Writer and director Ari Aster is very good at making people feel uncomfortable. While pursuing his MFA in directing at the American Film Institute, Aster wanted to push the boundaries of his program, so he delivered a short film called The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. The story follows a young man from a seemingly idyllic home from his teen years to adulthood — with the “strange” caveat being his relationship with his dad, whom he has trapped in a cycle of rape and abuse since high school. (And it’s actually even more fucked-up than it sounds!) After graduating from AFI, Aster then made the short Munchausen, another uncanny family portrait in which a mother poisons her son to keep him from going off to college and leaving her lonely and without purpose.
Now, Aster is about to see the wide release of his first feature, Hereditary, months after it first stunned audiences at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s a return to the dark exploration of the hells that live beneath the surface of a tidy domestic life. Toni Collette stars as Annie Graham, mother to Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), wife to Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and a professional artist who specializes in making incredibly detailed miniatures that serve as secondary staging grounds for the life-size drama unfolding onscreen. Hereditary opens with the death of Annie’s mother — a “very difficult woman,” Annie says at her funeral — whose passing seems to be as much a relief as it is a tragedy for most of the Graham household. But as it turns out, her death is really a catalyst for a string of increasingly horrific events that will force the family to confront hideous truths about dear old grandma’s legacy — a discovery process that allows Aster to drag viewers into a chamber of terrors built out of his own darkest fears.
To say Hereditary has several visually shocking scenes is an understatement. But the real red meat Aster serves up in his movie is existential dread — the pain of betrayal, and the cold reminder that you never really know a person, no matter how much you love them. Vulture caught up with the writer-director in the weeks leading up to Hereditary’s release to discuss how he got the golden egg of an A24 deal for his first feature, exactly who it was that was stalking the Graham family, and what he did to make his movie “feel evil.”
What was your intention when you were putting Hereditary on the page?
When I was trying to get this one financed, I was pitching it as a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare, in the way that life can feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes, especially in succession. I feel like there is this trend — certainly among American domestic tragedies: You’ll have a family suffer a loss and there will be a period of, you know, things being kind of thrown out of whack and communication breaks down and it’s very difficult. But in the end, the bonds are strengthened and the family is brought together, and you know they’re gonna be okay. It’s the bittersweet American exceptionalist ending, and it’s not that there’s something inherently false about that. We need hope to get through, but sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. Sometimes something horrible happens and a person is taken, and sometimes that person doesn’t get back up. So I guess I just wanted to make a film about that.
But if you make that film as a bleak drama, then we’re making it for like, an audience of three. So what might be a deterrent to an audience in one genre suddenly becomes a virtue in another, and it just felt like a no-brainer to channel that through a horror-movie filter. I started saying this recently because I realized it was true, but I feel like the film owes a greater debt to the domestic melodrama than it does even really to the horror genre as far as the traditions that it’s honoring. And in true melodramatic fashion, it attaches itself to the emotions of the people onscreen, and honors the emotions by being as extreme and as big as the emotions themselves.
So how did you come together with A24? Clearly this fits their sensibility like a glove, but this is your first feature and it looks like you got a lot of room and a lot of resources to make the exact movie you wanted to make.
Frankly, any young independent filmmaker in America wants to be working with A24. I know that’s certainly how it was for me and for my peers coming out of school. But they were aware of me and they had seen my shorts and I had had a few meetings with them. By the time I wrote Hereditary, I had nine other feature scripts, and I was trying to get one of them going. They were all too big and they weren’t as obviously genre-driven, and they all kind of required the same level of budget as Hereditary, so when I endeavored to write a horror film, it kind of began as a cynical decision, in that I just thought it would be easier to get a horror film financed, which was an instinct that was validated. It became less cynical once I decided to write the film, and it became a matter of asking myself, “Okay. What kind of horror film do I want to make?” Because I’m not somebody who sees every horror film that comes out. I used to be obsessed with the genre when I was 12 or 13. I burned through the horror section in every video store I could find, but it’s been a long time since I had been a devotee, and so I had to ask myself what kind of film I wanted to make — and I know that for me, I’m not affected by anything unless I’m invested in the people at the heart of it.
I avoid a lot of horror films because so many of them are produced so cynically. There are always exceptions to that. I think South Korea has been producing incredible genre films for the last ten years, and not just in the horror genre. The Wailing was really exciting, but there’s this incredible film called Save the Green Planet, which was a huge discovery to me. And what Lee Chang-dong is doing is so fascinating. I knew that I wanted to make a film that served as a compelling family drama before I attended to any of the horror elements.
It’s funny. I actually sometimes feel strange saying that, because the film changed in post. The original cut was three hours long. There are at least 30 scenes that are on the cutting-room floor and all of those are scenes that served to bolster that family drama and really earn all of the horror stuff. What we learned in the editing room was that a lot of that stuff was kind of already inherent in the dynamic that we had established.
