When I meet Will Poulter in the basement of New York’s Crosby Hotel the day after Midsommar’s first public screening, he tells me that he hasn’t slept a wink. “[Last night] was the first time I saw the film,” he says, his extremely expressive eyebrows narrowing with fear. “I was so fucked up after watching it that I didn’t sleep. It’s maybe the most aggressive reaction I’ve ever had to a film.”
Midsommar, Ari Aster’s incredibly deranged follow-up to last year’s equally deranged Hereditary, will likely have the same effect on audiences when it’s released on July 3. The film is, in many ways, a companion piece to Hereditary: both meditate on the nature of grief and family trauma; both center on women deep in the throes of guttural sorrow, so overwhelmed by their emotions that they fling themselves on the ground, keening; both involve severe damage inflicted upon the human head. But while Hereditary’s horror hides in shadows, Midsommar is disconcertingly, viscerally bright, its gruesome scenes unfolding under Sweden’s unrelenting summertime sun.
Midsommar follows Dani (Florence Pugh), who, after a grim family tragedy, decides to follow her emotionally stunted and extremely dumpable boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), on his boys’ trip to a commune deep in the Swedish woods. It’s rather idyllic at first — rolling green hills, flower crowns, tiny meat pies, group mushroom trips — but things soon lurch sickeningly sideways. Poulter, as Christian’s fuckboy friend Mark, deals with the unfolding horrors by detaching entirely, dismissing the community’s violent rituals, and instead single-mindedly pursuing a roll in the grass with a local. Which is why it’s particularly fascinating that Poulter himself could hardly handle watching the film. Before Midsommar’s singular brand of freakishness was inflicted on the rest of America, Poulter and I caught up about the group-building exercises Aster hosted, the director’s penchant for Easter eggs, and the disturbing experience of watching Midsommar for the first time.
This movie is … out of control. What was your reaction when you first read the script — did it read that way on the page?
It was unlike anything I’ve ever read. It was very visceral, and it had the potential to be great, but it was intimidatingly ambitious. As much as I liked it, I didn’t know who Ari really was — so I watched his shorts and I was like, Oh wow, he’s crazy talented. Then I watched Hereditary, and I was like, This guy is seriously special. I then got the opportunity to talk to him twice, about both the story and the character, and at that point, I knew I had to be involved, especially after learning Florence and Jack were involved. I’m a huge fan of both them and I’m a very close friend of Jack’s. I couldn’t afford to let the opportunity go. When I watched the film on Tuesday, I realized that this highly ambitious project that always struck me as having massive, massive potential has actually become the butterfly we all hoped it would be.
Was Tuesday the first time you saw it?
Tuesday was the first time I saw it. And I didn’t sleep on Tuesday night.
Because I was so fucked up after watching it.
Even knowing what was going to happen?
Oh my God. Yeah. It’s maybe the most aggressive reaction I’ve ever had to a film.
That you’ve been in, or ever?
Why do you think that was?
It was so unfamiliar; there’s nothing like it. Which is crazy to say, because I read the script, and I was in it. The atmosphere created within that film is so engrossing, and you get embroiled in all of it. Coming out the other side is a disorientating experience that lasts for a long time. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience — though you can repeat it again if you’re brave enough [laughs].
Did the rest of the cast feel similarly fucked up by watching it?
Yeah. We were all fucked. We were, like, joking and laughing in our seats, and the film started, and at first we’re sort of laughing along, and then there was a lot of gasping and shouting, and then in the final third, there was just total, pure silence. For ten minutes afterward, we were just completely silent. We couldn’t talk; we were all in a state of shock and deeply disturbed.
What disturbed you the most about it?
The fact that it’s all real. In the sense that there aren’t ghouls and there aren’t ghosts and there aren’t monsters. The square root of all of the hideous things you see in the film is that they’re human. Even when you know characters are under the influence of psychedelic drugs, they’re still natural. The hideous things that people do to one another in this film are based on human instincts that we all have — sometimes buried deep, deep down. And the horror derives from a very real place. This is something that I think is becoming the hallmark of Ari Aster as a director and a lot of the success he’s had. The entry point for the audience is human.
In Hereditary, he took the subject of grief, and he turned up the dial to a horrifying level, a horrifying pitch. He does the same thing here with toxic relationship, under this prevailing idea of grief. He fiddles with the dials to make it highly uncomfortable and apply some distortion. But the original thing that he’s commenting on is natural — and that’s what so fucked up about it.
What was the mood like on set? Was it jovial or were you guys constantly disturbed by what you were doing?
