Hereditary is being hailed as a masterpiece. It’s being name-dropped in the company of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, and for once those heaping accolades don’t feel like sheer hype. They feel earned. With his first feature film, writer-director Ari Aster has crafted a searing cinematic nightmare that leaves the audience gasping for breath with their jaw on the floor. “I can feel my face sweating,” I wrote in my notes the first time I saw it. A dense, shocking, and relentlessly bleak film, Hereditary nails you to your seat and Aster takes no prisoners with his stylistic and storytelling choices, putting the audience through the ringer alongside his characters every step of the way.
Aster arrives at his feature debut after directing a number of standout short films, including Munchausen and the deeply disturbing viral sensation The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. Solid films with strong style, Aster’s shorts offer taste of the emotional assault he refines and serves up like a five-course meal in Hereditary. For those who missed the trailers (and good, you want to know as little as possible about this one), the film follows Annie (Toni Collette) and her family as they’re confronted with death, destruction, and the threat of an unspeakable supernatural force. If you’re tempted to read more about the story, do yourself a favor and don’t.
With Hereditary in theaters this weekend, I recently sat down with Aster for to discuss his buzzy, traumatizing horror film. Aster discussed his influences — and there are many, the AFI grad is a bonafide cinephile, why he wanted to give audiences an experience like this, working with is DP (fellow AFI alum Pawel Pogorzelski) to create the film’s precise visual language, and the original three-hour cut of the film audiences might never see.
Are you ready for people to hold you personally accountable for their trauma and nightmares?
ASTER: Hey, I asked for it.
Yes, you signed up for it. No, you — I’m totally rocked by this movie. I haven’t had a theatrical experience like that in a really long time.
ASTER: Oh, thank you.
Horror is my obsession, but I always say that what other people is horror, I tend to feel as a roller coaster. It makes me happy. And this was not that movie. This movie really gets in there and plays around with your guts. For you, as the filmmaker, what is the desire to do that to an audience? To give an audience that experience?
ASTER: I think when I first just endeavored to write a horror film and hopefully to direct it, I had to ask myself, what do I want from horror films? And then what affected me as a kid? And what I realized I wanted from horror films — because I also love horror, but I’m not somebody who goes to see everything. And in fact, I only go to see something if I’ve been convinced to, because I’ve become pessimistic about the genre. Because I feel like so many of those films are made very cynically.
And I feel like that’s often how that roller coaster ride thing comes about, is that the people making them are not necessarily working from a very personal place, and they’re not really … The goal is to meet the demands of the genre, and then to startle people a few times, but then let them off the hook. And I have never felt that that’s really what the purpose of the genre is. And when I think about the films that really affected me as a kid, they were the ones that left me in a place of not just irresolution, but also, I had to contend with not just what had happened in the film, but the themes of that film.
And so the films that really scared me as a kid were films like De Palma’s Carrie, which is actually, really, it’s kind of a comedy. It’s very campy, but at the same time, it’s playing with audience sympathies in such a brutal way. And it’s a deeply sad … It’s very sorrowful. It’s a very sad comedy. It’s a nightmare comedy. It’s definitely a horror film. And its images really burn themselves into my mind.
And the other film was Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, which isn’t technically a horror film, but it is a terrifying film. And it is … It’s also made by somebody who I believe is an authentic misanthrope. Somebody who truly hates people. You can feel that he hates people. He hasn’t even really give them personalities. That’s how little he believes in people. And then beyond that, he’s such an aesthete, that he’s putting aesthetics so far above people, which is something I actually wanted to avoid.
But I remember that those films really just insinuated themselves into my consciousness and just didn’t let go. And I hated them for it. I really didn’t like it. I saw them when I was too young. But I also … I guess when I started making this film, I was thinking about those. I was thinking … I feel like there’s this dialogue that happens between an audience and a filmmaker. And especially in horror films, it’s like the audience is going in and saying, I dare you. I dare you to scare me. I’m going in, and I hope you do, ’cause that’s why I’m here. But there’s a feeling of superiority that happens when you don’t. When it doesn’t actually serve that purpose or fulfill that … Or satisfy that demand.
And I feel like it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that really, really, really preys in an uncompromising way on real, existential fears. And I’m not saying that Hereditary does that, but I know that that’s something I was thinking about and something I wanted to do.
You used a phrase in there that specifically felt like my experience with the film, which was not letting them off the hook. And that, I felt really specifically in the camera work, which always kept me waiting for some reveal that never came.
