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Complicated Grief: Ari Aster on Hereditary‘s Family Nightmare

Milly Shapiro, Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff in Hereditary (Photo by James Minchin, courtesy of A24)

There are films that scare you, and then there are films that do something more. The former are easy to name—maybe you remember a particular jump scare or chilling scene—but the latter are more difficult to describe. These are films that dig deep into your subconscious, films that identify a weakness or fear and prey upon that with their cinematic imagination. You’ll remember scenes from these movies in detail, too, but also how old you were, and where you were, and what was going on in your life when you saw them. You’ll remember how they made you feel, and what they revealed to you about yourself.

I suspect for today’s generation of moviegoers growing up in this new Golden Age of Horror, when films are suspenseful, surprising, inventive, but not always scary and disturbing, Ari Aster’s Hereditary will be such a film. Because it’s best to know as little as possible going in, I’ll err on the side of brevity here by saying simply that the movie focuses on a well-off family living in a beautiful Utah home—Annie (Toni Collette), her husband (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son (Alex Wolff) and daughter (Milly Shapiro)—following the death of Annie’s sinister, controlling mother. Annie is an artist who makes precise little dioramas that are like tabletop versions of Gregory Crewdson photographs, and in the days following the funeral, while visions of her mother haunt the house, her art takes a more darkly unsettling turn. Soon, the grandmother’s legacy—and the implications of the film’s title—becomes horrifyingly clear, affecting each family member in the most devastatingly cruel of ways.

Hereditary is AFI grad Aster’s first feature, and it’s an astonishingly accomplished work shot (by Pawel Pogorzelski) with real formal assurance. (No lazy handheld here!) The actors are across the board superb, registering all shades of grief and trauma from the hysterical to the emotionally shut down. There are several images that will rank with the most vividly upsetting you’ll see on screen this year even as, for me, the most horrifying shot was nothing more than an extended close-up of a teenage boy lying in bed one bright spring morning.

If Aster is a new filmmaking name to you, that may be because you haven’t seen his unforgettable 2011 short, The Strange Thing about the Johnsons. (It’s available online.) The story of a son’s years-long repeated rape and abuse of his father, Johnsons delivered a queasily provocative kick by way of seemingly color-blind casting, a button push that anticipates today’s dialogue around “cultural appropriation.” Below, I get to know Aster, his path toward making the year’s scariest film and his thoughts on movies that feel evil.

Hereditary is in theaters June 8 from A24.

Filmmaker: This is your first feature. Tell me about your background. How did you get into film?

Aster: I’ve always been obsessed with film. I think it began for me when I was really, really young. The clearest path to making a movie if you’re really young is, “Oh, I want to be an actor.” So, I guess I wanted to be an actor until I was about 12, and then—I think it was while watching Goodfellas—I became very aware of somebody who isn’t on screen who is orchestrating the experience. I wanted to do that. 

Filmmaker: Where’d you grow up?

Aster: I was in born in New York, and then I spent a few years in England when I was very young. The majority of my adolescence was spent in New Mexico. I was there through middle school, high school and college, and then I moved to Los Angeles to attend AFI.

Filmmaker: And what do your parents do?

Aster: My mother is a poet who used to be a visual artist, and my father is a jazz drummer. So, I was raised by artists. But I wasn’t somebody who was making 8mm movies in my backyard. I was just writing scripts from when I was about 12 or 13.

Filmmaker: Were you reading screenplays or books, or were you self-taught?

Aster: When I was writing scripts in high school and junior high, I was kind of only reading screenplays. I was reading Paddy Chayefsky and exhausting the archives on [Drew’s] Script-o-Rama or SimplyScripts. Before college, I had written five feature scripts that I’ll never make, all in different genres. The one constant was that they all sort of played in the dark comedy space. They were all pretty derivative. I’d become obsessed with a particular film, and then I’d want to make that film. Like, I had my 1930s Depression-era gangster movie, which I can trace back to seeing Miller’s Crossing, or White Heat or The Cotton Club. Then I had this extremely dark family drama, and that was derivative of what was happening in 1990s independent film—subversive family dramas like Happiness or American Beauty. I started writing a lot of ensemble things because I got really into Altman for a time. I struck up a friendship with Joan Tewkesbury, who wrote Thieves Like Us and Nashville. She lives in New Mexico, and she was writing plays out there. I gave her my scripts to read, and she gave me notes, and then she invited me to rehearsals for a play she was putting on. 

