Ari Aster, in just the course of two movies, has asserted himself as one of the voices shaping the modern horror landscape. Last year, the filmmaker exploded onto the scene with Hereditary, which wound up being one of the most critically heralded movies of 2018, horror or otherwise. Now, Aster is back with Midsommar and, so far, it’s been met with a similar amount of praise from the critical community. Yet, there’s more to the man, and his movies, than just run-of-the-mill thrills.
For that matter, the thrills offered by Ari Aster and his movies thus far have been anything but ordinary. Hereditary, while containing some already iconic horror imagery, was also a subversive movie about grief, loss and trauma. Midsommar carries forth many of those same themes, but in a very different way. Instead of being dark and brooding, the filmmaker’s latest effort is bright and colorful. Which is brilliantly deceiving because, as anyone who has seen the movie can surely attest, it doesn’t skimp on the scares.
Even though Midsommar is proving to be a bit divisive with certain moviegoers out of the gate, this is sure to be a movie people are going to talk about for years to come. And with good reason. While it belongs to the folk horror subgenre, it very much stands on its own in the modern horror landscape. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny its distinct nature.
Related: Midsommar Review: Hereditary Director Provides an All-New Nightmare
Midsommar centers on Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), a young American couple whose relationship is on the brink of destruction. However, a family tragedy keeps them together and that leads to Dani to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime festival in a remote Swedish village that takes place just once every 90 years. What begins as a carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight descends into madness as the locals invite their guests to take part in the festivities.
So what’s next for Ari Aster? How does he manage to sculpt such fascinating and meaty characters for actresses like Florence Pugh and Tony Collette to sink their teeth into? I was lucky enough to speak with him recently about that and more. Before diving in, I should mention this interview will contain some spoilers for Midsommar in one of Aster’s answers, but I’ll provide a warning beforehand. So, without further adieu, here’s my chat with the man behind Midsommar.
Your first two features have both been met with a whole lot of acclaim and measurable success. How does that feel, as a filmmaker, when it took so long to get into the world of making features in the first place?
Ari Aster: It’s obviously very gratifying and very exciting. I’m very grateful and very fortunate to be making these films because I know what it’s like to not be making them, and struggling to get them made. It did take ten years after school. Well, almost ten years. I guess it took about eight years after grad school to get any of these movies going. I spent that time writing more features, while I was trying to get certain features going and directing a bunch of shorts. It’s great to know that I will likely have the chance to make the next one. And at the same time, I’m also grateful for that time I had not making movies because it gave me the opportunity to make shorts and to kind of sharpen my teeth and build some muscle.
That makes total sense. You don’t just get thrown into the deep end and you’re not just waddling around trying to figure out what you’re doing.
Ari Aster: Exactly. Which can happen. If I hadn’t made a bunch of the shorts that I had made, I know that I wouldn’t have had the vocabulary that I have right now. And I’m still really sort of building that vocabulary and learning what works for me and what doesn’t. It’s a big, long learning process and I’m still at the beginning of it. It’s just exciting to be able to continue to practice and to keep experimenting
I’m not the most insightful guy when it comes to movies, especially on a first watch, but with your stuff, you write female characters in a way that few men, or even few people can at all. It really stands out with both Hereditary and Midsommar. Where does that come from?
Ari Aster: Thank you, I appreciate that. It’s as simple as, I find that almost all of the characters I write are coming from me, and they’re often different parts of me having a dialogue with themselves. Sometimes I write people with another person in mind, in my life. But I try to get to a point where the writing becomes kind of instinctual, and it almost feels like freehand. And I can’t get to the point where characters are actually just talking to each other, like, through me, until I really understand who they are and where they’re coming from and what they’re feeling. So, whether that’s a man or a woman, I only really have my own experience to draw from. I assume that if I put myself into these characters, then they’ll feel real for me and hopefully they’ll feel real for other people.
