“I See the Film as a Fairy Tale, More than Anything Else”: Ari Aster on Trauma and the “Folk Horror” of Midsommar
Watching writer/director Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary, I yearned for the horror to come, as if it’d help wash away the pain of the domestic trauma preceding. Then it came, but it painfully didn’t offer the relief I had been thirsting for.
Aster’s horror films, full of pain and confusion, are mined from the director’s own traumas. Making them might be a form of exorcism. He coins his latest film, Midsommar — about a grieving woman who travels to a nine-day long festival in Sweden with her diffident boyfriend and his grad student friends — a breakup movie, and this time, there’s a catharsis of sorts, a form of closure that’s visible on screen.
But Aster finds talking about these things difficult. I asked him if interviews help him solidify his perspective of his own painstakingly-constructed films. “It’s kind of hard to get any closer to [them]. If anything it pushes me farther away,” he told me. That said, we did talk about Midsommar — its traumatic inspirations, Aster’s gravitation to genre scenarios, and some of its improbable influences — just before the film’s opening today from A24.
Filmmaker: Why Sweden? Or could this have taken place in any pagan village?
Aster: I was approached about five years ago by a Swedish production company, B-Reel, to potentially write and direct a horror film set in Sweden. They had read Hereditary, which I had not yet directed, and wanted me to do something along those lines. I was going through a breakup at the time and wanted to write a breakup movie, and I was having a hard time finding my way in — I didn’t know how to approach it in a way that wasn’t like a “kitchen sink, been there done that” thing. Then I saw a way to marry the breakup movie with a more traditional folk horror structure, and that was way my way of working through the breakup and piecing through the ruins of the now-failed relationship in a way that felt productive and maybe also destructive.
Filmmaker: Could you talk about working with your Swedish actors, who are relegated to being an almost uniform force in the background?
Aster: We were fortunate to have a large Swedish cast of very esteemed actors. They were easy to work with and remarkably willing to give themselves to this ensemble spirit and be there and live in this world even if they weren’t foregrounded in a way that they’re usually used to in Sweden. It was probably a little maddening for them, given that they were relegated to the background for much of the film. I block things out well in advance and figure out where the blocking of the actors is in relation to the camera — I have a plan and I don’t really deviate much from that. And that might have been a little stifling for certain actors. But it was great to have Swedish actors who brought their own insight into Sweden and into these traditions which we were in many ways subverting and adopting for our own purposes. Hopefully they were able to bring some authenticity to the film that I wouldn’t have been able to.
Filmmaker: In scenes of trauma, how do you direct actors through pain? What is there to say to an actor other than, “This terrible thing has happened to you.”
Aster: It’s all in the script, and I’ve been lucky that I’ve had actors who have been willing and prepared to go there. I feel like my first job as a director is to be clear as a writer. If you’re not clear as a writer it becomes very obvious on set. When that happens, you have to find a way to fix that. Or, maybe it’s a scene that’s not totally true, and you can always feel that on set. For the most part it’s all about the communication beforehand and making sure [the actors] know the lengths to which you expect them to go. For the most part I’ve had the good fortune of working with actors who are willing to jump off the deep end and really risk going too far. I feel like my job is to hopefully earn their trust so that they feel they can go too far. I won’t use that [too far] take — I’ll be honest with them and keep them on track. It’s just a matter of trust.
Filmmaker: What’s your goal for a day of shooting — to accomplish everything you’ve prepared and envisioned, or to discover something new?
Aster: I always have a plan coming in. I’m not one who finds production to be a very creative time. It’s very stressful. You’re always chasing the clock and there’s never enough time to get what you need. The stress of that is not conducive to invention. There are a lot of filmmakers who like to figure it out on the day with the actor and be limber; I find that impossible. If I don’t have a plan I find it very hard to do anything. The more solid my plan is the more able I am to go with the flow and allow changes to happen. Usually nothing goes exactly to plan. You find that the space doesn’t allow for one thing or another, or that the blocking feels false or unmotivated in the space. If you don’t have a solid plan you kind of discover that on the set. Hopefully you have time to experiment with the actor and feel your way through it [but] sometimes you don’t have that time. Those are the scenes that tend to drag me down and make me kind of depressed and carry that energy into the next scene. For me, production is mostly a manner of keeping my own as well as everyone else’s morale up by hopefully executing things well so you can run into the next scene feeling good about the things that you’ve been doing as opposed to discouraged.
Filmmaker: I couldn’t pin down rules in the filmmaking grammar that were maintained throughout. Everything seemed to be considered scene to scene.
Aster: I go into certain scenes with rules. There are some scenes I don’t want to shoot any coverage for because I don’t want to lean into anything. I want to make sure that I get what I need in camera on the day. So I do a lot of long takes, and there are a lot of scenes that I do in an unbroken master. I’ve found those actually to be easier than when I’m getting coverage. When you’re getting coverage you’re not sure how things are going to cut together or how they’re going to play, but when you shoot an entire scene in one extended, unbroken take, you see what you have on set — you see it in the monitor and know whether you have it or not.
Filmmaker: Do you use genre as a way of putting a necessary buffer between yourself and highly personal, painful material?
Aster: Genre provides a framework and an intuitive structure that forces you to conform whatever story you’re telling to it. It’s a useful filter that you can pass more personal material through and out comes something else, or something of relative invention. I like genre because it forces you to find the catharsis in whatever story you’re telling. In the case of Midsommar and Hereditary I was dealing with situations of which I had no closure, and the movies forced me to create a certain closure. Even if it is a fatalistic ending I’m coming to, I’m finding a way to close these stories. If anything that’s therapeutic.
