With a feature debut like Hereditary, director Ari Aster has certainly introduced himself as a brave and bold new voice in horror filmmaking. Horror may too often be underrated or dismissed in the cinematic conversation, but for Aster it was all about finding his place within the broad swaths of genre filmmaking.
"There are certain pieces in the film that came to me first, but ultimately I knew that I wanted to make a horror film that kind of serves two functions, but serves them equally," Aster told Nerdist when we sat down with him to discuss Hereditary ahead of its release. "I wanted to make a unabashed horror movie that was a very good entry into the genre, and I also wanted to make a very serious meditation on grief and trauma and the corrosive effect that trauma can have on the family unit. And so I wanted to make something that kind of attended to both things equally."
He continued, "I had to ask myself: Where do I fit into the genre? What do I want from the genre? And what are my fears? Like, what scares me?"
Evidently, Aster is no newcomer to the genre. "I love horror movies," he said. "As a kid, I was obsessed with horror films and I saw everything that came out. And I exhausted the horror section of every video store." I've seen everything, but it's just been a while since I've been a true enthusiast. So many of these films are made so cynically and the risk-reward algorithm works so much on it. Working so much in the studio's favor, the films are often just kind of pumped out. And there are always exceptions. I mean, Rosemary's Baby, when it came out, was an exception to the B-movie horror slots, right?"
Still, Aster has, like many of us, taken note of the current climate of exciting new horror. "Lately we've had a really exciting resurgence with films like The Witch, Let the Right One In, and Get Out," he said. "[Get Out is] really more of a satire, but it's brilliant. It plays with horror really diligently."
Beyond these American entries, there's one particular market for horror overseas that's especially appealing to Aster. "I think my favorite horror movie in the last five years might be The Wailing, which is a brilliant South Korean horror film," he said. "I think South Korea has been juggling tones and genres in a really wild way without ever losing coherency, in a way that feels utterly forward-thinking to me. I've been more excited about what's happening in South Korea right now than anywhere else."
Moving forward, Aster talked about what exactly he wanted to achieve with Hereditary. "I had to ask myself, 'What are my fears?' And before I even started writing the film, I knew that I wanted to make more than horror films—[films] that were playing on fears that don't really have any remedy. Like, what do you do in the fear of death? That's obviously the one fear that most horror films are playing with. But you either come to terms with it, or you don't."
Fear as a singular concept is hard to pin down, but for inspiration Aster looked to the things that scare him. "What do you do with the suspicion that you can't ever really know the people that you're closest to?" Aster said. "I mean, it's true. You can't. One usable thing about being human is that we have the power of empathy; some have it more than others. But ultimately, it still all comes down to projection."
Aster continued, "What do you do with the fear of abandonment? What does one do with the fear of inadvertently hurting someone who's close to them and then having to live with the guilt of that? I feel like we all have [experienced that] in small ways, right? And my nightmares usually revolve around an inadvertent betrayal on my part or somebody else betraying me. And because the people in our family are the people we're closest to, and they're the ties that are the most difficult or even impossible to truly sever."
Hereditary wasn't just driven by an exploration of the inherent terror of hurting those around you, but also the horror of more mundane dangers. "That fear of becoming your parents or the fear of inheriting some genetic defect that will affect your quality of life," Aster said. "You're going to get cancer or it's in your family that you're going to have this degenerative disease. It's this thing that's inside of you that there's no outrunning, there's no altering. It's waiting to forever alter your life. And I think if anything, that must be universal. I imagine so. It certainly weighs on me."
To explore these rich themes on film, Aster had to rely on perseverance and a little bit of luck, as the road to directing Hereditary was a long one. "I mean, this was my first feature and I had certainty been through the experience of having a film almost go many, many times before," he said. "I would say that I probably had the experience of a movie nearly getting going four or five times in the several years proceeding Hereditary."
So how did Hereditary end up breaking this streak? "We went to Toni Collette pretty early on, and she responded to the script and we met for lunch and we hit it off and soon thereafter she attached herself to the film," Aster said. "And that is really what made it real. That's what legitimized the film and that's what got the train moving on the track. And from there, we brought on the rest of the cast. And I'll always be grateful not only to Toni, but to Gabriel and to Ann Dowd for ultimately putting their faith in me, but more importantly, just making this thing happen."
Will you be seeing Hereditary in theaters? Let us know which parts scare you the most!