Once in a while genre fans are gifted with a work that elevated above the usual drivel presented to audiences. Beyond cheap shocks or errant shaky-cam shots come works whose craft equals the visceral thrills that its storyline traffics in, creating an experience best seen with an audience sharing the experience of tension together.
Thanks to an impeccable cast led by Toni Collette, Hereditary immediately establishes itself firmly into this genre canon. This is the first feature from Ari Aster, and following the film’s premiere at Sundance his acclaim has only grown.
We had a chance to speak exclusively to Aster as he was flying back from a brief visit to Toronto, talking about the challenges of getting his vision onto the screen, the remarkable ensemble he had to work with, and what’s next for this newly minted visionary director. Here’s a lightly edited version of our chat.
How did the project come together and how did you manage to assemble this amazing cast? Did it start right from the script?
It started from the script. It’s hard to track exactly how we got here, but it didn’t happen overnight. There were several producers who were on board and then fell off. It landed with PalmStar and Lars Knudsen, and we [then] sent it to Toni Collette. We were lucky enough to get her to attach herself and once that happens, the train was moving.
When you were writing it did you think of somebody like Collette? Were there references to her earlier filmography that made you believe that she would be perfect for this role?
I was not thinking about anybody when I was writing the script, but when we started thinking about casting, she was certainly one of the first people that came to mind. She’s somebody that I’ve loved for a long time, ever since Muriel’s Wedding, and she always struck me as one of our most reliable actresses. I had never really seen her chew apart the scenery in the way that she does here. It was exciting to be able to pull something new out of her and see her go in another direction.
Gabriel Byrne has such an incredible range as well, and casting the 2 kids must have been an daunting as you had to make sure that this group worked together as a family but also worked as individuals.
So much of casting is determining whether the actor is right for the part. When you’re making a family film, you’re also casting the family, so once you have Toni, then the question is who is the right husband for [her]? Luckily, the actors who were best for the part fit that, they made sense as a family.
I was just very fortunate as a first timer to have a cast like this. And Ann Dowd as well!
The magnificent Ann Dowd who had five films at Sundance this year I believe?
I think it might have been more….
Preposterous, and yet perfectly in keeping with her calibre.
And she’s preposterously wonderful in person! She’s too wonderful for words.
There’s a certain degree of lunacy anyway making your first feature, but there has to be an intimidation factor, not only working with this calibre of cast, but also in making sure that this film, which is so delicate in terms of making sure the tone works throughout. Were you freaking the hell out and just really praying that you managed to survive?
It didn’t feel natural, that’s for sure. I was terrified. I have a very particular way of working, which is that I block all of the scenes out and I shot list before we enter production. In this case, I did all of that stuff very early in preproduction so that I knew what we needed from the spaces we were building in the house. That can be very constraining to actors, and I knew that I would likely get a lot of push back. Luckily, I didn’t. The people I was working with were lovely, but it’s my first film, I’m unproven, everyone is coming to the table with a healthy amount of skepticism and it’s on me to put people’s worries at ease and the only way to do that is to make your days and make something coherent.
Was there that one moment where you’re half way through the shoot and realized, I mean you obviously have a certain human degree of self-doubt, that’s perfectly natural, but was there a moment where you realized that you have something that isn’t just a good movie?
I was scared in the beginning. And the first few days are nerve-wracking. But then, when you’re making a film this ambitious and you only have a few days to get everything, those nerves are replaced by just this adrenaline and the adrenaline. You’re just racing because there were days when we were shooting 10 scenes a day.
When you got in to post, did you realize that despite all of the planning and it sounds like you’re a pretty precise planner, but things are never going to go perfectly to plan, obviously you have to improvise on the day, that’s part of your task, but were there moments when you were in post, it might have been in some way even better than you had anticipated, as a first time filmmaker with appropriate levels of skepticism?
