Inherently Eerie: Ari Aster's 'Hereditary' is a chilling tale of a dark family legacy

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Familial fatalism is ingrained in the DNA of writer-director Ari Aster’s stellar Hereditary. The title itself derives from our inability to choose what we’re born into, or control what we will be passing on as a result. Aster’s remarkable feature debut—a 2018 Sundance Film Festival breakout, distributed by A24—navigates these troublesome waters of ancestry within a nerve-racking continuum. It begins with a grim catastrophe that chips away at the organic bonds of a family and morphs into a shocking horror tale that deserves a place alongside the all-time greats of the genre.

Hereditary is classically frightening—it steadily alarms and discomfits the viewer with a dark sense of vulnerability. There is no sufficient preparation for its terror-filled attic and tree house or its suggestively searing sound effects. But the chills of Aster’s film go far deeper than short-lived jump-scares, as the filmmaker isn’t particularly interested in clichéd, empty jolts.

“Even when I began pitching the film, hoping to get it financed, I never referred to it as a horror film,” Aster tells me one afternoon in New York, the day after his return from New Orleans, where Hereditary screened at a relatively new horror film festival named “Overlook” in a hat-tip to The Shining. The connection to the Kubrick classic is fitting, as Aster himself describes Hereditary as “a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.” His goal was always to make a serious film about trauma and grief, and then have it spiral into something else.

In the early moments of Hereditary, we meet the Graham family as they say a final farewell to their matriarch Ellen at her funeral. We then follow her daughter Annie’s family as they grapple with the fresh wounds of this grief, followed by another much bigger and altogether unfathomable tragedy. In a career-best performance for an always-excellent actress who proved her horror chops with The Sixth Sense, Toni Collette plays Annie, an artist who builds intricately accurate miniatures. Married to Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and a mother of two—Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), both revelations playing a slacker teenager and a troubled kid with an ominous motor tic, respectively—Annie becomes consumed by the snowballing emotional (and supernatural) currents in her isolated house. Once she finally realizes the unfortunate inheritance she and her family have acquired from her deceased mother, Annie finds herself in a losing battle, especially after a mysterious character played by Ann Dowd (first an ally, then something more) enters the story.

Aster aimed for a sense of pervasive doom with Hereditary. “I wanted the feeling of walls closing in. I hope that the film has a relentless quality to it,” he reflects. A shift from tragedy to horror surfaces midway through the film, during a family dinner where concealed tensions erupt between Annie and Peter. “The first cut of the film was almost three hours. But even then, it happened right in the middle,” explains Aster, analyzing his film’s key turning point. “Almost every family drama has that scene, allowing people to start moving together [after] something is purged. Whereas here, the idea was to leave everybody feeling so much emptier, to further [bring] every member of the family to their doom. In the first assembly of the film, that scene was actually followed by two subsequent scenes where the action moves upstairs for more catharsis. But that scene was working so well on its own, with all the things that were said that couldn't be unsaid. The film starts going down a more apocalyptic path from there. It’s ultimately about people who discover that they have no agency, which in many ways is everybody's situation.” As he observes later in our interview, “We’re all like kites in the wind.”

Aster’s preoccupation with the theme of powerlessness won’t come as a shock to anyone who dared to watch his terrific (and in some cases, deeply disturbing) short films, such as The Strange Thing about The Johnsons or Munchausen. While the filmmaker is reluctant to reveal the specifics, he makes it clear that Hereditary was conceived in a deeply personal place, even though none of the characters in the film is a surrogate for any members of his family. He emphasizes, “Nothing explicitly from my life or from my family's life is in the film. But [Hereditary] is imbued with a lot of unresolved feelings [I had]. I wanted to make a horror film that had deep reserves of sorrow, and the writing of the script and the making of the film was therapeutic and cathartic for me.”

While he admits that he comes from a complex family with a burdened history, Aster notes that they are extremely close and supportive of each other. “I have an intense family, but a wonderful one. My parents are artists. My mom is a really brilliant poet who used to be a really wonderful visual artist. My dad's a drummer, and I think one reason I'm able to go to such weird places in my films is I was never made to really question anything I was doing by my parents.”

Given his desire to delve deep into human behavior, it makes sense that Aster drops Mike Leigh’s name into the conversation as a filmmaker he admires—he talks at length about the British master’s impact on his love of the medium. “He is probably my favorite living filmmaker. I don't think there's anybody better. And I did go to his films [for Hereditary]. I go to his films habitually anyway, but I did go back to his films when I was thinking about this one, as the characters and the dynamics in his films are so vivid. They feel so lived-in.” He adds, “You just feel the histories between people in his films [that] have been built over a period of time, where they're building their characters and building the story. And then [Leigh] goes off and writes a script out of the [months of] work that they've done. It's usually so intricately structured and perfect.”

To create a similar believability, Aster worked out back-stories for his characters. He wrote a 15-page biography for Annie, for instance, which he then gave to Collette. “Annie is a woman who feels shackled by all of these roles that she's been consigned to. That character's history, especially with her mother, was so important to the film. It was [essential] for me to understand exactly what it was, and I felt it was important for Toni to have as clear an idea of that as possible as well. For the others, we talked a lot about their characters and their mutual histories, and what led to the dynamic that we walk into at the beginning of the film. They all work in very different ways. Toni is an extremely disciplined actress who can turn things on and off on a dime. Between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut,’ she is fully immersed and 100-percent committed, but once you say ‘Cut,’ she's out of the character. Alex Wolff is more of a method actor—although I don't know if he likes being called that. But he was Peter for about two months, which is really fun for a director.”

Establishing the natural plausibility Aster was after required impeccable craftsmanship, with detailed art direction of the interiors and creation of Annie’s models (which play an important role in conveying the film’s relentless bird’s-eye claustrophobia). Before any of the design work started, Aster made a thorough shot list of about 100 pages before involving his department heads. (This is his usual working method.) Then he went to his cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski (his longtime friend and collaborator, going back to their school days at the American Film Institute). Next, production designer Grace Yun entered the picture. “We went through each scene, mapping out the space for each room, or the imagined space for each room,” he recalls. “These were spaces that would accommodate the shots that I had envisioned. We would do a game plan for each, mapping out the blocking, and then the camerawork in relation to that blocking. So after we thoroughly mapped that out, we had 156 boards.” (At one point, the script had 156 scenes.)

Next, they looked for suitable locations, but came up empty-handed after a month of scouting. Having forced themselves into a corner with detailed pre-planning, the filmmakers realized that there were no houses that would exactly accommodate their shot list. “It was clear that we had to build on a stage, which we also found would actually be cheaper given the amount of renovations we would have to do to another house, and dislocating a family and having to put them up somewhere. I was already used to building [from the shorts I made].” The exterior was an actual home in Salt Lake City, but the first and second floors, the attic and the interior and the exterior of the tree house were all constructed. All the spaces needed to be replicated for Annie’s dioramas, so the designs had to be completed well in advance of shooting so that high-profile miniaturist Steve Newburn (with credits like Pacific Rim and Inception) could be involved. “He also did the prosthetics in the film. He does special effects; he is also a makeup guy and a miniaturist—very accomplished.”

Aster says he has nine other scripts that he would like to direct, along with other projects in development. Despite the buzz surrounding his new film, “I don’t have an interest in making a blockbuster. But I love a good blockbuster. I would just want to make sure that if I did do something like that, I would have the freedom to make it personal, to make it something [of my own.]”