When you see Hereditary, chances are the creepy horror movie will stay under your skin for some time, despite any effort to scrub or claw it away. That’s exactly the way writer/director Ari Aster wants you to feel.
Hereditary stars Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro as the mother, father, and children of the Graham clan, who struggle to deal with the traumatic aftermath of a grandmother’s death. After resentment, grief, and other emotional turmoil ratchet up family tensions to a boiling point, terrifying events of an otherworldly nature start to happen. The film is the first full-length feature from Aster, and it’s being praised as one of the best horror movies in years.
I spoke with Aster over the phone a month ago to discuss Hereditary. He’s a contemplative conversationalist who takes long pauses to think about the right word to home in on specific shades of feeling, a trait that explains a little of the texture and rhythms of Hereditary. In the edited and condensed interview that follows, Aster talks about the movie’s balance of family drama and occult dread, and explains why he’s still bothered by the supernatural despite not actually believing in it.
Gizmodo: One of the things that stuck with me was how long the runtime is — and how it serves to build the dread throughout the pacing of the movie, which felt deliberately slow to me. Can you talk to me about those mechanical decisions you made?
Ari Aster: If anything, I really, really wanted people to live in these very extreme emotions. Even while I was pitching the film — before we had anybody attached, before we had financing — I would describe the film as a family tragedy that warps into a nightmare. And I was kind of careful not to call it a horror film. It is a horror film, and I hope it’s a very good one. By which I mean, I hope it meets the demands of the genre in a satisfying way. But it was important for me to attend to the family drama first, and to have all the horror elements grow out of that.
I don’t believe that I can really affect an audience or impact them in a meaningful way if they aren’t invested in the people who are suffering. Right? And ultimately, this is a movie that’s about suffering. It’s a very sorrowful meditation on grief and trauma, and I think the film has even more of a debt to domestic melodramas than it does to horror movies. It’s a film that I’m hoping kind of stews in the feelings of these people and, again, becomes a nightmare. I wanted it to feel like a nightmare in the same way that like can feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes. The idea was always to make a movie that essentially collapses under the weight of all of that, by the end.
The weight of the movie was palpable. After the South by Southwest screening where I saw it, you said that you wanted Hereditary to be about a family that completely loses agency in their own lives. Was there anything that made that particular factor an important one for you? Something in the real world, either personal or political?
Aster: No. I mean, I do see it as being kind of an appropriate film for the moment. But I wrote the film a few years ago, and, politically, things were different. Although, they also weren’t. Ultimately, I do kind of feel that we’re all kites in the wind, anyway. We all have some degree of agency and control of our own lives, and at the same time, that’s something of an illusion. From the start, I wanted Hereditary to serve as an existential horror film that was about investigating fears that can’t be remedied. Like, fear of death, abandonment, a family member turning on you, or inadvertently causing harm to somebody that you love.
I see the movie being very much about a family having no control about the trajectory of their own lives. And it becomes clear by the end just how inevitable everything in the film was. And if I was talking about the lack of agency, I was probably talking about the dollhouses…
As a mechanical device, the dollhouses were great. With regard to the family dynamics, the hardest scenes for me to watch were the ones where Annie and Peter were going at it. It’s like you said, abandonment is a terrible thing, and he senses his own mom is turning on him because of a fucked-up thing that he did by accident. How did you get Toni Colette and Alex Wolff to actually execute those harsh emotions?
Aster: So much of that was in the script. The original cut of the film was three hours long and there are 30 scenes on the cutting room floor that get into the minutiae of that dynamic. But beyond that, they’re just deeply committed actors. They work in different ways. For instance, Alex is essentially a method actor who just dives fully into character, and he was basically Peter for two months. And so when I was talking to Alex, I was actually talking to Peter.
And then, Toni is just this hyper-disciplined actress who turns it on when you say “action,” and turns it off when you say “cut.” So you work with them in different ways, but ultimately, the situation in the film is very clear-cut. There’s not even much to talk through. It’s, “Are we really attending to this, or not?” “Are we really, really going to do this? Or not?” And, you know, I felt that it was a prerequisite for everybody to commit. Like, we’re doing this. These terrible things happened to these people. What does that mean?
Everything with Milly [Shapiro’s] character Charlie threads so well throughout the movie, too. She has to do so much with so little, and her absence lingers so hard in the back half of the movie. She’s not there, but she still kind of is. Is there a personal experience with that kind of loss?
Aster: What happens to the family in this film, nothing like that happened to me. But when I was writing the film and making it, I was drawing from feelings, that I needed to work through. So it’s personal in some ways, but, in most ways, it is a work of invention. But I can say that the feelings in the film weren’t invented, the way the movie feels was reflecting something that was very much inside of me.
And just because you mentioned Millie, I feel like I need to quickly address what she did in the film — because I think she is an extraordinary young actress and she is nothing like Charlie, the character she plays. I think it’s a testament to how great she is that one can’t imagine her being any other way. She gives a really hypnotic performance in the film, but she’s actually like the happiest, most precocious kid you ever met. She has a Tony that she won when she was 10 years old for playing Matilda on Broadway. I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of Millie.
What source material did you go to assemble the occult mythology in the movie? Aleister Crowley? Some stuff you made up?
Aster: It’s a... well, kind of all the usual texts as far as the research is concerned. Aleister Crowley led into other occult figures that I won’t name. Just because, you know, I’m not an occultist, to say the least. And actually, the research was really upsetting for me.
It was upsetting to watch the results of it. Those moments where Ann Dowd’s character is reading the passages of writing detailing the demons, and whatnot…
Aster: I’m not a particularly superstitious person but it was very difficult for me to dive into that stuff. What really upset me in the research was, when I left the more poetic side of the demonology stuff, and I moved towards the instruction manuals for casting spells. When you’re reading it, it’s so straightforward, and there’s a lack of poetry: “Do this, do this, then say this, then say this, then this will occur.”
It was a reminder that there are these Machiavellian forces out there and, even if I don’t believe in the magic side of all this, there are people who do. People who are casting, if not love spells, death spells or sickness spells, because they believe it will work, and they’re hoping that it will work. What disturbs me is just the idea that there are so many people who are willing to engage with these forces and the human capacity for people to do harm to one another. And the instinct to do that.
Hereditary will be in cinemas on Friday.