‘Hereditary’ Director Ari Aster on Why He Avoided Calling His Terrifying Debut a ‘Horror Film’
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Hereditary is the frontrunner for best — and scariest — horror film of 2018. After garnering overwhelmingly positive reviews on the festival circuit over the last several months, Ari Aster’s feature directorial debut is finally coming to terrify the masses this Friday courtesy of A24 — the folks behind another recent stellar horror film, The Witch. Before Hereditary was unleashed on audiences, I spoke with Aster about his buzzy, thoroughly upsetting debut, and since it’s best to go into this one knowing as little as possible, we kept things completely spoiler-free.
Before making his feature debut, Aster directed a few equally unsettling short films, including “Munchausen” and “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” (the latter of which was so effective it inspired its own series of reaction videos), both available online. Watching these can definitely give you a better sense of what to expect from Hereditary, which centers on Annie (Toni Collette) and her family as they’re beset by increasingly disturbing — and possibly supernatural — occurrences following the death of Annie’s mother.
It’s as much a psychological horror film as it is a powerful examination of grief and mental illness that gets under your skin and just lives there. I spoke with Aster about the personal nature of his film, as well as some of his influences and his future plans — which include another horror thriller for A24.
Jesus Christ dude, this movie blew me away.
Oh, thank you!
It’s so, so scary but also relatable on a visceral level — a combo I really love, but one that also gives me the sense that this was pretty personal for you, right?
You know, it was borne out of extreme feelings and personal feelings, but then from there it’s all the work of invention. I mean it’s also personal in that when I set out to write a horror film, I set out to make a film about things that scare me. And so it’s a film that is investigating my own fears.
Watching it, I was asking myself something I ask myself often: Are we born with this predisposition for mental illness and devastation? Where is the line between inheritance and choice?
Yeah, absolutely. I always considered this to be an existential horror film.
I wanted to make a film where all of the fears that were being exploited were not, like, frivolous or easy to remedy. It’s a film that hooked this feeling with things like the fear of death, fear of abandonment, fear of betrayal — and by that I mean either somebody close to you turning on you, or accidental betrayal, like doing something to hurt somebody in your life that is impossible to reverse.
That is where the film is coming from. But even from the beginning, and this is something I’ve said before but I was kind of careful to never really call it a “horror film.” The people that were on the crew, or even the people that I was pitching the film to, I would describe it as a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare. In the same way that life can really feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes, especially when disaster strikes in succession.
And what happens to this family is just…relentless.
Like the saying “When it rains it pours.” And you know, I’ve found that to be true and I think the reason that it’s true is because sometimes people don’t get back up. And sometimes, trauma can change people for the worse. I feel like there is a tradition, especially in American family dramas, and maybe it’s part of like, this American exceptionalism thing, but when there is a crisis and it gets very scary, and then, in the end, it’s brought everybody closer, right? This is not always the way it goes, and sometimes people are taken down. I wanted to make a film that was first and foremost about that.
The corrosive effect of grief on a family unit, and just on relationships in general. And then to make a film that was living in these extreme emotions, but a film that ultimately collapses under the weight of those emotions. The fabric of the film tears open and the movie goes crazy. Or at least that’s the feeling I was going for.
You mention setting out to write a horror film but then not really wanting to describe it as that. Was it your intention from the beginning to make something in the horror genre, or was it that the language of horror was a more effective way to tell this story?
I think it was the latter. I think it was more like these are the feelings I want to do a film with and then, yes, the horror genre allows all of this fatalism and bleakness to almost become a virtue, whereas in almost any other genre it’s a deterrent for people. It gives me license to go all the way with this idea.
But then at the same time it was important to me to attend to that stuff first — to attend to the characters and what they were going through first, and then to have the horror element grow out of that. But then the challenge became: Okay how do I make a great horror movie out of this? I don’t think anybody ever attempts anything without kind of fantasizing it being the best version, right?
My hope was that I was setting out to make what for me would be the scariest movie ever. If I were in the audience, what would bother me on a very deep level?
I find that some of the best and most effective horror films were made by filmmakers who wouldn’t consider themselves “horror fans.” David Cronenberg, for instance…
I identify with that. I love Cronenberg so much. Especially the films he was doing in the mid to late ’80s and early ’90s like Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers is the best!
