Last week, I met Ari Aster, the writer and director of the horror film Hereditary, in the A24 office. For about 20 minutes, we talked about genre (he originally shopped Hereditary as a “family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare”), subverting expectations (undoubtedly a reason the film has proved so divisive), the hour of footage cut out of the film’s final cut, and the amount of agency Toni Collette’s character has as her life explodes.
As a companion to our interview with Hereditary star Collette, below is a Q&A with Aster.
Spoilers abound in the condensed and edited transcript of our discussion.
JEZEBEL: It’s crazy to me that this movie got made.
ARI ASTER: Yeah, me too, man.
Was there anywhere down the line where you had to compromise?
It’s kind of amazing, but no. The compromises were ones I had to make on my own. The original cut of this film was three hours long. Originally, it had 156 scenes and about 30 of those scenes left. All of that is just kind of sad family drama stuff, like heavy, dark drama stuff. All of the horror stuff was retained.
Do you think you’ll ever show people that cut? Via Blu-ray, for example?
I’d like to, but I don’t know. I feel like this is the definitive cut. I don’t feel compelled to put together a director’s cut. There were multiple voices in the edit room but ultimately, this is definitely a cut that I approve. And I do think this is the best cut we had.
Was there ever a scene between Charlie’s death and the dinner table scene, in which Peter actually talks to the family about what happened to Charlie?
There was never any talking [between then]. There were two scenes immediately following the dinner table scene where Gabriel Byrne follows Toni Collette up to their bedroom and they have a long argument and then Gabriel Byrne goes into Peter’s room and Peter breaks down crying. The dinner table scene, which does serve as the centerpiece of the film, was really the first of three scenes and we just felt it was so much better to leave after the dinner table scene and avoid any emotional catharsis. We needed to keep it all bottled up. But no, there was no scene where Peter talked to them about it. The breakdown of communication, if anything, was more painstakingly chronicled.
It says a lot that the centerpiece of your horror movie is an incredibly heavy depiction of family drama. Do you consider this a horror movie?
In some ways, it is unabashedly a horror film and it wants to be a very good horror film. But even as I was pitching it, I was describing it as a “family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare,” and the way that life can feel like a nightmare when things fall apart or disaster strikes. In that way, I think the film owes a greater debt to the domestic melodrama than it does to the horror film, in that it aims to honor these extreme emotions that the characters are suffering through by being as big as those emotions, by having the form match the content. The idea was always to make a film that kind of collapsed beneath the weight of what these people are carrying. It is a horror film, and I think in a lot of ways it’s following in a tradition that films like Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now belong to.
Because the movie was so unpredictable upon first viewing, I thought its true horror was that of the unknown.
I consider the film to be an existential horror film in that it’s dealing with fears that don’t really have any remedy. What do you do with the fear of death? You either come to terms with it or you don’t. What do you do with the fear of abandonment? There are no guarantees in life, and there are no guarantees that you’re not going to abandon somebody else. It’s so easy to inadvertently harm somebody in your life, and this film preys on those fears as well. The fear of harming somebody that you love and then having to live with the guilt of that. Or there’s the fear of somebody in your life changing in some essential way and becoming a double of themselves. In that way, I wanted the house to feel like a home at first—a fraught home, and not the most comfortable home. But then over the course of the film, for it to gradually become more and more un-home-like.
I do feel like there is a certain complacency that comes with watching genre films. I feel like people come to them and they have expectations and they know the tropes, they know the conventions. There’s a certain type of satisfaction that comes with those types of expectations being met, but at the same time, I think it makes for passive viewers. I think genre films are often a type of comfort food. There are things in the film as it begins, but as it goes along as well, that are very familiar to the genre.
A swarm of insects, a seance…
Exactly, and even the setup in the beginning. It’s like, we’ve been here. That’s deliberate. People sink into these environments that they’re used to. They’re coming to the theater because they love horror films and they know what’s coming and they can’t wait. The film plays with the familiar, and what I’m hoping is there are moments in the film that will jolt the viewer out of that complacency and demand a more active engagement. And a more active emotional engagement. I’m not doing this in a vacuum—the best horror films always do this. Psycho did that. And not just horror films. There’s a film that follows in Psycho’s footsteps called In the Bedroom. It’s a domestic drama and it’s brilliant. It does the same thing, where 30 minutes in, something happens to our protagonist and we’re left in the woods. The baton has been passed to these seeming supporting characters. As a viewer myself, I’m always looking for that moment where the film pulls the rug out from under me and I realize I’m not in control of this experience. The film is not safe.
