'The Endless' Directors Share The Films That Inspired Their Crazy Horror Movie [Interview]

As a film critic or journalist, you'll often find yourself assigning influences to specific movies without creator clarification. That's part of art – an audience drawing their own connections from singular perspectives – but recently I had the chance to ask two of my favorite working filmmakers if we're getting it right. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead were my subjects, a cinematic duo who've run a gamut of "x meets y" comparisons over their career.

Spoiler alert, we (critics) were wrong...and right? Chalk up mystery of life.

In specific, Benson and Moorhead got down to exploring their most recent release, The Endless. With their heady brand of poke-around exhibitionism, it's anyone's guess as to where their cult-based universe came from (aside from beaming creativity). Do "Lovecraft and Linklater" play as big a role in their inspirations as critiques make it seem? Are their styles more aligned with other directing icons? Do classic films even play a part in their formation as filmmakers?

Those questions and more were answered over coffee and conversation. Welcome to the minds of Benson and Moorhead.

Let's talk about your inspirations and influences. Whenever critics and journalists analyze your films, they always throw around "Lovecraft meets Linklater" associations. How true is that in actuality? Have H.P. Lovecraft and Richard Linklater majorly influenced your work?

Aaron Moorhead: Even since our very first film we've been compared to Lovecraft. There was this embarrassing moment where we got asked about his influence in one of our first Q&As and we froze up, dodged the question because secretly we didn't know who "Lovecraft" was. I thought, "Okay, Lovecraft. He probably crafts love stories? He's probably a romance writer."

An easy connection to make.

Aaron Moorhead: So we looked him up and realized yes, we definitely bear similarities to his work. Some more time passed, Spring came out and – mostly because Spring has tentacles, or technically *a* tentacle – people assumed therefore we must be Lovecraft lovers. At that time we started doing a little more research. We read a few of his books and short stories. But my grand total is still probably under five of his works, and at that only the famous ones.

We once had a meeting with someone who insisted that we were inspired by Lovecraft. I'm like, "No we're not, we made this up." We were getting a little indignant, and he said "No, you don't understand. If you've read or watched anyone in horror or sci-fi since Lovecraft existed, you were therefore inspired by Lovecraft. Everyone stands on Lovecraft's shoulders. He is the nexus of all cosmic horror, and basically all horror period."

We have since realized just how true that is.

Justin Benson: Lovecraft has a lot of stuff where it's so terrifying that you can't even describe it, you can't see it. Okay, well why do you not see stuff in our movies? Simple. We can't afford it. We don't have the budget so you have to lean into that. A lot of times when Lovecraft does describe details they are often nature based. Okay, well we can't afford a monster designer. So, in Spring, our creature was based out of nature. Right there are two reasons, two times we were broke and that's why we ended up channeling Lovecraft without trying.

Thirdly, it seems like deities and gods and monsters and entities – where everyone followed them in Lovecraft's world – it seems like they're forces that are older than say, for example, traditional religion. Or they exist outside. I think that's a thematic result of me – the screenwriter – being raised atheist. All these things come together into this big coincidence of our work being labeled "Lovecraft-y."

And the Linklater inspiration talk? I don't think Aaron had ever even seen a Linklater movie before we made our first two.

Aaron Moorhead: Correct. I watched the Before trilogy as we were doing post on Spring. I have a weird background where I was a movie maker before I was a fan of movies, and so I watched movies that everybody watched but not many more. Your Star Wars, Jurassic Park, all of that...

Justin Benson: Same here, yeah.

Aaron Moorhead: I was making movies in the same way that people watched movies and played video games. It was an activity for me and I loved it like that. But I wasn't watching other movies and saying "Let me do that," except for weirdly enough Star Wars. I just liked watching lightsabers fly around. This was sixth grade, give me a break. Or more sixth grade through age twenty-seven.

Who doesn't love lightsabers, that's nothing to be ashamed of.

Aaron Moorhead: My parents were similar movie watchers. They didn't do deep dives. We didn't have HBO, so whatever we were renting from Blockbuster was going to be something that all three of us agreed upon and was going to be a fun time for the evening. That was as far as decisions went. My library had one shelf and I'd seen them all. They were popular movies. I had to catch up on the classics throughout my twenties and I'm still working on it. I still haven't seen Thelma And Louise.

As someone in a similar situation I can appreciate that. 

Justin Benson: [To Aaron] You eventually watched the whole Before trilogy with your now current girlfriend and it was a bonding experience for you guys. Like, sincerely.

Aaron Moorhead: It was powerful magic. If you're just dating a girl casually on Tinder or something, don't turn on any kind of Linklater because you'll be stuck together. It's like doing mushrooms and you accidentally fuse yourselves.

