Finding a debut feature this strong is scary for all the right reasons.
[Editor's Note: This article is spoiler-free.]
The horror film is a loaded weapon. In the wrong hands, it can be a farce—a projection of ghoulish fantasies happening to one-dimensional characters in a world that barely resembles our own. But wielded wisely, a horror film is a mirror. It reflects the deepest fears of the human mind, sending aftershocks that reverberate in the dark recesses of the imagination well after the lights go out.
Ari Aster's feature debut, Hereditary, is perhaps the most disturbing mirror you'll encounter at the theaters this year. It is a cinematic manifestation of the uncanny. In the film, the familiar transmogrifies into the maw of the unknown. A house is not a home; it is a haunted labyrinth with sinister figures creeping just out of sight. A mother is not a mother; she is a stranger, a simulacrum of a nurturer whose latent intentions are sinister. A friend is not a friend; she is an evil messenger masquerading as a warm embrace.
The dysfunctional family drama-turned-horror stars Toni Colette as Annie Graham, an artist whose mother, Ellen, has just died. Before her death, Ellen, who suffered from dementia, was living in the Graham household with Annie's husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and their children, the stoner Peter (Alex Wolff) and the odd bird Charlie (Milly Shapiro). We meet them in the first shot of the film, as doll-versions of themselves in a miniature replica of their house that Annie created for a gallery exhibit. Slowly, we push in, and the dollhouse seamlessly evolves into the real Graham house, a creaky mansion nestled in the woods. It's a haunting, unsettling transition that is a harbinger of things to come.
"What might serve as a deterrent for an audience in one genre suddenly becomes a virtue in another. The beauty of the horror genre is that you can tell a bleaker, more uncompromising story."
In the first act of the film, something utterly unspeakable happens to the Graham family. In her grief, Annie throws herself into her work, and it becomes clear that her preoccupation with these lifelike models seems to be an effort to exert control over her life. Not to mention the present, Annie has a troubled past; her father committed suicide and her schizophrenic older brother hanged himself, leaving a note that accused their mother of "putting people inside him." In fact, until Ellen began to suffer from dementia, Annie became estranged from her mother, whom she found had a dark influence on those around her. But blood is thicker than water, and in Hereditary, it will flow.
Hereditary is a rare breed of sophisticated, highbrow horror that earns its demonic twists by virtue of its slow-burn pacing, mounting atmospheric dread, hypnotic cinematography, and, especially, its intricate autopsy of family dynamics. Although impressive as individual scenes, the traditional horror plot has no grand design—the scares veer from the occult to the mythological to the downright macabre. So where Hereditary truly succeeds, on a deep level, is in its reflection of the terrors of the human psyche. After all, what is scarier than the idea of an ineluctable fate? Can we ever outrun our parents' demons? The film also explores how grief can morph into resentment, the insidious nature of intergenerational trauma, and how one bad family member can poison the well.
Recently, Aster told Syfy, "the seed [for this film] was that my family and I went through a few very rough years, and it got bad enough that the prevailing feeling was that we were cursed. From there, I just sort of decided to literalize that idea, and make a film about a family being cursed."
No Film School sat down with Aster to discuss why it took him six years to get his first feature off the ground, despite the fact that he had made a viral thesis film in school; the merits of the horror film as a vehicle for drama; why he pushed his film as far into the darkness as it would go, both literally and figuratively; and more.
No Film School: Let's start from the beginning. What intrigues you about horror as a genre, in general?
Ari Aster: I used to be obsessed with horror films, starting when I was 12. I exhausted the horror section of every video store I could find. And I've always had something of a dark sensibility. I think a part of that comes from me being a neurotic guy who's hypochondriacal, and my imagination always goes to the worst-case scenario. So it's a no-brainer for me as a filmmaker to go to that kind of material. It's something of a relief to be able to inflict these worst-case scenarios on invented characters instead of projections of my future self.
In the case of Hereditary, the horror genre is a great filter through which you can put more difficult material. Ultimately, the biggest challenge is: How do you find the catharsis in that material? It's usually a very horrible catharsis, on the more nihilistic side. But I think that there's an opportunity to achieve a euphoric nihilism in the horror genre.
With this film, I really wanted to make a film about people suffering. I wanted to make a film about grief and trauma. I wanted to make a film that was honest about those things. I feel like there's a trend of American domestic dramas and tragedies where a family suffers a loss, things get hairy for a while, it gets tumultuous, and communication breaks down... but ultimately, the bonds are strengthened, and everything's going to be okay. People have been brought together by the experience.
NFS: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Aster: Exactly. And there's nothing inherently false about that idea, but it's not always the case. Some people don't recover. Some people are taken down by these horrible experiences. And I guess I wanted to make a film about that. But if you make that as a bleak drama, good luck getting people in the theater—especially now, where very few independent films make it to the theater.
But what might serve as a deterrent for an audience in one genre suddenly becomes a virtue in another. And the beauty of the horror genre is that you can tell a bleaker, more uncompromising story. Ultimately, you do have to meet the demands of the genre, and you have to satisfy expectations in a certain way, but that challenge becomes fun in itself: How can I remain honest in the telling of this story without disappointing genre fans who are there for a good horror movie?
