It’s the early hours of a Thursday morning and Ari Aster is confined to a busy office building in Austin, Texas, surrounded by a few members of his team as he prepares to tackle his second ever Reddit AMA. Currently on a whirlwind of a schedule to promote his latest film, MIDSOMMAR, Aster graciously takes the time to let HYPEBEAST pick his brain and give us insight into how his self-proclaimed neurosis has turned him into one of the most exciting filmmakers and storytellers to date.
Just barely inching into his thirties, the American director and screenwriter has already become somewhat of a household name, finding himself mentioned alongside some of Hollywood’s most established players such as fellow horror buff Jordan Peele.
Although it was eight years ago that Aster began capturing the attention of industry insiders with his controversial short films “TDF Really Works” and “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” — the latter involving a son and his abusive and incestuous relationship with his father — Aster shot into the mainstream limelight seemingly overnight with his directorial debut feature length film, Hereditary.
Backed by A24, the studio now known to give auteur-driven films a much-needed platform amongst today’s waves of comic book films and remakes, Hereditary found its way onto numerous critics’ best-of lists and has since been lauded as a horror landmark. But before Hereditary even made its way into movie theaters, Aster was building an entire village from scratch in a field in Hungary for MIDSOMMAR, a daylight-drenched nightmare set in rural Sweden during the summer solstice.
It wasn’t until the initial editing stages of MIDSOMMAR, what Aster calls a “break-up film/fairytale,” that he began to wrap his head around the positive reception that Hereditary was accumulating. “I became more aware of people’s expectations and the pressure of following up Heredity when I was editing MIDSOMMAR," he tells us. “That’s when I was kind of able to start getting neurotic about it.”
And rightfully so, considering Aster’s films pull heavily from influences in his own personal life. When he wrote MIDSOMMAR, he himself was going through a tough break-up, one in which he could see himself as both Florence Pugh’s character, Dani, and Jack Reynor’s Christian. In a way, he’s creating onscreen surrogates for himself. “I feel that if I put enough of myself into these characters, they’ll feel real to me, and hopefully they will feel real to other people,” he states.
“I can say I wanted to be a filmmaker since… well, it was the first thing I wanted to do and I never wanted to do anything else.”
And that’s exactly how Aster finds catharsis through the writing process, taking his traumatic and painful experiences and turning them into something visceral for the audience to experience. “All of my films are very personal. They come from my own life and my own neurosis and things that I’m wrestling with,” he explains. “So for me, writing these films has been therapeutic.”
But what’s next for Aster, who is being heralded as a new horror darling? “I’m debating now between two scripts that I wrote a while ago that I want to polish. One is a nightmare comedy and one is a big domestic melodrama,” he shares with us.
If it’s anything to go by, Aster’s sophomore effort MIDSOMMAR proves he’s not a fluke, and places him as one of the most exciting and audacious filmmakers working in the horror genre today.
Read our full interview with Ari Aster below. MIDSOMMAR is out now.
Your films are quite unique in terms of writing and directing. Where do you find your inspiration?
Well, all of the films are very personal, so they come from my own life and my own neurosis and things that I’m wrestling with. And then I find my inspirations in books and films. I’m usually not quite aware of what my influences are until I’m in post-production and I say "Oh, that must have been lodge in my unconscious and this must have been in the back of my head." I try to be pretty open with the movies that I love and the films that have been important to me. But I try to never draw from things too consciously or self-consciously.
Can you recall that moment when you realized that screenwriting and directing were what you wanted to do?
When I was very young I was kind of an obsessive drawer; kind of a habitual drawer. I was always just drawing things and my mom was a visual artist and I guess I always thought I would move into visual arts. I would always kind of draw like violent horrific images, which would scare my teachers.
I was really into gothic movies and horror films. Especially when I was younger, I was a big horror buff. But I think it was probably the time I was eight, maybe seven, that I knew that I wanted to be making movies. I’ve been obsessed with movies since I was first introduced to them. I think the first thing I wanted to do was be an actor when I was really, really young cause that’s kind of the only way you can image yourself in that world because you’re seeing these actors on the screen. I can’t remember the exact film I was watching where I realized, "Oh I want to be behind the camera. I want to be making these movies, not be in these movies." But yeah I can’t pinpoint it, but I can say I wanted to be a filmmaker since… well, it was the first thing I wanted to do and I never wanted to do anything else.
Coming off of the success of Hereditary, did you feel any pressure going into MIDSOMMAR? Or that you might be categorized as “a one hit wonder"?