Filmmaker: OK, so let’s jump forward to AFI. Tell me about making The Strange Thing about the Johnsons there. 

Aster: It was a bit of an uphill battle to make it there politically.

Filmmaker: Was it a black family in the script?

Aster: No. When it became clear that’s how I was going to cast the film, some supporters became a little bit less supportive, while others remained just as supportive.

Filmmaker: What motivated that casting decision, then?

Aster: Part of it was that I wanted to cast my friend, Brandon Greenhouse, who is a brilliant actor I had worked with in college. And so, if I’m going to cast as the son my friend, who’s black, that means the family’s black. Once I had made the decision to cast a black family, then this interesting debate emerged about whether that was OK or not. The color of the family in that film was strictly incidental, had nothing to do with the story, but it would be disingenuous to say that the film is totally color blind. That question alone became really interesting to me: Is it OK for a white guy to make a film about black people that isn’t about their blackness, that isn’t in any way patronizing, and that skirts politics but at the same time is an ugly portrait of humanity? Can you do that without being political? 

Filmmaker: Did that become an exciting thing for you, that level of provocation?

Aster: Yes.

Filmmaker: And how about after you made it?

Aster: Well, after I made it, it had a modest festival run that peaked at the New York Film Festival. We were planning to continue that run and then, out of nowhere, it was leaked online—by whom, I don’t know—and became this viral sensation. It was leaked onto WorldStarHipHop with a very provocative title that presented the film in exactly the way that I would not have wanted it to be presented—something like, “White man makes film about black incest.” Then, suddenly, for a while, it felt like the wrong kind of provocation. 

Filmmaker:The Strange Thing about the Johnsons was your thesis film at AFI, and you made more shorts after that. Just on your own to develop filmmaking chops?

Aster: Yeah. I made a short called Munchausen, which was a formal experiment. It’s a silent, live-action cartoon that begins like a Disney movie before twisting into something darker, without ever losing that Disney aesthetic. Then I made a few portrait shorts—meticulously composed series of tableaux in which a character directly addresses the viewer and describes their life. The idea was, they’re running the show, and they’re telling us what they want us to know, but over the course of the short, they expose more than they’re probably even privy to.

Filmmaker: And how did Hereditary become the first film? Were there multiple scripts and you picked one, or was it always going to be this one?

Aster: Well, the reason I was making those shorts is because I was writing so many scripts and trying to get those made, and in the meantime I just wanted to keep honing my craft as a director. Hereditary was something like my ninth or tenth script, and the decision to write it was sort of a strategic one. There were a few features that I almost got up and running, but they fell just short. You learn, as an aspiring filmmaker, to never trust anything that seems to be on the tracks.

Filmmaker: Why did these films fall apart?

Aster: You’ll get producers on board, but then they can’t raise the financing, and maybe they can’t raise the financing because you’re planning on attaching an actor beforehand. But then you get enough actors turning it down that either the producers get cold feet or the movie just sort of loses steam. There were two features in particular that I thought were going to go before Hereditary. But again, the decision to write Hereditary was sort of a strategic one because I figured that it would be easier to get a horror movie made, and my intuition proved right.

Filmmaker: You didn’t mention horror films earlier. Was horror a genre you were interested in?

Aster: When I was much younger, between, say, 10 and 13, I was obsessed with horror films. I had this totally morbid fascination with the macabre. I had this binder filled with images from horror films that I printed from the internet. It was a compulsive thing—I would just add [images] to it but never look at it. 

Filmmaker: What are some of your favorite horror movies?

Aster: I love Rosemary’s Baby—there are some big nods to that at the end [of Hereditary]. I love Don’t Look Now, which I see this film as being a spiritual sibling to. Tonally, Nic Roeg is somebody whose films made a very serious impression on me from an early age. His sense of the elliptical is really, really fascinating to me. He has this amazing sense for the fragmentary—his films often play like memory. I love, on just the level of atmosphere, The Shining. I really love Jack Clayton’s film, The Innocents. There’s a long list of Japanese horror films that I love, like Kwaidan, Onibaba, Kuroneko, Empire of Passion and Ugetsu.
And then, beyond Ugetsu, I just love Mizoguchi a lot. He’s somebody who I’m always thinking about. I was really taken with this brilliant South Korean film, The Wailing. I really liked The Witch. I can say that the goal with Hereditary was to make a horror film that I would want to see. I wanted to make a horror film that would scare me, and I wanted to root it in things that really trouble me and bother me.

