Interview: Ari Aster, Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro on the making of Hereditary

Just about every horror movie leading up to release is dubbed “scariest. ever” because that’s the way hype works. “Scary” is what pulls us into horror movies and often creates unfair expectations which leave us – especially horror buffs – bitterly disappointed. As someone who is fairly well-versed in horror and finds something to love in just about every one he sees, I feel confident in writing that Hereditary is indeed one of, if not the, scariest movies ever made. This isn’t an overstatement, and you’ll find plenty of pieces across the internet which echo the same sentiment. This is as close to evil as a film I have ever seen, and it’s the debut feature from writer and director Ari Aster who has immediately become one of the most exciting in cinema. I write cinema because Hereditary should not be confined to a genre, as horror films usually are; Hereditary is a family drama first, horror film second and, as you’ll read below, that is an important distinction to make in order to truly understand just how terrifying the story is.

Hereditary (you can read our first impressions of the film HERE) is about the plight of a small dysfunctional family, plagued by both a lack of communication and something sinister and supernatural – after the credits roll, you’re not sure which is worse. It kicks off with the death of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, descending into unprecedented cinematic dread. Each individual within this family – Annie, her husband, teenage son and young daughter – has tremendous pain that is rendered is so incredibly well, by roles that feel so real and lived-in, that from a certain point (you’ll know when it hits) you’d be forgiven for wanting to walk straight out of the cinema. That’s a testament to how deep this film goes, and how brilliantly acted it is.

To learn a bit more about the origin of Hereditary The Iris joined a roundtable interview at last month’s SXSW. Below you’ll find the transcript of that session, with Aster himself, as well as the film’s two youngest cast members: Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro, who play Peter and Charlie respectively. *clicks tongue*.

Ari, talk about the house [in the film]. You said that was built from scratch; does that include the exteriors?

No the exteriors were at actual locations but everything interior for that house was built from scratch. So the bottom floor, second floor, attic, and the interior of the treehouse.

I really like the way you move the camera. There’s an early exterior shot where you notice that [the camera] is going up a ramp…the driveway. The way the camera kind of moves up. And there’s also some exterior night shows, it almost looks like a miniature because the trees are so tall around it. How did you light those trees?

Oh well that was my Director of Photography Pawel Pogorzelski. We’ve made just about everything together. We work very closely together but the lighting is all his; he is incredible. I’m more concerned with camera movement and composition. And so the way we usually work is that I’ll compose a shot and bring it to him, and from there we will begin a dialogue. And that’s actually why we built everything on a stage, so we could actually build something that would cater to the way I wanted to shoot the film.

Ari, you talk about the house but could you also talk about the miniatures that you also built and how that went hand in hand with the house?

So we had to build everything on a stage, but because we were also having miniature replicas of those spaces made, we had to design everything well in advance of not only shooting but also building. Typically if you’re building on a stage you have to figure out what the dimensions are early on, and set dressing you can take your time with. But on this one, we actually needed to figure out the set dressing at the same as the dimensions of the space, and in some cases beforehand because they were harder to make and harder to replicate. So we needed to know what the wall paper was on the walls, we needed to know what the furniture was, what the blankets on the beds will be; we were replicating all of that. And we were building the sets in Utah – which is where we shot [the film] – but the miniatures were being made in Toronto by Steven Oooburn who also did our prosthetics – he’s great!

Can I ask all three of you a question? You all come from projects that have dealt with dysfunction – Matilda [Milly], My Friend Dahmer [Alex], and now Hereditary – can you talk about taking on characters where in the house there’s a lack of communication, and the disconnect, and how it plays into this film?

Milly: It was really interesting because while Matilda did come from a dysfunctional family, in Hereditary the family is trying to act like there’s nothing wrong. I think was something that was very interesting in the script and just the story in general. And my character was very different from anything I’ve ever done before so that was a lot of fun to do. My character doesn’t really communicate much; she’s very disconnected from the world, and that was very interesting for me to do. It took me awhile to really figure out how I was going to do that correctly; Ari really helped with that and I think that once I figured it out then it really helped with the family dynamic.

