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Hereditary director Ari Aster on family trauma and researching that ending

“What might serve as a deterrent for an audience in one genre suddenly becomes a virtue in another.”

Toni Collette in Hereditary with a burning figure
(Ari Aster is not on fire.)
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Director Ari Aster’s new family tragedy/horror film Hereditary is one of my favorite movies of 2018 so far, moving nimbly among a bunch of different tones. It will be starkly sorrowful in one scene, blisteringly funny in the next, then unbelievably scary in still another. It’s a confident debut, the kind that announces a talent who will hopefully make several more terrific movies.

But what is it that makes Hereditary work so well? A lot of it is thanks to Aster’s balancing of tones, but he’s also adept at developing themes of mental illness, of suffering, of grief. And his directorial style — which favors long shots and camera movement over jump cuts — gets under your skin far more effectively than horror films that go in for more frenetic editing.

I wanted to talk to Aster about these qualities of the film, but I also wanted to ask him some questions about the research he did into the [spoilers] from the movie’s legitimately unhinged climax. (Don’t worry; I’ve marked those spoilers and put them at the end of the interview.) He was forthcoming on all of that, as well as on discussion of his influences. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff

This is a really interesting story about mental illness, if you want to look at it through one particular lens. Tell me about your experience with horror confronting issues of mental illness. We often struggle to talk about mental illness and, thus, use a genre as a lens to do so.

Ari Aster

One thing I love about genre filmmaking in general, and certainly the horror genre, is that you can take thematic material that may be harder for some people to digest, or material that you want to talk honestly about, without having to compromise whatever your message might be, or without the same risk of losing an audience.

If you want to make a bleak drama about grief and trauma and people trying and failing to navigate tragedy, then you might very well end up with a wonderful film that either doesn’t find distribution or it doesn’t get seen or just simply doesn’t get financed. Forget whether it sees the light of day. You might not be able to get it made.

As somebody who struggled for almost a decade to get a feature going, I know how that goes. But what might serve as a deterrent for an audience in one genre suddenly becomes a virtue in another.

I knew that I really wanted to make a film about the corrosive effects of trauma on a family unit. I knew that I wanted to make a film that had sort of an ouroboros quality about a family that’s basically eating itself in its grief. It’s a story that I certainly had in me. I didn’t really have to find it.

Ultimately, I did want to make a film that was seriously tackling these issues and operating almost as a meditation on these things, while at the same time functioning as an exciting genre film that hopefully delivers. What’s funny about it especially in the horror genre is that you can aim to make a satisfying one, but you’re always drawing a line in the sand. Like, “Okay, am I only working on the level of the allegorical? Or am I giving in to the genre in maybe a broader sense and going for a different kind of catharsis?

Ultimately, there are familiar elements here. I’ve been pretty unambiguous about my love for films like Don’t Look Now and Rosemary’s Baby. But for me, the metaphor is operating all the way through. At the end, without spoiling anything, the movie is still about how trauma can utterly transform a person, and not necessarily for the better.

‘Hereditary’ New York Screening
Ari Aster (center) with the cast of Hereditary.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff

Did you do research into those more psychological aspects, or into the idea of parents and children creating that sort of ouroboros of pain you mentioned?

Ari Aster

I will say, I have an amazing relationship with my parents and with my younger brother. I have incredibly supportive parents who are both artists. One reason I’m able to work on as dark a register as I often do is because I’ve never been made to question anything I was making by them. They were always incredibly supportive. But I can say that there has been a lot of suffering in my family. I can’t really talk about it. It didn’t befall me, but it’s befallen people that I care very deeply about.

So I wanted to make a film about suffering that took suffering seriously. I’ve talked about loving Mike Leigh and loving [Ingmar] Bergman, but at the same time, I’m somebody who also loved genre. That’s what I know, and that’s how movies come to me. It occurred to me that the horror genre was the right playground for this because I wanted to say something uncompromising, and I wasn’t in a place where I had the bittersweet ending in me. Once you decide that you’re working within a genre, really, the ultimate demand is, okay, now you have to find the catharsis in that story.

On a more academic level, the task also becomes, how do you honor the genre while trying to breathe new life into a dead horse? This is a movie that is lousy with tropes and conventions and clichés. But I’m working in the genre. It’s silly to pretend that you’re not who you are. I love these traditions; I grew up with them.

But part of the fun is also thinking, okay, so it’s a cliché now, but that’s just because it worked so well the first time that people kept using it to the point where they use it instinctually.

