that point in my script for The Endless, I was placing cult-y red herrings. A big huge smile is kind of an insincere, cult-y thing, and Dave is our producer. He was going to be there, and you try to use all your resources!
AM: He was kinda smiling in the background of Resolution, too!
JB: Yeah! That’s the other thing. I was trying to figure out how to use that character. And that little cult member scene in Resolution is interesting, because when you look at the blocking, Justin (my character) is ahead of everyone doing all the talking. I remember rewatching when writing The Endless, thinking there’s something dishonest about what he’s doing. He’s started this sect that’s total bullshit, an offshoot of Camp Arcadia. And that’s how “Smiling Dave” was born. He hates it.
AM: I love that Dave hates “Smiling Dave.”
JB: Dave was so popular in the film that we inserted more scenes of him in the film — I’m not joking. We’d shot more with him and had taken those scenes out. We thought it might have made the film too goofy and violated the tone of the movie. We were also afraid that people would place too much importance on him.
AM: As if he was secretly, actually smart and controlling everything!
JB: Yeah, so on the last pass of the movie before delivery, we put everything with him back in. It’s like two shots.
AM: He hates it!
JB: In the festival cut that you saw toward the end, we decided not to have him in that one scene, in that quiet, somber moment. For us, he’s basically a laugh track. We shot a version of that with him in it and had him smile in a way that’s not funny. We tried a sequence of shots so that if you do laugh, it’s in a way that the laughter dies down by the end of the scene. The cut was worth it, because everyone missed “Smiling Dave.” If you look really closely at the ascension scene — if you pause it — there’s white cloth tatters and a fanny pack (“Smiling Dave’s” outfit). Oh, and blood everywhere!
Did you go through several cuts or tests before you were happy with a festival cut?
AM: About the same as all of our movies.
JB: We do test, but only with a trusted dozen trusted people we’ve accumulated over the years; people who are honest and know about filmmaking. They give us prescriptive advice. With the script here, the tricky thing was making sure if just saw this film (and not Resolution), that nothing was insular and they could understand things.
AM: This film definitely has the most scenes that were either deleted or shuffled that we’ve made. That said, you could read the script and see the film that we made, but there are lots of little chops and extra lines.
JB: It’s a little bizarre that our scripts never change from what was written to what you see. But that’s the auteur theory.
AM: In post-production of our films, we always hit one thing that needs to be solved. With Resolution, it was that people weren’t understanding that this entity wanted a story. So we went in and ADRd the word “story” everywhere that we could.
JB: It was the lesson that you have to show and tell; you can’t just show, or people will get confused. In Spring, the act dragged. While it was supposed to be slow, it was too much, so we needed to make cuts.
In The Endless, there were two things: a scene where Justin was giving in and the group had a lovely meal together. Viewers don’t want to see that; we lost the tension. To have to conflict go away for a moment… people hated it.
AM: In future movies, I want to try it; I still think it’s a good idea sometimes. The Aleister Crowley thing, the breakfast scene is great, because you think everything is going bad, then it gets good for a second — then you take the rug out from underneath everyone. The theory is great, it just didn’t work in The Endless.
JB: We worked really hard on this scene, and it’s the worst scene in the movie.
AM: Everyone worked so hard on it! We rehearsed about 30 times and had a two-hour discussion on it.
JB: But then we saw it, and it was not good.
AM: There was that scene where you complemented Lizzy on her drawing, too, but now you just make fun of it.
JB: We ADRd it. She was drawing the “gun nut tweaker” and having a good time. Originally, it was “good night and nice job!” Now he makes fun of her, doesn’t say goodnight to anybody, and just keeps walking. That’s all because we wanted to get rid of the idea that Justin gets used to the camp.
AM: Another macro-post problem was a lesson I’ll never forget. A section was dragging and Josh Ethier gave us a note I’ll always be indebted to him for. He said we couldn’t cut any of those scenes in that section, but what we should do was intercut them.
JB: We did it and we never again heard that it was dragging. And it gave new visual language to the film.
AM: I love those cuts.
