'The Endless' Directors Justin Benson And Aaron Moorhead on Toxic Nostalgia And Time Loops [Interview]

The Endless is Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's third movie. They star as Justin and Aaron Smith, two brothers returning to Camp Arcadia, the cult from which they escaped, to help Aaron get some closure. One there, they find themselves encountering a series of endless time loops.

The film has earned raves at Tribeca, Fantastic Fest and other prestigious film festivals, including one from /Film. Their previous films Spring and Resolution did well on the festival circuits as well. Moorhead and Benson spoke with /Film in Los Angeles about the themes of The Endless, including some spoilers we saved for the very bottom. The Endless opens in New York today and Los Angeles on April 13 before expanding further.

Aaron's character is looking for things to remind him of Camp Arcadia, even though it was a bad experience he got out of. I get this. We're connected on Facebook so you can see I've been obsessed with old movie theaters. Resolution was all about nostalgia for old video formats. Is there a positive to connecting with our past, or are we just indulging in unhealthy obsessions.

Moorhead: Man, that's a really good question. I love it.

Benson: I'm not personally a fan of nostalgia in the arts, whether it be film or music or anything. People should at least do their best to push forward. We all stand on the shoulders of giants but you can still try something new and hopefully use these things that inspire you to be bold, to try something new. I'm not personally huge on nostalgia but I don't think that every single way you connect with your past is a negative thing. I don't think that going back is ever necessarily a negative thing.

Moorhead: I think nostalgia is a disease that's killing us. I really do. Not just in art but in the world. I think it's really terrible because nostalgia gilds things that were actually very human and had rough edges. So we view everything through this rose colored glass. That said, that doesn't mean we don't learn from our mistakes. We don't have to remember things fondly. For example, I have a friend who buys really old photograph, scans them and puts them on Instagram. That's not nostalgia to me because I've never seen these photos before of these time periods so it's actually a discovery for me. I think you're allowed to miss things, but I think if people are trying to push the future towards the past, I think that's almost always a mistake.

Benson: I'll never be able to know for sure, but I bet the 1950s weren't better than today at all. But, that said, if you said, "Hey Justin, would you rather go to the brand new movie theater at the mall, or do you want to go to one of those really cool old movie theaters downtown to go see a movie?" I'm like, "I want to go to the cool old movie theater downtown." I can't deny that.

Moorhead: Is there a difference between that and nostalgia? There might be, I just don't know what it is. It's not a vernacular one.

Is it a difference between preserving history so it doesn't get forgotten, and actually trying to go back to it?

Moorhead: That's I think what it is. There can be an appreciation of history without me saying, "You know what this film needs to be? It needs to be shot on 35mm three perf and projected there" at extreme cost and difficulty to everybody purely because of some idea of what it used to be.

I don't feel like I'm doing something wrong by looking for records of old theaters or going back to the one I worked at and documenting it while I'm still there. But I also don't know what I hope to accomplish with this.

Moorhead: Does it give you a good feeling?

Yes.

Moorhead: There's that. I just think as long as Spotify isn't replaced with record stores, I'm okay with that. Don't make the past the future because of nostalgia. Don't say, "Wow, vinyl's better than Spotify because it's older." Same kind of thing where I think it's okay to appreciate.

Interesting example because I'm also using Spotfiy for nostalgic purposes. I'm making playlists of both movie scores and soundtrack songs from the '80s and '90s. Plus, I also discover lots of music I never listened to in the '90s because it's just all there on Spotify. 

Moorhead: I get little blasts from high school that pop up on my Spotify every once in a while.

The old camcorder is still a vital part of The Endless. Can you not shake your fondness or obsession with old video?

Moorhead: Yeah, absolutely. There's a good reason why VHS filters are starting to come out on iPhone. We've definitely entered into the uncanny valley of creepiness when it comes to the formats that we grew up with. I think old media, we enjoy it but not as a nostalgic thing but more as a way to generate unease. Have you every heard this observation where if you watch a game show from the 1950s, everyone that was laughing in the laugh track is now dead? It's a freaky idea. You're hearing the laughs of dead people. No matter what, it's creepy.

