“This is a film about a family breaking down. The horror breaks out of that dynamic. It was very important for me to attend to the family dysfunction before we even thought about executing the horror elements,” says writer director Ari Aster about his new film Hereditary.
Aster, along with cast members Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff, spoke to Free Press Houston after the regional premiere of Hereditary at SXSW last March. It was the second public screening after the film’s unveiling at the Sundance Film Festival at the beginning of the year.
In the hair-raising new film, family dysfunction soon gives way to demonic possession in a slow burn that results in not just one of the best horror films of recent memory, but literally of all time. Hereditary is that damn good.
Aster shows a prowess at camera movement, angles and directing actors that belies the fact it’s his first feature film. Shapiro and Wolff play the children of Gabriel Byrne and Toni Collette. There’s not a false note in the entire movie.
“Exteriors were an actual location, but everything in the house was built from scratch in a studio — the first floor, second floor, attic and interior of the tree house,” says Aster about shooting the film in Utah.
“We had to build everything on a stage, but because we were building miniature replicas of those spaces we had to design everything well in advance. You have to pre-figure out the set dressing as well as the dimensions,” says Aster.
Byrne plays a professor while Collette works as an artist who makes miniature scale models of rooms. One of the best scenes revolves around an argument at the dinner table that’s more reminiscent of Ordinary People than The Exorcist.
“Toni and Alex — what they are doing in that scene is amazing. I could not have asked for more committed performances, they are going to places that are a scary place to go for an actor,” says Aster.
Wolff adds: “We shot dual cameras so it wasn’t like separate coverage. I like that scene, it feels really connected. You can watch a movie and each actor thinks that this is their explosion moment but this power dynamic between me and Toni never got screwed up. He’s just getting revved up and she slaps him down. They are just pushing each other until one explodes.”
“I was looking to make a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare,” says Aster. “I hope it’s funny at times. I can’t imagine making a film with no humor. It’s an instinct about how far you can go without breaking the spell. There’s less of a tether than there appears to be.”
Shapiro originated the title role in the Broadway musical Matilda, for which she won a Tony Honor award. Wolff has also directed his first film, The Cat and the Moon, which is set for release next year.
Aster concludes by citing a movie that he considers a heavy influence.
“I used to be obsessed with horror films — not so much anymore,” he says. “Growing up there were a few films that traumatized me. One is not even considered a horror film but Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which is a pretty evil movie. That film is filled with images that stayed with me. And not only the images but the artifice of the filmmaking. Greenaway uses all these alienating Brechtian devices — the imagery is very immediate and upsetting. It’s was one of the first films I ever saw that felt that it was made by an authentic misanthrope, someone who hated people. I hated what that movie made me feel. I saw it when I was way too young.”
Hereditary opens at area theaters this weekend.