It’s the opposite of comfort food.
I think films like that can reinvigorate your love for a genre and remind you what you loved about it. When we’re kids first discovering horror movies, it’s the thrill of that discovery. There’s no thrill in being given the same thing over and over again. There is some comfort inherent in that. I’m always looking to rediscover the thrill of what brought me to something. If anything, I do consider Hereditary to be maybe more than just a horror film, but I really hope it also just functions very simply as a very good one.
You told Film Comment that Toni Collette went through hell on set. Did you put her through it?
I think she put herself through hell. I come to set with the blocking in mind, and I know what the camera will be doing—everything’s mapped out. I can be dictatorial in the blocking that I lay out for the actors, but beyond the blocking, my job is mostly done when I cast these people if I cast them right. And in this film, I did cast them right. I was able to pretty much leave them all alone. You offer help when they need it, but all these actors knew what was required of them. It was all on the page and they all dove headlong into these parts. Toni certainly did, Alex Wolff absolutely did. Alex is more of a method actor, so he basically was Peter for two months. He was really in a heavy place for a long time.
Toni’s an incredibly disciplined actress who’s able to turn it on and turn it off. She comes in and she’s Toni. You say, “Action,” and she’s Annie. And depending on what day it is on set, maybe it’s Annie howling in anguish, maybe it’s Annie screaming at her son, maybe it’s Annie wracked with remorse. But then you say, “Cut,” and Toni’s immediately Toni again and it looks like she didn’t just do what she just did. She’s able to shake it right off, which is amazing to watch. I don’t know what I prefer as a director, the way she works or the way Alex works. Ultimately, they both require different kinds of help. But for the most part, I was able to just sit at the monitor and be a fan, ’cause they all knew what was needed.
Annie’s character, in particular, is complicated—the writing of her flirts with taboo (she seems relieved at her mother’s death, she doesn’t seem to much like her children) and even with all that’s happened to her, she blames herself. Can you talk about the creation of that character?
By the end of the film, she’s revealed to be somebody who has really no agency in her own life. She has no control over anything. A lot what she’s done in life has been because it’s the done thing. She became a mother and a wife, but I don’t think she ever identified as either of those things, and I think she feels ill at ease in those roles and she’s obviously spent her life investigating that feeling. I think her work as a miniaturist is imbued with that struggle to seize control over her surroundings and over the reality she’s living, which remains a mystery to her in so many ways. I think she feels great guilt over not feeling like a natural mother or natural wife, but at the same time I think by the end it’s revealed that nothing was her fault. Since she was a child, she’s been the victim of Machiavellian scheming and manipulations and ultimately even her family was somebody else’s idea.
At Sundance, you said you wrote this movie “as a result of a rapid succession of very painful things” that happened to your family. Do you identify with Annie’s character, who paints figures to make sense of her life? Is that what you’re doing with this movie’s characters?
Yeah, probably. The beauty of genre filmmaking is you can take personal material, push it through a filter, and out comes something else. And yeah, I was working with feelings that were born out of a few very painful years that I experienced with my family, things my family experienced more than I did. But ultimately, the film is kind of fueled by the feelings that came out of that. None of the characters in the film are surrogates for anybody in my family. It’s all invention except for the feelings behind the movie. When I see the film, it feels personal to me, but there’s nothing explicitly from my life or from my family’s life there. Just that feeling of hopelessness that can happen when things are really bad. I hope it feels honest to people when they watch it ’cause it felt like a purging of sorts when I was making it.
Have you gotten or are you interested in getting more specific about the things that happened in your life?
No, because it’s not really my right to. I wouldn’t want to. I already feel like I’m saying too much to say that, especially because the film ultimately is a work of invention.