Ari Aster on ‘Midsommar’s “Perverse Wish-Fulfillment” & Provoking Questions Through Catharsis

     July 4, 2019

When you make a feature debut that gets as much attention and acclaim as Ari Aster‘s Hereditary did last year, you better believe that there’s going to be a lot of curiosity about the followup. Fortunately, Aster stuck the landing with Midsommar, a film that’s less visceral and haunting but just as gorgeous and, surprisingly, very funny. Aster trades dark, cramped corners and broken families for sunny European splendor and broken romance, following a co-dependent couple forced deeper into their dying romance by tragedy (played by Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor,) who travel to a sun-drenched Swedish festival where dark terrors await.

With Midsommar in theaters July 3, I recently sat down with Aster to talk about the film. He discussed the tight turnaround between finishing Hereditary and starting Midsommar, why he’s taking a bit of a break before choosing his next film, what it’s like making and promoting films that are inspired by personal trauma, and why he sees the film as a dark comedy and how he hopes the ending challenges viewers, He also talked about some technical elements, including the decision to include aside glances at the camera, leaning into the expectations of the folk horror genre, filling the production design with foreshadowing, the tricky math you might have missed about the rituals, and more.

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Image via A24

First of all, congratulations on the film. I like it very much.

ARI ASTER: Oh, thank you very much.

I’m sort of staggered that you made this movie so quickly.

ASTER: Yeah, I’m staggered that I survived. It felt, for a large portion of the film, like I wouldn’t survive it.

Did you go straight from Hereditary press into Midsommar?

ASTER: I went straight from Hereditary post to scouting for the film, to then having to take a break from scouting to do Hereditary press, then Hereditary came out on June 8th, and I was in Hungary on June 9th, having found the location, and jumping into full pre-production. Then we had two months to build the entire village, and then start shooting at the top of August, so the first week of August. So we had two months of actual pre-production to build this world. At the same time, I was juggling press. It was my first experience with press, it was my first film. So it was very surreal. It was a trial for sure.

I know you haven’t announced your new film or your next project, but are you having an opportunity right now to enjoy this, or have you already started your mind at work on something new?

ASTER: I have started my mind at work on a new project. There are two films that I’m kind of deciding between right now that I had written before I made either of the last films.

Not flying out of here to build some houses?

ASTER: No. I’m taking a second to decide what I want to do next. There are two projects that I love, and I don’t know which one I want to do more. Who knows if I’ll be able to make either of them. It’s just they’re both very strange and kind of transgressive projects. So I recognize that I’m in a very fortunate position right now. I want to use it wisely while I can.

Always smart.

ASTER: Yeah. So I’m going to take a little break, but I’m kind of … I have anxiety about taking a break, because it’s been just two and a half years of running. It’s been really stressful and just intense, but I don’t know how to stop now.

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Image via A24

Yeah, I mean you also want to keep striking while the iron’s hot, so to speak.

ASTER: That’s the feeling. It took me 10 years to get the feature going. After school, it was a long, long … if felt like a very long, arduous road. It was a Sisyphean task just getting anything going. Then, of course, it’s a Sisyphean task actually making the film. But I know how fortunate I am, so I don’t want to take it for granted.

With Midsommar, you’ve been pretty open that you wrote this film in sort of a dark place after a break-up. What’s it been like having to return to those waters over, and over again, making it and then doing press now that you’re emotionally on the other side of something that put you in that headspace?

ASTER: Right. Well, yeah. My new trauma is making the movie. [Laughs] You know, it’s funny. I wrote Hereditary while I was in crisis. The writing wasn’t traumatic. I was writing about trauma. So if anything, it was therapeutic. The same with Midsommar. I was going through a break-up; it was a tough break-up. I was not in a great place. So writing the film didn’t make that harder, it made it easier. It gave me a way to kind of give shape to whatever I was feeling. What’s nice about making a genre film is that it sort of forces you to find the catharsis in the story you’re telling. I’m hoping that Midsommar, especially, it’s not just a movie that ends cathartically, but I’m hoping it’s a film about catharsis in a way. I hope that whatever you’re feeling at the end, whatever viewers feel at the end, I hope that they feel compelled to question what they’re feeling and not just feel it.

I also hope it’s funny, but I hope that the laughter catches in the throat. Yeah, so if anything there’s … The films are … These two films were ways of wrestling with something for me, but I don’t see them as being attached to the thing that I was wrestling with.

That’s probably good.

ASTER: Yeah, although Hereditary was a little bit different. I was very … Even press for Hereditary felt like a minefield. This one feels a little bit easier to talk about.

I actually left this movie in a weirdly good mood. Whereas Hereditary truly fucked me up. I had to go to a bar after the screening, and sit, and take notes, and process. I left this film feeling disturbingly cheery. I was joking with my friends that this might be your version of a feel-good film, but the things you just said about catharsis and humor make me think I might not be totally off-base.

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Image via A24

ASTER: [Laughs] No. I’ve been calling this movie a wish-fulfillment film and fantasy from the beginning. It’s a perverse wish-fulfillment film and fantasy. But for me, yeah, I do see the film as a dark comedy. The ending makes me laugh. Yeah, I was hoping to make kind of like a malignant crowd-pleaser.