Alex: I think lack of communication can just be a source of a lot of interest to people, because I think if you’re going to do a movie involving family…really anybody, lack of communication is an everyday thing. So I think if there’s been any type of theme of lack of communication in any of the things that I have done, it would just be that they’re good. And anything to me that is good or even great involves a lack of communication. People trying to communicate because I think one of the big problems with movies, especially big blockbuster movies, is that everybody says the plot, and in the perfect moment they say this and that. In real life it’s all muddled and people say one thing but there’s usually a bunch of other stuff going on. Usually fights about like where you put down a water cup is really about how this person cheated on this other person ten years ago. I just think that’s what life is so if that’s been a theme it’s just because of life. But I think [Ari] really mastered it in this dialogue, especially between me and Annie; between Peter and Annie there’s a really unique relationship where right off the jump you know something is going on. But you don’t feel like Peter is in an angsty teen thing, you know there’s real trauma between them.

Ari: Sorry could you ask the question again?

When it comes to the aspect of dysfunction and no communication…because you said that this is based on a family drama rather than a horror film. Was there anything to that?

Ari: Yeah I mean this is a film about a family breaking down; about communicating breaking down within a family. These people are isolated from each other in their own home, and the horror kind of grows out of that dynamic. And so it was very important to me to tend the family drama before even thinking about how we were going to execute the horror elements.

Just about the use of humour in the movie. Yes it was incredibly scary but it was also funny at a times. Could you talk about balancing those two?

Ari: I hope that it’s funny at times. I can’t imagine making a film with no humour, but I don’t know so much how…it’s an instinct thing: how far you can go without breaking the spell. I think a lot of the humour comes from just how far the movies goes, that there’s less of a tether maybe then there seems to be.

There’s a lot of disturbing imagery in this. I suffer from sleep paralysis so whenever I see something that’s very disturbing it makes me feel like I’ve fallen into a sunken place. And so there’s one [scene] – I don’t want to spoil the fun – but it involves a certain person hitting their head against something very fast. Is there any imagery – whether it’s a film or a piece of art – that has kind of caused that effect for each of you?

Art: I used to be obsessed with horror films. I’m not so much anymore, but growing up there were a few films that traumitised me as a kid. One isn’t actually officially designated a horror film, but it’s Peter Greenway’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” which I think is a pretty evil movie. I think Peter might be an evil person [laughs]. That film is filled with images that really bothered me and stayed with me. A big part of it too was not just what the images were but the artifice of the filmmaking. There is something upsetting about artifice. Peter is somebody who uses all these alienating devices, and yet the imagery is very immediate and upsetting, and also it was one of the first films that I’ve ever seen that felt like it was made by an authentic misanthrope, like somebody who really hated people. I hated what that movie made me feel, I saw it when I was way too young, but who knows what that says about me that I know want to produce that same effect. But I was thinking about Peter a lot when it came the more upsetting imagery in the film.

Greenway told me that he based that film on a restoration play called “Tis pity she’s a whore” by John Ford. The knife in the cheek…

Ari: Oh yeah the knife in the cheek; the corpse at the end that looks like a roasted turkey; the corpse that’s being stuffed with pages from the French Revolution. and then Helen Mirren lying in bed with this corpse because she’s in such denial, just talking to him. It’s awful stuff.

Speaking of repeatedly hitting your head against something. Can you talk about the physicality of that scene Alex? I mean, were you literally just “bang bang bang, okay next take”?

Alex: We had a desk that was made of rubber but if it’s repeatedly slamming your head it hurts a lot. Which I didn’t anticipated. And I think it’s fair to say I don’t really like to fake doing stuff, ever. I think it’s fair to say I didn’t fake anything in the movie. And so I wanted to slam my head against it, so that’s just what we did and it hurt a lot.

