The films of directing duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead — whose latest supernatural thriller, "The Endless," opens in Los Angeles on Friday — suggest a familiarity with compulsive and darkly manipulative human behavior. In contrast, their creative partnership looks almost suspiciously healthy.
Upon arriving at Benson's Laurel Canyon apartment on a recent Sunday morning, I learn that Moorhead lives just downstairs. It could be an efficient way of maintaining creative flow. They also seem like genuinely good friends.
"We don't really disagree very much." Moorhead said. "We add to each other and challenge each other, but we don't really fight or have strongly different opinions."
So what's the secret?
"It's like asking what's the secret to a healthy marriage. A lot of people will answer something like 'compromise.' That's not it for us. If we had to compromise a lot, we wouldn't be working together."
Moorhead and Benson's three low-budget features find unsettling and inventive ways to escape genre classification. "Resolution" (2012) is an emotionally direct drama about friendship and addiction, as well as a time-bending, cabin-in-the-woods thriller in which one character spends the entire film chained to the wall. "Spring" (2014) is a talky, "Before Sunrise"-esque European romance, and also, incidentally, a monster movie. "The Endless," a nervy drama about two brothers returning to a cult they escaped as children, slyly returns to the cosmology (and characters) of their debut — but it's nothing like a sequel. (A good thing, since almost nobody saw "Resolution.")
Finding an audience for these projects has sometimes been a challenge. "Marketing departments and distribution companies are not really equipped to deal with things that don't fit into very traditional boxes," Benson said.
"Our movies are all mysteries," Moorhead added. "When you realize you can start pitching it like that — a man goes to Italy and meets a woman with a dark secret; two brothers return to a cult and their beliefs might not be so strange; a man chains up his friend and time is manipulated — and it leaves a little hanging thing that doesn't tell you what the movie's really about, but still gets you in the mood for something unnerving; people respond well to that."
One common critical descriptor for Moorhead & Benson's work is "Lovecraftian." In a 2016 tweet, recent Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro called "Spring" "one of the best horror films of the decade. And the only Lovecraftian film that has blown me away."
The compliment left the duo feeling grateful — and a little sheepish. "The sad thing is, we didn't even know who [H.P.] Lovecraft was until three or four years into our partnership," Benson said. "Maybe we're not the most cultured people in the world."
"You'll find that we have extremely commercial backgrounds and tastes," Moorhead said. "If you asked me in the year 2001 what my favorite movie is, I'd probably say 'Pirates of the Caribbean.' We'd love to make big commercial movies someday, but they just have to not be terrible. They still have to be left of center, and have a voice."
The two first met several years ago as interns at Ridley Scott's commercial production company. Aaron's first day was Justin's last day. "We just happened to sit at the same table and realized that we both really like Stephen King, and had a respect for a lot of movies that people dislike, and that was it," Moorhead said.
Benson was preparing for medical school but had a year to kill before the first day of class, and cash saved up from bartending. He decided to "write a script to accommodate the amount of money in my checking account," he said. "That was 'Resolution.' Somehow it got into Tribeca [Film Festival], and it sold and got pretty good reviews, and then we had careers."
Benson was called to the living room, where his dad, visiting from San Diego, was sitting at a computer. Asked what he thought about his son ditching medical school, Dad answered: "I thought it was good."
"Thank God we have more indie filmmakers than doctors," Moorhead added.
Though the co-directors adhere to a certain division of duty — Justin writes the scripts, Aaron does cinematography and visual effects — they describe the entire process as a collaboration.
In "The Endless," Moorhead and Benson take the teamwork a step further by casting themselves in the lead roles as brothers named Aaron and Justin. Moorhead is the quiet, wounded soul who falls under the sway of the cult's inviting aura, and Benson is the protective, anger-prone skeptic.
"We don't really share that relationship at all," Moorhead said. "He's not an alpha-male domineering jerk, and I'm not a milquetoast whatever."
The new film is perhaps their most outwardly ambitious to date, but every one of their projects uses impressively thrifty special effects to tackle cosmic ideas.
"Our budgets are part of the creative process," Benson said. "The resources we have create the parameters of what we can do. And there's a ton of creative decisions that happen because of the limitations."
Noted Moorhead: "We often quite literally have a list of the things we have available, while writing. "The Endless" especially — we can get this cabin, we can get this camp, we can do some visual effects, he's capable of swimming ... all of those things were things that were available."
Moorhead and Benson do have bigger-budget projects in development at networks and studios, but they say they're in no rush to stop creating their own opportunities.
"I am such a happy person right now," Moorhead said. "If a time traveler comes to visit and says, 'Aaron, you're only going to make microbudget features for the rest of your life,' I'd be like: 'That's OK. I'm making the things I want to make and living a good life.' But we will always try to reach a bigger audience.
Right now, when someone asks 'Have I seen your movies?' I say 'probably not.' Or 'maybe.' But I hope with the next one I can say 'probably.'"