The first Linklater I got my girlfriend to watch was Everybody Wants Some!!, so that was my high-level introduction. Not sure we're ready for the Before trilogy just yet.

Justin Benson: I don't have many inspirations that I can instinctually point to, but Linklater is an actual inspiration albeit through a different set of circumstances.

I grew up around Southern California counterculture where I wasn't highly aware of mainstream movies out in cinemas. I was spending most of my time going to all-ages punk or indie rock shows in San Diego and then spending all day at the beach with my friends. You end up in this weird part of society where you see billboards but I'm not with a group of people who are going to watch the new Star Wars movies.

What I did get exposed to, it'd be the girls I was dating and they'd ask "Hey, you wanna watch a movie?" It would be Dazed And Confused or Pulp Fiction or Chasing Amy or something like that. I was introduced to these movies that are not extremely deep cuts – mainstream indies – but that's all I really got in my adolescence.

That said, I can specifically remember watching Dazed And Confused and thinking "It's a stoner comedy, but whoever made this has something to say about rebellion." It's funny, there's stoner jokes, but Dazed And Confused ultimately cuts deep into the theme of conformity versus anti-conformity. That stuck with me.

Watching something like Before Sunrise where the draw of the movie is language, I could understand that. Fifteen-year-old me would be like, "I know I can't create a CG dinosaur, even though I think it looks really cool. I see people saying words and I relate with those words." I thought maybe I have the ability to do that. If I work really hard at it.

So now that the whole Linklater/Lovecraft thing is settled, what were the biggest influences on The Endless?

Aaron Moorhead: Well, to talk about The Endless is to also talk about our first movie Resolution because they share mythology. It's a little tough because I know there's some movies where even if we didn't grab some of the story, we grabbed elements from production. Justin and I watched The One I Love and Manson Family Vacation – Duplass-produced movies – and those are great. But, more interestingly, Manson Family Vacation was made for like fifty grand or close to that number. I don't know if The One I Love is much more, but I'm sure it's not. These movies tickle your brain and make you feel strong emotions, made for so very little. They helped us realize there's no reason to wait around for our larger projects to take fruition. Why don't we just go make one of those movies in the meantime. The Endless was a little piece of that.

Another really good movie to look at is Primer. Primer is made for nothing.

Justin Benson: This brings up an interesting pivot, too. We kind of made a mistake after Spring, where after Resolution there was an understanding. The reality of "Hey, no one's probably going to make a movie with us. We're going to have to do it ourselves again." We tried to get backing but everyone said no. That was expected.

After Spring we were relying a lot on "Oh, we could do something bigger. We could find a celebrity actor to be in it." – but, of course, that doesn't happen. Then we waited probably longer than we should have just to make another movie, and when you look at people like the Duplass Brothers, these are people who are way more successful than us. They're creating movies of equal scaled to The Endless and it took us a minute to realize what we should be doing. It's a little bit shameful if not wholly interesting, but we realized after Spring. Now moving onto our fourth feature we're like yeah, keep working at bigger stuff – but you're probably gonna have to make some more do-it-yourself movies.

Which has been a proven model for many "independent" directors on the scene today, yourselves included. Especially with such critical praisings, I think you both have a future with DIY or studio filmmaking alike.

Justin Benson: Oh, we've got a future. For sure. But I think it's about not getting caught in a trap waiting for opportunities to come along or green lights. Whether it's an actor or it's a producer or whatever it is, that's where you end up spinning your wheels for a year, two years, five years.

Aaron Moorhead: It's kind of an amazing realization because the thought was that it's either-or. Either you're just the guy that makes tiny movies, or you step up and helm blockbusters. In reality, you can make whatever movie you want to make while you're still doing the other. You're allowed to float between the two spaces. There's nobody saying what you can and can't do as long as you don't start making bad movies. That's the only thing that'll kill ya.

Do you think that VOD and Netflix coming into their own over the last few years has reshaped these "indie" territory lines you speak of? 

Aaron Moorhead: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Netflix and the Duplass Brothers have a long-standing deal. Netflix can take a lot of credit for their success and the Duplass' give it to them.

Also, there's very little financial backing behind independent releases right now. There's more of them, which is cool, but the budgets are miniscule. What the lifecycle used to look like is you didn't get a theatrical release, you go to Walmart's DVD bin and then your movie disappears forever. That was it. That was the life of an indie film that didn't get one of the thirty big indie releases that year. And how many indie releases do we have now?

Like 30 a week?

Aaron Moorhead: Exactly. Right now there's lots and lots of opportunity thanks to platforms like, and not just, Netflix. Your film can live on Amazon any time you want to go see it. That's pretty wonderful.