Filmmaker: And what are those things? 

Aster: What are my fears? [long silence] Just like everybody else, I would say I have fears of abandonment. I have fears of losing my quality of life, my body breaking down. I have fears of, if not abandonment, then losing somebody I care about because of something I have done. Fears of harming somebody in my life, be it intentionally or unintentionally. I have fears that I have no control over, like fears of disaster, which is more of a philosophical problem—like, my glass is half empty. I think a big part of the film is a fear of the intentions of others because, ultimately, it is a film about a conspiracy as seen from the perspective of the unknowing victims of that conspiracy. 

Filmmaker: I was going to ask you whether you saw yourself in the teenage son character, but some of those fears you just listed are dispersed among the different characters. Fear of abandonment is referenced by the sister very early on.

Aster: Yeah. I see myself in all the characters, and none of the characters are surrogates for anybody in my family or myself. They’re all total inventions. It was just really important to me that I attend to the family drama first, and that I honor whoever those people were first, and then have all the horror elements emerge from that, and only if those elements were organic to the story and coming out of that dilemma at the heart of the film.

So often I’ll go to a horror film and there will be moments that get to me, and imagery I might find disturbing, but I feel let off the hook. Like, “OK, you get your spike of adrenaline. You go on the roller coaster, and you can leave. Don’t worry about it. You can brush off the experiences.” But the films that really stayed with me as a kid, that really haunted me, upset me—and they were the films I was always looking for and at the same time was always kind of hoping I wouldn’t [find because they] provoked feelings that I wasn’t able to immediately resolve as a kid—had maybe more of a malicious streak. I hated them as a kid because I hated what they did to me.

Filmmaker: Were those some of the ones you mentioned?

Aster: Well, no, actually. All of those I found to be really fun. The films that really upset me, I can’t even put on the list, somehow, because of my relationship to them.

Filmmaker: Can you say what some of them were?

Aster: Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, which isn’t technically a horror film, but it feels evil to me. Brian De Palma’s Carrie—I do love that film, but I saw it when I was 13. It didn’t really scare me while I was watching it, but later I was walking through the house in the dark to get water in the middle of the night, and I kept projecting images from that film onto the walls, which is what happened later with The Cook, The Thief. It was this masochistic thing, where once you’ve done it once, then your mind keeps reminding you to do it again. I’d race to get to my bed, and then I had a hard time going to the bathroom at night or getting water at night for a few years because I couldn’t trust myself to not project those images into the dark. Especially images from Carrie—Piper Laurie chasing her daughter around the house with this giddy, ecstatic smile on her face. That taps into something so primal.

Filmmaker: Is that the effect that you want this film to have on your audience?

Aster: I guess so. It’s funny, I screened The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover to the crew before I made The Strange Thing about the Johnsons but not before Hereditary. I was certainly thinking about that film, though, and especially the way that Peter Greenaway plays with artifice. I’ve always had a thing for Brechtian distancing effects. I feel that if they’re done well—if the story and performances are really compelling—then they make the film so much more vivid. Like, for instance, Dogville is a film that I’ll never shake, and I wonder what I would think of it if it were not set on a bare stage. The Cook, the Thief is this really, really monstrous vision of humanity. It’s so clinical, and all the characters are so remote, except for the one who’s the most vile. He’s the one character who is, to a certain degree, charismatic, who has any life, despite the fact that he is absolutely the grossest person ever depicted on screen. Everybody else feels like they are just a part of this tableau that Peter Greenaway is building. He was a painter before he became a filmmaker, and that’s very apparent. Even just down to Sacha Vierny’s very sickly, theatrical lighting, and those dollhouse sets where the colors are very rich but they’re also over rich—the colors themselves are getting sick. I know that film was rated NC-17 for tone. That makes total sense when you see the film because it is just feels evil.

Filmmaker: Your interest in Brechtian distancing effects is evidenced by the first shot of the movie, which sets up the camera as having this pitiless point-of-view on these tiny characters on a stage. 

