Skeletons in his closet helped Ari Aster make his breakout horror debut, “Hereditary,” and they are none of your business. For now, Aster would like to keep it that way. The director of the year’s scariest movie, which has jolted audiences since its Sundance premiere with its portrayal of a family destroyed by ominous forces, Aster wriggles away from any inquiries about the plot’s personal origins.
“I don’t feel comfortable being explicit about it,” he said, repeating a line that has become a mantra in interviews. “It’s easier for me not to go into detail. I was more pulling from feelings than experiences.”
But “Hereditary,” which A24 produced for under $10 million and opens on several thousand screens, forces viewers into the center of its director’s emotional temperament. Aster’s movie earned the reputation of a breakout overnight, but the story of “Hereditary” required years of development and grew from emotional wounds that run deep. It’s not your average commercial summer movie, but we live in unpredictable times.
“Hereditary” stars Toni Collette in a career-best role as Annie Graham, a woman reeling from multiple deaths in her household that denigrate her relationship with her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne). Her grieving process leads her to indulge in a desperate seance with a sinister older woman (Ann Dowd, of course) whose dubious motives creep into the center of the Graham family and tear them apart. All the while, Annie tinkers away at building miniature houses, including a diorama of the Graham household that epitomizes the encroaching claustrophobia of their situation.
Collette has compared the story to “The Ice Storm,” and the genre shadings of “Hereditary” are a Trojan horse. “If you remove all the horror from ‘Hereditary,’” producer Lars Knudsen said, “the film still works as a family drama. At it’s core, that’s what it’s about, and I feel that the horror movies that stand the test of time are the ones that have something to say about the human condition.” Indeed, “Hereditary” has an emotional authenticity that can only come from a real place.
Autobiographical context has been a key aspect of “Hereditary” ever since Aster wrote the first draft five years ago. Danny DeVito, whose Jersey 2nd Avenue production company developed an early version of the project, said Aster’s infusion of his identity into “Hereditary” made it stand out.
“We really dug that it was so personal,” DeVito said. “There were so many things to mine. He’s just this really sweet person, and we knew it was going to be from his heart — which is an interesting place.” DeVito laughed. “Horror usually comes from the inside of the person who makes it, whatever those fears are. Ari has a certain closeness to his work. Sometimes, the real things that go on in your life are pretty horrific stuff.”
“Hereditary” derives its underlying dread from a combination of intimate fears, unexplained phenomena, and the pains of insurmountable sins. Those motifs percolate through Aster’s multiple short films, which focus on variations of the same disturbing topic. From his controversial incest drama “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” — his AFI thesis film, and the project that landed him an agent — to the saga of an overprotective mother in the silent “Munchausen,” Aster’s movies reflect the sensibilities of a man with a lot of personal issues, seeking the ideal vessel to bury them.
“It’s related to certain things that had happened in my life and things that my family and I went through together,” he said. “But the movie itself is all invention. The feelings behind the film are personal, but none of the characters are surrogates for anybody in my family.”
Born in New York, Aster’s family briefly lived in England before moving to New Mexico, where he spent his teen years. Like Wolff’s character in “Hereditary,” Aster had a younger brother for whom he often felt responsible. His father was a musician; his mother a poet. “With any family that’s very creative, there’s opera, there’s drama,” said Alejandro de Leon, Aster’s longtime producer and classmate at AFI’s film program. “There’s a lot of passions that comes from an all-creative environment.”
As for specifics, de Leon demurred. “There’s more to the story,” he said, “but I don’t want to take the liberty to say anything about that. He’ll do it when he wants to.”
Don’t hold your breath. “The movie’s a public thing, and a part of you wants the movie to exist on its own,” Aster said. “I have more fun talking about other movies than talking about my own.”
This much is clear: Aster faced a rough couple of years, had few friends, and found better company with cinema. In promoting “Hereditary,” he often points to Peter Greenaway’s histrionic cannibal revenge saga “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” as a bigger source of inspiration than any traditional horror movie. When Aster was 12, and his father said the budding filmmaker was too young to watch it, Aster snuck the title into a VHS rental box for “Troop Beverly Hills.” He’s still reeling from the viewing experience.
“I still find his films very unpleasant, but they’re beautiful,” Aster said. “A lot of it has to do with the way he works with artifice. I find those Brechtian distancing effects really disturbing.” Aster, who built the interiors of the Graham household from scratch, transforms the building into a Grand Guignol tableaux in ways that often feel like an overt homage to Greenaway’s movie.
Even before he hit puberty, he counted Roman Polanski and Nicolas Roeg among his favorite directors, and developed obsessions with auteurs whose work oscillates from dark comedy to psychological terror with precise rhythms. He began directing shorts at the College of Santa Fe, then entered AFI’s directing program, where he bonded with de Leon over a mutual disdain for “Little Miss Sunshine.”
De Leon recalled that Aster “saw beyond whatever the artifice of those characters were.” By that same token, when the pair went to see Michael Haneke’s austere black-and-white drama “The White Ribbon” at AFI with the director in attendance, Aster cried when he met Haneke after the screening.
Aster worshipped auteurs whose fixations meshed with his own. When developing “Hereditary,” he chose to single out Mike Leigh. Despite some pitch meetings that reduced “Hereditary” to “‘Rosemary’s Baby’ meets ‘Ordinary People,’” Aster had other ideas. He required his cast to watch “All or Nothing,” Leigh’s 2002 ensemble look at working-class families, as well as several Ingmar Bergman movies, including “Cries and Whispers” and “Autumn Sonata.” Fellini’s “8 1/2” came into play for discussions about the meticulous camerawork, and Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” was a reference point as another story about ghostly circumstances (if not supernatural ones) that tear a family apart. “I wanted the idea to be that we were making a family drama that sort of warped as it goes along,” he said.