NFS: Absolutely. What I found really interesting about your film, in particular, is that you were able to dredge up a lot of fraught, complex themes, like regret of motherhood and the resentment that can build in the wake of grief. You could make an entire drama about any one of the themes in your film. You could spend an entire movie unpacking them. But what you did is just bring them up and let them exist within this atmosphere that you created. It actually created more space for the audience to interact with those questions, whereas a more prescriptive drama might try to answer them.
Aster: Yeah. I agree. When I was screening films for the crew, there were very few horror movies that I actually screened. I did screen Rosemary's Baby and Don't Look Now, because the film does pay indirect homage to both. But I was mostly screening family dramas for [the crew]. I showed a couple films by Mike Leigh, who is probably my favorite filmmaker. We watched All Or Nothing and Secrets and Lies. We watched Bergman's Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata, which is his mother-daughter film. And this, in the end, is very much a mother-daughter film. We also watched The Ice Storm and In the Bedroom.
"I wrote Hereditary basically thinking that a horror film would be easier to finance. That was an instinct that was validated."
It was very important to me that the film function as a vivid family drama before it even bothered with any of the horror elements. Ultimately, the original cut was three hours long, so a lot of those family drama scenes are on the floor now. But I hope we were able to retain that core.
NFS: You can tell that this is an intensely personal film for you. In a recent interview, you said that the film was inspired by the notion that your own family was cursed. How did your experiences with your family make their way into the writing process?
Aster: What's beautiful about filmmaking is that you're able to take more personal stuff, put it through the filter, and out comes an invention. In this case, no characters in the film are surrogates for me or my family. If anything, I was just taking some personal feelings—some very immediate, raw feelings—and trying to imbue the film with those. So if the film is personal, and I think it is, then what makes it personal is the feelings that power it. When I watch the film, I recognize my own life in it, but I only recognize it in the emotional drive of the movie.
NFS: You went to film school at the College of Santa Fe before studying directing at AFI. Can you tell me about how your film education influenced your development as a filmmaker?
Aster: Well, I've been obsessed with movies since I was a little kid. Through high school, I was obsessively watching everything I could get my hands on. I think I was a cinephile from pretty early on, but I wasn't somebody who was making Super-8 movies in my backyard. I was writing screenplays since I was about 13. Feature screenplays. And I think by the time I went to college, I had written six features.
Then I went to the College of Santa Fe, where I studied film. And kept writing screenplays there. That's where I started making films. But even there, I had the typical undergrad film student experience of, if you want to direct a film, you have to drag everybody kicking and screaming into helping you. And so, every film you make, you're functioning as the cinematographer, the editor, the production designer. You're doing everything. And so the films are usually pretty amateurish.
But my amateurish work got me into AFI, where I went straight from undergrad. It's a two-year program. In the first year, if you're studying directing, you make three short films. And then you screen each short for the entire school. You sit up on a stage, and people tear you apart. It's very competitive because you know everybody's work.
"[My AFI thesis short] went viral in 2011. It still took six years to get Hereditary going."
I personally really loved the program. I think it can be very cut-throat for some people. I found it to be really exciting. It's very practice-oriented, so you're really making films. You're doing it. You're not talking about it. It's not theory-driven. And at that point, I had already devoted myself to theory, so it was really fun to just dive into practice.
And as a director, you're also able to toy with different styles that you've been fantasizing about. I love Michael Haneke, so I tried doing my minimalist Michael Haneke transgression thing. And then I found that I was bored with that style of filmmaking. I wanted to do more with the camera. So I ended up doing something where I played with the camera too much, and [the camera movement] wasn't motivated enough, which drove me nuts. So over the course of those three shorts, you start to hone something and you find what works for you and what doesn't.
Aster: And then in the second year, you make a thesis film, so you're devoted to one film. I made a short called The Strange Thing With the Johnsons while I was there. I was able to do something pretty weird at AFI, which is a school that prides itself on being something of an industry school. But I found that I was able to do offbeat, subversive work.
And then I graduated from AFI, and I continued to make shorts and write screenplays—just trying to find something that would stick, and get a feature going. It took about seven years before I was able to get Hereditary rolling.
NFS: Did it help that Johnsons went viral? How did its online success impact your career trajectory?
Aster: It helped in that people had seen what a film directed by me might look like. But it didn't help me get a feature. With Hereditary, really, what it came down to was the script.
"A lot of people are scared about how dark you can go [with your cinematography] without losing the image. We wanted to really push that as far as we could go and be ballsy about it."
I had tried to get several screenplays going that were genre-driven films, but they belonged to genres that were certainly mainstream when I was growing up, but which have since become tricky. And so I wrote Hereditary basically thinking that a horror film would be easier to finance. That was an instinct that was validated. But first, it takes people wanting your script. And then from there, you say, "You can only have the script if I come attached as a director." And so it helped that I had these shorts—and I had several of them—that gave an idea of what Hereditary might look like. Also, I think the script for Hereditary was so specific that I hope that it was clear that there was a vision behind it.
