Ari Aster interview

Ari Aster burst onto the scene last year with Hereditary, a dread-drenched horror film about the trauma and complications of family that was voted one of /Film’s best movies of 2018. His follow-up, the folk horror fever dream Midsommar, is a totally different type of movie – one which obliterates the notion that Aster is a one-hit wonder and instead confirms him as one of the most exciting and daring filmmakers working in horror today.

Last week, I sat down with Aster during the film’s press junket and we talked about audience expectations, building the Swedish community from scratch on location, the “negotiation” of post-production, if we’ll ever see his preferred director’s cut, and more.

Note: this is a spoiler-free conversation.

Ari Aster Interview

Your very first shot in this movie is this artwork depicting all of these rituals, which sort of slides away as the movie begins, almost like a curtain pulling back to begin a play. Where did that idea come from?

That actually occurred to me in post-production. The film has always been like a fairy tale for me, and I got excited by the idea of laying out the framework of the film before we even begin it. If anything, it felt like it would orientate the viewer in the right way, to take in this film on its own terms. So I commissioned this brilliant contemporary artist Mu Pan to make that tapestry mural, and I’m really pleased with what he did.

And that sense of…maybe not full-on voyeurism in a traditional sense, but the sense of being on the outside looking in is something that you return to over and over again in your work. In Hereditary, we see that idea in the dioramas, and we see it in the dollhouse-style structure where the characters sleep in Midsommar. What is it about that idea that resonates with you?

I don’t know. Gosh, I don’t know. It was easier to talk about with Hereditary because there were thematic ideas at play that were being applied aesthetically. Whereas here…I’ve always seen the film as a fairy tale, and I’ve always seen the film as this perverse wish fulfillment fantasy. So there’s this sort of agreement with the audience coming in: they’re coming to see a folk horror movie. Most of us know the traditions there. Most of us know The Wicker Man either by reputation or because we’ve seen the film, so we know, ‘OK, Americans are going to this other country, and if we’ve seen one horror film, we’ve seen them all – they’re going to be killed off one by one and they’re going to be sacrificed.’ For me, the pleasure of making the film is not focusing on those things. Those things are inevitable. It’s not about ‘How am I going to kill this guy off?’ or ‘How am I going to kill that guy off?’ That’s all very banal for me and not very interesting. But it’s about ‘How am I going to get exactly where we all know I’m going?’ Because if I don’t go there, it’s going to be dissatisfying, because there is that contract. But how am I going to get there in a way that reveals this to be something else?

So for me, there are two films happening here: for the American men in the film, this is a folk horror movie. For the main character, for Florence Pugh’s character, this is a wish fulfillment fantasy. In the same way Horga, this community, I want this to feel like this rich, lived-in place that has deep traditions and a long history and I want those details to be very rich, at the same time, they all exist for Dani, for the main character. So in that way, the movie itself kind of exists for Dani. The trajectory exists for Dani, and there is fun to be had in being self-conscious about that. I guess that’s my circuitous way of answering your question.

Midsommar Jordan Peele

A lot of filmmakers talk about how the editing room is where they “find” the movie. You’ve written and directed both of your features, so did you have that sense of discovery in post-production or was it more straightforward than that because you’ve had the idea of the film in your head since back when you wrote the script?

No, you find the shape of the film in post-production. The original cut was three hours and forty-five minutes, and that’s not exclusive to my films. I think most films are unwieldy when you first put them together and they’re much longer. The way I work, too, is that I don’t typically get traditional coverage. In some scenes I will, when it’s appropriate. But if I can make a scene live for a long time in one master, I like to just do that and not give myself anything to lean on. I find that it allows me to really focus on the aesthetics in a way that – to have no way out forces me to really commit to choices that I tend to not regret. Sometimes you do regret them. Sometimes you absolutely regret not getting options. But what happens when you do that is that you have to be really careful, and post-production can become a torture for a little while because you have scenes where your only option is to cut at a certain point. Otherwise your film will be lousy with jump cuts. Again, this is a long-winded way of saying I tend to find a new shape for the films in post-production, but the trick is how do I retain the shape of the script and what I intended to do? How to choose what details are extraneous and what details are valuable, even if they aren’t pushing the story along. So it becomes a negotiation. Every step in the process is one of discovery.

This one was particularly punishing, because we had very little pre-production time because I was split between finishing Hereditary, doing Hereditary press, and having about two months of pre-production during which we had to build the entire community from scratch. And that includes cultivating the land, because when we first found that field, the grass was taller than I was, and that includes creating a path through the woods that would lead to this field. So we had no time to build it and we had a very tight, intensive production schedule. We did not have nearly enough time to do what we did. And then we finished shooting in October, and the movie’s coming out now. We really had to sprint through the cut and through visual effects and the score, [and the] sound [mix]. So if anything, it’s about trying to maintain a certain amount of focus and integrity even while the deadlines are encroaching and as punishing as they could be.

I’d heard a rumor that your preferred cut was longer than the theatrical one. Is that true, and what was in that that didn’t quite make the theatrical version?

I would say my preferred cut would have been maybe 25 minutes longer, but I actually feel like this cut is the most accessible cut. There probably will exist a director’s cut, and I would not actually call the director’s cut necessarily better. I would say, ‘This is the cut with scenes that were very painful for me to cut that I might have not cut if I weren’t encouraged to keep pushing.’ But [the theatrical version] is definitely an approved cut. I had final cut on the film, and I’m very proud of what we arrived at. But yes, I would say, the three-hour and forty-five minute cut, I would never want anybody to watch. I would say there’s a two-hour and forty-five minute cut, without credits, that I would be interested in what people thought.

Cool. Hopefully we get a chance to check that out some day.

*****

Stay tuned for some spoiler-y moments from the rest of our conversation with Aster, which we’ll publish when Midsommar hits theaters on July 3, 2019.

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