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Ari Aster on his new film Midsommar: “I keep telling people I want it to be confusing”

The Hereditary director talks about Disney, folk horror, and why he thinks interviews are a “minefield.”

Florence Pugh in Midsommar.
Florence Pugh in Midsommar.
A24

In 2018, Ari Aster set the horror-loving film world on fire with his debut feature Hereditary, an unnerving movie about loss, grief, and the traits we’re afraid to inherit from our family. Its exacting, creepy visual style, coupled with outstanding performances (particularly from Toni Collette), signaled a strong new voice in horror.

Now Aster is back with Midsommar, an ambitious and operatic summertime nightmare in which a group of American graduate students travels to a remote village in Sweden for Midsummer festivities centered on the summer solstice — and discovers they’re in way, way over their heads.

I recently met Aster in Manhattan — as it happened, on the day of the solstice itself, June 21 — to talk about his new film. We discussed the rules of folk horror, whether its similarities to a Disney movie were purposeful, and how excruciatingly difficult it can be for a filmmaker to talk about their own work. Our conversation, lightly edited for lengthy and clarity, follows.

This interview contains spoilers for Midsommar. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want to know any details about the film’s plot, turn away now!

Alissa Wilkinson

It occurred to me after I saw Midsommar that your films have at least one thing in common with Disney movies: an explosively terrible thing happens near the beginning, and the rest of the movie is everyone trying to recover. You know how the parents always die or there’s some massive tragedy at the beginning of a Disney movie? That feels like an interesting storytelling device, and you replicate it in your own films: There’s a shocking death near the beginning of both Midsommar and Hereditary. Is that what you were going for?

Ari Aster

I mean, yes, and no, I guess. With this film, more than Hereditary, maybe. With Hereditary, my mind was in a bunch of places that I can barely access right now. I’ve always seen Midsommar as a fairy tale. Orphaning your main character is the oldest fairy tale move in the book, and that was important for where the film goes.

I think the fun of the film is that it is a contribution to the “folk horror” subgenre. So it goes exactly where you’re expecting, but the surprise is in how it feels to get there. It’s like the guys in the movie are in a folk horror movie, but [main character and girlfriend of one of the guys] Dani, it turns out, is not. She’s in something else, and she’s our conduit. She’s the person that we’re attached to, so it’s her movie, not theirs.

But Disney was a reference, especially for the very opening moment with the mural that opens the film. I definitely wanted that to feel like a Disney flourish.

A scene from Midsommar
Welcome to ... Disney World?
A24

Alissa Wilkinson

I think I wrote down “opera” in my notes during that moment; it immediately felt like I was watching a movie with an overture that describes what’s about to happen. Then the panels slide open on a wintry scene. So it felt very much like an opera.

Ari Aster

Good, that’s definitely how I see the movie.

Alissa Wilkinson

As an opera?

Ari Aster

As a big opera. A breakup opera.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah, and so many operas are dependent on not just mythologies, but specifically Nordic mythology. So it makes sense that this movie has that feeling as well. Were there any operatic touchpoints for you? Are you familiar with opera?

Ari Aster

I’ve been to the opera a few times. I think my way into the concept of what an opera is, is that I love melodrama in film. That’s what I’m drawn to, in movies. I love melodrama — the operative word being “melos,” right? Like, finding the music in the drama. Treating it as music.

So, when I was thinking about this movie, I wasn’t thinking much about folk horror. I wasn’t watching them when I was writing it. I have folk horror movies in my bones. I know how they work. I know the trajectory. In Midsommar, I’m leaning on them, because I recognize that [because of that familiar trajectory,] the audience is coming in basically knowing where this story is going to go. And that’s half the fun: “Okay, you know where it’s going. I’m going to take you there. But I’m going to try to get you there by a different avenue.”

Whether I succeed, I don’t know. But the films I was talking about with my cinematographer were Powell and Pressburger films [which often have fantastical, dream-like elements], especially when we were talking about color, or how we were going to “paint” this community. So we were talking about Black Narcissus and Tales of Hoffman. We weren’t really looking at other horror films. We painted in these broad, whimsical strokes.

I think we were doing this dance where we’re trying to keep everything simultaneously grounded and up in the clouds.

Alissa Wilkinson

Fantastical.

Ari Aster

Yeah, fantastical and grounded, so that you’re transported to another world. But at the same time, your feet never actually leave the ground.

Florence Pugh in Midsommar.
Florence Pugh in Midsommar.
A24

Alissa Wilkinson

I was also thinking about classical ballet stories, which are often about people who begin in seemingly normal circumstances and then experience some kind of tragedy. So Coppelia for instance, is this really tragic story, or Swan Lake, or even The Nutcracker, which is totally sanitized for the holidays, but in the original story has this darkness lurking around the corner of things that we think of as very beautiful.

