Hollywood is quick to claim discoveries. It’s exciting when a new voice in contemporary cinema, someone who brings something new to the table, debuts their first movie. Hype often outstrips talent, though, and with most grand debuts there is a tendency towards inevitable disappointment. Well, that is, until there isn’t. Such is the case with Ari Aster, the New York-born director behind Hereditary, which opened nationwide this past weekend. In collaboration with A24, Aster has delivered an achingly original nightmare, a film some are hailing as this generation’s The Exorcist. That may not be hyperbole.
Written by Aster, the film opens with the passing of the Graham family’s matriarch, Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, which sends the family into a tailspin. In the aftermath of the funeral, Annie and her family (including Milly Shapiro and Gabriel Byrne) begin uncovering scary and cryptic secrets about their ancestry.
Aster’s directorial debut is a singular achievement. The film is legitimately horrifying to the core, both psychologically and viscerally. After years of honing his craft in short films, Aster has arrived on the scene.
Fandor: Let’s start with Hereditary. Do you recall the moment—either during the writing process or onset, for example—where you felt you had something special with this project?
Aster: There were certain images that were really nagging at me, and I knew that I hadn’t seen them before. I can say that the movie kind of wrote itself in a lot of ways and that there were certain things I had to find, but the film kind of came to me in a wave. That’s what pushes you through the making of a film. If you can see it very clearly in your head, you get possessed by the movie, and it drives you forward. I’m very visual. I really like playing with the camera and playing with blocking, and I try to think of all the ways that a scene can play out before I commit to anything. There were several drafts of Hereditary, and it traded hands a lot as far as producers were concerned. It almost got made in a number of different ways. Every person who comes on has different insights that help push the film in one direction or another, but ultimately the final film is very similar to what it was in the first draft. When you’re writing, there’s a way to dramatize it on the page so that it reads very well, but then when you’re imagining the film in your head and you’re devising a shot list and thinking about how to shoot and block it, the scene tends to re-write itself. You’ll think, for example, “Oh, that line of dialogue is not necessary if I actually move this character from here to here,” or “I can actually say a lot more if I move the camera in here than I would by having the character speak that line.” I see writing as the first phase of directing. You’re constantly shaping the movie, and the movie is constantly changing, but hopefully, it’s changing in a growing effort to be the best version of what the movie has always been. Or has always needed to be.
When was the first time you felt compelled to be a director?
When I first decided that I wanted to be a director, I wanted to be Martin Scorsese, and honestly I still kind of do. Martin Scorsese is still my hero, especially early Scorsese. I was obsessed with Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, and I’m still obsessed with those films. Lars von Trier was a big one, too. Dogville was really important to me growing up. Michael Haneke was a big deal to me when I was in my late teens and early twenties, especially his films, Piano Teacher and Caché. And I really love Roman Polanski and what he does with blocking and camera movement. I’m obsessed with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; their worlds are probably my favorite worlds in cinema. Just what they do with matte paintings—it’s a style of filmmaking that doesn’t really exist anymore, although I love the idea of trying to bring it back as much as I can. I certainly love building sets on stages and working that way, and I’m always thinking about Powell and Pressburger’s films. For the films that I’m working on right now, and the one which I’ll be shooting in August, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus is probably my favorite reference. As far as Federico Fellini is concerned, in 8½ the blocking and the camera movement are ecstatic. It’s an ecstatic camera. Mike Leigh is maybe my favorite living filmmaker. The Coen Brothers were also really important to me from an early age. I fell in love with the Coen Brothers when I first saw Raising Arizona, when I was eleven.
In the past, you said there’s a “cynicism to the horror genre” and the way these movies get made. Do you think that cynicism is specific to the horror genre, or do you think that affects other kinds of movies?
I think it’s specific to studio filmmaking, though there are always exceptions. I certainly feel like most superhero movies are made in an incredibly cynical way. I’m waiting for audiences to get fed up, but still, even in that world, there have been surprises. I thought Logan was shockingly ballsy for a Marvel movie. I feel that a lot of horror movies lately have been made in a very cynical way, and they’re being put out in droves because there is a built-in audience and the risk/reward algorithm works in the studio’s favor, but I don’t think that’s anything new. Even when Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, and The Innocents came out, those were exceptions to the rule of the bad, schlocky B-horror movie.
I think A24 has done a good job of making very interesting films that get seen by mass audiences. Do you think Hereditary fits within this new horror genre that’s being developed (which includes films like It Follows, It Comes At Night, and The Witch)?
I’m a really big fan of The Babadook, The Witch, and Let the Right One In. I can’t say those films were on my mind, but I feel close to those filmmakers, and I think the through-line here is that there are people trying to make great films, and they happen to be in this genre. I feel most inspired by what’s happening in South Korea right now. There’s this trend that’s been going on for like twenty years, with South Korean films routinely juggling genres and tones in a really wild way, without ever sacrificing coherency. I think my favorite horror film of the last several years is a South Korean film called The Wailing, which is just such a generous piece of genre filmmaking. It’s like ten movies jammed into one. That also makes me think of another movie that I saw in 2004, which blew me away, called Save the Green Planet, It’s another film with really exciting storytelling. I’ve had the thought many times over the last decade that I was born in the wrong country. I should have been South Korean. There’s even Secret Sunshine, directed by Lee Chang-Dong, which everyone should see. But, to bring it back to A24, I feel incredibly fortunate to have them putting Hereditary out, and I’m working with them on my next film. I feel like most young American independent filmmakers romanticize the 1970s and are constantly lamenting that that doesn’t exist anymore, but it feels like it kind of is happening right now. I’m in a sort of bubble right now with A24, but I often have to pinch myself because what they’re doing certainly wasn’t around when I first left AFI. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I first left AFI. God bless A24.
When you premiered the film with A24 at Sundance, offers came rolling in to direct preexisting scripts as a director-for-hire, but you rejected those advances—and the money. Before we leave, I want to ask, given the difficulty of this industry—and especially its financial constraints—how do you feel about your decision now?
Before I wrote Hereditary, I had about ten other screenplays that I wanted to direct. There are a lot of personal projects that I want to prioritize and get made. I spent seven years trying to get them made and failing, and I see that I’m in this new position where it might be easier to pursue those projects. Look, I love great blockbusters. I go to watch them, and I grew up fantasizing about making them. But I also have seen this trend of filmmakers making one film and then being pulled onto a movie that’s just enormous, and they don’t have the leverage to really control what the movie is. That would be very painful for me. I feel like I can look into the future and see what that would be, and I think I would rather just keep making work that I believe in and failing or succeeding based on my actual intentions and what I’m able to execute. Maybe once I’ve made a few films and feel like I have a leg to stand on, then it’ll be a conversation that I’m excited to have. And I’m sure I will be because I don’t make small films. We built the entire house on a stage for Hereditary, and I really like world-building. I make films that require budgets. But for now, I’d like to keep working on a more modest scale and making stuff that I really believe in.