When it came time to make his feature directorial debut, filmmaker Ari Aster knew that he wanted to make a film that took suffering seriously, to make something that served as a meditation on grief. Specifically, he wanted to examine how that type of trauma can have a corrosive effect on the entire family unit. The problem for Aster was that, while there are plenty of American films about the messy side of loss, in many of those features, characters ultimately end up stronger, their familial bonds tighter, for having navigated their way through adversity.
That’s not what he wanted to make, however.
“There’s nothing inherently false about that, we need hope to get out of bed in the morning, but there are some people who don’t recover from certain blows – sometimes people go down with the people that they are closest to,” said Aster, when he was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “I wanted to make a film about that, but if I did make that as a bleak drama that ends on something of a hopeless note, first good luck finding the financing – and then if I do find the financing, I’m not going to have the resources that I had for this film – but then good luck finding an audience for it.”
Five years after graduating the AFI MFA program and failing to get a number of feature film scripts off the ground, Aster – admittedly, somewhat cynically – started to consider writing a horror film, thinking it would be easier to find financing. Looking to some of his favorites from the genre (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Don’t Look Now,” “The Innocents”) as models, Aster started to ask himself, “How do I fit into the genre? What are my fears?” He quickly saw that horror would actually be the ideal genre to tell his story of grief.
“The beauty of the horror genre is that you can smuggle in these harder stories and the genre comes with certain demands, but mostly you need to find the catharsis in whatever story you’re telling,” said Aster. “What may be seen as a deterrent for audiences in one genre, suddenly becomes a virtue in another genre.”
The process of writing “Hereditary” became a far more personal and less cynical creative endeavor, starting with the story of the Graham family before even thinking about the genre elements.
“I was really just rooting myself as a filmmaker in the suffering of these people and then allowing all these horror elements to grow out of that,” said Aster. “To basically create this untenable situation and this atmosphere that people can’t survive. Sometimes a house becomes unlivable.”
Also while on the podcast, Aster talked about the stress of working with miniatures, why it was necessary to build the family’s home on a soundstage, and his intense three-week process of going over every shot with his cinematographer and production designer.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.