In Midsommar, you also have these beautiful traditions that live right alongside incredible darkness. The characters in the film don’t have any idea what to do when they first encounter that darkness, because everything seems beautiful. But that beauty and real darkness are meshed together in the film. You made flower crowns menacing.

When you were designing that world, were you looking to inject a feeling of menace into things that seem very beautiful and light?

Ari Aster

It really depends on where I am in the process. As we’re designing the film, I’m talking to the production designer and the costume designer, we’re thinking about it. But when I was working with the Swedish actors, it was very important to me that [the villagers, called the Harga] not be menacing. They’re not foreboding. There’s nothing foreboding about them. They love this world. They believe in what they’re doing. They’re absolutely fair. They love each other. They are just completely in touch with themselves and their lives and each other. That’s all it was with them. There’s no mustache twirling or arched eyebrows.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’ve heard some people call the Harga a cult, but it’s not really. In fact, it was weird to go home from the film and realize there wasn’t anything supernatural in the film at all. It’s almost hyper-natural; they’re so connected to the rhythm of the seasons and the earth.

That all sounds very beautiful and wonderful. And yet, their rituals become horrifying to interlopers, who are very modern and prefer to bury their feelings. But you can’t really call it a cult. There aren’t really any leaders. It lacks the defining qualities of a cult.

Ari Aster

No, I don’t see them as a cult. They might be. But I never called them a cult. For me, they are a community, and they are a family. I wanted them to exist as a place with a history and very clear laws and rules and traditions. I wanted all that to feel very rich, and very lived in.

At the same time, this is a fairy tale, and they really are exactly what Dani needs. For better or worse, this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. This is truly a spoiler, but: We begin as Dani loses a family, and we end as Dani gains one. And so, for better or worse, they are there to provide exactly what she is lacking, and exactly what she needs, in true fairy tale fashion.

“Midsommar” New York Screening
Ari Aster an an event for Midsommar in June 2019.
Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage

Alissa Wilkinson

And yet, it really is upsetting to see what happens at the end. I think that’s maybe part of what’s so unnerving about the film, which I mean in a good way. Fairy tales do have clear-cut villains and good guys, and the fairy godmother — you know what she’s there for. But Midsommar doesn’t have those clear-cut archetypes. You actually have no idea who you’re supposed to be rooting for throughout.

Ari Aster

So hopefully, you go in thinking that the Harga will be the villains. Then you realize that it was Christian, all along, because we’re with Dani. For her, he’s the foil. She wants to be close to him. Her dilemma is that she is alone in the world. And he’s the thing preventing that from being resolved, right? Because he is not allowing her in.

Alissa Wilkinson

And he’s not even a particularly aggressive or obvious villain.

Ari Aster

He’s a pretty banal villain, yeah.

Alissa Wilkinson

His friends seem more sucky than him for most of the film.

Ari Aster

They’re an extension of him.

But if anything, I want people to be able to watch the film from two perspectives, but I want his perspective to be harder to access. We’ve all been in either position. We’ve all been in a relationship where we desperately want to be closer to the person and they are less invested than we are. And I assume most people have been in a position of wanting out of a relationship, not feeling it, but not wanting to hurt the other person. So, you stay longer than you should, because you don’t want to go through the mess.

Alissa Wilkinson

Of extracting yourself.

Ari Aster

Exactly.

William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Florence Pugh, and Jack Reynor in Midsommar.
William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Florence Pugh, and Jack Reynor in Midsommar.
Gabor Kotschy / A24

Alissa Wilkinson

Christian strikes me as a person overwhelmed by inertia. He just doesn’t make a lot of decisions, ever.

Ari Aster

Yeah. In his work for sure. And then in relationships, he’s indecisive, too. Christian’s identity is not the most concrete. When I say he’s a villain, there’s a smirk there. I think that’s where the film reveals itself finally, maybe, to be a dark comedy.

Alissa Wilkinson

He’s a very nothing person! I also was interested in the choice of name for him, because it feels like the Harga exist in a sort of pre-Christian, pagan world, where everything is in harmony and there’s no governing force other than the Earth itself. Then this guy shows up whose name indicates that he’s from a different world than their pagan one, and he’s accompanied by his vaping bro friend and his clinical, overly analytic anthropologist friend.

Ari Aster

I don’t want to say too much, because it is an obvious thing to name somebody. But also ... well, he is thrown to the lions, so to speak. So there are a lot of ways to read the name ... I already hate myself for having just said that.

Alissa Wilkinson

Oh, I think it’s good to give the audience something to hold on to, especially when they’re navigating confusing terrain. Which I mean in a good way!

Ari Aster

I’m glad. I keep telling people I want it to be confusing.

Alissa Wilkinson

Can you talk about some of the inspirations for the actual rituals? You and I are actually sitting here talking on June 21, which is the day of the summer solstice. There are all these midsummer rituals that go on in different cultures across the world, centered on this day. Where did you go looking?