Filmmaker: Did these screenplays that are based on real traumas start off stripped of genre and fantasy — written as they occurred to you in your own life?
Aster: Well they started as feelings and circumstances that were personal to me and had the shape of life, which is pretty messy. Then you find a shape, and you find the narrative that best communicates those feelings.
Filmmaker: You’ve talked about genre as being “comfort food.” Do you think it’s a way of baiting people into experiences that they wouldn’t necessarily seek out or be open to on their own?
Aster: In many ways genre films are comfort food to people because people know the tropes. There is a sort of unspoken contract between the filmmaker and the audience, and it [becomes] about how you either fulfill that contract or withhold it in a purposeful way. There are a lot of European genre films that traffic in withholding, and in many ways I find those more exciting and more interesting than the genre films that just indulge [an audience’s expectations] in a rote way.
Filmmaker: Midsommar has one of those ironic horror film happy endings where the end is a punchline that upends all traditional genre proceedings leading up to it. An example of what I mean: At the end of The Witch Thomasin joins the baby-pestling witches that are originally set up to be the traditional antagonistic force and scare factor. She goes on to live deliciously rather than suffused in the pride and reactionary walls of her family. The punchline: Living alone in the woods with your staunch Christian parents is more terrifying than being stalked by witches who bathe in baby guts. In point of fact the witches were rescuing her. Without spoiling anything, I think a similar thing’s going on here.
Aster: I see the film as a fairy tale more than anything else. It does have a structure of a fairy tale. If you’re just looking at Dani’s trajectory, and she is the person we’re most aligned with, at the beginning she loses a family and at the end she gains one. Part of the fun of making this film was making a film that functioned for most of the visitors as a folk horror film, but for the [character] that we’re most joined to it’s something else. It ends up revealing itself as a perverse wish fulfillment fantasy. It’s doing two things at once. You could see this place as being a real lived-in place with a rich history and deep traditions, or you could watch the movie in a way that has this community function strictly as a manifestation of Dani’s will: they’re only here to provide her all of the needs she’s being denied.
Filmmaker: There’s another throughline between Midsommar and Hereditary in the way you show characters re appropriating their environments (In Hereditary: Annie’s miniatures, Charlie’s bird dolls). They call attention to your process, as you’re doing the same thing.
Aster: With Midsommar we built the whole village from scratch. That field was empty when we found it, and from there we cultivated a field and built these giant houses. Then after we wrapped it was all destroyed. We’re ultimately doing the same thing. It feels kind of wasteful, but maybe there is something significant in the transience of the whole thing. It’s sort of like the sand paintings that, when you finish, you blow them away. Or a sand garden you spend so much time craftingand then you blow away. Or, to stick with the sand-based metaphors, making sand castles and watching the ocean take them away. Of course you have the film itself for posterity, but there’s something perverse about creating a world you can stand in and live in for an extremely short amount of time only to have it disappear.
Filmmaker: Do you find it’s necessary to call awareness to the more grotesque parts of your process?
Aster: I’m a fan of combining the beautiful and the grotesque and finding beauty in the grotesque.
Filmmaker: Going forward, will you continue to develop your relationship to genre filmmaking, or will you walk that back to something more deconstructed and formless?
Aster: I’ve only made two features so I’m just getting started. I find it weird doing these interviews because I’m being asked about process and I’m still sort of shaping whatever my process is. I’m still relatively new to this, but I do love genre and it’s kind of hard to escape genre. Even if you make a kitchen-sink drama, you’re still contributing to the kitchen-sink drama space. Unless I’m making something truly shapeless, I don’t know. But ultimately I wasn’t writing this thinking, “I’m making a folk horror movie.” The categorization happens now, once it’s been made. I’m aware that I’m working in that genre while I’m writing and directing, but at a certain point what you’re doing is just trying to breathe life into these people and into this world and make this machine function as a living thing. So again, I don’t know, it’s very hard to separate anything from genre, even experimental fiction is [a genre]. So there’s my cryptic and evasive answer [laughs].
Filmmaker: I loved hearing or reading about the films that influenced Hereditary. What did you show the crew or have in mind during Midsommar?
Aster: I wasn’t able to show the crew many films because the preproduction process was so accelerated. But there were a lot of films that I was thinking about. There’s a great Larisa Shepitko film called The Ascent. She died very young and was married to another great Russian filmmaker, Elem Klimov, who made one of my favorite films, a Rasputin movie called Agony. He also made Come and See, which is an incredible masterpiece.
I was thinking of the films of Powell and Pressburger when I was talking about color with my production designer and my D.P. Sergei Parajanov was on my mind a lot, especially The Colour Of Pomegranates and Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors. There were a lot of breakup movies I was thinking about, like Albert Brook’s Modern Romance, which is my favorite breakup movie, and A Married Couple by Allan King. I was thinking about those films not so much in how I approached this film, but in the purposes they served for me.
Whenever I go through a breakup I tend to go straight through my favorite breakup movies. I always find myself returning to Modern Romance or Scenes From A Marriage. If anything I would love for this movie to fill that space. I was excited about making a film that people might potentially return to when they’re going through a breakup.That was my grandiose objective when I was fantasizing about what I might do. Now that I’ve finished it, I just hope people don’t go back and find the errors.