Because I tend to be very precise I mostly get caught up on all of the things that we didn’t quite nail exaclty as I had them in my head, and it takes a while to get over those things. You get lost in the minutiae of just trying to execute the film.
The original cut was 3 hours long, and so there are 35 scenes that aren’t in the film. And I love most of those scenes! There are some scenes in the film that we couldn’t remove because they were necessary for the narrative that I would have love to have replaced, on an aesthetic level. I would have love to have replaced them with some of the scenes that are gone now, but the movie tells you what it wants when you’re in editorial.
Would you continue to do things the same way, would you continue to be as precise in pre-production?
I’m in pre-production for another film right now, and I’ve found that I’m doing the same thing. I think this is how I’ll be working for a long time, I imagine, because over-planning allows you to improvise. There are a lot of people who find everything on the day with their actors and they’re very free and very loose and they work in a very fluid way, but with the schedule we had here, where we’re doing 156 scenes in 30 days, I don’t know how to do that.
I don’t find production to be a very creative time, to be honest. That’s when the work happens and we’re just executing the plans, but the planning is the creative period. Shot listing for me is a lot like writing. It’s where I create the movie in my head. Writing is where I create the story, and then shot listing is ultimately where the directing comes in for me and I try to structure a movie visually and tonally in my head. When I’m on set, I tend to kind of go blank and I’m just relying entirely on my plans and then you can hope to be present enough to see what’s actually happening on the monitor.
What differentiates your film from other let’s call them independent genre films or independent horror films, is that precision, the sense that we’re taken on a journey by a storyteller who’s not floundering in what they want to tell us so that if there is something that’s weird or supernatural or whatever, it’s very much a part of the greater narrative structure. Were there particular films or filmmakers that really, you used as a guide for that, as a first time filmmaker, or even, works of literature, other elements that allowed you to construct this and work tonally for an audience to take us on this narrative journey?
There are so many people, probably too many people to name. I am always looking at Roman Polanski, when I think about editing, I’ll often go to Nicholas Roeg, with camera as well. I look at early Scorsese, I look at Max Ophuls, when it comes to production design, I’m often looking at Pressburger movies, especially for colour, Hitchcock is definitely big for me.
There’s a lot of young filmmakers that you see that are simply name checking a lot of these. Hell, there’s somebody like De Palma who’s just completely embracing all of the references and people love him for that or people find it quite silly. Your film feels very much like your film, but it’s in keeping with a continuity of film history.
I appreciate you saying that it feels like my film because I try not to lean on references. In these interviews, I end up naming a lot of names because I love movies and because I do see that my film style is in a certain tradition and I take the tradition seriously. But at the same time, I try, when I am shot listing and when I am in the process of making a film, I try to let go of those things and know what I know. I can tell you that these are filmmakers that were important for me and they were filmmakers that I studied, and they were filmmakers that touch me in a very deep way. I consider myself certainly a student of film and one reason I’m making films is because I want to have a dialogue with other movies.
Could talk about living with the film, seeing the film as you become more and more distant from the production, and just see it as it’s own work, what that feels like and how your life has changed thanks to this pretty remarkable debut?
Well, I’m still waiting to see how my life changes after the film is released and what the reception is then. Of course when you’re making a film you’re fantasizing about a reaction like this, and it would be disingenuous of me to be dismissive and say that I don’t care. It’s been huge and it’s been really exciting. That’s the big thing for me, it took me 10 years to get Hereditary made, and it’s taken me less than a year to get going on my second film. For that I’m really grateful, and I think that’s going to be the goal for the rest of my life, is just to keep earning the right to make the next one.
Can you say something about the second film?
It is another horror film. The easiest way to summarize it is it’s a Scandinavian folk horror. Of the 10 other scripts I’ve written and hope to make, it’s the only other horror movie that I have.
It’s nice to see that you’re moving from a British horror tradition to a Scandinavian horror tradition, can’t wait to see how this all works out.
Thanks very much!
Hereditary opens wide this Friday