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.
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