Hell yeah, Dead Ringers is the greatest, that’s my favorite of his. But The Fly, too ... he’s just amazing. I really feel like the horror genre is capable of so much. Especially as an in-theater experience, something you watch with other people. It can do so much. I guess my feeling is that I very rarely see a film that has greater ambitions than to just put the audience on a 90-minute roller coaster. I’m always so excited when I find a film that does have greater ambitions.
Like The Babadook or The Witch or The Wailing, which is a great South Korean film that came out a few years ago. [Note: It’s on Netflix.] I did set out to make a film that was in the tradition of the horror films that I love, like Don’t Look Now or Rosemary’s Baby or Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. And there are a lot of older Japanese ghost films, like Kwaidan and Kuroneko and Onibaba and Empire of Passion. These are films that I really love, but I would say I’m not somebody who runs out to every horror film. I avoid most of them. I feel like a lot of them are made very cynically.
But that’s not new. It’s not like this is a trend. This is not something that started with Saw franchise. It’s been around since the advent of B-movies. I’m already wincing at how this might sound, but I’m a fan of cinema. I’m a fan of genre. I would love to make a musical. I think that, as with any genre, there are great films and there is garbage.
This movie is thematically heavy and I’ve already seen it inspire some intense post-film discussion. I’m someone who doesn’t stick around for Q&As, because I don’t like having a director explain what their movie means. I’m wondering where you fall on that — like, it really bothered me when Darren Aronofsky basically went on a tour to explain mother! to everyone.
I’m the same way. I love the David Lynch method, which is, [the movie] is whatever you saw, whatever you felt. That’s what it’s about, that’s what it is.
“The film is the thing.”
Exactly, and it’s definitely what I want for Hereditary. I’ve been trying to fashion my answers in a way where it doesn’t feel like I’m telling the interviewers to f— off, but keeping it broad enough. I’m always synopsizing, but not in a way that doesn’t explain what I hope the result is. It’s much easier to talk about where it came from, and I have a lot more fun talking about films I love and filmmakers I love because in the end, I’m a movie watcher. I’m a cinephile, I just love movies. I’m making them because I love them so much that I want to have a dialogue with them.
You’ve made some great short films, but did you still feel somewhat intimidated by making your first feature? Especially with such amazing actors like Toni Collette and Ann Dowd.
Oh yeah, absolutely. I was terrified. It was also just so exciting to get actors like Toni and Gabriel [Byrne] and Ann because I had tried to get several other projects off the ground before Hereditary that didn't go. They mostly didn’t go because they were too ambitious and they required budgets that were unreasonable for a first time filmmaker, and they weren't genre-driven in the same way that Hereditary was.
I had experienced movies not going and almost going — you have the runway and the momentum and then all of a sudden one thing happens and now the movie is dead. Toni Collette and Ann Dowd were the first people we managed to pull on board. It’s exciting because these are tremendous actors and you know they’re going to bring that corner of the movie to life. But beyond that, it changed the game because I knew this was a viable film now. This was something we could get made because they are actors of “value” in the industry. It’s a very gross term, but it’s what people say. They have this value. So ultimately they brought value to the movie and they allowed it to happen. I’ll always be grateful to them for that, and to Gabriel for that. And then the fact that they’re so incredible in the film, it’s just icing on the cake.
You’ve already lined up your next film — another horror movie with A24, is that right?
What can you tell me about that?
All I can tell you is that it is the only other horror movie that I’ve ever written. Everything else I have belongs to other genres. But like Hereditary, it is a horror film and it isn’t. It begins as something else and it spirals out of control.
If Hereditary is a hit I’m sure that’s going to open even more doors for you. Would you ever follow in the footsteps of some of your peers who have gone from making smaller festival favorites to giant blockbusters? If Marvel came to you, is that something you’d be interested in?
I would rather keep making original films, and I have a lot of those I want to make already. I have a long catalog of movies that I am eager to make. I wouldn’t close any doors right now, I don’t think that’s wise. But I’m not looking for any studio gigs right now. That’s not why I’m doing this.
That’s a relief because I’d love to see more original stories from you. Like if you signed on to do a Jurassic Universe or something, I think I’d be disappointed.
[Laughs] I just don’t know if I could handle it emotionally. I get so invested in what I’m making. Just not having control over what the final product is — not being able to really control it is just something that I don’t know if I could handle. But then you have filmmakers who’ve done it and that’s something that — I have immense respect for filmmakers who can work in the system and produce something personal and rich. I would love to get there eventually. I mean, I don’t see how Starship Troopers is any different or less personal than A Woman Under The Influence. But it’s rare, it’s very rare.
Hereditary hits theaters on June 8.