ASTER: Right. Yeah, playing with anticipation.
I understand you had quite the shot list and you didn’t do traditional coverage. Can you talk about creating the camera work with your DP and using that element to work with your audience as well?
ASTER: Yeah, absolutely. The way I work is, I always compose a shot list before I talk to anybody, including my DP. So I’ll spend a couple months basically creating the movie in my head, so I have a very solid film in my head, where I know every shot, and I know what the transitions between scenes are. And then I go to my cinematographer, who in this case, is Pawel Pogorzelski, who’s amazing. I’ve been working with him forever. And my production designer, Grace Yun, who’s also wonderful. And I take them through the shot list. I take them … And it’s a process that can take up to three weeks. Five hours a day for three weeks, where we have a board, I draw out the space and I say, here’s the blocking, here’s where the camera is. This shot goes to here, and then we transition to this shot.
So yes, in a few cases, we do coverage for dinner table scenes or something like that. But for the most part … Or for scenes that involve over five people, you’ll need to do coverage. But otherwise, all the shots are sequenced. And that way, you have total control over what you’re doing, but at the same time, it saves time. And it’s easier. Coverage can be really maddening, ’cause you don’t know if this shot is actually going to link up with this shot. And I actually find it very hard. I’m very impressed by films like Whiplash or what Fincher does, where you get all these different … Where you get all this coverage that’s perfectly linked up. I actually find coverage very confusing. But I love sequencing shots because I know exactly where I am. And if I’m cutting, if I’m definitely going to cut right here, then I know that this angle is the next one.
It’s more animation style. You have to have every piece figured out before you start production.
ASTER: It is. And I think I would love to make an animated film, because I like working that way. I’m more comfortable working that way. So I compose the shot list, then I take my DP and my production designer through it, and there’s a dialogue that happens, too. And often we find things that are better than what I had devised. But the big thing is that I want to take them through my shot list before I even talk to them so that we all have the same movie in our head. And that way, when we do begin a dialogue, the dialogue is about the same movie. We’re not working towards two different aesthetics. It’s very clear what we’re making. And here’s the style, and here’s what we’re going for.
And then as far as how that caters to a horror film, I don’t know. I just know that it’s how I like to work. I know that I don’t like jump scares. There are a few jump scares that happen in the film, but I know that there are … I know in myself they’re okay because they had to happen. I was trying to avoid them, so there were times where they just had to be there. And so they’re not empty.
I avoided them like crazy, but then it’s like, this scene actually demands this kind of scare. But I avoided working in that way where I was trying to … I very seriously attended to the family drama stuff first, and I didn’t even think about the horror stuff until I had established the dynamic. What the problem was, who they were, what their history was. And I can start working on, well then, what’s going to happen to them? Because I need it to feel like a betrayal to the audience. I need the audience to be invested in who these people are. And then if what happens to them is going to be really affecting, it needs to be coming out of that. It needs to be growing out of that. It cannot be … And in some ways, I don’t even know what people are watching. I don’t know the movie people are seeing, ’cause the original cut was three hours.
ASTER: So the original movie was much longer. We cut 30 scenes out. So I certainly know the work I had done to set up everything and to earn everything, but a lot of that stuff that we had earned in the longer cut, we cut for pacing. And so I’m actually extremely relieved that people still feel that everything’s earned, because it is actually … It’s less of a drama than it used to be. So I keep talking about it as this family tragedy, this family drama, that is going to be more of that than a horror film. But the fact is, we actually cut so much of that out, we didn’t cut any of the horror stuff out.
That’s really interesting. I’m a firm believer, usually, that the cut that the director made is the right cut to be out there. But do you have any intention of releasing that longer cut ever?
ASTER: I don’t know. I think … I wouldn’t like to release the full cut, beause I think at three hours, it was long.
It’s already pretty punishing.
ASTER: Yeah, exactly. And everything that’s there is family drama stuff, which actually, I think makes it more punishing, but it also makes it more … It certainly made it more meditative. It was more demanding. It was less of a mainstream film. It was a film that would have locked out a good portion of the audience, that I think is now invited … Is in. But it was a film that really took its time. And so there was about an hour more of material that was not horror, that was just about the family going through what they’re going through, and not communicating, and not doing what they need to do to come together.
What was the process of working with Toni to create that performance, which for me, is an all-timer best horror performance?