How a first-time filmmaker turned the story of a grieving family into this generation's 'The Exorcist'
How a first-time filmmaker turned the story of a grieving family into this generation's 'The Exorcist'
Standing in the corner of A24's office, amid the bustle of the film distribution company's normal workday chaos, is a pale young man sipping a smoothie. Tucked away from the various publicity folks and vice presidents and other indie-movie mover-and-shaker types talking frantically into their phones, he stands out. Maybe it's the slightly tattered baseball cap, a little bit of wispy brown hair sticking out; maybe it's the brightly colored madras shirt he's wearing in a workplace full of business-casual attire; maybe it's the fact that he's talking very low, and eerily seems to be standing very, very still. As you slow-zoom walk up to him through the crowd, he turns and smiles an incredibly childlike, shy grin. "Hi, I'm Ari," he says, extending his hand. You'd have assumed this soft-spoken 31-year-old was an employee's younger brother or possibly an intern who happens to love pastels. He doesn't strike you as someone who's just made what many people are calling the scariest movie in a decade.
But that's the type of praise that writer-director Ari Aster and his first feature, Hereditary, have been earning on the festival circuit since its midnight-slot premiere at Sundance last January, and with good reason. The story of an artist (Toni Collette) grieving over the death of her mother, this macabre tale drops tiny breadcrumbs of creepiness – a bird mysteriously flying into a window here, an odd clucking noise there – as it winds its way toward a second, more devastating tragedy. From there, it's hinted that bigger, more insidious forces are at work as the mourning woman, her teenage son (Alex Wolff) and the rest of the family begin to come apart at the seams. The less you know about the last act, the better, as Hereditary is a film that pays to go in as cold as possible. But for all of the slow-burn pacing and moody atmospherics that characterize the first two-thirds, you leave feeling that all of those pull-quote compliments are not hot air or undue hype. This is the real deal.
Mention this to Aster and he will blush and thank you, before admitting that he's having a bit of trouble reconciling what he's made with what's become of the genre he grew up loving. "I never talked about the film as 'horror' when we were getting it made," he admits. "That's not because I didn't consider it a horror film – it's definitely that. I just wanted everybody to be on the same page as me, so I avoided these terms that I think have become very loaded.
"There's a feeling that studios just pump out this slew of horror movies now in a very cynical way," he continues, "because there's this built-in audience and they know that hardcore fans will see them regardless. I didn't want to make one of those. I wanted to make something similar to the ones that traumatized me as a kid. I said, 'Think of this as a tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.'"
Over the phone, his actor and fellow scary-movie "connoisseur" Wolff agrees with the filmmaker's description. Then he adds his own spin: "I always said that it’s either a family drama that smokes crack or one that goes to hell. I can't decide which."
Indeed, in the either/or age of endless jump-scare franchise entries and what some folks are calling "elevated horror" – a phrase that makes most self-respecting fans want to jump headfirst into the sea – Hereditary stands out by colonizing the fertile ground that rests between those two absolutes. Its deliberate way of letting events unfold with minimal exposition and marinating everything in an overall sense of dread brings to mind arthouse films (Aster is as likely to namecheck luminaries like Nic Roeg, Peter Greenaway and Swedish absurdist Roy Andersson as he is, say, Cronenberg, when asked about the movie's influences). Still, eerie tracking shots or not, it isn't strictly art-horror. The movie features a séance, a figure scurrying along walls and someone maniacally sawing off their own head, all scenes grotesque, gonzo and tense enough to hold their own against your best-in-show Blumhouse productions – but it's not an old-school splatter flick or a Conjuring knock-off, either.
And though Aster's film fits in nicely with the current wave of independent movies about things that go bump in your psyche (The Witch, The Babadook), you'd probably have to go back to something like The Exorcist or The Shining – movies that took their time to both scare and unnerve you; that earned their way toward going full-tilt batshit – to find something to tonally compare it to. While the filmmaker is loathe to rank his debut anywhere near pea-soup-spitting distance of those landmarks, he does mention that both of those movies "get you invested in their characters. They could almost work as straight dramas without the horror elements – but when you make those elements part of the fabric, they don't skimp on the horror at all. Like those movies, Hereditary very purposefully starts as something else entirely, a sort of ensemble movie about this family that's slightly off.
"And then it goes insane," Aster says, after a beat. "It's designed to collapse under its own weight. But I liked the idea of planting, say, 200 hints that suggest where this thing might go, and having the audience only pick up on, say, 40 of them. I liked the idea of giving people a puzzle where so many of the pieces are purposefully missing. And I liked the idea of seeing something over-the-top and horrific happening solely through the eyes of a sacrificial lamb."
Hereditary's roots go back to its creator's days scouring his local video store's horror section and his time as a student at the American Film Institute, where his formally meticulous short films immediately started earning him accolades. (And some controversy, in the case of The Strange Thing About the Johnsons – his 2011 work that also takes filial dynamics into genuinely fucked-up territory.) It was Aster's own family, however, that sparked the idea of diving into the ties that bind when trauma strikes; in one of the film's earliest post-screening Q&As, he mentioned that the movie was not autobiographical but that it was extremely personal. Ask him to clarify that answer and he's reluctant to go into specifics, though he'll admit that there is a lot of his own blood, sweat and fears in the frame.
"Yeah, and I can't ..." he says, before stopping. "I can just say that there were, you know, there were a few years during which my family and I went through a very hard time together, and the prevailing feeling became, like, 'We're cursed.' When bad things are happening in quick succession, you can come to feel like you're cursed. This had been going through my head: What if there was a family that felt like they were doomed but in reality, yes, they actually are. I'd been thinking about exploring that idea and about doing something genre-based as two separate things, before it occurred to me that, if I really wanted to get something transgressive made, it might make sense to combine them both."