Benson: The three primary ways to define a ghost are an entity that's conscious of itself and aware, and is there to probably seek something from you. That's one and maybe another one is an evil entity of someone that never was but it's just here and it's apparition-like and it's there to do mean stuff and very vicious. But then there's this other one where it's like maybe a ghost is just an imprint in time, something that's not conscious at all. Something happened, it left an imprint and you just see it like you see film being projected. So in that sense, old media is basically like watching a real ghost.

Moorhead: Film is probably the closest art we have to real life, besides maybe interactive theater. If you're recording something on film, it's why they used to think it was stealing your soul. It's as close as we're going to get to something like immortality for now. Especially a movie that's about immortality, it makes sense that something about an imprint of yourself in time, freezing it in time.

Did you add the bad tracking marks in post?

Moorhead: Oh yeah. We did shoot it on Hi-8. We shot it on an old ass HI-8 camera and the people at the camp we were staying at cleaned up and for whatever reason just threw away the tape. It was in our editing room and they just had all their VHS tapes and saw ours and just threw it away.

Benson: We had shot that video simultaneously with our primary camera, REDcam so we just ended up using that footage and degrading it. Someday, someone's going to find the tape and find a Hi-8 deck, they're going to find basically a UFO death cult member talking about their suicide.

Moorhead: Over and over in different ways.

Benson: Like five takes.

The Endless Trailer

Had you ever wanted to act before?

Moorhead: Yeah, we had acted a little bit here and there, never of course leading a feature. Since our high school drama days, that kind of stuff. We have a lot of respect for that art and craft. It always felt like something that was a little too awesome for us. We'd see all of our friends and they just work their butts off every single day, all day. We hadn't really allowed ourselves to think that we could give it a shot. The reason that we did do it is because we wanted to make a movie and be truly self-reliant. Nobody could stop us from making it. It was going to be our money. We do the cinematography, the editing, produce it. We're going to do as much as we possibly could, and that's not meant to say we didn't have an amazing crew and eventually get financing. But the idea of it was that everything we can do ourselves, we will. Even before we had the idea of let's make this movie about two brothers who are UFO death cult members. Even before that idea came across, the idea of let's be the leads in the movie came across.

Making Justin and Aaron Smith brothers, does making movies together essentially make you brothers anyway?

Benson: I mean, we work together on a daily basis every single day for seven years. So there is a fraternal relationship there that's similar to having siblings for sure. That said, very very sincerely, the dynamic that you see between the two characters in the film is wildly different than our actual dynamic. The characters themselves are in many ways the opposite of what we're actually like in real life. We created this dynamic and these characters to create dramatic tension. They were kind of based on these two brothers that I knew growing up, and then also just in general observing sibling relationships, particularly siblings that are closer in age. It just seemed like there was something really heartwarming about when you watch those types of dynamics between those siblings. It's so rare that they express their love for each other in a really conspicuous way, but you see that they really do. Beyond the sh*t talking, people love each other. There was something really interesting about taking a dynamic like that and then in the structure of a movie that should be crescendoing in a third act and you should be hitting this emotional peak in the third act, you would see all these emotions come out in a conspicuous way expressing love to each other. That was the idea.

And these guys don't.

Benson: I think you can see in their actions that they care about each other. Yes, we do find out that Justin pulled out Aaron for dishonest reasons, but he was well-intentioned still and it still came from a place of protection. I think there's something really heartwarming about that. In the third act, I think what they're saying to each other while they're pushing that car, I do think it's very sincere. I think that whatever is said while they're pushing that car, it's always there in the undercurrent of their relationship. It just took that event to bring it out.

Does having the directors star as the leads in the movie add a level of meta commentary if you're looking for it? 

