Hereditary’s Ari Aster on his traumatising horror and audibly suffering audience members

We talk to Ari Aster about his brilliant horror debut Hereditary

After riding a tidal wave of incredible critical acclaim, Ari Aster’s stunning horror Hereditary finally hits UK screens tomorrow. It’s a film that’s best to go into knowing as little possible, but we can tell you that it’s a gruelling, terrifying horror about grief and trauma with an outstanding performance from Toni Collette.

She plays an Annie, an artist whose mother passes away at the start of the film, and in the days that follow she and her family begin a slow, inexorable descent into horror.

We talked to Aster earlier this year about putting the audience through hell, his horror inspirations and mischief-making in this spoiler-free chat…

How have you found the experience of watching this with an audience? Are they reacting like you thought they would?

Well, you know, I’ve seen it with a few audiences now and it’s funny because you get so wrapped up in the minutiae of what you’re making, just in the post process, that I frankly forgot that I was making a horror film. And so, obviously I remembered that, but what maybe separates this from other horror films is we kind of were avoiding a lot of the clichés and we were trying to stay away from jump scares.

So it was never really part of the process, especially in post, to make it scarier or to go for any specific genre effects on the audience. And then watching it with an audience, it became very clear to me. “Oh right, I set out to make a horror film!” and it was a relief to see that people liked the film, but it was also very gratifying that they were reacting to it and it had a visceral collective effect.

In the screening I was in there were some great audible noises of discomfort!

Yeah! Those are my favourites. In every screening that I sat in on there was always at least one person in the audience who was audibly suffering! Which, for whatever reason, was something that I was going for!

Grief and trauma are such important parts of the film, was that where it started?

Yeah, I wanted to make a serious film about grief and trauma that gradually curdles into a nightmare in the same way that life can feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes. And so that was the original goal: I want to make a film that is a family tragedy that works as a nuanced family drama and then I want the film over the course of its running time to kind of break down and collapse in on itself as the family does, as the family unit itself disintegrates. So that was the first thing that I wanted to do.

There are those conversations where they’re saying all the things you should never say to a family member…

I wanted to make a film about the corrosive effect that grief and trauma can have on a family. There are a lot of films about grief ultimately bringing a family together. You’ll usually have a scene in films where there’s some cathartic fight and things are said that shouldn’t be said but in the end they’re closer because of it. Whereas here, it’s like watching a car wreck where bit by bit you’re seeing things take place that can’t be undone, and not just the big dramatic events but even these small quiet unsaid moments that are contributing to this toxic dynamic. I wanted to make a film about a family that is dealing with grief in all the wrong ways and in the end it’s catastrophic.

Was writing a script that deals with these things a gruelling experience?

Honestly for me it was a therapeutic process, it was very cathartic. But I also think that there’s something inherent in the genre, it demands catharsis. And so, the process was maybe one of wrestling with a lot of unresolved feelings and then needing to resolve them in one way or another.

How did the cast come together?

Well, with the adults we sent the script out as offers and for the most part we got everybody that we were hoping to get. I just felt incredibly lucky to have actors of Toni and Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd’s calibre. That ultimately means that one your movie gets made but also the performances will have the depth that a film like this needs in order to actually work.

And with the kids, we went through a typical auditioning process where kids were called in to read and for Charlie, I was prepared to search for a very long time, but Milly Shapiro came in relatively early and this is her first film, but she actually had an honorary Tony that she won for playing Mathilda on Broadway. And she won it when she was 10. So, she’s a veteran theatre actress despite being very, very young so she’s just an incredible actress who can do anything, she’s an amazing singer as well. That was probably the biggest relief in casting because we always knew that there were very few people who could fill that role and I can’t imagine anybody playing Charlie besides Milly.

And with Peter, Alex Wolff came in also pretty early into the process and he gave definitely the most powerful audition, but he didn’t look like anybody in the family at the time because we had a different Steve before Gabriel. So he didn’t get the part right away just because I couldn’t visualise him in the family and at a certain point it became clear that we really had to go with him, he was the best person for the part. And he fits that family visually so well now that it feels silly that it was ever a question.

Toni Collette is just stunning in the film. What was the process of working with her on Annie?

Yeah, I mean, she really just is an incredibly disciplined, devoted actress so she kind of just brought all that stuff to the set. I did give her a 10-page biography for the character before we got started, I had written a lot on Annie, and so I furnished her with that. But beyond that, her instincts are second to none and it’s a very easy job to direct her.

The house is obviously a hugely important element in the film and key to the atmosphere. Was that somewhere you found?

We actually built the entire interior of the house, so all of that was built on a stage. We actually were scouting for a long time trying to find a location that would work. I’m somebody who writes a shot list before I talk to anybody on the crew, which is maybe not the best way of working because it sort of locks you into a corner, but we couldn’t find a house that would accommodate what I had mapped out. So, we had to build everything on a stage and Grace Yun was the production designer and she and I worked really closely on this and she is just fantastic.

And the biggest challenge there was that we had to design everything. Not just what the spaces were and the dimensions of each room but also what the dressing and the props would be because we needed to replicate all of those. We needed to have our miniaturist Steve Newburn who’s in Toronto to replicate everything. And we had those miniatures coming in on the day we needed to shoot them at the very end of the shoot so that was very intensive.

And then as far as beyond that, the atmosphere, I would say that really comes down to beyond the spaces that we built, my cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski who I’ve been working with for about 10 years now, we met at AFI as students. He and I have a very, very close relationship and we have a shorthand that’s close to telepathy. I think what he was able to do just with lighting the house, I’m really proud of what he did there. And we had an incredible crew in Utah.

It feels like there’s an influence from Japanese horror as well as a lot of the American classics. Was there anything in particular you looked at for inspiration?

It’s funny that you mention the Japanese horror films because those are among my favourites and I definitely was thinking about films like Ugetsu and Empire Of Passion and Onibaba and Kwaidan and Kuroneko, those are some Japanese horror films that I am always thinking about.

And then we especially had Don’t Look Now as a reference. Not so much as an aesthetic reference but I do see this film as serving as a spiritual cousin to Don’t Look Now and tonally I do find Nicolas Roeg’s films to be interesting and always disturbing. No matter what genre he’s working in. The Shining is something that we certainly talked about and Jack Clayton’s film The Innocents was one that we were looking at. As far as films that disturbed me go, Peter Greenaway and especially The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover is a film that I can’t imagine making a horror film without thinking about. Although that one really upsets me, I saw it when I was way too young, and it really just ruined my life. So, there’s a few there.

But we were also really looking at family dramas almost more than we were looking at horror films. As far as films that I showed the crew are concerned, we watched The Ice Storm and Mike Leigh is somebody that I was talking about a lot especially with my DP. Bergman came up a lot, I think, Cries And Whispers and Autumn Sonata are a couple of films that felt relevant.

Do you think you’ll stay in the horror genre or do you want to try something different for the next film?

I don’t consider myself a horror filmmaker whatever that means, I do have one more horror film that I’m planning to make soon [Aster’s untitled A24 horror was announced after this interview] but beyond that I really just love genre and I would love the opportunity to play in every genre. I guess there’s something that excites me about playing with the familiar and playing with cliché, because when it’s already become a cliché it’s something that’s kind of close to everybody and there’s something very exciting to me about fiddling with that.

There’s something that a teacher at AFI once said, that filmmaking should essentially be mischief making. That always rang really true for me and that’s something that I hope I’m bringing to every film I make, is that sense of mischief.

Hereditary is in cinemas 15 June. Read our review here.