Generating new ideas, especially in the horror genre and faced with a tight budget, is an immense challenge. But it’s far from insurmountable, and few filmmakers prove this fact more consistently than Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead. The genre-bending duo made a name for themselves with RESOLUTION and SPRING, two of the most heartfelt, uniquely subversive horror films of the past decade. And according to an interview conducted last year by ScreenCraft’s Ken Miyamoto, they’re just getting started: “On a long enough timeline, we’ll just be making Moorhead & Benson films, and no one will worry about whether or not we blended genres.”
With their newest work, THE ENDLESS, Benson & Moorhead have elevated their craft even further. The Script Lab recently had the chance to catch up with the duo at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal to learn how they create their beautiful, terrifying stories in the earliest stage: screenwriting.
Throughout RESOLUTION and SPRING, you’ve woven folklore and concepts that are unique to your stories. What is your process for inventing these ideas, specifically for the entity in this film?
JUSTIN BENSON: Thank you, we’re very excited! It seems like this one is going to hit with a broader audience than our first two films without compromising our aims as storytellers. It feels a bit like we’ve become more and more mainstream on our own terms. The process is really just living life and pursuing strange interests — researching stuff like obscure spiritual movements, strange theoretical physics, reading books about interesting people, and living a life that allows for the material to accumulate.
Aaron and I have a mostly unspoken criteria for moving forward with an idea, which is basically that it won’t move forward unless there’s something innovative about it. There is the belief that every story has been told, which is true in a general sense, but there’s tons of new ideas to be discovered and explored. It’s been neat to see in the last few years so many genre filmmakers telling stories beyond the realm of zombies, ghosts and vampires, and we’ve seen the business side somewhat open up to doing stuff that is more unique and forward thinking.
Interestingly enough, the entity in this movie was invented in our first film RESOLUTION, but this movie puts on display and dramatizes the ways in which the entity operates a lot more. Having 6 years to think about how we could give people the rare thrill of feeling intense unease, mostly through being clearer on how this thing operates, was a big part of the process. And then in general, I’ve always admired the origins and evolution of things like vampire folklore, just would rather invent something new while aiming for the same level of resonance.
AARON MOORHEAD: Bizarrely, both Justin and I have separately and together felt a bit of a moral imperative to invent new myths rather than using old ones. We’ve used well-tread-ground as red herrings (like indie thriller tropes in RESOLUTION, classic movie/literature monsters in SPRING, and cults in THE ENDLESS), but what our movies ultimately end up being about is something that, at least we hope, is fresh. There’s no helping the fact that we’re partially a product of our environment, so sure, some Stephen King, some Lovecraft, some Fortean Times and such will peek into what we make, but we hope that it just proves that in some ways we’re kindred spirits with the creators that we love rather than copycats.
The most stimulating part of our process (which looks a whole lot like two over-caffeinated or whiskey-buzzed men sitting around a small table talking excitedly to each other, or like Justin sitting alone at his computer being glad I’m not talking) is always exploring the central character dynamic — but it’s the dynamic in the face of the situation that the mythology creates. THE ENDLESS’ brother relationship only has hope of progressing or being brought to a resolution because of the mythology. The romance in Spring doesn’t exist without the mythology (nor does the conflict).
Of course, cool mythology is nothing without great characters, and that’s one of the most striking aspects of your writing. Which comes first – character or concept – and how do you bring them together?
JB & AM: Concept and characters usually happen about the same time actually. For example, with SPRING the very first idea was that there would be a woman who metabolizes her own embryonic stem cells to remain immortal. And then the very next thought is that process requires sex, which can be an act of love, so it’s a romance, with a woman who is several millennia old, in a place with tons of history and myth, which means it’s probably somewhere sort of exotic. While we’re at it let’s make that place somewhere gorgeous so it amplifies the grotesque, and a man going through a rough spot in his life would disappear to a place like this and be vulnerable to an odd romance, and onward from there.
With THE ENDLESS the conception was also character and concept simultaneously, as we always wondered what happened to those guys in the cult in RESOLUTION, and given the mythology that we knew very well but wasn’t so conspicuous in RESOLUTION, their story quickly came to light when we decided to put that mythology on display in a movie in that world.
How do you personally create such complex and interesting protagonists; and did writing your cinematic doppelgängers change your approach or process at all?
JB: Most of the main characters I’ve written have been inspired by my mom in some way, strangely enough. She passed away while we were making THE ENDLESS, but so much of the complexity in the main characters in RESOLUTION, SPRING and THE ENDLESS came from going through tragedy, addiction, and mental health struggles with her, which she very admirably struggled with. So, she’s responsible in so many ways for all these characters that people love. It also comes from a decade of failing at making a living as a filmmaker, so working lots of different side jobs to make a living and getting to know the people in those worlds.