So, I'd like to try something if that's okay with you. I've picked some memorable scenes from The Endless, and I'm wondering if you can come up with a specific influence that you might not have noticed now looking back at your finished work. First off I have The Struggle: where your characters enter a literal tug-of-war against the unknown.

Justin Benson: It could be influenced by The Leftovers. What's Justin Theroux's girlfriend's name in it?

Aaron Moorhead: Nora.

Justin Benson: Right! So Nora's a skeptic investigator, debunking things. Our characters are like, "You have to come check out this thing," and she's just there staring off in the distance thinking, "It's pulling on a tree."

Aaron Moorhead: It's one of those just barely impossible, still possible kind of things.

I dig on that. Alright, how about your character Shitty Carl? Was he inspired by any other film even in the slightest?

Justin Benson: I remember writing the dialogue for Shitty Carl, thinking that this is one spot in The Endless where – man, I don't know if I should admit this – but I felt like I could write someone who had the rhythm and cadence and vocab of a Tarantino-esque character. They could talk fast and with lots of words because of a specific psychological state. The dialogue itself could be a bit more cinematic, rather than you're a fly on the wall just watching people talk. It was an opportunity for more stylization.

Aaron Moorhead: [To Justin] That's really interesting to hear you say because his last line is so poetic and neither of us flagged it. When characters start talking in something like poetry – the last line of this particular scene in reference is "It uses space and time as a horsewhip" – we would normally flag that. "No one ever says that." But it felt so right. Even knowing how that line was added when we were trying to make the scene more devastating at the end.

Justin Benson: Wait. This is a deep cut, but another inspiration for Shitty Carl was Ray McKinnon's character in the short film The Accountant. Anyone ever in the history of man should watch that short film, but it is very directly inspired. That's it. Shitty Carl is inspired by Ray McKinnon's character in The Accountant.

Let's keep it going – what about the lake dive scene. When Justin maybe finds something he didn't want to.

Justin Benson: Should I use the Twilight Zone here?

You tell me.

Justin Benson: I'm trying to think of movies about people with no money. It's like, what's a creepy gag that you can do almost for free?

Aaron Moorhead:  People are scared of the water.

Justin Benson: We don't know what happened while he was underwater. Even as someone who was raised basically in the ocean, I could be on a boat in a lake and I can look down and be like, "I'm really creeped out." I don't know what's down there.

Aaron Moorhead: The reason that we knew it would be effective is – well, have you ever been on the subreddit called Thalassophobia?

Can't say I have.

Aaron Moorhead: It's basically a phobia that means you're afraid of deep, dark water – which is one that everybody in the world has. The subreddit is basically a bunch of images of large creatures or you're a tiny person on the water, you look down and there's a deep crazy thing below.

Hell no.

Justin Benson: That fear is absolutely what our lake scene is.

So those are my big ones, but one more inspirational note I wanted to ask – Hefeweizen beer plays a large role in your Camp Arcadia community. Where did that come from?

Aaron Moorhead: I don't think that was a movie reference as much as it was poison Kool-Aid. There were two questions. One, can we use this as a red herring? Two, they need money, how do they make money?

Brewing is all the craze, makes sense. 

Justin Benson: Here's too on the nose – they brew Kool-Aid. Like, of course you don't do that. It's a beverage and it's within someone's claiming as a cult, so there would be this unnerving idea like what are they doing with that? And with Kool-Aid, you're never gonna export Kool-Aid. You don't have to. You just bring the powder in and put it in – but if you were making beer, you could be sinisterly exporting something. Poisoning people outside of the cult.

Aaron Moorhead: We know they have weird drugs at the camp.

Quite honestly, I'll admit that the whole exportation angle barely registered with me. That's a wonderful added layer.

Justin Benson: By the way – in terms of commerce and how Camp Arcadia makes money – there's a scene where Justin's running and he sees someone exporting the kegs. And by the way, the guy who's running the import/export at that point is Ted Tellensworth from Resolution – the mortgage broker guy. He is now doing the import/export of Arcadia's beer. I mean, we're not making this up. It's in the credits. There used to be a scene, we cut the dialogue. And the guy he's working with is Dale, and Dale was referenced in Spring and Resolution – but the scene got trimmed down to where it's just slow motion. I was so mad.

Aaron Moorhead: There's no way to catch it, we cut the scene.

Justin Benson: Oh! Another line that got cut in a previous version of the script was about how Shitty Carl used to run the import/export for Camp Arcadia, and that's how he found [redacted for spoilers].

Aaron Moorhead: He was basically exploiting Camp Arcadia for money.

Hence why he's Shitty Carl. 

Aaron Moorhead: Yes, he's the shittiest.

Do you ever see this world of Resolution, The Endless, and even Spring – now that you've mentioned further connections – being abandoned in your future work? Is your cinematic universe going to keep building throughout your career, or do you eventually want to move away?

