Have you ever wondered: What if Wes Anderson had directed Rosemary’s Baby? If so, I’ve got just the flick for you. It’s called Hereditary (review) and it’s written and directed by newcomer Ari Aster, who sat down to chat with us about his ambitious and disturbing new film.
Here’s the lowdown: Oscar-nominee Toni Collette plays Annie, a deeply deranged artist who expresses her grief through her art. She makes disturbing dioramas in miniature of her family’s home which highlight only sorrow, despair and dysfunction. When we meet her, Annie has just buried her elderly mother and is in extreme distress over it even though she and her mom were never close (her dad is not mentioned). Things go from bad to worse as her flawed family is revealed and the devil doubles-down on their torment. We meet her supportive but wishy-washy husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their withdrawn pothead teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their oddball young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), whose favorite pastimes include drawing unflattering portraits of people and cutting the heads off of dead birds. And that’s just for starters!
Needless to say, making a movie called Hereditary, and successfully at that, hinges squarely on the cast who makes up the family we see onscreen. When we asked Aster how this all came together so well, he said, “Casting a family is always tricky because you’re not just casting the parts, you are casting the family. So I started with Toni; she’s one of the first people we sent the script to. And she responded to the script and met for lunch and we got along. She attached herself and that’s really what got the train rolling. That’s what legitimized the project enough to really make it real. And so from there you’re casting for Toni. When you’re looking for a husband for Toni, not just looking for the right actor for the part, you’re looking for the right actor for Toni to be married to. And Gabriel Byrne in every way felt right. And then from there you’re casting the kids. And it’s not so easy with the kids because you really do need to be looking for chops before anything else, and we were just really lucky in that Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff came along [to play brother and sister].”
Shapiro, whose unusual and beautiful face is prominently featured in extreme closeups, told us, “It was a very interesting role to play because I’ve never really done anything like that before. Ari was really great with helping me figure out who the character was and stepping into her head and why she acted and thought the way she did. Which was something that took me a little bit of time to grasp, but Ari really helped me work it out. And it was really interesting because she doesn’t think like anyone else, which was a whole aspect of the character that was really fascinating.”
Wolff says, “I found my character to be one of the most nuanced, complex teenage character that I’d ever read, in any script – not just a script where things are scary – but just in any script, ever. I thought he was handled with such care and it had such a nice ground floor perspective at what a teenager deals with when they deal with grief, and it didn’t feel like an adult trying to remember their past or trying to recreate something they went through. It just felt immediate and taken very seriously.”
Perhaps it’s needless to say, but Hereditary deals strongly and unflinchingly on the undercurrent of grief. “I’m sure the film is depressing,” admits Aster, “but I think that it also is something of a ride. It aims to be a really good horror movie and it is unabashedly, a horror film. It’s just that it was very important to me that it function first as a vivid family drama. It was important to me to immerse the viewer in this family’s life, their world and their dynamic and then to have all of the horror elements grow organically out of everything that we establish early on.”
“The challenge in making a horror film, especially when you’re trying to do peripheral things, as I was with this, is that you do have to find the catharsis in whatever story you’re telling. And so I imagine people who are enjoying the movie and having fun, are responding to the catharsis because that’s ultimately, that’s the major demand that a genre film makes on a film maker, is that you – if you’re setting smears up in the beginning, you have to set them off later. And so this is a movie that has things that are resolved. I’m hoping that there’s a certain amount of irresolution in the resolution. I do see the film as being an existential horror film that that preys on fears that don’t have any remedy, because it’s just the way things are. What do you do with a fear of death? You either come to terms with it or you don’t.”
“Beyond that, the movie is about the fear of inadvertently harming somebody you love then having to live with the guilt of that or having somebody close to you change in some significant way or some existential way.”
Some audiences and reviewers have been chilled to the bone by Hereditary. In good ways, and bad. Is it possible to go too far? It seems even the actors differ on their opinions in this regard:
Shapiro: “I think it is possible to go too far. But the level of too far is always changing. People get used to something. Horror movies are getting scarier and gorier over the years and now people are getting used to it and they want the next thing because they not getting as scared anymore. And so the level of going too far changes and the same movies people walked out of this year, or most recently, ten years later or twenty years into the future people could think it’s not scary at all just because how people think of horror is always changing. And what scares them is always changing. So you never really know how someone’s going to react to it because it’s really different for each person. Because once someone does watch a movie, they bring all of their previous experiences with it and you never know how each person is going to react.”
Wolff: “I don’t personally don’t feel that there’s such a thing as going too far. I think that some people might not like it. Unless there is something like a cannibal or whatever, or they’re killing real animals, that’s too far. Unless you are doing things that are against the law or you are doing things that are hurting people or animals, then that’s not right. But I think to create anything cinematically is absolutely just the responsibility of the director, and if people don’t like it, then they don’t like it. But I think any type of censorship of film is just bullshit. I think that is part of what it is to make movies, to push boundaries. I don’t believe in any type of censorship at all.”
Shirk censorship and see Hereditary in theaters now.