‘Write about what you know’ is what would-be writers are always told and if this is the case then we would not have wanted to be writer / director Ari Aster who has taken a litany of disasters that befell his family over a three year period and rather than try and forget it about it all, became the basis for his debut feature film, ‘Hereditary’. ‘Things had gotten so relentlessly awful’ said Aster, ‘that the feeling prevailed that we basically must be cursed.’
In fairness he’s not lifted his personal story wholesale and put it on screen, ‘I’m always writing from a personal place, but I also love genre, and I’d never want to baldly dramatize any of the suffering that I or my family had gone through, so by taking the idea of a family being cursed and then literalizing that, I was able to put a lot of those feelings through a horror movie filter, where the canvas demands a high level of catharsis. And if you’re making a film about life being unfair, the horror genre is a very unique playground for that. It’s this sort of perverse space where life’s injustices are more or less celebrated and even gloried in’.
What Ari Aster came up with in Hereditary is as disturbing as the expenses claim we submitted to the Editor. From the very beginning Hereditary starts on a down note with the announcement of the death and funeral arrangements for Ellen Leigh, the matriarch of the Graham family. Her daughter Annie (Toni Collette) and her family played respectively by Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff all deal with their grief differently. It’s grief that underlies the whole film with some devastating moments and Aster’s script puts Collette through the emotional wringer and at times her performance is so intense that it’s a wonder she got through the shoot.
Ari Aster’s script is deliberately paced and slowly reveals a series of increasingly terrifying secrets about the family’s ancestry. It’s then that the family discover that they inherited an unavoidable fate and they try desperately to evade the inevitable but in doing so their domestic idyll begins to disintegrate to truly horrifying effect.
‘There are intimations as to what Ellen was up to when she was alive, but Annie can’t fully piece them together.’ teased the director, ‘There’s probably a large part of her that doesn’t want to know what her mother was doing. It’s something she knows in her gut, but she has to deny it. If she looked straight at it, she’d be destroyed.”
Ari Aster was already coming to audiences attention with an eye for the horrific and disturbing having made a series of short films that led up to a deeply unsettling thirty minute , ‘The Strange Thing About the Johnsons’ set in the 1950’s.The subject matter for ‘Strange Things’ was based around a family in a seemingly normal melodrama but with a stomach churning tale of incest where the adult son was perpetrating all manner of sexual atrocities on his elderly father. Despite it’s dark if not lurid subject matter the film turned out to be a huge hit on the festival circuit and was a glimpse of what was to come.
‘Hereditary’ is another family focussed film based on relationships gone sour so though this is horror it’s Aster who cites Mike Leigh as one of many influences. ‘You feel their histories in a way that no other filmmaker approaches. I screened his film, ‘All or Nothing’ for the crew, just to throw them into the spirit of what I was hoping to do’ enthused Aster.
Production on the film began in Spring 2017 but like many films it had taken Ari Aster several years to write the script and he had put together a huge amount of work on the characters, writing biographies and back stories before even writing the story itself. Even then with the script written he then put together a 75 page shot list for the cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski who and also worked on Strange Things and this was all before he had even had the film greenlit.
In fact even before the film found financiers to fund it Ari Astner had, two years previously, contacted Colin Stetson, the well-known saxophonist and composer to write the score. It’s as important to the film as anything else with a rumbling lo-fi score ominously adding to the atmosphere of dread. ‘There’s something deeply sinister about Colin’s horns,” says Aster. “He’s not just playing the saxophone-he’s doing amazing things with circular breathing, multiphonics and percussive valve-work. I was listening to his solo albums New History Warfare 2 and 3 while I was writing the script. For me, his sound was always inextricable from the movie.”