Aster: Yeah, the miniatures were sort of serving as a running metaphor for what’s happening in the film, which becomes very apparent by the end: These are people with no agency who are being manipulated by outside forces, like dolls in a dollhouse.

Filmmaker: This idea of a film feeling evil—if that was your intent, what does your set feel like? Is it a place of dread, or are you calling cut and everyone’s laughing and slapping each other on the back?

Aster: Well, my first note to Colin Stetson, who did the score, was that I wanted the score to feel evil. It really only made sense for me to give him that piece of direction. Nobody else perceived that, but yes, there was sort of an aim there to make something that felt dangerous, like something that you shouldn’t be ingesting—something that’s toxic and you shouldn’t be letting it into you. On set, I can say we were having fun, but when you’re asking actors to go that deep—like, for instance, Alex Wolff, who plays Peter, he really dives in head first. He essentially was Peter for a month and a half. That’s a lot of fun for a director because you get to basically talk to the character, but you also have a responsibility to honor what he’s going through. Toni [Collette] was also throwing herself headlong into the part, but she has a different discipline than Alex in that she can turn it on and off. We were all having a blast, but the atmosphere was heavy. We’re aiming for a very, very narrow target, and so it requires real focus.

Filmmaker: The most horrifying sequence for me occurs after the party. When Peter drives up and walks into the house, I just went, “Oh, no.” I was expecting a scene we’ve seen before—the dark exterior of the house, the lights flicking on, screams and cries. But instead, he just goes to bed, and you hold on him, and then it’s morning, and you’re still holding on him. Nothing’s been revealed, and it’s even more horrifying. That’s something you do throughout the movie—set up sequences that have certain expected denouements in terms of their shooting and coverage, and then you do them in a way that seems wrong but is actually right. The teenage son not saying anything at that moment is so wrong, but then it also feels right. 

Aster: Yeah, like, how do you face that? You don’t. You shut down, and you compartmentalize it because the brain can’t process what just happened.

Filmmaker: Did you shot list that scene the way it is in the film? Do you have other coverage? Did you shoot Toni’s side of the scene outside on the driveway?

Aster: No, I don’t shoot coverage. Everything you’re seeing is how I planned it. The way I work is, usually before I talk to anybody on the crew, I have composed a shot list, and then we go scouting, looking for locations that will accommodate the shot list. In this case, we couldn’t find a location that accommodated the shot list, so we built all the interiors—the bottom floor, the second floor, the attic, the interior and the exterior of the tree house—so that we ultimately could have control of the spaces, which would allow us to shoot the way I wanted to shoot. Otherwise, it’s so hard to get a dolly into the upstairs hallway of a house and to find spaces that allow you to shoot any way that’s not totally constrained. And we had to design everything well in advance of shooting because we needed to replicate all those spaces—not just the spaces but also the dressing. We needed to know, what are the blankets on the beds? What’s the furniture? What kind of TV is there downstairs? What is Peter’s desk? What’s on the desk? Because we had to replicate all of that.

Filmmaker: You mean for the miniatures?

Aster: Yeah, for the miniatures. And, of course, there’s never enough time to do everything you want to do.

Filmmaker: Where did you shoot?

Aster: We shot in Utah. We spent 18 days on a soundstage in Park City, which is where we built the house.

Filmmaker: There’s a stage in Park City, Utah?

Aster: There is. They’re new stages, and they’re really beautiful. And then, all the exteriors and all the school stuff and Joan’s apartment, we shot in Salt Lake.

Filmmaker: Why Utah? Is there a tax credit in Utah?

Aster: Yeah, and we found that we could get the most for our money there. It also turned out to be the right place to shoot because it’s a very beautiful place, and the crew is amazing.

Filmmaker: There are some similar themes in Hereditary as in the Johnsons—trauma that’s passed down from one generation to another. You’ve spoken in other interviews about grief and trauma in relationship to this film. Where does that come from for you? 

Aster: I don’t know. I feel like every family has some scars, right? My family certainly has those. I can say that I’ve been through trauma and that my family has suffered trauma. I was working with my own experience, but then it’s all invention from there. In a lot of ways, the film is very therapeutic in that I’m working through feelings and things in my own life, but at the same time it’s all been pushed through this filter so what has come out is a million miles away from the source.

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