Can I ask about the sound, because in order for it to be effective, it’s got to be your performance but it’s also got to be the sound that comes from it. Also the clicking noise. So how important is the sound with this film, and making it as effective with the drama as the horror?

Ari: Sound is so important in a horror film, especially since we’re dealing so much in dread and anticipation and things happening off screen; the power of suggestion. It’s very important, especially in scenes where we have an actor doing something violent. You kind of making up for what they’re not doing to actually break their nose or something, with tricks and sound.

What was the genesis of the story? How did you come up with the idea? Were you looking to make a family film with horror elements or a horror film that explored the family dynamics?

I was looking to make a family tragedy that curdled into a nightmare. So, that was the goal: a family tragedy first that kind of devolves into something operatic and awful.

Could you talk about the camera’s relationship with the father. I found it kind of interesting because you hardly get a shot from his point of view until the siance which kind of sells the idea that he’s indirectly effected by all that’s going on?

Right, well he’s also the only person that – I don’t want to give anything in the film away, except to say that he’s the only person who’s not part of a specific bloodline. So he’s a bit more indirectly effected…like obviously not, like he’s very deeply effect by everything that is happening, but he’s more disposable if you consider what’s really happening in the periphery of the film, which becomes very very clear by the end, I hope.

Toni Collete’s dinner scene is just so emotionally intense but then at a certain point you cut to Gabriel and you stay on him. Talk about that editorial choice

Ari: He’s helpless. He’s at a loss. He’s just trying to keep the peace and prevent his family from spiralling into total oblivion.

I guess I was glad that you were holding on him for so long, because I was almost afraid to go back to her shot because I just had tears running down my eyes from the intensity. I was just tearing up because it was so heavy

Ari: Thank you. I think that’s due to what Toni and Alex were doing in that scene. I couldn’t have asked for more committed performances. And they’re going to really ugly places too; it’s a scary place to go for an actor.

Alex: We shot with dual cameras. So it wasn’t like we did her coverage and then my coverage. We did it together, so that’s sort of why it feels so connected. I like that scene because the explosions feel connected…sometimes you see a movie and you can tell each actor think it’s their explosion moment. But this power dynamic never got screwed up; I like the way Peter is just getting revved up and she just slaps him down. That’s the whole dynamic of the movie, this power thing, they’re just pushing each other until one explodes and it’s really so smart to have done it that way.

You all inhabit these roles incredibly well. The pain is so real; I had tears in my eyes because the pain was just so effective. How did these roles effect you off screen?

Milly: It didn’t really effect me that much. I used an acting method called the CELL ADVA method? Which is basically where you create the character and when you’re on stage or filming you are the character, but as soon as they say ‘cut’ you’re not anymore. It didn’t really effect me too much but I know Alex has a different method than me, and it was just interesting to see how other people were reacting to it. It was really fascinating to watch.

Alex: I don’t really have a method at all, but with this movie in particular there were just so many rough places I had to go that I was just scared of half-assing some of the things. There’s no way you can do the things that I do in this movie, go through the things that I go through, without going home and feeling a little sick to your stomach. So yeah I’d say I was seriously effected by everything that was going on. I didn’t feel like when they said ‘cut’ things were over. I felt pretty shaken to the core pretty much the entire way through. But yeah, now we’re here so we made it out!

Alex you’ve directed a film. Can you briefly tell us about that

I just finished a week and a half ago. I directed and starred in it. That was like the best experience, other than Hereditary. It was really amazing, I’ve been working on it for five years. I wrote the script when I was 15, the first draft, and I spent five years making it readable. I called Ari and asked a thousand questions and it turned out to be super rewarding. I feel like being an actor is the best cheat sheet for making a movie. Especially when you’re in it; I actually think it might be more difficult to direct when you’re not in it because I felt like on the ground it felt like I was seeing everything that was going on – I could see if someone was nervous or what they were doing or if they were not fully there, I could just see it right in front of me. It was really special.

Hereditary screened as part of SXSW Film Festival 2018. It will be released in Australia on June 7th.