The Making of Midsommar began taking shape well before cameras rolled on Hereditary in early 2017. Several years prior, Aster was coming out of a three-year relationship and found himself reflecting back on the breakup as he embarked on a new script. Like Hereditary, which was a family drama disguised as a horror movie (based on Aster’s own experiences navigating grief and trauma), Midsommar became an opportunity to explore the downfall of a relationship through the lens of a twisted fairy tale, once again rooted in personal experience. “The initial image that sort of catalyzed Midsommar involved the sacrificial burning of a temple,” says Aster. “I got excited about fitting the ‘breakup movie’ into a new setting, putting an operatic spin on the rote sort of cathartic ending we’ve seen in those movies before—you know, where the jilted protagonist burns the box containing all the items she collected over the course of the relationship she’s finally liberated herself from.” As he tried to overcome heartbreak, Aster wrote his own struggle into the character of Dani Ardor, a young American woman navigating personal loss as her relationship with her boyfriend Christian crumbles. Setting the bulk of his story in Sweden, where Dani and Christian go on vacation with their academic friends, Aster turned to Stockholm-based set decorator Henrik Svensson to help him understand an environment and culture that was utterly foreign to him.
In 2013, with the making of Midsommar in its nascent stages, Svensson was in Sweden recovering from a minor stroke, taking a year off from work in order to heal. As he slowly recovered, he began researching Swedish folklore and pagan traditions, sending some of his findings to Ari Aster in Los Angeles. This was the beginning of a years-long creative process in which Svensson and Aster co-assembled a 100-page story bible detailing every aspect of the movie’s unique, richly detailed world. In California, Aster was doing his own research into Swedish, Nordic, English, and German folkloric traditions, consulting everything from James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a globe-hopping anthropological study of paganism as it yielded to Christianity, to the spiritual traditions of philosophers such as Rudolf Steiner. Aster traveled to Sweden, joining forces with Svensson to visit folklore museums, tour preserved hälsingegårds (farms) in the deep north, interview experts in the field, and meticulously study Swedish tribal customs. “We tried to get a grasp on how people in rural and religious Scandinavian communities lived, from 500 years ago up until the present day,” says Svensson. “We looked at the natural elements—how people took care of nature, including plants and animals—as well as the structural elements and the art that surrounded them, including wall paintings. Culture is very strong in these parts, we wanted to get a sense of how they communicated, which was more often than not through music.”
As their research grew darker, they found themselves immersed in more nefarious customs, including Viking torture methods. Juggling darkness and light, Aster began writing his screenplay, inserting a group of modern young Americans into the alien environment of an eerie cult performing a once-in-a millennium series of rituals during a summertime festival in remote northern Sweden. From its inception, Aster seldom envisioned the making of Midsommar as a horror movie—instead viewing the project as an epic adventure unfolding in a strange hermetic world. “When the Americans enter this landscape, they walk through pearly gates into a new realm,” says Aster. “We looked at it like an anthropologist might approach Candy Land—how do we create this entirely new place, so the characters can truly live in it? What was crucial for us was to create a world the audience could stand in, live in, and viscerally understand—so that by the end, even though this tribe remains a mystery, it’s also intricately defined.” Dani and Christian.
At the outset of the making of Midsommar, Dani’s relationship is on the rocks, as Christian selfishly places his academic pursuits and male friendships before Dani’s emotional needs. Then tragedy strikes. “She suffers a devastating loss and becomes orphaned, left with nothing in the way of family except Christian,” says Aster. “The closest person to her is this guy who is on the brink of leaving her. He’s decent enough that he doesn’t leave, given the situation. But it’s a matter of duty for Christian, and Dani is well aware of not being embraced by his friends.” Those friends include Josh (William Jackson Harper), a PhD student whose interests lean toward anthropology and folklore; Mark (Will Poulter), a caustic and chauvinistic goofball with negligible boundaries; and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a Swedish exchange student who has invited his friends—but not Dani—on a summer trip to his ancestral home in remote Scandinavia. After initially concealing the trip from her, Christian feels pressured to invite her along, much to the chagrin of his close-knit boys’ club. Josh, Mark, and Pelle simply want to cut loose with their own kind, threatened by anything that will distract them from their personal and selfish goals, whether it’s furthering their academic glory or getting laid in Sweden. Eventually Christian caves, inviting Dani on the trip. “She accepts a false invitation, knowing Christian’s friends don’t like her, and from here the movie becomes a question of how this toxic dynamic will resolve itself,” says Aster. “He’s staying in the relationship out of obligation, and she’s clinging to him as a result, sensing he wants to leave—but also knowing she can’t survive on her own. They’re at a standstill. The making of Midsommar has always been a kind of horror movie about codependence.” Adds British actress Florence Pugh, who plays Dani, appearing in virtually every scene in the movie: “Their relationship should have ended a long while ago. Despite circumstances and the need for comfort, it continues.”
