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.
So is that your normal process, to have your entire shot list planned out before you start?
I guess my process if I have one at this point is that I do the shot list on my own before I talk to anybody in the crew. And I do that just so I can see the whole movie in my head and I know kind of how to then direct my team. Then I sit down with my production designer and my DP and take them through the shot list, scene by scene. And that, on Hereditary, it took about a month and a half of that, doing that for about five hours every day in the morning with my production designer and my DP. And on Midsommar it was such an intense pre-production schedule that we actually never got through the shot list.
So I actually was never able to fully walk them through the whole thing, but I was able to give the production designer enough of a foundation so that we both knew exactly what was needed as far as the geography of each house in relation to one another and then which walls in which houses needed the most attention and which walls we’d be neglecting. And because this was an independent film and we had to stretch the dollar as far as we could and be very efficient.
So before the movie started, I saw people on Twitter talking about how they’d read the script and then I found out that the script had been leaked online. Was that something that you were upset about or did you know how that went down?
I have no idea how it happened and yeah, of course, I wasn’t happy about it. And by the time we all heard about it, it was kind of too late. It was out of our hands. So I’m not sure how it happened, but I also was not keeping it on lockdown. We were sending it around the agencies and I had the actors who were auditioning, or I had the agencies give every actor who was auditioning for any given part, the entire script so that they could read the script and then kind of bring their own interpretation to whatever character they were reading to the taping. And so I thought that that would be helpful to the actors reading, but I might not do that again. I might just send sides.
With Hereditary, it was hugely critically acclaimed, I think it’s 90% or something on Rotten Tomatoes, but then it got a really low cinema score (Editor’s Note: D+). Do you think about that stuff at all? Do you try to explain that at all?
I think it has something to do with the fatalism of the film and I imagine it has to do with the slower pace and the fact that the film kind of is in a lot of ways avoiding jump scares and avoiding a lot of the trappings of contemporary horror film. I think it’s a film that is certainly conscious of tropes and is really like playing with a lot of horror tropes. I guess I was surprised and I was not surprised by the low cinema score. I always knew that I was making an alienating film and so it wasn’t shocking.
On that note, have you had any issues with test screenings or the studios wanting to change things based on test audience reactions or that you’ve had to push back on?
Well, luckily we didn’t really test this. I did have a disastrous test screening for Hereditary, which was one of the lowest anybody had ever seen. Of course, the film was not finished either and there was no color correction, no sound mix, no visual effects, and no music. So it was kind of, nothing was really working in the film’s favor there, but happily, I didn’t have to do any test screenings with general audiences for this film. We did screen it for friends and family and we were able to sort of get more curated feedback.
So I read that you and one of your producing partners bonded over hating Little Miss Sunshine. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that and what bugs you about that film?
I don’t know who told you that. I’m not sure that I’ve ever publicly said that I hated Little Miss Sunshine. It’s maybe a little saccharine for my taste, but I don’t have any hatred for it. Who said that I hated Little Miss Sunshine?
It was an Indiewire interview, from I believe around the time that Hereditary was coming out.
Interesting. I don’t remember saying that. I certainly don’t have any feelings of particular animus towards that film. But it’s maybe not exactly my speed. I don’t know if it maybe feels a little maudlin and a little tidy for me, although I’m sure a lot of people would say that my films are overly tidy, so I don’t know.
So Midsommar is set in Sweden, what is it about Sweden in particular that made it an ideal setting for the story?
Well, the fact that the film is set during Midsummer and– actually let me give you a better answer than that. Well, let’s just say if you’re going to make a contribution to the folk horror sub-genre, it makes a lot of sense to set it during Midsummer at a Swedish Midsommar festival. This one takes a lot of liberties with what that actually entails in Sweden. It’s usually a very cute event that’s very family friendly and as most Swedes know, or as all Swedes know, the weather tends to never be in your favor and it’s usually very rainy. But this is a film that is very much about sacrifice and reciprocity and the sacrifice is both literal and it’s also something that’s kind of being meditated upon. What is the nature of sacrifice and what does it take to keep a relationship alive and… I guess it’s also very much about family. The given families and surrogate families and the families that we form and also I guess beyond that it’s about loneliness and anxiety and trauma. …And I guess now I’m just kind of throwing buzzwords out.
Haha, it’s all right, it was kind of a broad question.
You’re catching me at the end of the day.
Oh no, I get it. So, before the screening that I saw, when you introduced (the film), you said that you wrote this when you were going through a breakup. So does that mean you were the Dani in the relationship or the Christian?
I would say that I put a lot of myself into Dani as I was writing the film. And yeah, I had just been through a breakup but I had wanted to make a breakup movie for a long time and hadn’t ever found a way in. And so, in this case, I did find myself kind of sifting through the ruins of a recently failed relationship. But I wouldn’t say that I was writing about that relationship specifically. I was mostly just putting feelings that I had at the time into what I was writing and kind of navigating those.
You mentioned folk horror being an inspiration for this, and it also seems to fit into the sort of sunshiny horror genre. Do you have any sunny day, daylight horror films that inspired this or just ones that you enjoy?
I certainly wasn’t reinventing the wheel with this. The folk horror sub-genre is kind of distinguished by its sun-baked atmosphere, but I was actually looking a lot at three-strip technicolor films with my cinematographer and that’s where we were getting most of our inspiration. We were especially looking at Powell and Pressburger’s color films, like Tales of Hoffmann and especially Black Narcissus. And we were excited about going for an aesthetic that wasn’t exactly the look of three-strip technicolor, but rather the way you see three-strip technicolor when you kind of close your eyes and imagine it. So kind of oversaturated, overly lush.
[Publicist comes on the line] Okay. Thank you so much, Vince. That’s all the time that we have today.
Okay, thank you. I like the movie a lot, thanks for talking to me.
Thanks very much, I appreciate that.