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How Hereditary director Ari Aster became an unlikely horror hero

“I don’t necessarily consider myself a horror filmmaker,” writer-director Ari Aster tells me hours before his debut feature Hereditary screens at the 2018 Overlook Film Festival. It’s a surprising observation: Hereditary premiered to acclaim at Sundance, immediately sparking talk of an Oscar nomination for actress Toni Collette, and critics preemptively hailed it as the scariest movie of 2018. (It arrives in theaters on June 8th.) The film is a slow-motion nightmare, recalling 1960s and ‘70s classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now as it tracks the disintegration of a family after the death of its matriarch. It’s stylish and unnerving, the rare kind of film that burrows into your psyche and lingers there afterward. It is unquestionably a horror film.

And it’s the polar opposite of the measured, 31-year-old director. Aster is quiet and thoughtful, carefully considering every answer behind long pauses and expressing sincere gratitude that audiences are responding to his film. He seems, for lack of a better term, nice.

“Jesus Christ,” Collette tells me a few weeks later in Los Angeles. “You just don’t expect a film like this to come out of that guy.”

Aster says he fell in love with film at an early age, and it’s probably no coincidence that he describes his first encounter with the medium as a nerve-wracking, darkly hilarious sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in one of his films. “My first experience in a movie theater was Dick Tracy,” he says. “There was a scene with a guy with a Tommy gun and a wall of fire behind him. I panicked, screamed, and jumped out of my seat. And I ran six New York city blocks, running into the street and almost got hit by a bunch of cars, and had my mom chasing after a panic-stricken four-year-old.”

Despite that early reaction, Aster loved movies. He fell into an early obsession with horror — “I just exhausted the horror section of every video store I could find,” he says — before he turned to the creative side of the process. But while many young filmmakers cite childhood experiences of shooting Super-8 or mini-DV films in their backyards, Aster says he had a different, more solitary formative experience. “I didn’t know how to assemble people who would cooperate on something like that,” he says. “And so I found myself just writing screenplays.”

When he eventually set his sights on attending graduate school at the American Film Institute Conservatory, he assumed he’d pursue the screenwriting track. “Then I think it became apparent that the life of a screenwriter would probably be a painful one for me,” he says. “You have to relinquish control, and give the movie to somebody else, who then realizes it to their liking. And so I think it was in undergrad that I realized I definitely needed to be a director as well.”

In the AFI directing program, Aster began working with collaborators like Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and started writing and directing a series of disturbing, subversively funny short films. The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is a melodrama about a family dealing with the specter of sexual abuse — only in this case, it’s a grown-up son who’s abusing his father. Munchausen stars Die Hard’s Bonnie Bedelia as a mother with an unhealthy attachment to her teenage child, who is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent him from getting married and leaving home forever.

The films made the rounds on the festival circuit, and looking at them now, it’s easy to see hints of Aster’s debut feature in his earlier work. The shorts feature similar meticulously framed visuals and a penchant for Kubrickian symmetry. Like Hereditary, they show a fascination with family dysfunction, and an eagerness to push audiences well beyond their comfort zones. All these elements seem like snapshots of a filmmaker honing and refining his creative voice in real time.

“I’d watched his shorts, and they blew me away,” Collette says. “He really does have an original voice, and I feel like that is what the world is lacking. Everything is so watered down and neutralized for mass appeal, which is so crazy because what people really respond to is the strength of an original voice.”

But despite his early obsession with horror movies, that was the one genre Aster intentionally tried to steer away from. “I’d been resisting writing a horror film for a long time, mostly because it just wasn’t the genre that had been exciting me,” he confesses. “Which is silly, because everything I do is really dark and bleak, and horror is like the one genre where that is not only a virtue; it’s sort of necessary.”

That’s not meant “to slag off the genre,” he stresses. It’s clear that horror does intrigue Aster. He’s just not interested in clichéd gorefests or stalked-teenager flicks. Talking about his favorites, he name-checks Robert Eggers’ The Witch and the original Let the Right One In. He gushes about Hong-jin Na’s 2016 film The Wailing, and Nagisa Ôshima’s Empire of Passion. Aster is a cineaste’s genre fan, interested in horror for the themes it allows filmmakers to explore and the catharsis it allows viewers, rather than the potential for jump-scares.