I have a theory that the best writers are people who aren’t able to make a living at it until later in life. The longer it takes the better off you’ll be. Everything in filmmaking is hard and takes a long time to get good at, but writing is the one that time specifically living life while doggedly doing it non-stop will get you much further than studying technique. The hard knocks of life, and of course the good stuff and getting to know yourself and other humans on a deep level, provide a voice to you writing that can’t be faked or taught in a class.
The only difference in writing for us as performers is it was the only time besides RESOLUTION where I knew who the actors were before putting pen to page, so I could write to our very specific abilities. I literally had Aaron send me a list of all the talents he has that I don’t know about. That knot he ties during the struggle came off that list! It’s pretty weird though to see how different those characters we play in THE ENDLESS are compared to who we are in real life. I know it must seem like “no shit that’s acting dude,” but when we were editing we started referring to ourselves on screen in the 3rd person, because very early on we completely and naturally dissociated from them as being the same humans as us in any way.
AM: I’ll just jump in to back up the second part — we developed it to play to our abilities in weird little ways. In real life Justin’s a good swimmer so we knew that scene wouldn’t be impossible, I’m an Eagle Scout so I have weird little outdoorsy abilities, I love karaoke but suck at it, Justin likes going for runs, and so on. It was also written to accommodate our mythology from RESOLUTION, characters (and thus actors) from that world, the locations we knew existed, and the most successful types of visual effects I can do myself.
The worry with having laid out such a big toolkit in front of oneself before writing is that it’ll feel plug-and-play or episodic, where you just try to use up all the cool little things we have before you get to the end of the script, but there’s something miraculous about the way Justin threads it all together to make it feel like it was all destined to happen and it builds to a very natural and satisfying crescendo rather than just stringing together.
What draws you to write about these grand mysteries, and how do you ground them in reality?
JB & AM: Mystery gives the thrill of feeling uneasy and scared. People watch TV and movies to have that roller coaster ride. The reason why low budget genre films can break out without having stars or huge spectacles, like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or THE BABADOOK or IT FOLLOWS, is because they provide that fun ride of being actually scared. Providing the excitement of real fear is something way more complicated than a jump scare, and probably the most challenging thing to do in cinema.
In terms of grounding them, a lot of it is just the way our brains works. Neither of us are excited by conventional movie moments or homage or nostalgia, so we tend to default to it feeling like it can actually happen in real life, even if it’s supernatural. And then of course lived-in relationships ground our films too, as well as well-placed understated humor, people expressing themselves the way they do in real life, or expressing thoughts we have in real life, rather than responding to situations as a movie archetype would.
In the end, these are all stories about love – whether it be between friends, partners or brothers. How do love and terror connect for you thematically, and emotionally?
JB & AM: Well, the act of loving is probably the the most important thing you’ll do in your life. It’s the most profound thing your parents teach you. I think the fact that it exists is the most miraculous thing about us, and the loss of something you love is the most universally terrifying thing we all face as humans. So there’s that. I find love to be a more potent, and even more populist emotion than emotions more directly connected to violence. Then there’s also the fact that to love is to be human, and if characters lack humanity you have no stakes or tension because the audience won’t care what happens to them.
Finally, what is your advice to other filmmakers regarding crafting these complex screenplays for limited budgets? How do you approach these limitations without sacrificing story?
JB: Well this is really boring, but seriously, write for locations that you can have for free and FX that in a worse-case scenario you at least can pull off cheaply. Location fees are one of the biggest budget drains, and bad practical FX or VFX will ruin your film. After 3 indie features, though, I’ve literally never been in a situation where limitations made a story worse. My writing brain works much better having practical parameters on the story. This drives some producers crazy, but producing our films and the concerns that come with that has become very much a part of our creative process.
Also, dialogue that crackles and gives a chuckle, ideas that get under an audience’s skin, and a tone that gives the thrill of unease, are all nearly free. It all requires that you dig in and hone it for years and years, and sometimes means abandoning instincts to pay homage to the really big budget stuff you grew up with, but we’re in an exciting time in indie film where you’re more likely than ever to get your vision on screen. That time it takes, even if it’s decades to learn your craft and get your stuff seen, it’s totally doable now and infinitely rewarding.
AM: If you wanted to be super-analytical about it, you can make a list, before you even come up with the concept, of all of the resources at your disposal. Money sources, locations, actors, friends that will help, industry professionals, specific skills you have or events that are near you that you can shoot secretly. Then make a list next to it about the kinds of ideas/stories/characters that inspire you. Then stare at it forever and try to figure out how those lists plug together. That’ll get your movie made, quickly, effectively, and most importantly, with the least amount of compromise, so you’re speaking with your purest voice without feeling the need to apologize for the things you wish you had but didn’t.