And how did you secure the cast, especially Toni and Gabriel and Ann Dowd? And did Milly audition for you, or did you know her from her Broadway work?
With Toni, we sent her the script and she was one of the first people that we approached. She responded to it and she and I met for lunch and got along well. She attached herself and that was huge, because that was when it became clear that the movie was happening. Until then it was all speculative and it was something that we were trying to get going. And I had been on that path before: I’m on the road to getting something made and all we need is for somebody to read it and to want to do it, but that is a very hard thing to get when you haven’t made a feature yet. It’s very hard to get anybody to read, let alone to meet with you. So that was huge. And then Ann Dowd was the first person we approached for her part.
That is a massive two for two.
Huge two for two, yeah, and could not have been a greater joy to work with, and same thing with Gabriel. When we secured him I couldn’t believe it. He had been somebody that I had been watching since I was a kid, and that was surreal, to get those actors to join. But as far as the kids were concerned, that was something that was very scary for us. I was not convinced that we were going to be able to find these kids. For Peter, I knew that I needed somebody to really dive off the deep end, and Peter is somebody that is suffering PTSD, and there’s nothing worse than a kid playing PTSD. It can be so embarrassing to watch. So when Alex Wolff came in to audition, that was a huge weight off, because it was clear that he not only had real chops, he was going to really throw himself off the deep end.
And then with Milly, the search for Charlie was one where we really did not know what we were even looking for. It was in the script and there was somebody on the page, but it was very vague in my head, and I kind of deliberately kept it that way, because I knew that I needed to be open to whoever came in. A lot of these wonderful young actresses came in and gave interesting performances.
There’s so much interiority to that part. What Milly brought to the screen by just kind of existing ominously was amazing, and I assume casting Charlie would just be waiting to feel that presence she brought to it.
Yeah. A lot of people came in and gave great performances, but I was beginning to despair of finding the right person, because we knew that it couldn’t just be — it needed to be obvious. Somebody needed to come into the room and a light bulb had to go off, and that’s what happened when Milly Shapiro came in. She’s just such an extraordinary actress. She has a special Tony that she won when she was 10 years old for playing Matilda on Broadway, and she can really do anything. She’s an amazing singer and an amazingly disciplined young actress, and such a joy to be around. She’s nothing like Charlie. She’s incredible, such a delight. I love Milly. But yeah, so it was just great luck that we found the kids, and I certainly can’t imagine the film without them.
The cinematography functions like a character of its own in this movie, too.
I try to avoid traditional coverage wherever I can, and I like to draw shots out as long as I can without it becoming indulgent or distracting. I really love shot sequencing, and I map out the blocking and what the camera is doing in relation to the blocking long before production. I typically get really involved with camera movement. Pawel Pogorzelski, my cinematographer and the person with whom I’ve been working for the last ten years, is in charge of lighting and also of making sure that we are executing everything we have mapped out as far as camera movement is concerned. He’s brilliant with lighting and he’s an incredibly versatile artist. I’ve seen the other features he’s shot, and I even look at the many shorts we’ve made together, and nothing ever looks the same. He’s really able to stretch in any and all necessary directions. He’s really kind of chameleonic in that sense, and I’ll maybe give him references for the lighting in the film or for the lighting of certain scenes but that’s really all.
So with your extensive preproduction process, did the miniatures come first or the actual interiors, which I understand you had custom-built instead of shooting on location? And what did they represent to you in terms of the narrative?
The models serve as something of a metaphor for the family’s situation. They ultimately have no agency and they’re revealed to be like dolls in a dollhouse, being manipulated by outside forces. The way I work is that I start by composing a shot list, and that takes several months. And then I go to Pawel, who I have been working with since AFI and who is one of my best friends, and my production designer, Grace Yun. This is the first time I’ve worked with her, but she’s wonderful. I take them shot by shot through the entire film, which is a process that takes about three weeks, five hours a day, and by the end we all have the same film in our head, and we can begin a really efficient and effective dialogue, where that shot list is improved upon and we all know what we are chasing.
It became clear that we were going to need to build the house in order to accommodate that shot list, and also to attend to that dollhouse aesthetic. So having built it, we were able to remove walls and shoot these rooms in wides that really dwarfed the characters in their environments. We were actually having this house replicated before we had built any of it — so we needed to design the house and not just the dimensions of the spaces of each room, but also the dressings. We needed to know what plants were in each room, what drapes were over the windows, what drapes were over the beds. What was the furniture? We needed to figure out all of that stuff far in advance of shooting, because we needed to give the miniaturist, Steve Newburn, who was working in Toronto — he was also our prosthetics guy — we needed to give him ample time to replicate all of these things. Ultimately, we had the miniatures coming in the day that they were being shot because everything was so very tight. Logistically it was a nightmare, but I’m very proud of how everything came out.