Moorhead: There wasn't ever meant to be. I would be so scared of somebody thinking about how up our own ass we would be if we're making a movie that is a commentary on our own pretty nice, warm lives. We have lives that we can't even write an autobiography. It's too uninteresting and normal. That said, after thinking about it for a while, after the movie's been out and being asked that question, because we've run away from it. We'd say, "No, no, there's no commentary." And there isn't but we did realize our movie, if you wanted to give one word to what the movie is about, it is about anti-conformity, about rebellion, about taking action, otherwise you're going to keep repeating yourself over and over. That action may be really uncomfortable and potentially violent, but you have to do it or you're going to get stuck in a rut. Again, this thought only came out after we made the movie. We were channeling what we were feeling at the time about the fact that we were just taking a bunch of meetings and we were spinning our wheels so to speak, and we weren't making films anymore. We had to go do this thing where nobody wanted or expected us to make a DIY movie where we starred in it, we have to do it in order to break our cycle. So there was a bit of rebelliousness or anti-conformity aspect to what we were doing. We realized that that emotion is why we wanted to make this movie. Our antagonist is somebody who makes you conform or die. A cult is a very literal version of conformity. Even in our brotherly relationship in the movie, it's about rejecting people that you view as an authority.

Did The Endless come out of frustrations trying to get the Aleister Crowley movie made?

Moorhead: Not just that movie. It was a lot of things. I would never want to point to one of our projects. It wasn't even frustration. It was just the fact that the big things take a long time. We had to give ourselves permission to do something that wasn't big. It turned into something big.

Benson: A much closer thing, in the screenwriting process of oh, the point where I'm locked up writing the script. We developed all these ideas and all these things. If I'm going to point to one thing that's personal in the three films, actually personal, it's not our professional lives at all. It's that when I was writing Resolution, my mom had substance abuse problems. So it was like oh, how could we get her clean? We have to lock her up in a cabin. That's insane. Of course I'm not going to do that, but that's where the spark of the concept came from. That's where the emotions of it came from. What Chris and Mike are dealing with, that was very much the dynamic between me and my mom. Spring had a similar thing in which she was struggling with mental illness and all these things. I thought oh, what would I do if I were in her position? I'd just take off to western Europe. Again, spark of a story. With this, I remember being alone with it. She had gotten sober, her mental health was good for like two weeks when I was home from college 10 years ago. She told me, "I know I messed up. I know I made mistakes but I hope I taught you about forgiveness." So when I was writing about family within Camp Arcadia, I made a theme of it forgiveness. Does Hal forgive us? Do we forgive Hal? Do Aaron and Justin forgive each other? That was the personal stuff in it, if there was something pulled from my life. She took her own life while we were making the film.

Oh God, I'm sorry.

Benson: So in the performances, that also became oh yeah, there's a personal thing in the performance. We were going through grief. That's there. That is so much more prominent than the idea of it being personally about our careers.

Are you going to try to develop something big next?

Moorhead: Actually, we've realized that what's next, is it going to be big or not is just kind of way down the totem pole on our list of questions when it comes to what's next. First is, can' we get something made? What's this film going to do? How's that going to work out for us? All of the things we were working on before we made The Endless, we're still working on. They still exist. So if one of those goes, those are much bigger. But, if enough time passes, we're just going to go greenlight ourselves to make something else again. Now we've realized and we've given permission to ourselves to do that, to be those people rather than the jump from Safety Not Guaranteed has to be followed by Jurassic World. I think Colin Trevorrow would have gone and made something else small and personal. We feel okay doing that if, for whatever reason, things end up taking long again. But that said, we have five or six things still in development, all of them much larger. If they go, we're going to be happy guys, because they're still personal to us. None of them are just a job.

I know about Aleister Crowley. What other projects were you developing?

Benson: We sold two TV shows last year. That just means we're getting paid to write the pilots. Who knows if they go to series so neither are worth talking about yet. Luckily, we're dealing with grown-ups and writing pilots so that's a good thing. Then we had a movie that's sort of a sci-fi western that's been in development for a few years. There was a movie about a time travel pill that's awesome but that's been in development forever.

Moorhead: We've got a Stephen King adaptation.

Can you say which Stephen King?

Moorhead: I don't know, to be honest. We haven't been given the go ahead.

One that hasn't been done before?

Moorhead: Yeah, yeah.