With the shorts, I was definitely very cynical about they were able to do for me. I was like, "I've gone to these festivals...."
NFS: What's next?
Aster: Right. Johnsons went viral in 2011. It still took six years to get Hereditary going.
NFS: Wow. And this was your first feature. You came to it with a really assured, confident style. It's evident that you spent a lot of time honing your aesthetic. The pacing was very restrained and controlled. You earned the horror elements. How did you build out that architecture on set?
Aster: The way I work is that I begin by composing a shot-list on my own before I talk to anybody in the crew. The shot-list for Hereditary was about 130 pages. And then I go to my production designer and my DP. My production designer here was Grace Yun, and my cinematographer was Pawel Pogorzelski, who I've been working with since AFI. I'll take them scene by scene, shot by shot, through the entire film. And that's a process that takes about three weeks, five hours a day.
And then when we're through, we all have the same movie in our head, and we can start having a dialogue about that and improving upon that. It's one thing to be working from the same script, but it's very helpful to all have the same vision.
NFS: How did you discuss the cinematography's overall aesthetic with Pawel? You have a lot of very disturbing images in the film, but they aren't schlocky.
Aster: We talked a lot about wanting to be very bold with the negative space in the film. I think a lot of people have fear over how dark you can go [with your cinematography] without losing the image. We wanted to really push that as far as we could go and be ballsy about it. I think most of the frightening images in the film happen in low light or darkness or shadow.
"A director's job is really to express yourself as clearly as possible so everybody knows what they're doing and all on the same page. Directing is just talking a lot."
Typically, the way we work is that I'm in charge of camera movement and composition, and Pawel's in charge of lighting. And so I'll often give him references for lighting, but I like to mostly leave him alone. We'll talk about tone and I'll point out, "For moonlight, look at this film" or "For twilight, look at this film," and "For lamp light, let's talk about this."
Our prime reference for the quality of light in this film was actually in Kieślowski's Red. It's not a likely reference, but it really struck us as the right way to go here, especially with the palette of the house. Both films are actually very brown, as far as the production design is concerned.
We talked a lot about Polanski as far as camera movement was concerned. We actually talked a lot about Fellini as far as blocking is concerned—8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits were important references, camera-wise.
NFS: You filmed all of the interior scenes on a set. Can you tell me about the process of building the set, and why you chose to go that route?
Aster: While we were going through the shot list, it became clear to me that it was going to be very hard to find an actual location for the house. We still tried. We put about a month and a half into location scouting, but it became clear that it would actually be cheaper to build the entire house on a stage. So we built everything interior in the house from scratch, on a stage, in Park City, Utah.
One reason that we did that was because I needed spaces that would allow for an agile camera and ambitious blocking. Ultimately, we designed all those spaces to match what we wanted to do with the camera and with the blocking. But we designed the set also so that we could remove walls to achieve this dollhouse aesthetic, where the characters could be dwarfed in their environments.
But then that added a new challenge: we needed a miniaturist, Steve Newburn, in Toronto, to replicate the spaces that hadn't even been built yet. So he was building miniature furniture and beds and plants and miniature replicas of everything. Basically, he would get started on replicating those the day after we said, "Okay, well we're going to use these chairs, we're going to use these tables, we're going to use these drapes over the windows." But we had to basically decide on all of that set dressing months before shooting, which is not typically how it goes. Typically, if you're building on a stage, you do need to figure out what the spaces are, and you want to get those going as soon as possible. You want construction to start as soon as possible. But you don't need to rush anything as far as the dressing is concerned. That's something we learned as we were going.
We learned the wrong ways to [build a set] and the right ways, and we did it mostly the wrong way. We knew that it was going to be tricky, but there are just certain no-brainer things that you don't think about, like that it's going to take so much longer to build these tiny chairs than it will be even to build the frame of the house. And so we had miniatures coming in the day that we were shooting them, at the very end of the shoot.
NFS: Along those lines, can you talk about that dynamite opening shot, where you push in from the miniature dollhouse version of the Grahams' house to a seamless live-action version? That must have been very carefully orchestrated.
Aster: Yeah. That was carefully orchestrated. That room was built with that first shot in mind. It's an important room in the film.
You think you're being so clear throughout pre-production...A director's job is really to express yourself as clearly as possible so everybody knows what they're doing and all on the same page. Directing is just talking a lot. You think you've been clear about everything, but then the miniature came in for the Graham house, and the front wall was not removed. And that was the whole idea: that it should serve as almost an X-rated view into the house, with the front wall gone. That was miscommunicated. Then, we were faced with the question of: Do we risk sawing off the front wall, and risk it splintering everywhere and ruining the whole thing? Or do we re-think the shot? And so I made the call to saw off the front wall, and that was terrifying. But it turned out to be okay. It could have not been okay. I don't know what would have happened in that case.
But yeah, we have little tracking markers in the original plate of the first shot. We shot a static plate of Peter's actual room, with the fourth wall removed, so that we see the full room with him sleeping in the bed and Gabriel Byrne stepping in and leaving. And then we put trackers on the exposed miniature of Peter's room. And we then put the plate of the actual room over the miniature version. And that's how we ended up doing that.