There were certain scenes where being jovial wasn’t appropriate, I suppose. My character is one of the more comedic aspects of the film, because he’s deeply insecure. His defense mechanisms and attack systems in that; all he can do is dismantle, take the piss out of everything. Even if he does actually find something unnerving or scary, it’s much easier to just poke holes in it. Mark feels very regressive in that respect — he’s kind of the poster child for out-of-touch men in this day and age. So I was joking around a little bit more. But I marveled at some of the things that Florence and Jack went through. For Florence, there wasn’t as much of an opportunity to be jovial.
Were you able to shake off that vibe when you stopped filming?
There was a very organic, young, natural sense of camaraderie in the cast. Everyone got along so well. And Mark is Christian’s best friend — even though he doesn’t necessarily win awards for being a good friend — which was hardly a challenge, given that Jack is one of my best friends, and it’s our third movie together. Actually fourth, if you include the short that Jack directed recently.
Did Ari have you guys do any sort of group-building exercises or hallucinogens to bond?
[Laughs.] No, there were no hallucinogens taken. That was all acted. But we did do some really cool group exercises. In fact, we went to a restaurant where you prepare your own foods, but we went in character. William Jackson Harper, who plays Josh — I love him so much, and I love him so much in his role as Chidi on The Good Place that I want to call him Chidi — wasn’t available, so Ari played Josh during that dinner.
There was a couple on a date next to us, cooking their meals, and they were totally freaked by the experience of us being next to them. Because my character is such an asshole and so loud and obnoxious that they were like, “What’s going on over there?!” But it was so much fun, and actually a lot of attention and time was given to the rehearsal process and to our characters, to understanding each other’s psychologies and dynamics. It was almost like doing theater, with the level of detail and time that was given to that process.
I read that Ari made a 100-page bible of the movie’s backstory and mythologies. Did you ever get to see it?
No. Did he really? What’s so funny is, having read the script and seeing the movie, I’m actually surprised that it’s only 100 pages. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 1,000 pages and he buried it somewhere in the mountains of Sweden.
How much did he explain to you guys about the world he was creating, and the choices he was making, and the Easter eggs and symbols he sprinkles throughout his movies?
The thing that I’m impressed with is that there is so much thought and attention and detail to every single frame in his movies — but unless you ask him about it, he’s not going to tell you any of that. He just sits on all of this brilliance. All of these secrets and background work. He doesn’t say, like, “Oh, the reason that there’s a crown on that poster and Dani’s sitting in that position is to foreshadow.” He won’t tell you unless you ask him, “What are the Easter eggs in this scene?”
But he will tell you if you ask? What did you ask about?
There were some things that I didn’t even realize until I saw the movie. For example, the [scene where Christian tells his friends that Dani is coming to Sweden], he didn’t get coverage on Jack. Because we played it in such a way that Jack’s coverage is in the mirror. I was always like, “Why the fuck didn’t he get coverage on that?” I didn’t even realize there was a mirror behind us.
[Warning: You’ll better appreciate the following three questions — and Poulter’s answers — if you’ve seen the film. If you haven’t, you’ll be a bit confused by the extremely vague spoilers ahead.]
Where’s the most inappropriate place that you’ve ever peed in real life?When I did The Revenant, I was peeing on the side of mountains and in the middle of nowhere. I never had the chance to go to an actual bathroom. I peed in what feels like every part of Canada.
Can we talk a little bit about that skin suit? How involved were you in the conception and making of it?
There was a sort of casting situation that happened, a mold. That was very unnerving as well. But I actually got off easy — I only had to do a head cast, because I’d done The Little Stranger and had my body cast for that. So they used that mold, plus a bit of 3-D scanning, to create my skin suit.
What was it like to see your own face on someone else’s face?
It was terrifying. There’s something very off about it. I think again, it speaks to Ari as a director. It could’ve looked comical or silly in the wrong hands, but the elements combined — including the incredible music — to achieve the goal, which was disturbing people. I’ve never seen someone work harder. I think that is very true of Ari. I’ve never seen a director work harder.
What does Ari Aster do for fun?
I think … eat? When you’re working so hard, your fun is what you might have for dinner. I know he’s a huge film fan. But honestly, I wouldn’t know. I never saw Ari not working; he was just working his ass off.
I wanted to ask about your social-media break after the response to Bandersnatch. Are you anticipating anything similar with this movie?
I think the response to Bandersnatch was primarily positive, but my thing with social media was kind of separate, and misunderstood. The media kind of spun it and this and that and the other, which was a bit disappointing. But listen, anytime you put art out in the world, you can’t guarantee that everyone’s going to like it. Am I nervous about people not liking Midsommar? No. Cause I’ve seen it. I think it’s really, really special. But people are entitled to their opinion. I hope it stokes a discussion.
They’ll definitely have a strong reaction either way.
Right — maybe a global lack-of-sleep epidemic.