Ari Aster is careful. I’m not sure I’ve ever interviewed someone who chooses their words as carefully as the 32-year-old director of Hereditary and now Midsommar, and that’s generally not what you think of when you imagine what you want out of an interview. More likely, you hope to catch someone at their most candid and unguarded, for them to say something they think they shouldn’t have so you can get a scoop. But in this case, caution does seem to express a certain truth about the subject.
Aster’s verbal perfectionism fits with what you can see in his films. In both his breakout feature, Hereditary, and now Midsommar, both for A24, Aster works with a rich palette, building the horrific with carefully composed shots that somehow feel both familiar and novel. They manage to be overwhelmingly eerie in ways that it’s hard to put your finger on. They offer the creepiness of deja vu, of the uncanny valley, of something that’s almost right but not quite, much more so than jump scares or ghosts walking through the frame in the background. It takes a lot of world-building to create the sense that there’s another level of reality beyond what we’re seeing.
Another aspect of Aster’s films is that they seem to deliberately deprive viewers the easy catharsis we’ve come to expect, from both horror films and films in general. The simplistic read on Hereditary is that at the end, evil won. That undoubtedly contributed to Hereditary‘s low Cinemascore, an almost unheard-of D+. Polarized reactions are so integral to Aster’s films’ appeal that Cinemascore is now making sport out of trying to predict how the “average” moviegoer will react to Midsommar.
Aster himself seemed to anticipate potential backlash. At the NY/LA premiere (with Aster in New York, introducing the film via simulcast) Aster introduced the film with almost an apology. “I was going through a breakup when I wrote this. …I’m better now,” he explained, to moderate laughs.
The film depicts an almost comically dysfunctional, yet brutally recognizable relationship between two 20-somethings, Christian, played by Jack Reynor, and Dani, played by Florence Pugh. Dani has just gone through a traumatic event, and rather than fundamentally alter the relationship dynamic, as you might expect in more conventional films, it just exacerbates tension that was already present.
Dani finds out that Christian has been planning a trip to Sweden with his grad school buddies just two weeks before he’s set to leave. She bluffs, saying it’s cool if he goes, she just wanted to know about it. He bluffs, saying she’s totally invited if she wants to come. She calls his bluff and accepts, he calls her bluff in turn and says “wonderful!”, and they’re both off, equally unhappy.
It’s beautifully constructed, and in Midsommar, it’s just a jumping off point for a folk horror riff on Wicker Man. Aster has this way of grounding horrific, worst-case-scenario fears with entirely reasonable mundane ones. Just as you can watch the brother accidentally decapitate his sister during a car accident in Hereditary and your first thought is oh, man, his mom’s going to be so mad.
I tried to dig at which parts of his own relationship had inspired Midsommar, the obvious-but-pressing question of whether Aster was the Christian or the Dani in the relationship, but as with Hereditary, which was allegedly inspired by some real-life trauma Aster won’t talk about, the details Aster offers are scant. Yet as with his movies, the mystery contributes to the intrigue.
We spoke by phone this past week.
So I guess I’ll start with the basics, where did you shoot and how long?
I shot in Hungary, 30 minutes outside of Budapest. I was finishing my shot list in the spring of 2018 while I was finishing Hereditary and I was finishing my shot list so that I’d be able to go scouting for a field. Because we needed to build everything from scratch and I needed to know what the geography of this place would be. And so we spent about two months scouting fields in Budapest and then finally found a field, I think at the end of May and had our construction people begin building the world for Harga. Then I went into three weeks of press for Hereditary. And then Hereditary came out in the states on June 8th and I was in Hungary on June 9th. And we had two months of pre-production, which was not quite enough, but we made do. And then we shot for two months. So I guess I was there cumulatively for about four and a half months or so. Not including the scouting.