‘Midsommar’ Director Ari Aster on His Pagan Sex Cult Fairy Tale: Making Movies Is ‘a Special Kind of Torture’
The acclaimed filmmaker behind ‘Hereditary’ opens up to Melissa Leon about what inspired his new horror-comedy ‘Midsommar’ and crafting the year’s weirdest sex scene.
The hell of finding oneself in a dead-end relationship has rarely been so artfully—or brutally—captured as it is in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, the writer-director’s sophomore feature following last year’s horror breakout Hereditary. In his flower crown-adorned living nightmare, bloodshed, pagan sex rituals, and the never-setting sun of the Swedish summer solstice hardly compare to the film’s most discomfiting source of horror: a narcissistic boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and grieving girlfriend’s (Florence Pugh) refusal to confront the fact that they just don’t belong together.
Part Wicker Man and part Scenes from a Marriage, Midsommar stems from a personal place. Aster was processing the “ruins” of a failed relationship as he wrote his script five years ago, accounting for the torturous, lived-in specificity of its central couple’s codependency. Still, Aster is quick to discourage the notion that the breakup directly inspired his movie. As with Hereditary, he says, the details are less biographical than they are reflective of broader, more existential questions—about relationships, about trauma, and ultimately, about what constitutes catharsis.
Slouched in a black hoodie in a tiny, warmly-lit room at A24’s New York offices (it’s almost 90 degrees on the Thursday we meet), Aster is soft-spoken, self-deprecating and perhaps a bit anxious as he discusses his film and career. (He’s admitted he’s not crazy about interviews.) Reliving the process of making Midsommar prompts knowing chuckles and long sighs from the 32-year-old director, who went into pre-production on the film before his debut had even been released. He’s frank about the exacting toll of such an accelerated schedule—“extremely painful,” “very hard,” and “Sisyphean task” are among the phrases he uses to describe the last two and a half years. But he also looks to the future with tentative optimism; all he has to do now, as he sets his sights on a third feature, is navigate the path between “getting into my head too much or somehow surviving.”
You were hired by a Swedish production company to write and direct a pretty straightforward horror movie, something like a Hostel-style slasher where American tourists get picked off one by one at a summer solstice festival. Instead, you delivered this. What is it about the folk-horror genre that felt like the right template to tell a breakup story?
I guess I haven’t said this yet, but this is probably the heart of it: It’s a given that if you’re going to make a folk-horror film, you’re working towards people being sacrificed. And the movie is very much about sacrifice and reciprocity and giving yourself to a relationship or not, and about what that means. And so for me, it was a metaphor that kind of instantly made sense and had potency, and then I saw a way of following the very set trajectory of a folk-horror film and aligning it with the trajectory of even your garden-variety high school breakup movie. You know, where you have, let’s say, a girl who’s with the wrong guy and the right guy is under her nose the whole time and she finally learns to liberate herself from the bad relationship. She goes into her backyard with her shoebox of toxic memories and throws it into the bonfire and is finally able to move on with her life.
So I found a way of taking these two well-worn genres and I guess exorcise something more personal, which was the fact that I was kind of going through the ruins of a relationship that had just fallen apart and thinking about relationships in general. Like, I’ve been asked if this was inspired by my breakup and it’s not. It wasn’t inspired by the breakup, although I was working through a breakup and it was my way of working through that dialogue with myself. But really the questions I was asking myself at the time were more existential. I was navigating feelings from that breakup but the details themselves that found their way into the film are details that kind of suit the theme more than they reflect whatever my relationship was. And this was almost five years ago as well. So by the time I was making the film, I was able to approach it with more objectivity and make something that was less attached to those memories.
Both Hereditary and Midsommar build up to explosive moments of catharsis, making it easy for viewers to exorcise similar feelings, too. Did making the film help you purge what you hoped it would?