I did feel pressure, but the thing is by the time Hereditary was coming out we were already on the path to making MIDSOMMAR. We were already in pre-production so I wasn’t able to get my head around the reception of Hereditary when it came out because I was already kind of thrown into the water with MIDSOMMAR and I was just trying not to drown. So the pressure really was to just make the best film I could and not fail because we didn’t have the time we really needed to make [MIDSOMMAR].
We had resources, but as far as the time it was cutting it close. Really the pressure was to just finish the film so there were days where we were wondering, "Are we even able to get through production?" It was so intense. So if anything I became more aware of people’s expectations and the pressure of following up Heredity was when I was editing MIDSOMMAR. That’s when I was kind of able to start getting neurotic about it.
A lot of fans have compared Hereditary’s clicking sound to MIDSOMMAR’s exhalation/inhalation. Was this intentional to turn these sounds into something sinister?
No. If anything that was part of the marketing strategy on A24’s part. I love they way they marketed these films, but that was always just part of the texture of the films. The exhalation/inhalation sound was always kind of meant to be part of their language and serve as punctuation and to just lend specificity to this place. But I thought it was very clever how A24 ended up using it in the marketing.
How has A24 helped you, and creatives like you, to succeed in the industry?
A24 is great because they are very supportive of their filmmakers and they don’t get behind a movie unless they intend to fully support that film and enable the filmmaker to do his or her best work. They give their artist a lot of freedom and then they take a lot of pride in the way they market their films. They try to market the films in a way that honors what the movie actually is as opposed to what they wish it were, or the type of audience they want to attract. In some ways they can be a little strategic as far as the genre is concerned, but otherwise they really honor the films and the filmmakers that they get behind.
So it’s definitely an honor to work with them especially because they already have this amazing catalogue of films even though they have only been around for so long. They’ve made some of my favorite films over the last, I guess seven or eight years, so I’m just honored to be part of the family. But they are really, really extremely collaborative and they give you enough freedom that when they do come to the table with ideas or questions or concerns, you want to hear them out. You know they don’t inspire defensiveness; they make you want to bring them in and to work with them.
"All of my films are very personal. They come from my own life and my own neurosis and things that I’m wrestling with."
What types of themes and motifs do you try to bring into each of your works? Would you say there is a signature “Ari move"?
I think I might have a signature style with my long takes and sort of the way I like to block the actors and move the camera, but I’m not quite sure what that is; I wouldn’t be able to point it out or explain it. And as far as elements are concerned, I think these two films have a lot in common. But again I was trying not to be too self-conscious about it.
I think I’m becoming already more self-conscious about not wanting to repeat myself and there are certain things that were sort of deliberately repeated in MIDSOMMAR that are in Hereditary, especially thematically. Both films are about family, both films are about trauma and navigating grief. Both films also sort of end with a certain kind of iconography that you know they complement each other in different ways. I’m certainly not self-conscious about the idea of, like, a brand.
How are Hereditary and MIDSOMMAR connected?
In a lot of ways, MIDSOMMAR and Hereditary are both existential horror movies. They’re dealing with fears that have no real remedy; questions about death and whether you can really know the people closest to you. We open the film by having this woman be thrown into a very serious existential dilemma where she is rendered an orphan, and inherent to the film’s trajectory, the story is very much a fairytale. At least, that’s how I see it. I wanted to present a dynamic in which neither party is awful to the other one, but they’re absolutely wrong for each other.
In both films you’ve given really powerful roles to women. Why did you decide to tell your stories through these women?
It wasn’t very strategic, it just felt right for the story. Also they always sort of needed to be women in my mind. My method of writing women is just to put myself in them, and then I feel that if I put enough of myself into these characters, they’ll feel real to me, and hopefully they will feel real to other people.
How do you feel about comparisons to Jordan Peele, someone who is also pushing and recreating the horror genre?
I’m a big fan of Jordan Peele’s work especially Get Out, which I just think is incredible. I’m honored to have my name mentioned in the same sentence as him. I’m really excited by what he’s doing and I’m happy to hear that people who are also excited about his work are excited by mine. And I’m sure that’s not universal, but that’s a really nice thing to hear.
You’ve succeed in both directing and writing. What do you consider your next top skill, or hidden talent? What do you want to try your hand at next?
I want to continue writing and directing. But I am a visual artist and I do love to draw, so I hope to do more of that cause I haven’t been doing enough of it lately. I was able to do some of the art in Hereditary but I was not actually able to do any of the paintings or the art in MIDSOMMAR because the schedule was so tight. So I’m hoping that on my next film I’ll be able to contribute some of the art to the film.
Any hints on upcoming projects? What’s in the works?
I’m debating now between two scripts that I wrote a while ago that I want to polish. One is a nightmare comedy and one is a big domestic melodrama. Those are the two I’m thinking of doing next.