I’ve also read that you wanted the film to unfold with the viewer finding out things along with the characters. We aren’t the omniscient audience. When the Grahams are surprised, we’re surprised, and there’s a sense in the movie that there is an invisible hand guiding all of these terrifying actions.
You’re exactly right. Essentially, the film is about a long-lived possession ritual that is seen from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs. So yes, we know what they know. We learn what they learn, and I kind of wanted to make a conspiracy film without exposition. Of course, there are scenes that betray that. There are a couple scenes where you need some exposition, and I tried to do that in a way that was as unimposing as possible. But yeah, we are with these people who don’t know what’s happening, and we’re with them in their ignorance.
But I also wanted to shoot the film from a more objective, knowing, sinister perspective as well, for there to also be the feeling that the film knows something that they don’t. I really hope that’s in the score. The first thing I told [the composer] Colin Stetson was that I wanted the score to feel evil, and I wanted there to be a sense that the film knows where this is all going and knows where this has to go — that there’s this feeling of the inevitable.
The music does give you the feeling, basically, that the killer is already in the house.
Great. That’s what we wanted. It’s meant to be felt in your stomach, a pulsing sub-drone that we called “the contra-pulse.” I was excited about that. There were questions about whether or not that was going to be too much and I was really firm on us having to keep it there.
Speaking of inevitability, one of the most distinguishing things about Hereditary is how aggressively you betray your audience early on in the film. A certain movie has been established. You’ve given people time to acclimate, and then this really crazy thing happens that makes us feel like, “Oh my God, we are not safe with this man!”
Every genre makes certain demands on the artist, and you need to meet those demands to satisfy the audience. They come with these expectations, and there’s nothing you can do about them, and a lot of those expectations have to do with catharsis and with anticipation. And of course, you’re anticipating a payoff. I really like playing with those expectations and playing with those tropes and conventions, because a genre film to a genre fan is like comfort food. It’s like you come in, these things are being established. “Oh, great. This is the kind of movie I’m here for. Wonderful. And that means it’s going to take me here.” And because of that, there is a certain complacency that comes with watching a genre film, and if you want to transgress something, that’s kind of perfect that you have people sinking in. That complacency is good, because then if you are going to turn things on them, it’s a shock.
You’ve described the film as punishing, and in aiming to upend people’s expectations, are you consciously considering alienating the audience? Given the content of your short films as well, it feels like you’re daring audiences to stick with you in your stories.
I don’t know how intentional it is. I wasn’t sitting at my computer with a result in mind when I was writing it, but I was very aware that we were making a film with the primary intention of upsetting the audience on a deep level. If anything, I’ve been surprised that’s it’s not been quite as alienating as I thought. So far it’s been playing almost like a crowd-pleaser, which has come as a surprise to me, but also a welcome surprise. I had always seen the film as being an existential horror film, and again, there is a demand to resolve things when you’re making a genre film, but I’m also hoping there’s a certain level of irresolution in the resolution that we come to.
When I was first writing this thing I was thinking, “What scares me? What frightens me?” And all of my worst nightmares revolve around either me inadvertently harming somebody that’s close to me and then me having to live with the guilt of that, or somebody that I love changing in some way and them either betraying me or leaving or dying and so I wanted to make a film that was kind of like tapping into these fears that have no real remedy. The fear of death, there is no remedy for that. The fear of death, of finding out that the people that you’re closest to are strangers or are that you don’t really know the people in your lives, there is no answer to that. It’s something we have to either make peace with or not. So I wanted to make a film that preyed on those themes.
Read on for major spoilers:
Why the figure of Paimon?
I mean, it might be a very satisfying answer, but I didn’t want to do the Devil again. It’s pretty much as simple as that, and then it was a matter of me doing the research to root it in something that was already established. And Paimon just struck me as the right guy. There was research involved and ultimately I sort of landed on him being the best candidate. But it was really as simple as me just not wanting to do the Devil again.
There is a lot of decapitation in this movie — was that part of the mythology you researched?
That was something that I put in.
Because it’s just so obviously disturbing?
You know, I don’t know if I could speak to that in a way that would be satisfying. I think it would be disingenuous for me to give any sort of intellectual answer. I feel like there are a lot of really good reasons and I like all of them, but uttering them kind of robs them of something. But I do like all the things that they might provoke in somebody.
There are little bread crumbs dropped along the way — the person looking into Peter’s room who breathes out the fog, Grandma ending up in the attic without a head — that seem to tip off who is terrorizing the Graham family. Is that Ann Dowd and her cult of living worshippers, or is Annie really sleepwalking around, exhuming bodies, and cutting off their heads? My bet was on the cult.
There is an answer and you are right. The audience is supposed to suspect that it might be Annie, but it is the cult of which Ann Dowd is a very significant part. But you are supposed to feel through the film that there are people on the periphery that are watching this family and are hovering just outside.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.