Aster often strikes people as the antithesis of his disturbing movies. A short, neurotic Jewish guy with frizzy hair who speaks in quiet bursts of intelligent observations, he often doubles back and loses his train of thought, with mannerisms that suggest a next-gen Todd Solondz. And Aster’s storytelling reflects the sad, surreal humor of disillusioned people that typifies Solondz’s oeuvre: repression and rage, unleashed as a bitter punchline.
“He’s this really small, shy bundle of politeness,” said Wolff, who signed on to “Hereditary” after seeing some of Aster’s shorts. “But if you’re living in as close quarters as Ari and I were, and we became so tight, I see where this story comes from. I see those little glimmers of anarchy in his eyes.”
“Hereditary” leaves a mark on its own terms, but it’s also a natural extension of his shorts, especially “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.” Billy Mayo plays a young man who has engaged in a sexual relationship with his guilt-ridden father (Brandon Greenhouse) for years, and then his mother (Angela Bullock) finds out. As much an example of impeccable craftsmanship as “Hereditary,” the short climaxes with a brutal act of vengeance that leaves you reeling, at once disgusted and astonished at the sheer willingness to go there.
After it premiered at the 2011 Slamdance Film Festival, “Johnsons” leaked on to Worldstar Hip Hop, where the family’s racial identity — the story takes place in an upper-class, African-American household — transformed it into a viral phenomenon. Black viewers were torn over the extent to which the movie was an explicit statement on race and class; for every repulsed commenter, there was another who found sharp observations within its provocative themes. (It even birthed a few memes.)
Aster, already keen to hide behind the veil of his work, felt his first unexpected sting of the spotlight. He agreed to one interview, with former IndieWire blog Shadow & Act, where he said the main impulse behind the movie was a desire to make movies about “topics that are too taboo to be explored.” The decision about the family’s race, he said, emerged only once he cast Mayo, an old friend, in the lead. “There is no intended commentary on the black experience and I would never claim to have any insight into that,” he said at the time. (Watch the short below.)
Years later, Aster is still rattled by the abrupt exposure. “The headlines were like, ‘Jew Makes Black Incest Movie,’” he said. “It was like, all right, well, now I have to do something here because it is catching on like wildfire, not as a movie but as a wrong kind of provocation.” It also indicated that Aster’s brand of storytelling might face an uphill battle finding the resources to continue. Like “Hereditary,” the movie revolves around a pivotal confrontation that ends in flames, and the lingering sense that broken families can never be healed. Try putting a commercial spin on that.
The movie didn’t play many other festivals that year, but when it resurfaced at the New York Film Festival, it scored Aster an agent. Over the next several years, he cranked out as many as 10 feature-length scripts, including one based on “Johnsons,” and nothing came of them. In the meantime, he continued to innovate with his shorts. In 2013’s “Munchausen,” Aster adopts the guise of a wordless Pixar crowdpleaser before plunging the audience into another unnerving portrait of familial dysfunction — in this case, the tale of an overprotective mom so keen on keeping her son from leaving home for college that she poisons him.
Broken families were becoming Aster’s thing, and even though he didn’t identify as a horror director, there was no better genre to make that formula click on a broader scale. Around the time that Aster began working on “Hereditary,” James Wan’s “The Conjuring” rejuvenated the haunted-house genre with an epic tale of ghosthunters that grossed $319 million worldwide.
“I figured a horror film would be easier to get financed than anything else I’d written,” Aster said. “I enjoy turning things on the audience. I really like working in genre because people come into the films with certain expectations. They know the tropes so well, that when you turn on those, it can be shocking because there’s a complacency that comes with watching those films.”
Still, “Hereditary” struggled to find a home. Aster and de Leon spent a year developing the script with DeVito’s company, even organizing a table read, but it ran long and sounded expensive. “It didn’t stick anywhere,” said de Leon, who eventually drifted off to other projects. “I could show you emails going back to 2014 where we were sending it pretty much everywhere. A lot of people just didn’t get it, and I don’t blame them. It was an unpackaged movie with a first-time filmmaker. That’s just not going to go.”
But “Hereditary” found its way into the system. The movie gelled with DeVito’s anarchic instincts — on some level, it shares some DNA with his 2003 black comedy “Duplex” — and when his company moved on, he passed it to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” producer Anthony Bregman, who handed the rights for the project to Kevin Frakes at PalmStar Media.
Frakes found the ideal producing partner in Knudsen, whose old company Parts & Labor produced “The Witch,” another elegant horror effort from a first-time director. “The Witch” also proved hip boutique distributor A24 could handle upscale horror better than anyone, and Knudsen put “Hereditary” on the company’s radar. Then Collette, one of the rare actresses to score an Oscar nomination for a horror movie with “The Sixth Sense,” jumped onboard. “Toni made it real,” Aster said. “It was a rocky road.”
Knudsen is keen on shepherding Aster’s vision. “I expect big things from Ari in the future, and I hope to be with him through every step of his career,” he said. The pair have already joined forces on the director’s sophomore effort, the A24-produced thriller “Midsommer,” which revolves around a couple’s vacation in Sweden that goes terribly awry.
Aster claimed he has plenty of material to mine. “They’re all passion projects,” he said, but he remained mum on the inspiration. “Filmmaking is so much about catharsis anyway,” he said. “It’s therapeutic.” Search around. He’s said that a lot.
“Hereditary” is now playing in theaters.
—Additional reporting by Kate Erbland