Shortly after Ari Aster’s Hereditary seriously creeped out audiences at its Sundance Film Festival premiere, the word was that the first-time feature writer/director had based this family frightfest on his own life. Given what happens to the Graham brood over the course of Hereditary’s terrifying two hours, one could only imagine the terrible childhood Aster must have faced. Fortunately, speaking on the eve of the movie’s release, he reveals that what happens on screen has no direct ties to his own history.
“What’s beautiful about the horror genre,” he says, “is that it functions as a filter through which you can push personal material, and out comes something that is, for all intents and purposes, an invention. I can say that I put a lot of personal feelings into Hereditary, though I can also say that none of the characters in the film are surrogates for anybody in my family, or for myself. I took a lot of very raw, painful, unresolved emotions and put them into the story, but there’s nothing even remotely autobiographical in the film. Still, there’s an oppressive quality to the movie’s atmosphere that feels somehow true to my experience.”
While Aster doesn’t go into detail about what that experience might have been, there’s no doubt of his ability to project that unease directly into the minds of his audience. Hereditary chills to the bone on two levels: First as an uncompromisingly perceptive study of a family in the throes of great tragedy and a legacy of emotional alienation, and then as a no-holds-barred saga of malignant supernatural energy infesting the Graham household. Aster’s masterful control of dread-building tone and shocking payoffs suggest a man with horror coursing through his veins, and while he is an enthusiast for scary stuff, he admits that he launched Hereditary for the same reason many other directors have started off in the genre: It’s one of the easiest types of movies to find financing for.
“I graduated from the American Film Institute in 2010, where I studied as a director, and came out with a few features I really wanted to make,” he recalls. “I spent about five years trying to get those made, and none of them really took. They had roughly the same scope as Hereditary, but one was a kind of cross between film noir and a Western—it was a very eccentric ensemble movie—and another was a high-concept suspense thriller. For a while, I figured that I should write a horror film, and that it would be easier to get the money for one of those. It’s a genre I like, so I don’t know why I was avoiding it for so long, but I finally caved. So Hereditary kind of began cynically in that sense, in that I just wanted to get something going, because I had spent so much time trying and failing to move those other boulders up a hill.
“Once I endeavored to write it, it became more personal and I found my way in,” he continues, “and the questions were, what do I want from the genre? Where might I fit into it? What are my fears? Hereditary grew out of those questions, and by the time I had a script, it was a project I was very close to and excited about. There were stops and starts, though; it was in the hands of several different producers before it ended up where it finally did. So even with Hereditary, there were disappointments and abortive movements forward that didn’t amount to anything.”
Key to getting the film up and running was securing a commitment from Toni Collette to star. The actress has done her share of genre work before (from The Sixth Sense to Krampus), but nothing in her entire filmography can prepare you for the depths of madness she plumbs as grief- and terror-stricken Annie Graham, for whom the death of her mother is the beginning of her entire family’s breakdown. The hysterical pitches she reaches in Hereditary’s later scenes could have you concerned for the actress’ own sanity, and Aster reassures, “She’s extremely disciplined as an actress, so she could just turn it on and off. It was amazing to watch. She would come onto set as Toni, and she remained Toni until I said ‘Action,’ and then she dove headlong into the part. Then when I said ‘Cut,’ she was dusting off her knees and back to being Toni.”
Another actress who makes a striking impression in Hereditary is young Milly Shapiro as Charlie, the Grahams’ withdrawn junior-high-age daughter who has some very strange habits and hobbies. Already a theater veteran (she was one of the four girls who won special Tony Awards for sharing the title role in Broadway’s Matilda: The Musical), she makes her film debut in Hereditary, in a role that Aster says she thoroughly made her own.
“Milly is an incredibly intelligent and mature young actress who brought so much more to the part than I ever could have anticipated,” he raves. “Charlie was deliberately vague on the page, because I was afraid to get too specific as far as conjuring an image of what Charlie might look like, or just who she was. When Milly came in to audition, this weight was lifted off my shoulders, because it was obvious that it was her. She came to the part with so many ideas, and she was very active in her engagement with the role and with the film. She was working with an acting coach, and they had an exercise—I believe this is part of the Stella Adler method—where in order to get into character, she had to figure out if there was an animal that was representative of her role. And she came to me saying, ‘I figured it out. Charlie on the outside is a turtle, who just retreats into her shell whenever she’s confronted with anything, but on the inside she’s a snake.’ That opened the part up for me in a huge way. I could never think about Charlie in the same way after that; it was so insightful. From there, I just left her alone.”
Word of mouth on Hereditary has reached a fever pitch, bolstered by a spooky marketing campaign from distributor A24. The company has demonstrated a knack for selling ambitious fear fare like The Witch—though their efforts backfired somewhat with last year’s It Comes at Night. Sold as a hardcore horror experience, it alienated some viewers when it proved to be more of a dark interior drama. Hereditary is something of a slow burn itself (though it pays off in multiple shocking ways), and Aster says the promotion for it sought to convey the movie’s eerie tone while preserving its surprises.
“If people felt that they were misled with It Comes at Night,” he says, “they should know that the marketing here is deliberately misleading you in an honest way, in that we’re not hiding what isn’t there, we’re hiding what is there. Hereditary is unabashedly a horror film, whereas It Comes at Night was a lot of things; it was a thriller, it was a postapocalyptic drama, it was a slow-building, very dark movie about relationships. Hereditary is also about relationships, and I hope it functions as a vivid family drama, but it is also very much a horror film.”
It’s territory that Aster will be exploring again in his second feature, though he aims to venture into different territory after that. “Right now I’m in preproduction on my next film, which is a horror movie, and I’m doing that with A24 as well. That said, it’s the last one I intend to make for a while. I love the genre, but I want to play in all the genres. I don’t want to repeat myself in any way, you know? I’d love to make a musical.”
Details of his new project are under wraps right now, but it will be another original fear piece. It’s a truism of the 21st-century horror scene that whenever a new filmmaker emerges with a breakout scare flick, they’re quickly offered remakes of past genre classics or cult favorites, and Aster confirms that has happened to him as well. “I have been offered one or two already—or at least, I’ve been given scripts to consider. Of course, that’s very flattering and exciting, and it’s certainly new to me to be offered anything, as opposed to desperately trying to get something of my own into production. But for the time being, I want to see how many more personal projects I can get going. I definitely have a collection of original films I’m very anxious to make.”