There’s the feeling of an auteur at work here right from the very opening shot , a meticulously planned tracking shot from a view out of a window across a room and then zooming in on a miniature dolls house where the Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff begin the film. The doll’s house is part of Annie’s belongings and was designed by Steve Newburn who had worked on the dolls in ‘Team America Word Police’ a comedy from the South Park creators that couldn’t be more different from his work here. The doll’s house is an integral part of the film as Annie is a stay-at-home artist who is preparing for an imminent gallery show, Annie processes her angst by making art out of her life-miniature dollhouses depicting the Graham family’s real-world trials and tribulations, including her mother’s hospice care before her death. “She’s creating these miniatures of real places and situations in her life, perfect little replicas that give her the feeling of having seized some control over her life and experiences and memories,” says Aster. “But it’s an illusion’
It’s combination of production design and miniature dolls house is brilliantly realised and segues effortlessly into the real life actors on set. ‘Because this movie falls into the haunted house genre, I wanted to avoid those cliches like the plague. No creaking floors or weathered walls or Gothic architecture,” says Aster. “We tried to find an actual house, but it would have been more expensive than just building the whole thing from scratch. If we shot in a real home, I would have needed to gut walls in order to carve out the space to shoot the film in the way that I needed to. Having the blocking in my scenes already mapped out made the location scout almost impossible.’ In the end everything ended up on the soundstage in Utah from main rooms , hallways and even a tree house’.
Ari Aster’s camera shots are meticulously planned and deliberately framed but it impacted on where the crew would finally shoot the film, ‘We needed a lot of space according to the shot list I had designed, including hallways and rooms that were wide enough to accommodate a dolly and allow it to pass through doors,” says Aster. “We wanted to have total control over the way we shot, rather than being limited by existing locations. There are a lot of scenes where rooms are made to look like miniatures and vice versa-we could only achieve that by being able to remove walls and ceilings’
Festival audiences have raved about the film as Ari Aster plays with their expectations and what he’s written and directed changes direction and there are frequent surprises most of them deeply unnerving especially when the plots threads and clues he has hinted at early on start to be drawn together and the director really starts to ratchet up the scares in the second half.
Ari Aster has assembled three leads with Toni Collette (‘Unlocked‘) as Annie , Gabriel Byrne as her psychotherapist husband, Steve, Milly Shapiro as her daughter, Charlie and Alex Wolff as their eldest son, Peter. “Peter doesn’t have a lot of direction in life-he has no serious interests and hasn’t really formed a solid identity- but it becomes the bleak joke of the film that, by the end, he’ll have been given a real sense of purpose,” says Astner.
Byrne was the last to be cast by Astner who was a huge fan of his from Miller’s Crossing, ‘Having watched Miller’s Crossing a million times as a 15-year-old, it was beyond surreal to be able to work with Gabriel. I’m not sure if people know this, but he’s a really passionate cinephile. Between scenes, he and I would just geek out about Powell and Pressburger and Polish cinema’.
Toni Collette has made notable horror films with The Sixth Sense,whose influence is one of many in Hereditary sharing deliberately paced and brilliantly framed shots because it’s the corners of the frame and the darkened backgrounds that become ever more unnerving when you notice what might be there. As Charlie, Milly Shapiro, who is only fourteen years old she has already won a Tony award when she had only just turned ten for the title role in the Broadway version of Mathilda, and thankfully is a world away from the cute stage school cutie because her role here is far from cute.
Ari Aster has put together a really stunning debut feature and has drawn comparisons with The Exorcist but Hereditary’s influences are most obviously Rosemary’s Baby, as well as Ordinary People, Don’t Look Now & The Innocents which is no bad thing. ‘These were character-driven, sophisticated movies that really took their time,” but it’s the supernatural that bleeds into the theme of being unable to avoid your heritage. This is a movie about inheritance–the notion of having no choice in who your family is or what’s in your blood,” says Aster. “It’s about the horror of being born into a situation over which you have no control. There’s nothing more upsetting to me than the idea of being absolutely powerless. The fact that the Grahams have no agency is a crucial point in this movie, and the feeling at the end is one of hopelessness and futility,” says Aster. “I wanted to make a simultaneously intimate and large-scale horror film that absolutely refuses to let the viewer off the hook. My hope is that it stays with people for a long time, and provokes them to contend with something deeper and more primal, a feeling of something inescapable.’
Hereditary is deeply unsettling in parts and stays with you long after the film is over and its success on the festival circuit has been huge and for once is well deserved. The studios have sat and up and taken notice and Ari Aster has already started pre-production on his next film that starts shooting in the Autumn. Called ‘Midsommer’ it once again focuses on the family and in particular a young woman, already dealing with the death of her parents, who joins her boyfriend and his friends on a trip to Sweden. The group specifically head for a remote town with unique midsummer traditions and things quickly go awry.
With James Wan seemingly having moved on from horror to big budget films like ‘Fast & Furious 7’ and the forthcoming Aquaman it seems horror has inherited a new king.