Ari Aster

Sweden — the north of Sweden. I went with the production designer and the Swedish producer into Hälsingland. We looked at a lot of Hälsingegårds, which are centuries-old farms that typically had painting on the walls, not totally unlike what we do here. We do a much more stylized version of that. I looked into Swedish tradition. I looked into German and English tradition, as far as their midsummer ceremonies are concerned. I did a lot of research into folklore and mythology.

I especially did a lot of research into spiritual communities and spiritual movements. I pulled more from that stuff than anything. The only one that’s local to Sweden would be the anthroposophical movement and Rudolf Steiner, and theosophy and stuff. But then I strayed far from Sweden. I would say there are four movements that I was really looking at. I’m avoiding talking about them only because I actually think they’re very beautiful, and I don’t really want to sully them.

The sunburst at the gateway to the village of the Harga.
The sunburst at the gateway to the village of the Harga.
A24

Alissa Wilkinson

Were there certain elements or details that united those movements that you found really interesting, from the perspective of your story?

Ari Aster

If anything, what ties them all together is a philosophy of mindfulness, staying connected to your life and to the people in your life and to the world around you. Being present to your life. Which is something that the Americans in the film aren’t. For me, that was very important.

It’s very important that we come into the movie knowing that the Harga will be doing a lot of killing. Then the surprise is that they are otherwise as fair as they can be.

But of course, there’s also a lot of peripheral stuff that’s pointing to ugly parts of Swedish history and European history. Not that America is exempt from that at all, so I guess more like human history. But in this case, we’re talking about Sweden. And Sweden has some skeletons in the closet, and the movie’s maybe nodding to that.

Alissa Wilkinson

I want to go back to what you were saying about the film being a fairy tale, or an opera, and folk horror, which means there are beats in the story that people know about going in. The fun is in finding out how they’re going to happen, but you know basically what is going to happen.

But right now the world is full of talk about spoilers. How do you think about spoilers?

Ari Aster

Well, Midsommar is very different from Hereditary. We were counting on people not spoiling that, because the whole idea is that you’re going in to see a movie that we’ve almost presented as an evil kid movie. That was very deliberate, because it’s something more than that and different than that.

Alissa Wilkinson

And so it’s shocking when the big thing happens.

Ari Aster

Good, I hope so. Whereas with Midsommar, if people come in expecting Hereditary, they’re actually getting almost the opposite of Hereditary.

I don’t really care about managing expectations. People can react however they like. I think it’s better to enter the film without any knowledge. But it’s a movie that is adhering to the laws of a certain subgenre, folk horror, but with the logic of a different genre, a fairy tale. How do you turn a folk horror film into a fairy tale?

Alissa Wilkinson

What laws are the laws of folk horror?

Ari Aster

Well, you have tourists visiting a pagan community. They are inevitably going to be killed off, if the film is going to be satisfying to the people who are going there for that movie.

Alissa Wilkinson

Those audiences came to see people die.

A scene from Midsommar
The Harga welcome you.
A24

Ari Aster

Exactly. But my attitude is, “Okay, so we know that they’re going to die, so that’s the least interesting thing about this movie.” So I ...

Alissa Wilkinson

You kill them off offscreen.

Ari Aster

It happens offscreen, because I already know that you know. I’ll give you a little bit of that, but otherwise, that’s not what’s going to make this film interesting.

It’s very hard for me to see exactly what I did. Doing these interviews is interesting, because you have to find your talking points. You have to find how you’re going to talk about it. Really, I just want to avoid saying anything!

It’s a minefield, because you find that you get defensive as you’re talking; you know how some people are going to dismiss it, and you’ve already made peace with that. But you made peace with it early, and then all of sudden people are interrogating you, and it’s like, “Well, now, it’s like ... “ I’ve got my retort.

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, and you’re like, “I made a movie. That’s what I did. I’m good now.”

Ari Aster

Yeah, but you’re not ... you’re never good.

I get really uninterested in plot after I’ve written the thing. Once I start moving into pre-production, I care about the aesthetics. I care about the pacing of the world.

When I’m in production, I care about the aesthetics, and the pacing of the world, and I care about the performances, and making something that you can just live in and disappear into.

Then, when I’m editing it, I care about pacing, tone, mood, atmosphere, and just being taken through the story in a visceral way.

And so, by the time I’m through it, I’m not thinking about the story anymore. I’m not thinking as a writer anymore. But I do know that as I was writing it, that’s where my head was. There was a perverse pleasure in eschewing the thing that everybody’s there for: the kills.

For me, there’s something more disturbing about barely paying any attention [to the deaths], because these are lives that are being totally dismissed and shrugged off, and that’s the attitude of the community, so that becomes the attitude of the film. For me, there’s something more disturbing about that than about making a grand spectacle of somebody’s death.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah, and then at the end you have the grand spectacle.

Ari Aster

Exactly.

Alissa Wilkinson

I hope bear suits become a Halloween costume this year.

Ari Aster

Oh, yeah. That would be great.

Midsommar opens in theaters on July 3.

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