Midsommar was filmed in the summer of 2018 in the countryside outside of Budapest, Hungary, standing in for remote Sweden due to logistical considerations and better access to sunlight. Like Hereditary, Aster has once again constructed an elaborate set from the ground up, including the film’s centerpiece, the Hårga village, conceived in conjunction with production designer Henrik Svensson. “I felt it was important for audiences to be able to see different parts of the village in every shot, as though you were actually there celebrating with the Hårga,” says Aster. “I wanted the geography of the village to be something the audience comes to know in their bones by the end of the movie.” After combing rural Sweden and its distinctive farmhouses for structural inspiration, Aster and Svensson scouted around Hungary for several months, surveying field upon field in search of a location that could accommodate a rural village ensconced in sunlight while also being adequately surrounded by trees and mountains. A meticulous planner, Aster had already designed all of the shots and planned the entire layout of the village before he and his production designer finally found the right location a few miles outside Budapest in early 2018. By this time, Svensson had been involved with the project for nearly five years, expanding the story bible before cameras rolled to include intricate details for every character, building, and costume. This helped Aster imagine a deeper mythology for the Hårga, including its own fictional language—called Affekt— which is on display throughout the film, in particular during the ritual scenes.
“It’s like this warped, fantastical version of what you might see and hear in a rural Hälsingland village during a midsummer festival,” says Aster. “Henrik is a brilliant guy and it’s hard to believe that this is his first feature film as a production designer.” As the project developed, Aster also employed a runic alphabet unique to the Hårga, viewable throughout the movie on costumes, interior walls, and in the sacred book known as the Ruby Radr, which becomes a key plot point when Josh attempts to take pictures of the esoteric prophecies for his dissertation, outraging the village elders.
Hårga’s history and beliefs, Aster turned to artist Ragnar Persson, who hand-painted the designs before they were transformed into wallpaper by Hungarian artisans. “Hidden inside these paintings is everything that’s going to happen in the movie without giving viewers any obvious signs,” says Aster. “Midsommar contains a lot of Easter eggs.” The creation of this artwork took months prior to filming, with Persson painting in the style of medieval paintings Aster and Svensson had stumbled on first-hand during their scouting trips through Hälsingland—bringing a level of intricate, symbolic detail to Midsommar that recalls the dollhouse figurines in Hereditary, which also signaled key story elements.
Outside Budapest, Svensson built the village set over the course of two months prior to the making of Midsommar, racing against the clock to finish construction. “We had to build everything on poles because the structures couldn’t actually touch the ground,” says Svensson. “Hungary has lots of rules, some of which are easy to understand and some of which are not. It was a fight against time and weather to get the structures up before cameras rolled.” It was also a race against the sun, prompting the filmmakers to choose Hungary for the movie’s location, over the obvious choice of Sweden, because they had better control over the production. Swedish law demands that film crews can only shoot for eight hours per day, restricting the team’s access to maximum sunlight. By shooting in Hungary, where the days were shorter, they had less control over the light, but more control over the landscape. Finding the right field meant everything. “Every day we stepped into that field we were stepping into the world of Hårga,” says Pugh. “It was hugely exhilarating and helpful to be living amongst it all and made the experience even more eerie. Everything was designed and painted from scratch—often we would wander off in between takes and just stare at the artwork on the walls.” Adds Pogorzelski: “Hereditary was much easier to shoot because we were able to control everything inside a limited space. Before we started the making of Midsommar I would stay in that field for days and watch the sun, testing the shadows, noticing when the clouds rolled in, and the sunlight started to wane. You can’t predict anything, because the sun is just going to keep moving—it doesn’t wait.” To preserve authenticity, Aster flew in the Swedish actors who play the Hårga villagers—including dozens of extras—to act alongside a British and American cast and a Hungarian crew in the making of Midsommar.
Midsommar is another uniquely singular horror film from Ari Aster and it will stay with you for days afterwards. Read our review of Midsommar here