Part of it is investigating what it is that makes this cliché essential, and how do I find a way to just make it urgent for myself?

I can’t really speak to what it does to the audience. It’s been fun going on Twitter and seeing there are people coming out who are loving it, and there are people coming out saying it’s the worst thing ever.

Todd VanDerWerff

Do you like provoking a reaction even if it’s not a wholly positive one?

Ari Aster

Yeah. You want to have an experience when you go to a film, especially when you’re going to genre film. You want to be surprised.

It is a film about suffering. I hope that horror fans come to this and feel gratified and have a good time and really enjoy whatever it is we’ve done. But then I do feel that there are people who are in a bad place who are really struggling, and there’s sometimes something about seeing a downbeat nihilistic movie when you’re not at your best, and when life is just not being fair, which life has a way of doing every now and then. Sometimes disaster can strike in a way that people don’t recover immediately from, and sometimes people don’t ever recover.

[Hereditary] is ultimately a very operatic, melodramatic thing that will make you feel a lot of things and you might not want to feel them. But I hope it’s an experience.

Toni Collette and Ann Dowd in Hereditary
Annie and Joan get ready for a seance. What a great idea!!!!!!!!!

Todd VanDerWerff

You shoot so much of this movie, especially the big scare sequences, in wide shots, and then move the camera around to emphasize the scary bits. How did you develop that look for the film? It’s not always a natural for horror.

Ari Aster

I love a motivated long take that goes just as long as it should before becoming distracting or indulgent.

I am somebody who composes a shot list before I talk to anybody on the crew. Then when I’m done composing a shot list, which also requires that I map out the blocking, I sit down with my cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, and production designer, Grace Yun. I take them through the movie that’s in my head, shot by shot. That way we all have the same movie in our head and we’re able to have a dialogue from there. The shot list does change because we’re all talking about it, and they have something clear in their head that they can then adjust and bring ideas to me.

I know that I’m typically bored by traditional [camera] coverage. I also find that not very fun to shoot and actually kind of nerve-racking because it’s harder to know what you have at the end of the day when you have 20 or 25 pieces for a scene and you have to know if it’s going to match. The more you shoot, the better idea you have whether this thing will match or not, because your instincts sharpen and start to grow in your gut.

When you’re shooting in sequence, when one shot goes to the point, and that’s your cutting point, and then you’re going to go to this shot, which is going to cover this portion of the scene, and then you have a cutting point here, which will then transition to this shot — you see exactly what you’re getting on that monitor. Sometimes, you need to get more takes than usual, but it’s just because you need everything to align, because you’re not covering yourself. But I personally find that it’s a more comforting way to work because I do walk away knowing what I have.

Then at the same time, I’ve also found that the more ambitious the shots, the more excited the crew is when you nail it, and the more excited I am. You set a very high goal that requires that everybody be on their toes, and then when you achieve it, it’s galvanizing. People are excited now to move on to the next shot.

On the other side of that coin, if you don’t quite get it and you have to move on because the clock is hanging over you, that can be very depressing. And you’re working on the next shot thinking about the last shot that you didn’t nail.

Todd VanDerWerff

You talked about the tropes of horror, but this movie also works within the family drama or family tragedy genre. What are some tropes of that genre you wanted to pull off?

Ari Aster

Well, we actually are really playing with a lot of tropes in that genre. I would say just as many as we are in the horror genre. You have the breakdown of communication in the family, which puts us in a place where we need somebody from the outside to enter and serve as a catalyst for one of the characters to open up. In Ordinary People that’s the Judd Hirsch character, the therapist.

This is a pretty pervasive thing in the family drama or the American domestic tragedy — the breakdown of communication so that things can later be blurted out, and heard. But before that, we have to have the person who allows for the obligatory exposition and they’re new to the picture. So we get to hear what they’re hearing the first time.

Ann Dowd served that function in a perverse way. But she comes in and when she comes in, she’s badly needed at least by Toni Colette’s character. She is a much-needed source of warmth and compassion.

Todd VanDerWerff

Did you do research into demons and witchcraft? I looked up Paimon and found out that he’s a thing that people apparently once believed in.

Ari Aster

I did do a lot of research, especially into witchcraft and how one might cast a spell and how to conduct one of these rituals. It was very disturbing for me, and I had to move away from it once I’d gotten what I needed.

I’m sure that I’m going to be called out by occultists for taking liberty where I might have. But ultimately, I have no ties to the occult. In any way. I’m just a Jewish guy. I’m just a neurotic Jewish guy.

Hereditary is playing in theaters.