The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Hereditary.
This is something of a personal story, correct?
Ari Aster: The beautiful thing about genre filmmaking and the horror genre in general is that you can take a personal story or feeling that you need to work through and push it through this filter, and out comes something else. You just have to find the catharsis in that story, and if it’s in the horror genre, maybe the catharsis is horrible, but it’s still cathartic. I’d spent five years at least after graduating from the AFI conservatory, just trying to get different features off the ground and they’re all of a similar scope to this, but they belonged to antiquated genres. I figured that it would be easier to get a horror movie financed and that’s where it started. It started pretty cynically! And then from there, the question was, “Okay, well, what do I want from the genre? What are my fears?” I guess I just wanted to make a film that belonged to something of an older tradition which it’s still being honored by other films. One that took its time and it was rooted in character and was functioning as a vivid family drama before even thinking about horror elements. And so that’s sort of where that started.
“Sometimes people are taken down and they don’t get back up.”
What drew you to the character of Annie when you first read the script?
Toni Collette: I started reading it and I thought that there had been some kind of mistake because I was kind of drawn into this beautiful, painful look at what grief is, and then of course I finished the script and you go on an amazing roller coaster full of surprises, and I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve actually found something original. This is actually original.” And how miraculous it was that these elements were able to be married together so seamlessly in this story. I love that my character, all of the characters, but obviously specifically my character, was so real and raw and complicated and horrible and overwhelmed and loving and harsh. I think every actor longs for material where they get to really go for it, and this was my opportunity for that.
It seems like the things happening to the characters are very much out of their control, that there are very few decisions made by them. Why is that?
AA: From the beginning I described this to people as an existential horror film that was sort of praying on fears that don’t have a remedy. What do you do with the fear of death? What do you do with the suspicion that you don’t really know the people that you’re closest to? The other way that I was describing it was as a family tragedy that kind of curdles into a nightmare in the way that life can often feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes. The passiveness of the characters reflects my philosophy, which is ultimately that we are really just kites in the wind and we only have so much agency. Ultimately we are all doomed or not based on our outlook. I’m not a particularly religious person so I’ll have to find my way into accepting all of the inevitable stuff.
What preparation did you doing for your character?
TC: The script was just so clear, to me it was evident. Everything that you see on the screen was absolutely considered. Ari is one of the most meticulously prepared directors I’ve ever worked with. I had pages and pages and pages and pages of backstory sent to me. We had several conversations, but to be honest, when I read it, I wasn’t looking to do anything like this and even as we were shooting it, I was trying to avoid it. It felt so clear, so alive and so sad and confronting that I pushed it away. I just pushed it away until Ari would call action. Then I would let it out and it would seem very close to the surface because anything you push away is only gonna get bigger. And then he called cut and you know I just was able to shake it off somehow.
How did you find that balance of grotesque imagery and good storytelling?
AA: You’re going by instinct. All you have as a filmmaker is your judgment. And I don’t like gratuitous stuff, but I like when films hit as hard as they possibly can when they should. I like catharsis and I see this film as owing just as much of a debt to the domestic melodrama as to the horror movie. And in that way, the film aims to sort of honor the extreme emotions that these people are going through by being as big as them, right? By matching the content with the form. When I’m thinking about how am I going to hit the audience with the depth of this person that is then going to linger over the rest of the film and be the catalyst for everything that these people are going to go through, I wanted to play in your head because I want to put you in the family’s shoes. I think it was definitely a mission for me that I wanted to make a film that was very seriously about suffering. I wanted to take suffering seriously. I think there is this trend in American storytelling that is part of this American exceptionalist thing where if we’re going to do a film about a family tragedy, then we’ll have a family, they’ll separate, communication might break down, it’s going to get hairy for a while, but in the end they’re going to get brought back together, which is going to be for the best and their bonds are going to be strengthened and fortified by the adversity. And you know, there’s nothing inherently false about that. We need to hope. But some people don’t recover from some things. Sometimes people are taken down and they don’t get back up. If I made it as a drama, good luck getting people into the theater. But suddenly, what serves as a deterrent for an audience in one genre becomes a virtue in another. I’m able to tell that story in as honest a way as I can.
How was it like working with such a great supporting cast?
TC: In terms of Ari’s specificity, he really did hand pick every actor as well as key crew member. Ann Dowd is an angel. She’s such a pleasure to work with. She’s so open, so present, and she allows moments to kind of erupt on their own. I hadn’t seen The Handmaid’s Tale before working with her and I’m very glad because it would’ve made me feel slightly different. Gabriel Byrne, total dreamboat. He’s grounded, so funny, so generous. And he was my pal. We would sit on the stage and know exactly what we were thinking and it was really great to share this with him. Millie Shapiro was fourteen. This was her very first film. She’s done a couple of shows on Broadway. We had a shared rehearsal together, and she was just so astute. She loves horror films. She was just very conscious of her options in how to portray certain things. She really, really created something quite amazing. Alex, who plays Peter, just loves turning itself inside out. He’s incredible in the movie and I think when I was that age, I think I liked to kind of go there as well, but I’m too old for that. It was something to behold. I think we all felt really touched that we were chosen to work with this material because it felt original. We all got to really steep ourselves, saturate ourselves in something that deeply special we were making. It was bloody hard. It was exhausting. It was a beautiful challenge and really satisfying.