Writing did, not making the film. Anybody who’s made a film knows that it’s not like... (sigh) well, pre-production is one thing. That’s where you’re building things and it’s a very fun time—if you have the time. (Laughs) This was a little too accelerated to be fun. This was very hard. But it is a creative time, where you’re building things and you’re having a dialogue with the different teams and different department heads and finding a way to really just kind of build a world. When you’re shooting a film, I can’t imagine a less creative time. The pressures are so intense, and the anxiety is so intense, and I find that I’m just leaning almost mindlessly on my plans. And if you don’t have a plan, you’re screwed—at least, if you’re like me.
There’s a lot of filmmakers who walk in with no plan and they want to find it on the day, and filmmakers who can make that work. Andrea Arnold would be an example of somebody who works like almost instinctively. I’ve never seen her work on set, but she’s somebody who is kind of an alchemist. Her work is really magical. But for me, I’m only as good as my plan. And if I have a solid enough plan, then I might be able to improvise because the more solid it is, the more vivid what you’re going for is in your mind, then the more you can kind of loosen up and allow things to change as they need to.
So anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying that making movies is like a special kind of torture and writing is the therapeutic thing. And then making the film is a Sisyphean task that is extremely painful and is an experience that’s made of different brands of compromise and then you have something that you can hopefully detach from enough to see what you’ve done. For now, I will have probably less insight into what the movie actually is than almost anyone else who watches it.
Did hearing of Hereditary’s success (it’s still A24’s highest-grossing movie) while you were in pre-production on Midsommar help you feel more confident about pursuing your vision for this? They were filmed back-to-back with not much time in between, and it conceivably could have been a morale boost—or not.
Well, I wrote the film several years ago, and I was already making the film when Hereditary got that reception. So if anything, this film prevented any of that from going to my head because I was already in a situation that was overwhelming and terrifying and I just didn’t have time to even consider what was happening with Hereditary. And I directed the script that I had written a long time ago. So there was almost no strategizing involved in making Midsommar. I certainly wasn’t thinking about people’s expectations or what would be the appropriate follow-up to my well-received movie, because it wasn’t received at all at that point. And there was already all this anxiety about, well, what would it do?
Of course, it was a big relief that it did well. But I think I’m actually entering that now. I mean, I don’t know how Midsommar will ultimately be received and I don’t know how it’ll do, but I don’t have a movie set up right now. I have several scripts I want to make next and there are two that I’m kind of debating about with myself. But I guess I’m about to enter into that phase of either getting into my head too much or somehow surviving that.
Do you see yourself going one way or the other there?
Um, I see myself making something personal next that I would have a hard time making if I hadn’t established myself already, because who knows if I’ll be able to do that later? So I’m going to try to make one of my more idiosyncratic projects next.
While doing press for Hereditary, you mentioned a few times that you didn’t “necessarily” consider yourself a horror filmmaker, though you love the genre. How do you feel about it now?
I feel like that could be misconstrued. Hereditary is absolutely a horror movie. I consider Midsommar to be more of a fairy tale than a horror film, but it is a contribution to the folk-horror genre. I’m not somebody who dismisses the genre or thinks that either of these films is exempt from it. I’m, like, proud to be contributing to the genre. What I meant by that was that by the time I wrote Hereditary, I had written nine feature scripts and none of them are horror movies. And now that I’ve made Midsommar, I’ve made all of my horror movies that I have, ready to go. And so everything else I plan to do right now, that I have available to me right now, are not horror films. That’s to say I consider myself a genre filmmaker and I’m not exclusive to one genre. So far I am because I’ve made two horror films. And so at this point in my career, yes, I’m a horror filmmaker but I do consider myself a genre filmmaker and I’m excited to explore other genres.
Dani and Christian’s phone conversation near the beginning of the film will feel pretty excruciatingly familiar to anyone who’s been in that kind of one-sided relationship, where one person is overly invested and the other has checked out. The thing about Christian is he’s not a total monster, just insensitive and selfish and cowardly—
(Laughs) He’s a very banal antagonist.