You use an interesting technique throughout the movie where you have the actors kind of spike the lens with aside glances – and a lot of the art on the walls gazes into the camera, too. That’s a hard technique to pull off in a way that pulls you in rather than pushing you out, or reminding you you’re watching a movie. How did you work with your actors and DP to capture those moments? And I’m just curious sort of the intention and approach to peppering them in.

ASTER: A lot of it is instinctual. I feel like if I ever feel the impulse to do something like that, like have a character look directly at the lens, and it’s being driven by some academic impulse or something, where there’s a philosophy behind it, or a theory — you know, something like the effect that the characters looking at the camera has in Funny Games, where it implicates the viewer. Whenever I have an idea like that, I tend to get grossed out by it by the time it comes to shoot it, and I take it out. If something feels instinctual and stays that way, then I feel okay about just doing it. If it just feels in my gut like it’s the right way to play a certain moment. So, I try not to be very academic about these things. If anything it’s just a matter of taste.

There’s one moment at the cliff where, I think, when one community member looks back at the camera, and for me, that was just funny.

Be aware there are spoilers for Midsommar below.

Going back to the art, the walls are covered in very informative paintings throughout the film. I spied an image of a girl kissing a bear in the very beginning and that sort of stayed with me for the rest of the movie. Why did you decide to lace the background with so many reveals and pieces of foreshadowing with this sort of prophetic set decoration?

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Image via A24

ASTER: Well, with this film especially, because we’re working in the folk horror sub-genre, and anybody who knows the genre knows exactly where we’re headed. This film has no actual interest in subverting that trajectory. If anything, I was excited about owning that trajectory and contributing to it. My hope was that what is surprising is not what happens, but rather what it feels like to get there. The emotional payoff, I’m hoping, is, if not surprising, then satisfying. And hopefully surprising to a degree.

But for me, it was kind of fun to say, “Okay. We know, given the genre, and given our antecedents, that these outsiders are going to go visit this community, and they’re going to be killed off one by one,” because that’s just how it goes. For me, that’s the least interesting part of the story because it’s inevitable. So, to treat it not only as inevitable but to treat it as something to have the writing just be on the wall from the very beginning. I’m hoping that by putting that kind of attention into the details, and by riddling the periphery with prophetic details, I’m hoping that it encourages a more active audience engagement and kind of prevents people from just becoming passive viewers.

I had fun kind of throwing away, for the most part, what otherwise is the bread and butter of the genre, which are the kills, and the violence. Even though the film is, I guess — it’s violent. I know that, for me, it’s the atmosphere and the mood that I was thinking about more than even the peeks at any given set piece.

I’m sure you know first-hand from coming off of Hereditary that people are very keen to dig into mythology, and the details, and the background, and things like that. I’m a big fan of the fact that this is a pretty straightforward film, but we both know people are still going to do it.

ASTER: [Laughs] Yeah.

How much have you laid in for people to obsess over if they want to dig into little details like why it’s a bear, all the sun imagery, why exactly this side character slips in at this one place – stuff like that. Is this the kind of movie that rewards people who will break their brains trying to parse out the mythology, or is it best just taken as how it’s presented?

ASTER: I love the idea of people feeling compelled to dig deeper. I hope that the film rewards repeat viewings, because I have taken the time to put so much in the background, and on the sides, and to sort of make certain points hopefully in kind of a veiled way. But I definitely don’t see the benefit in my expounding on them in an interview, if only to encourage that, again, that active engagement.

I love when movies give me a reason to pay closer attention. I would not call this a message film. I do think there are politics that I am loathe to expound on, but I’ve put details … I layered the film with, again, peripheral details that I think point to I would say a political attitude about Europe, and Sweden. But also, right now, and also historically, I don’t think America is exempt from this at all. Again, I’m kind of scrambling here. I’m giving you like word soup, because I really don’t want to say anything explicitly.

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Image via A24

For sure.

ASTER: I guess the point I’m making is that, if the style of the film encourages people to pay closer attention, that’s certainly something I’ve come to appreciate in films, as I’ve grown up loving movies. It’s a tradition that I hope to contribute to.

OK, I’m about out of time with you but I have one quick question and I’ll kick myself if I don’t ask, and I totally understand if this is the kind of question you don’t want to answer up front. There’s a math thing that’s been running around in my brain – they sacrifice themselves at the age of 72 but the festival is every 90 years. Is there an answer for that or am I being a bit dim?

ASTER: So, this is not your fault. This is, I’m not sure I would call it a flaw of the film, or something that in the longer cut was made more clear, because there was a three-hour and 40-minute cut, so there’s a lot of stuff that’s not in the movie.

What happens to the two elders, and what happens to all the elders at 72, that happens every year. It just happens to be happening during this very special festival. So that is one of the things that is happening now that is not strictly and solely for this [festival]. If anything, I would say what happens at the end is what happens every 90 years.

Midsommar is now in theaters.

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