JB: We cut from Hal’s equation on his board to Anna’s Dada-esque sketches.
AM: We learn about people through their environments. It also gave the suggestion that we weren’t even that the group living at Camp Arcadia were deliberately trying to separate Aaron and Justin. Now with the cuts as they are, things are more sinister.
In terms of acting, there was never a moment when I was watching and thought, “you’re acting.” Most filmmakers never go “the full auteur” -- writing, directing, producing, and acting -- or do it well. Was that ever overwhelming or awkward? Or totally comfortable? I know you had a lot of rehearsal time.
AM: When we’re hanging out together, it’s a pretty safe place. The first few rehearsals, we hoped we didn’t suck. When you’re just in your apartment talking about making a movie you’re financing out of your own pocket, you don’t think, “this is going to be in front of 800 Canadians at Fantasia.” You don’t think about that, just if it doesn’t turn out well, you did your best, not this horrifying idea that you have to answer for that.
When we started rehearsing, as hoped for, we discovered we were very comfortable in our roles and not very self-conscious in front of each other. Then we made it bigger by bringing in a camera and Dave, to make sure that worked. Dave judging us is terrifying. But he gave us the thumbs up.
JB: I’m not joking; that was the scariest thing that happened. Dave wanted to come over for rehearsal to check us out and make sure we were good enough. We shot some scenes that day and the scenes play the same way they play in the movie.
AM: Was it just the monologues and the pedophile scene?
JB: Yeah. But Dave judging us was scary enough. People seem to like the performances rather than make fun of us. We both have enough fundamental dramatic training on top of working with really good actors, learning their techniques. So, with six years of directing, rad actors, and a little dramatic training, we were able to do something no one makes fun of.
And do those bad sketch comedy videos, which gets out all of our “badness.” We’ve then been exorcised of that so thoroughly that hopefully that dramatic part isn’t anything people make fun of.
AM: It doesn’t have to work for everyone, but when someone says “it’s your first time acting,” it’s not true — it’s our first time leading a feature film. That’s something that most actors don’t get to do, frankly.
But the best acting school we could hope for was the actors we’ve already worked with and the current actors we work with. That’s not meant to be a platitude, but why it worked. We got to intellectualize why they worked, that was our job — what food you needed to give them to grow. You could take a lot from that.
JB: And since we edit our own stuff, we’ve been rehearsing with these people, have been on set learning from them, and then when we go home, we get to see in editing which take is best and why.
When you act, do you like having a certain number of takes or do you just know when you’ve got the shot? Or because you’re on camera, do you go with what feels natural?
AM: It’s normally about three takes, but there are no rules. In general, Justin’s first take is the best. Mine is probably the third. It’s also interchangeable in general. With Tate Ellington, who played Hal, you could use any take — anything. It’s amazing. Lew Temple gives you something different every single time — and all of it’s good, it’s just a choice. Lew only has about three lines in the whole movie, but there’s something about him.
Let’s end with something cute. What’s it like making movies with your best friend?
AM: I guess I’ve gotten spoiled; I don’t really think about it anymore.
JB: It’s that idealist undergraduate idea of just wanting to work with your friends, but we’ve been able to do that!
AM: It’s so easy to get up on the indie film cross and say that it’s “so hard to get a movie made” and that no one will finance your film. That’s all completely true. But the reality is, there’s a lot of comfort and fun that comes from being able to co-direct with Justin. We do have it easier in that way, because we have a bit of a safety net. That doesn’t mean our films WILL get made, but we have a great sense of confidence that we’re doing the right thing because we have someone else to trust — and have a really good time with.
JB: This is dark, but my mom passed away while we were making The Endless. But by virtue of being, I was with my best friend and Dave and everyone. It was probably the best thing for me to be doing at the moment, whereas if I wasn’t making a movie with my best friend and the rest of my friends, it would probably have been an utter disaster. It was probably the best experience I could have had, given the situation.
As we wrap up, is there anything you’d like people to know?
AM: We’re very accessible on social media. People can reach out to us if they want, at @aaronmoorhead and @justinhbenson.