Ari Aster wants to make one thing perfectly clear: “Midsommar” is a horror movie. The writer-director, whose elegant and soul-scraping “Hereditary” inflamed a semantic debate about the limits of its genre by daring to possess routine tropes with real trauma, is eager to get ahead of that whole conversation the second time around. Not that he can do anything to stop it.
When IndieWire recently sat down with the director in the basement of a Manhattan hotel, Aster knew full well that his latest film was certain to resurrect all of the same talking points. Another indelible nightmare that blurs the line between tradition and heresy in order to stir the unholy spirits that live inside our wounds, “Midsommar” begins with a premise that sounds almost perversely basic after the madness of “Hereditary.” A grieving young American woman (Florence Pugh) joins her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his grad school chums on a trip to an isolated Swedish village that’s celebrating a mysterious pagan festival that only happens once every 90 years. People start to die soon after they arrive.
It might as well be the plot of a “Hostel” movie, which is exactly what the idea was compared to when it was first pitched to Aster a few years back. And those trailers that made this feel like a millennial riff on “The Wicker Man?” They weren’t trying to mislead you. “This is a contribution to the folk horror genre,” Aster said emphatically. “I know the trajectory, I know how it works, and I was really excited about putting this movie in that skeleton and not doing anything to fuck with its spine.”
Be that as it may, there’s something about “Midsommar” that makes you question what it is that you’re watching and squint at the screen; it’s the brightest horror movie ever made, and it naturally comes with a bit of glare. Where many of the other movies that share its DNA tend to see the human body as a subject of suffering, Aster prefers to think of it as a vessel; for him, the scares are just a means to an end. As in “Hereditary” before it, “Midsommar” is less interested in how its characters die than in how they live with their pain. “The joy is not in subverting expectations,” he said, “but delivering on expectations in a way that’s both inevitable and also emotionally surprising. The fun of the folk horror genre is that you know exactly where it’s going, and I didn’t want to fight that.”
For someone who can seem like a sui generis talent, Aster has no interest in reinventing the wheel. “I’m a cinephile,” he said with just the right amount of shame that word requires. “I love movies. For me, the most exciting thing about being a filmmaker is being in dialogue with the films and filmmakers I love, and using the common language of the cinema to work through my own stuff and make something personal out of it.”
“Midsommar” may be a folk horror movie that speaks to formative classics like “The Wicker Man” and “The Blood on Satan’s Claw,” but those aren’t the films that Aster returned to when making his own contribution to their genre; instead, he went back to the stuff that had left the biggest stamp on him, no matter what kind of movies they were, nor if they had never been put into conversation with each other before. As a result, “Midsommar” feels like getting turned around in a neck of the woods that you’ve always known by heart, and there’s nothing scarier than what you can find when you won’t even admit to yourself that you’re lost.
Here, Aster details nine movies that inspired “Midsommar.”
1. “Modern Romance” (1981)
When Aster said he was working through “his own stuff,” he was referring to a breakup. The kind that just flattens you out; the kind that a great horror film can let people sample for a couple of hours if the right director doesn’t pass on it first. Aster, who’d never worked for hire before, was ready to reject “Midsommar” when the idea came his way. He wanted to make a breakup movie while he was going through a breakup, and not a seedy gorefest that was one step removed from “Hostel.”
But it was easier said than done. “When you’re crushed, you’re usually not feeling inspired,” he said. And then, inspiration arrived: He’d graft a breakup movie onto a folk horror trajectory, and use it to arrive at the kind of fucked up catharsis he needed to move forward. He’d pour all of himself — all the stuff that he loves, and all the stuff that he’s lost — into the most inflexible story format he could find, and revitalize them both in the process.
“Breakup movies were my biggest point of reference,” Aster said, “And I really wanted to model the arc here on a high school romantic comedy. I love ‘Clueless’ so much. That doesn’t work as a reference for ‘Midsommar’ at all, but ‘Clueless’ is a fucking masterpiece. But for me, the breakup movie that I thought about first is just my favorite of those, and that’s Albert Brooks’ ‘Modern Romance,’ because it’s my favorite breakup movie ever.”
Aster continued: “But back to those high school rom-coms. There’s always a girl who’s stuck on the wrong guy, and the right guy (Josh, played by “The Good Place” star William Jackson Harper), is right under her nose, and at the end she’s going to finally learn to self-advocate and take the shoe box full of all the memories of the bad relationship and throw them into the fire in her backyard. For me, ‘Midsommar’ is me taking that idea and doing it in my own way. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking John Hughes or ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ and the films that were in theaters when I was in high school in the ’90s — they’re in my bones, so I didn’t have to return to them. I was just thinking about them.”
1. “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973)
2. “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973)
Talking to Aster about the films and filmmakers who inspired the religious-themed horror movie he just made in Sweden, Ingmar Bergman seemed like a slam-dunk. The opening scenes of “Midsommar” are told with the cold severity of those in “The Silence,” and the various pagan rituals that follow make the pageantry of “The Seventh Seal” feel like a natural point of reference… right? Not so much. But one of Bergman’s films is right on the money, even if it’s not the first one you’d guess.
“Look,” Aster said, “Bergman is one of my heroes. I love him. I love his work so much and I’m always thinking about him just because I love him so much. My favorite film of all time is probably ‘Fanny and Alexander.’ But to be honest I was thinking about Bergman a lot more when I was making ‘Hereditary’ than I was when I was making ‘Midsommar.’ But ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ was definitely on my mind,” Bergman’s 1973 miniseries about the slow disintegration of a relationship. “It’s not that I was thinking about it actively, but that’s just the ultimate breakup movie and there’s no topping it. It’s probably the best writing I’ve ever encountered in a movie as well — those monologues are just the most brutal things in the world.” True enough, but the scenes between Dani (Pugh) and Christian (Reynor) achieve a memorable brutality of their own.