“You have two camps,” he says. “One is horror films that are essentially roller-coaster rides, that are there to just give people a series of jolts, and then let them go home and get on with their life. Then there are others that are maybe more existential in nature and are really trying to play with very serious fears and engaging with them on a serious level. Those are the ones that I’m interested in watching, and those are the films I’m interested in making.”

His attempt at writing that kind of existential horror film resulted in Hereditary, with A24 Films — the company behind movies like Ex Machina and Room — jumping on board once the Hollywood wheels started to turn. According to Collette, it was his grounded approach to the genre that made the script stand out in the first place. “He just really understood the dynamics in the family, has such an understanding of what it is to be human, what it is to experience loss,” she says. “When I read it initially, it kind of felt like The Ice Storm.”

Photo: A24 Films

The finished film has more than its share of terrifying sequences, but the decaying relationship between Collette’s Annie Graham, her husband (Gabriel Byrne), and their two children (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro) serves as the movie’s framework — and arguably, it’s most disturbing element. “I wanted to make a serious film about grief and trauma that worked as a vivid family drama,” Aster explains. “I wanted to make a drama that curdled into a nightmare, in the same way that life can end up feeling like a nightmare when disaster strikes.”

Hereditary feels so relentless at times, so eager to explore the dark places that most movies wouldn’t dare venture into, that it’s easy to wonder if Aster is exorcising some personal demons. Is there a reason why such an affable filmmaker was able to conjure up such a distressing cinematic ride?

“This was a very therapeutic film to write and to make,” he acknowledges. “The feelings behind the film were highly personal.” He seems reluctant to say more than that, emphasizing that “the film itself is all invention,” while also admitting that part of the genre’s power is its ability to offer audiences — and storytellers — the opportunity to grapple with unresolved anxieties. “The genre, it demands catharsis, and so you have to find the catharsis,” he says. “Even if that means taking these horrible ideas to their logical conclusion, and going full-on apocalyptic. That can be so much more therapeutic than thousands of hours on a therapist’s couch.”

If making Hereditary offered one moment of catharsis for Aster, the next came when the film premiered at Sundance, not far from the Park City, Utah locations where he had shot. “It was amazing,” he says. “The first feeling was one of relief.” It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae when making a film, he explains, and he has a tendency to obsess over the things that don’t turn out exactly how they were intended. Watching a film with an actual audience is the best way to break out of that mindset. “I’d almost forgotten that I had made a horror movie,” he says. “For so long, I was just trying to make the best movie I could. It was a reminder that I had made a horror movie, and it was gratifying to see that it was working as one, at least on that audience.”

Still, the near-constant accolades that the film has racked up since its festival debut bring their own pressure. A few weeks before the film’s release, I spoke to Aster again, and he sounded a note of caution. “I’m excited, but I’m a little nervous, too. I feel like the hype has been really gratifying, but I wonder if any movie can stand up to it, to the kind of hyperbole that’s been thrown around. So I’m hoping people come to it without too much bias and can see it for what it is.”

Photo: A24 Films

It’s a reasonable concern. Hype for Hereditary has certainly been high — Time Out New York’s Joshua Rothkopf called the film “a new generation’s The Exorcist — but worrying that a movie isn’t going to be horrifying enough to meet expectations is a long way from trying to avoid making horror movies altogether. If anything, Aster seems to have embraced the genre recognition his debut feature has thrust upon him — for the time being, at least. A24 recently announced that it will be working with the filmmaker on his sophomore feature, another horror film tentatively titled Midsommer.

“I can’t say too much about it, but I can say that it’s similar to Hereditary in that it begins as one thing, and then it becomes a horror film,” Aster says. “This film is a contribution to the Scandinavian folk-horror space, and we’re gonna be shooting it in Hungary in August.”

But once that film is finished, he thinks it will be time for something different. “It’ll probably be my last horror movie for a while,” he says. “I love the genre, and I can definitely see myself returning to it, but I would like to play in another sandbox after that one.”

Audiences shouldn’t expect Ari Aster to turn around and start making upbeat, family-friendly romps, though. “I have 10 screenplays I hope to direct, and they’re all rooted in different genres,” he says. “I don’t really have a mission as a filmmaker, but if anything ties them all together, I’d say that they’re all on the darker side.”

You’d never expect it from such a nice guy.

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