(Below are some questions that involve spoilers for The Endless and Resolution, Benson and Moorhead's first movie. Read on if you've seen either movie, as Benson and Moorhead believe it does not spoil The Endless, but avoid if you want to go in totally blind.)

Is The Endless an extension of the sort of time loop you explored in Resolution?

Benson: The Endless, once our two protagonists leave Arcadia, we start exploring a multitude of different loops, whether it's Mike's loop or Sh*tty Carl's loop, the guy in the tent with the horrifying five-second loop. When Justin and Aaron are walking back to Camp Arcadia after the scene in the trailer, they actually cross through several loops. You don't see the people. You see how they've interpreted this antagonist in different ways. One of them is sort of a totem. One of them is a metallic dragon demon thing. The weird monolith they've carved on a tree or stone at some point. These are all different subcultures with their own loops. Those are the artifacts they've made to express themselves what this antagonist is. The camp itself is not really connected the loop in Resolution. It's its own thing. It's just that whole region is governed by the same entity and is experiencing the same phenomenon. I always wonder if people get this. Most people don't even need to. You know the Gandalf staff looking things, the rock formations they talk about in the beginning? Those actually form the borders of the different loops. So when you cross into one past that, you come to a different loop each time. If you want to be really specific, the radius or diameter of the circles they from, as it gets bigger, the loop gets longer and as they get smaller, the loops get smaller. So when you see the five second tent, you see them all around it. It's about a 20 foot diameter. That's why the guy has such a short loop.

Does Resolution end with a reset, not necessarily their deaths?

Moorhead: Both, because when you get taken, it's a death. It's both. That said, we don't like telling people that because it's part of the satisfaction of Resolution. You have to just see what happened to them. That's probably what we would assume happened. One thing this movie does do is it does tell you what happened.

What do we say about how The Endless connects to Resolution?

Moorhead: We definitely can't say it's a sequel because it's not, or a sidequel or anything like that. They share the same mythology and in sharing the same mythology, you see crossover location and characters and situations, but the stories are wildly different. One is attacking it from this facet of the mythology and the other attacks this completely wildly different facet of it.

Does The Endless improve if you've seen Resolution?

Moorhead: We've found the opposite. Sometimes, it depends on the person. Sometimes, when you have not seen Resolution, you get no answers to the mysteries of The Endless outside of the movie so you don't know what's coming. When you go in completely blind and completely fresh, it can often be more thrilling. That said, a lot of people find a lot more depth. If they've seen Resolution, they feel like they know a little secret that no one else does so it's really satisfying.

Are they the same universe, with or without overlaps?

Benson: The same universe with some overlaps. I'd say that's a reasonable description. It's this thing for us where we're not self-deceptive enough to think that anyone has seen Resolution.Three people have seen it. You're one of them. We still love that film. It was a really new inspiration, but the movie is constructed so that it's not required that you would need to have any knowledge of resolution at all. It seems like people have the full amount of enjoyment whether you've seen it or you haven't. If you have, I'm sure it's a really fun thing to revisit those characters and situations.There's just like 1000 little points of continuity. You don't need to know that, but it's fun to.

Moorhead: There truly are 1000. I don't know if that's an exaggeration but they're just little bumps.

Have more people gone back and watched Resolution, just like after Spring they'd want to see your first movie?

Moorhead: A lot of the time it's a nice little surprise to be able to tell people, "Hey, did you like that movie? Did you like that scene with the people in the cabin?" This comes up during Q&As often. Two people in the audience saw Resolution and want to ask questions so they do.The rest of them are like, "What's Resolution?" So we often have to say, "Okay, before we answer your question, hey everyone, there's this movie called Resolution. It's about the guys in the cabin that got burned down. We made a whole movie about those guys."

But if you come to The Endless blind, do people want to go back and see Resolution?

Benson: Maybe they'll just be sitting on their couch half asleep and it comes on HBO or something. Then they watch it and the next morning they wake up and they're like, "I had this dream. There was a whole movie about the guys from the cabin in the other movie I saw." I'm sure it's going to be a really odd fun discovery for people that do have that experience.