Once Aster's script started making the rounds, it found its way into Toni Collette's hands – at the exact moment when the Australian actor decided she needed something light. "Listen, Method acting is such bullshit wankery," she says, speaking over the phone. "But I'd done a part a few years back where my character died" – she declines to mention which role specifically – "and I suddenly found myself having a hard time letting go of it. I've always been a 'I don't take my work home with me' kind of person, but I've found that it's an accumulative thing. Those types of roles, stuff builds up. So I told my agent, 'Nothing heavy for a while, nothing but comedies, please.'
"Then I get this call," Collette adds, going into a sheepish voice. "'I knoooow what you said, but you may want to consider reading this.' I think, 'I say not to send me anything heavy ... and I get The Ice Storm as a horror film!' And then the more I read, the more I realized that I have to do it. It was calling to me, which, when you consider what happens in the movie ..." She trails off, then laughs. "I had no choice. It's both terrifying and a beautiful meditation on grief. And this ended up being one of the toughest things I've ever done. It was intense – in a perversely satisfying kind of way, mind you. But intense."
After Collette said she was in, Aster began slowly filling in the rest of the roles. Gabriel Byrne signed on to play the family's patriarch; through his casting agent, the filmmaker found Milly Shapiro, a young Broadway actor who'd won a special Tony for her turn in Matilda, and enlisted her as Collette's daughter, who has a penchant for making toys out of debris and dead things. The Leftovers' Ann Dowd was on board as a woman from a local grief support group who enters into the family's orbit. And for the part of Peter, the family's resident petulant stoner teen, the filmmaker nabbed former Nickelodeon star Alex Wolff (The Naked Brothers Band).
"Yeah, this was the hardest thing I've ever done," the 19-year-old admits, echoing Collette's comment. "I don't even mean work-wise; this is probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. There was a physical and emotional toll, and the only thing I could possibly compare it to … I was a boxer for a long time, and after a bout, there's some exhilaration, some adrenaline and you almost felt addicted to it. Then you realize that your mouth is bleeding and your hands hurt and you really need to ice your limbs ASAP."
By everybody's account, the shoot in Utah was an endurance test ("I sort of put my actors through hell," Aster admits) with Collette and Wolff in particular putting in a lot of long days in the intricate, built-from-scratch house set, all filled with emotional heavy lifting. One scene involving an explosive outburst at a dinner table was scheduled, she says, for the middle of the shoot "because some people were nervous about doing it, or thought it might need special attention ... but for me, the whole fucking film was like that! There was no easy period here. It was crazy from the minute we started." Wolff – who, according to the filmmaker, stayed in Peter's less-than-stable headspace for most of the shoot – recounts filming a scene of thrashing around in a classroom and repeatedly banging his head on a desk only to realize, once he got back to his trailer, that blood was gushing down his leg.
"My arm was all bruised up as well," he says. "I barely remember any of it – one of those 'Jesus fucking Christ, what did I do!?' moments. The classroom stuff was all day, too, so I kept listening to [composer] Colin Stetson's score and watching a lot of twisted documentaries, horrible real-life footage on YouTube, a lot of messed-up stuff to stay in that zone." Such as? "Mostly the Teletubbies movie," Wolff replies, deadpan. "And Rugrats Go to Paris? Have you seen that shit? It's disturbing."
Disturbing, in fact, is the one word that keeps being incanted in regards to Hereditary – when its cast and crew discuss what they've made, when Aster describes what's sprung from his subconscious, when both regular festivalgoers and genre hounds started a you-have-to-see-this whisper campaign after early screenings, when curious moviegoers (even the ones who didn't care for it) flocked to see it on opening weekend, when pop-culture pundits who are too scared to see it get freaked out by just reading its Wikipedia page. Ask anyone about the most upsetting moment in the movie, and they may mention a truly stomach-turning set piece involving a car, or maybe a more traditional horror-film image of someone rapidly banging their head against a locked attic door (the fact that the person is crawling on the ceiling while doing it certainly adds to the terror).
Or it may be something as simple as Collette blurting out that she never really wanted her son, then quickly putting her hand to her mouth, as if trying to cram the statement back in – a gesture of parental anxiety that reads as its own miniature domestic nightmare within a nightmare. "You know, a lot of people have been mentioning The Sixth Sense when they talk about this movie," Collette says, referring to the 1999 film she starred in, "and the one thing that Night [Shyamalan] and Ari are both brilliant at are casting wider nets out when making these kinds of movies. They can do ... what's the phrase? Jump scares? They can give you those. But they are both interesting in layering all that with something psychologically complex and layered. I always find that a scarier movie is so much scarier on a deeper level when it's genuinely rooted in reality."
"Family is a touchy subject," Wolff says later, "and I don't think that most movies, much less horror movies, take the time to let you grow to understand and get to know a family, one that maybe looks just like yours – and then destroy their collective grip on sanity, piece by piece, on camera. I think this movie is, in a lot of ways, really fucking mean. You know, these characters, they're just ordinary people. And then shit goes very, very awry."
"It's easy for me to write a horror movie about real stuff because my mind is always going there anyway," Aster notes, laughing. (Although he says he isn't trying to become this generation's John Carpenter, he's already in preproduction on his next project, which will be another horror film – and according to Collette, who heard the basic rundown from him during their downtime on the set, "it might be scarier than this and blew my fucking mind.") "So I wanted to meld that with the more outrageous stuff and then have it come together, and ... the movie is not one that lets you off the hook. What happens to these people is deeply unfair and horrible. It doesn't just play with horror movie tropes, it also plays with the notion of hope. I wanted the film to feel evil that way." The man in the madras shirt smiles that shy smile once again. And suddenly, that grin seems a hell of a lot more sinister then it did earlier.