Aaron Moorhead: We'll probably always wink at it whenever we're allowed to and it's appropriate. We would never want to isolate an audience that has no idea who we are – which is everybody – but we're definitely not done. It's gonna be quite a few years – or as a tv show, hopefully – but it'll be quite a few years before we make another feature in this world. We'd need to figure out what else we want to say and what other facet of this mythology we didn't explore because in some ways, The Endless exorcised demons from Resolution of the topics we didn't get to talk about. We got to "kitchen sink" it in some ways, where The Endless was all the fun stuff about Resolution that we didn't have the budget or time or plot for. There's more. There's for sure more. The universe is starting to exist a little outside of ourselves. I'd be curious to see what people would write if they started penning fan fiction.

Ha, Benson & Moorhead fan fic.

Aaron Moorhead: We've heard Resolution sequel pitches over the years from friends or random people – not that we'd actually act on them. It was always so fascinating to hear what other people would do. But also, as corny as it sounds – and it's gonna sound real "filmmakery" and "writery" – is the amount that we talk about characters and mythology just on our own when we're traveling together. It's almost like these ideas exist in the ether somewhere and the stories want to be told.

You'd never be comfortable handing over a feature to someone who has a great idea for a sequel to one of your movies like mentioned above?

Aaron Moorhead: No. Spring in particular. That's the most terrifying idea I've ever

Justin Benson: Show me the dollar signs before we say definitively, but yeah I would say no.

OK, you'll both always captain this ship.

Justin: I mean, look. If Jeremy Saulnier came up to us and was like "I've got a great idea," I'd hear it.

Aaron Moorhead: That would be the weirdest business meeting.

Justin Benson: I can just imagine Saulnier being like, "Hey guys, I know this is weird, but I wanna do a sequel to Spring."

Aaron Moorhead: "Oh okay, cool cool. That's rad. Can we like do a sequel to Blue Ruin?" [As Jeremy Saulnier] "Absolutely not."

Justin Benson: Actually, here's one circumstance. A writer's room on a TV show, that would be fascinating. A certain guided writer's room where you could at least enforce the show's parameters, but still them plan it.

So my last question is something that I like to ask most creators out of curiosity. If you could remake any property and give it your style, what would it be?

Aaron Moorhead: There's two of us so we get two, right?

By all means.

Aaron Moorhead: Not that they did it wrong, but we would have a different approach to Preacher.

Justin: Or also [The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger].

Aaron Moorhead: Oh, I'm sorry. Yeah, hang on. I will say [The Dark Tower] did that all wrong! And I don't say that often.

Justin Benson: We would basically do just [The Gunslinger], but change very little. We would take the book, and we would make a movie out of the book. We wouldn't change a thing.

Aaron Moorhead: I think we'd only adapt something if it doesn't need significant changes. We don't really believe in "good idea, bad execution" in its original format. Normally the execution and the idea have to go hand-in-hand to even enjoy it in the first place. That could be a staggering lack of imagination on my part?

That's a bit like Elijah Wood who said he wanted to remake Explorers because he's like, "I love Explorers and I would want whole new audiences to discover it with an update." 

Justin Benson: You know what would be interesting for conversation? I'm not saying necessarily remake the movie, but The Beach. I wouldn't say that's a bad movie at all. It's Danny Boyle, one of our greatest living filmmakers. It's source novelization by Alex Garland, one of our greatest living geniuses. Adapted by John Hodge, who adapted Trainspotting. That should be one of the best films ever made. I want them to do that again – but not the same.

I want all those same people to look at the material after stepping back for ten years. Given the ingredients, that movie should be, like, Almost Famous or something. Where people gush, "I watched that movie over and over and over, that's an amazing."

Did I mention it stars Leonardo DiCaprio, one of our greatest living actors?

Sounds like that could have been a hidden influence somehow?

Aaron Moorhead: Would that makes sense? Of course, we're not reallying diving into like 80's horror. We dive into whatever's weird and esoteric.

Oh, 100%. Your films are dictated by preferences. I would never pin you guys for slasher fans, because that's not the route your stories go. 

Justin Benson: I think it's funny. Aaron was saying this week how The Devil's Rejects is clearly a great film with a tremendous legacy. He was like, "I know I should re-watch the The Devil's Rejects" – but I know what Aaron was doing instead. He was sitting at his computer crying watching 20th Century Women. I'm not joking.

Aaron Moorhead: I'm extremely proud of it. It's just kind of an odd thing where I know 20th Century Women can make me cry – why I am gonna re-watch another movie?

There's not an ounce of shame or judgement, here. Don't worry.

***

The Endless is already out in New York City and opens in Los Angeles today. It will be expanding wider in the coming weeks.