Hereditary, even though it was very much a distinct movie, it was very much a horror movie. There was imagery people could see and go, “Oh this is a horror movie.” With Midsommar, did you find a challenge since the horror is not so readily apparent?
Ari Aster: I don’t really consider myself an exclusively horror filmmaker. I’ve written many, many scripts and almost all of them belong to different genres. So I actually came to horror pretty late, as far as my spec scriptwriting, amateur career was concerned. Both of the films I’m planning to make are sort of more difficult to categorize than Hereditary is because Hereditary is a horror movie, and [Midsommar] I’ve always considered to be a fairytale. It’s sort of an operatic breakup movie, and that’s just always what it stemmed from. There are horror elements and it’s obviously tied very, very explicitly to the folk horror subgenre. But usually when I tie a story to a genre like that, it’s in order to help give shape to the messier feelings that I’m interested in exploring, and genre is very helpful in that sense. In that, it gives you a very clear path and a very clear framework. It’s interesting. It becomes a big part of releasing the film. The question of, what is this thing and what does it qualify as? What kind of expectations does it come with? These are all questions that come after the movie has been made. But while we were making the film, we weren’t thinking about, how do we make this a satisfying horror film? It was never really a question of doing that. It was really a matter of honoring the story. This is a movie that is definitely concerned primarily with fulfilling Dani’s character’s arc. That’s been the obsession for the last year.
I saw recently you said there are two things you’re thinking for your next movie. Specifically, you described one as a “zonkey nightmare comedy.” Can you tell me anything else about what that might be if that ends up being the one?
Ari Aster: Not really.
I totally understand.
Ari Aster: I haven’t really spoken about it before. That’s a pretty good way of describing it for people who might be interested. It’s an absurdist, evil comedy. I’ve also referred to it as my anxiety comedy. That’s the other thing I’ll give you.
Building off of that idea of horror not being your only thing, is there any sort of existing IP out there in the world that you would be really interested in tackling now that you’ve had success with your own work?
Ari Aster: I’ve been sent a lot of things. A lot of them are intriguing. There is existing IP that I find interesting and exciting. But, at the same time, I’ve got so much stuff I’ve written that I want to do that I can’t see myself doing anybody else’s work for a long time.
That makes sense. If you get the opportunity to do your own things, that’s not something that always comes around. So I guess you’ve kinda gotta strike while the iron is hot.
Ari Aster: Exactly. That’s my feeling.
There is a lot of fascinating imagery in Midsommar, and I’m sure people a lot more intelligent than me can provide further insight into that. But the thing that is never going to leave me is the horrific and hilarious randomness of the bear. Where did the idea to have that bear come from? Was it tied to anything thematically that I’m just missing?
Warning: spoilers ahead in the following answer.
Ari Aster: The bear is a very important symbol in Norse mythology and in Scandinavian folklore. It was loaded in all of the right ways. To sort of tie it to Christian and the way that he dies. It occurred to me at some point in doing research for the film that this is the right way to send Christian off.
It was maybe the most delightful single frame of that whole movie for me. It was such a wonderful moment. That really set the tone for the whole movie.
Ari Aster: Thank you.
You mentioned that there’s going to be a much longer cut of Midsommar released?
Ari Aster: The first cut of the movie was about 3 hours and 40 minutes. I am working on an extended cut that would be about three hours, maybe a little bit less.
I understand you maybe don’t want to say much, but what kind of stuff can we expect to see in that larger cut?
Ari Aster: A more nuanced picture of Harga, more rituals and more nuance for the relationship between Dani and Christian, and more by way of the thesis competition between Josh and Christian.
Is this something that we can expect to see in theaters? Or is it just going to be for the Blu-ray release?
Ari Aster: We might be playing at a festival, but otherwise the plan right now is to just have it available on the Blu-ray or, I’m not sure if it’s Blu-ray. It might be on iTunes.
As for what festival this longer cut will play at? The filmmaker opted not to reveal that information at this time, but we’ll all have the chance to experience the extended horror on home video. Midsommar is out in theaters now from A24. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.