3. “Dogville” (2003)
3. “Dogville” (2003)
The box-burning moment Aster was alluding to earlier — seen on screen as recently as “Eighth Grade” — speaks to the kind of soul-cleansing catharsis that “Midsommar” builds towards from the moment it starts. But few movies have ever leaned into that idea harder or made it more palpable than Lars von Trier’s “Dogville,” which stars Nicole Kidman as a woman who hides from some violent gangsters in a small Rocky Mountains town where she’s gradually dehumanized by the local residents.
“The connection didn’t occur to me until last month,” Aster said, “because I was asked by Film Comment magazine to write two paragraphs on a film that meant a lot to me that I saw in New York, and I decided to write about ‘Dogville’ because it was so shattering for me. I saw it with my mom, and we both loved it, and I just remember this toxic catharsis in the movie that was so total. I mean, it’s a three-hour film that spends two hours and 45 minutes justifying the eventual mass murder of an entire village. And I just remember feeling, like, ‘Oh my god… this film has trained me to just be filled with joy by the end.”
“It would be false to call ‘Dogville’ something that I was actively thinking about while making ‘Midsommar,’” Aster said, “but it must have been an unconscious influence because what that film does with catharsis is what I want to do with the catharsis here — I want it to be a joy, I want the ending to be exciting and kind of crowd-pleasing. And then at the same time I want it to be something complicated that you’d have to contend with.”
4. “The Color of Pomegranates” (1968), 5. “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1965)
The vivid and dreamlike films of Soviet-era auteur Sergie Parajanov, on the other hand, were far more active references during the making of “Midsommar.” Aster showed production designer Henrik Svensson “The Color of Pomegranates” and “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” before the crew started the two-month process of building the remote Swedish village where the majority of the movie takes place (10 buildings and a path through the woods). Aster wanted to make something that was holistic and lived-in but also vibrantly combustible and prone to sudden violence.
6. “Songs from the Second Floor” (2000)
6. “Songs from the Second Floor” (2000)
Aster moves the camera more than Parajanov ever did (and always with the same fixed purpose that he brought to the compositions in “Hereditary”), but the scale and integrity of Svensson’s design keeps the illusion in tact from start to finish. The depth-of-field in each shot often draws your eye to the background, and to the potentially sinister rituals that may already be in motion while Dani and her friends are still trying to make sense of where they are. So much of the film’s eeriness, and it’s dark humor, and it’s essential sense of history are tucked into the corners of Aster’s frames as though the characters in the foreground are blocking our view of the intricate vignettes taking place behind them. And nobody in the history of movies has spent more time sewing morbidly hilarious bits of life into the depths of enormous film sets than Roy Andersson.
It turns out that Bergman isn’t the only Swedish auteur who Aster can’t shake. “Roy Ansersson is a filmmaker who is really important to me,” Aster said. “Especially ‘Songs from the Second Floor.’ That’s another movie I saw in theaters with my mom when it came out in 2001, when I would have been 15. It changed my life. I made a short a long time ago that was me trying to do Roy Andersson, but you can’t do Roy Andersson. He stages the most perfect vignettes, and I think he has an entire month to build every set for every scene.” Some of the richest and most populated scenes in “Midsommar” feel like a fun nod to Aster’s favorite parts from “Songs from the Second Floor,” not least of all the bit with the self-flagellating stock brokers.
7. “Black Narcissus” (1947), 8. “The Tales of Hoffmann” (1951)
But “Midsommar” is a lot brighter than anything Roy Andersson has ever made, and Parajanov wasn’t the only — or even the primary — reference when it came to finding the right colors for this little Swedish village where life and death tend to go hand-in-hand. For that, Aster turned to some old favorites: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
“We were really pursuing this three-strip technicolor look,” Aster said, “and so ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’ were really on my mind. I was talking to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski about those films, and we had our colorists look at ‘Black Narcissus’ in particular to get excited about what the possibilities were. The idea was not to make it look like those films, but to go for what three-strip technicolor looks like when you close your eyes and think about it, as opposed to what it actually looks like on screen.”
10. “Save the Green Planet!” (2003)
One reason “Midsommar” is able to sustain a drug trip for so long is because the psychedelia is propped up by a story that’s doing a number of other things at the same time. Aster, like many of the filmmakers he loves, has a gift for compounding different genres together in a way that blurs the lines between them. It’s why he’s always been quick to mention contemporary South Korean cinema as an inspiration, and why some of the pivotal moments in “Midsommar” feel like they’re picking up where the last act of Park Chan-wook’s “Lady Vengeance” left off, or playing with some of the same dynamics that Jang Cheol-soo explored in “Bedevilled” (a more obscure reference that Aster remembers well).
“There are so many South Korean films that have come out in the last 20 years that have just made me feel like…” Aster smiled and shook his head. “I love how they juggle different tones. Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon-ho, all the usual guys.”
Asked to pick one movie in particular that he felt in his bones and that may have given him permission to shoot for the moon with the gonzo finale of “Midsommar,” Aster cited Jang Joon-hwan’s deliriously unclassifiable “Save the Green Planet!,” which starts with a deranged man kidnapping a rich pharmaceutical executive who he’s convinced is a hostile alien, and only gets stranger from there. “That was a huge thing for me,” he said.
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