IN CONVERSATION WITH AARON MOORHEAD AND JUSTIN BENSON
THE ENDLESS tells the story of Justin and Aaron, two brothers who are former members of a UFO death cult. Receiving a mysterious videotape in the mail invites them back to attend an event called The Ascension, and in spite of initial reluctance, Justin agrees to return for one day only. In conversation with FrightFest, writer and directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, who also play the film’s two protagonists discussed audience expectations, film authorship and aspiration.
FrightFest: Why film making as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Moorhead: When I was in sixth grade, my friends Julian and Aaron Higgins showed me their stop-action STAR WARS films, and I saw magic. I had no idea how on earth they were doing it and I needed them to teach me right then. Immediately after I saved up all my pennies for a year to buy a cheap camera to make my own films, and burned through so many bad short films every week that you'd swear I was being paid to do it. It was a watershed moment where I decided, as a child, what I wanted to do with my life, and that ended up actually being the case.
Benson: I was in high school and a girl I was dating showed me PULP FICTION, DAZED AND CONFUSED and the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. I remember thinking there was magic in the language of these films, and it just seemed like something I had to make an attempt at.
FrightFest: Rarely do audiences enter a film without expectations, although in the cinema there is a little bit of gamesmanship where you can either play to or subvert expectations. How do you feel about expectations? And as film is made for an audience, is it inevitable that you are aware of the audience and their expectations?
Moorhead & Benson: When no one had seen anything we'd made before, everyone who walked into our films had no expectations whatsoever. So we weren't very concerned with anyone's preconceptions, and besides that, we hoped we'd made a film that's at least good. But there are genre expectations and to some degrees you deliver on them, and others you avoid. It's not that we're ever being actively subversive or commenting on a genre. Whenever we see something familiar, we just want to go the other way. The best way to make a film is probably to keep one eye on your audience's expectations, and one eye on whatever movie you want to make, and then make sure that you'd want to sit in your own audience so those two sentiments align.
FrightFest: Film is a collaborative art form and the idea that a film can be by one person or a couple undermines this collaboration. Do you believe the auteur theory to be valid, and if it is, does it require revision? I ask this because I remember you referring to the Coen Brothers and how you'd like your films to not be spoken of as the stories that they are, but to focus on you as storytellers.
Moorhead & Benson: To clarify that last bit, it's not about how we're talked about, it's about genre marketing. All of our films have been described as "genre-bending", which is very difficult for marketing teams to convince audiences to see. Ideally, we avoid having to get people to go see a film because it's a sci-fi or a horror - the end game is that we'd rather people just think: I want to see it because it's a Moorhead & Benson film. So you don't fight the constant marketing stigma of making a film that sits in between genres. No one asks what genre a Coen brothers film is, you just want to see it if you like their films.
As for the auteur theory, valid but needs revision. There's certainly a gap between the work of P.T. Anderson and franchise movies that have interchangeable directors, and it's okay to categorise them as different things. But a lot of things are often ascribed to genius that actually comes down to good taste, having like-minded collaborators, or even dumb luck. We tend to prefer to watch films that have a stronger point of view, where you can feel the hand and expression of the creator a bit more, but that's also personal preference. There's an argument to be made that if you can feel the hand of the creator, it's doing disservice to the story.
FrightFest: Speaking with Carol Morley for THE FALLING, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Moorhead & Benson: That’s a beautiful way of putting it, and we’d like to believe that. So far though, the public response to our movies has been about we expected, and luckily that first screenings have always had very few surprises in terms of the way the audience connects with the material... where they laugh, get tense, and so forth.
FrightFest: Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the film making process, and do you think the audience should be transformed by the experience of watching a film?
Moorhead & Benson: The most successful you can feel about a film is when people say they kept thinking about the film after it’s over. It’s certainly possible to be transformed by a film, but we have no idea if an audience has been transformed by a film we’ve made. It’s certainly something to aim for.
THE ENDLESS is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video.
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