“My Sense Of Humour Just Kept Finding Its Way In”: Ari Aster Talks ‘Hereditary’ and ‘Midsommar’

"I see a lot of macabre humour in 'Hereditary'. It’s very dark, but it’s there."

Midsommar director Ari Aster talks break-ups and horror

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Hereditary, Ari Aster’s first film, takes the trauma of loss and turns up the intensity till reality itself is split open, morphing from melodrama to pure, dripping nightmare. But Midsommar, his follow-up, is far more expansive in its cruelty.

The film opens on a phone call between the highly-strung Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor).

The former is worried; her mentally unwell sister has just sent her an ominous, abrupt Facebook message. Christian, meanwhile, is distinctly unhurried by life. He’s a PhD candidate with the thick smog of the fuckboy about him; when Dani calls, he’s out eating pizza with his mates, a collection of bookish jocks played by Detroit’s Will Poulter, newcomer Vilhelm Blomgren and William Jackson Harper of The Good Place.

Biting her lip, filmed in stark, uncompromised close-up, Dani tells Christian that she loves him. He leaves a long, deliberate pause before flatly telling her that he loves her too. He hangs up before she does.

It’s awful, as painful and difficult to watch as the violence in the back end of Hereditary. But then Dani gets a phone call from a number that she doesn’t recognise, and one bad thing is swapped out for something even worse. Moments later, Dani calls Christian again.

But this time, instead of pleading with him, she lets out one anguished scream.

From there, Midsommar weaves together disparate strands of hurt, as Dani, Christian and his friends travel to a Swedish village where it never gets dark, to partake in a series of Summer solstice rituals with a group of white-clothed pagans.

Dani’s there to escape the terrible thing that happens to her in the film’s opening, but she’s also clearly hoping to restart her relationship with the increasingly distant Christian; to save them from the break-up looming on the horizon.

Of course, because this is an Ari Aster film, there are other things looming on the horizon too. Ever so slowly, Midsommar glances up against the folk horror genre — think cult classic The Wicker Man and you’ve got at least one of the reference points. The smiles of the pagans begin to sour; a young oracle with a mutilated face watches proceedings from a distance; and a genteel man with a large, lethal hammer begins making frequent appearances.

But Midsommar is a pagan slasher in the way that Hereditary was a ghost story; which is to say, not really at all.

It’s also far funnier than Hereditary — at one point, one of the terrifying pagans tells Christian and Dani that the children of the village are off watching Austin Powers — not to mention more upsetting.

In interviews, Aster might have described it as a fairy tale rather than a horror film, but Midsommar still features all the violence that you’d expect from the man who sent Toni Collette up into the rafters with a length of piano wire.

These are big, risky bets, but they pay off in droves. Simply put, Midsommar is a masterpiece, a galling dose of pure psychedelic doom, and an anti-fuckboy paean for the ages. It’ll haunt you like a curse.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When you’re on set, do the conversations with the actors have to be character-based, or can you talk about how individual characters slot into the themes of the entire film?

Ari Aster: I talk quite a lot about how each character fits into the film, and what their part of the tapestry is. In some films I might not do that. But in Midsommar it felt kind of necessary, because the film is so much about Dani. So I needed to talk to a lot of the actors about how they fit into her story, her arc, and her trajectory.

Did you rehearse much before you started shooting?

We did not have the opportunity to rehearse as much as I would have liked. We had about a week when the actors were there before we started shooting. And unfortunately we were so pressed for time on the production design side, that quite a lot of my time got swallowed up in production.

But we were able to do some exercises with Florence and Jack, where I served as a couple’s counsellor and they improvised for a couple of hours in character. And I took all of the actors to a restaurant in Hungary [where the film was shot, standing in for Sweden] where you cook your own food. All of those actors made lunch together, in character, as though they had just landed in Sweden an hour ago.

The film has so many incredible performances. Florence Pugh is amazing, but when I was watching it, I was so impressed with Jack Reynor, who plays Christian, because as you say, he plays the lead character’s idea of what her boyfriend is like. Did he see his own character as a good guy?

I think he saw his character as a lost guy, who was in a corner and feeling trapped. But it was very important to me that as bad of a boyfriend as Christian is, he is still relatable. Because so many people have been on either side of the line in the dynamic of [that relationship].

Jack was certainly approaching Christian not as a moustache-twirling villain. But he is absolutely the antagonist of the film, given that we are aligned with Dani.

Ultimately, [in writing the film] I was thinking about the necessity in relationships to mirror each other, and to exhibit empathy. If anything, Dani is restraining her grief, and finally at the end she is given license to let it out and honour her feelings.

Midsommar balances moments of real comedy and moments of real horror. Is it hard to walk that tightrope?

Not necessarily. It’s really just a matter of not overthinking anything. If you’re trying to be funny when you’re writing, then you really need to be careful. But if you get into a groove, and you’re just trying to write as naturally as possible, then your sense of humour finds its way in. And that’s how the humour in this film crystallised.

I’ve written capital c ‘comedies’ before, and there is a feeling when you’re doing that of consciously trying to be funny. Whereas in this one, my sense of humour just kept finding its way in.

In retrospect then, given that your early shorts are very funny too, Hereditary feels like the one with the least humour. Was that deliberate?

It’s just sort of how it happened. But at the same time, I see a lot of macabre humour in Hereditary. It’s very dark, but it’s there.

But of all my projects, Hereditary is the most straight-faced. So I probably won’t make something that straight-faced for a while.

Midsommar begins preview screenings in Australia this Thursday August 1, before being released wide on August 8.