Yes. And we’re meant to identify with Dani as we turn against him. But have you ever been that person, the Christian of the relationship? Or do you identify with being in a relationship with that person?
I do feel I’ve been in a relationship with that person, yes. And I’ve certainly been in the other shoes, where I’ve found myself in something that I’m less passionate about than the other person and I want to leave, but I’m afraid of hurting their feelings. And so you stay longer than you probably should. You don’t just stay because you’re afraid of hurting their feelings, you stay because it’s comfortable and you’re afraid of facing the other side of the line. And I think that’s part of what Christian’s doing too. This is comfortable, but his heart isn’t in it and he’s just, like, biding his time. And that’s unfair. But yeah, I designed it to be relatable as far as both sides are concerned but we are aligned with Dani. She is our protagonist, so we want what she wants. And she wants connection and it’s not happening.
And she begins every other sentence with the word “sorry,” too.
Which is very me. Anybody who knows me knows that I say “sorry” instead of “thank you,” when “thank you” is what’s appropriate.
The scene in which Christian is lured in to have sex with Maja with a circle of women around them, swaying and moaning along with them, is so unnerving and mesmerizing and darkly funny—can you tell me about writing it and what it was like to film?
It was definitely the scene I was most excited about when I was writing the film. And then when it came time to direct it, it was definitely the scene I had the most anxiety about directing because I had never directed a sex scene before and then I’d written this sex scene. It was like taking a real jump into cold water. But I mean yeah, I designed it to be funny and uncomfortable and beautiful and strange and ultimately, the whole last act is designed to be cathartic in a way that I hope people have to contend with later, where the guy that you have been kind of conditioned to not like is going to be humiliated for about 40 minutes and totally, like, just destroyed. He is totally undressed, he is rendered completely vulnerable, he is used by these women for their own purposes. He’s exploited by them completely.
And I mean, there was more of Maja in the longer cut of the film. The original cut of the film was three hours and 45 minutes long, so her character had a little bit more. But it’s a scene where Maja, who maybe seems a little more timid in the film—although we cut some of the timid stuff, so she’s actually less timid in this cut—but where Maja has a lot more agency than Christian, even though Christian is kind of getting what he thinks he wants, which is to play the field and (laughs) live his life, so to speak. But he’s used, in a way that women tend to be in the horror genre. Horror films and exploitation films are typically synonymous and typically the people who are being exploited are women and so there was something fun about dressing down this guy and kind of submitting him to this.
And what about filming the scene? Did it go smoothly?
It did go smoothly because everybody knew what we were doing and I made sure to sort of walk everybody through what we were doing a hundred times over. I’m somebody who likes to get a lot of takes, ’cause I don’t get a lot of coverage, so I need to make sure we have it in camera. I’m not gonna be cutting away from it, so there’s nothing to hide behind. And so I know what my cut points are. Something needs to work from the beginning of the shot to the end, I’m not going to be splicing into it. So I often go beyond 20 takes, and so I made a promise to myself that I would not go beyond three or four takes for that sequence and most shots I wouldn’t go beyond two takes.
And for the most part, we were actually doing those as a series, so I was never even actually cutting, I was just going back to one. It’s action and then you go through the scene and then we just bring the camera back to its original place and the actors go back to their original place and there’s no cut, you just keep going. And once we have it, we move on to the next shot, so it’s very efficient.
But, that said, it still went on for about 17 hours. Every day was about eight hours of shooting on this movie at most, sometimes seven hours. We were doing French hours, which is about ten hours a day, but we almost never got started before three hours in, because we were chasing the sun. So we could only shoot that long, and this was the last day of shooting. We were inside a temple so we were able to shoot inside and we didn't have to count on the daylight. So this was the last day of shooting and by far the longest and the most efficient.
Have you seen that scene, or the rest of the film, with an audience yet?
Once. It was nice to hear laughter. That was good.