Exclusive interview: director Ari Aster talks terrifying new movie Hereditary

Are you braced for Hereditary? The buzzed-about horror movie from director Ari Aster is out now in Cineworld, having scared American critics witless at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

The movie is a chilling exploration of family identity and latent evil, starring a sensational Toni Collette as Annie, who comes to suspect that she's inherited something malevolent from her recently deceased mother. Even worse, the same horror looks to have passed down on to Annie's troubled daughter, Charlie (unforgettable newcomer Milly Shapiro).

It's surely one of the most exciting feature film debuts in recent years, and we were delighted to catch up with Ari ahead of the film's release. Scroll down to discover his thoughts on the meaning of horror, the making of the movie, and what it takes to elicit performances of this calibre.

Ari, it's enormously exciting to talk to you about your film, which is surely one of the year's most provocative and scary. As far as I'm concerned, this movie redefines what I consider as 'horror'. What does that word mean to you both personally and as a filmmaker?

It's a good question. Even when I first endeavoured to write a horror film, I had to ask myself, where do I fit in with this genre? It's a genre I used to love when I was a kid and I saw everything that I could find in the horror section of my local video store. I exhausted every horror section of every video store. But I haven't been particularly committed as a viewer in the last decade or so.

I think horror films are typically viewed as being guilty until proven innocent, as far as quality is concerned, and that's because so many of them are produced very cynically, because there is a built-in audience. We've had these waves of films I'm not particularly interested in, like the slasher movie, which is something I used to love. You know, there are very few that are up to the level of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although there are many imitators.

So there's the slasher film, the torture-porn movie and also the found footage genre, which has actually produced a few very interesting films. But it's been a long time since I've been anything like a horror devotee.

That said, there are always exceptions to the rule, and there have been films in the last 10 years I've loved, some real surprises. The most notable for me is this South Korean film called The Wailing. That's a great film. But I had to ask myself, what are my fears and what do I want from this genre? There are some things I dread finding in a horror film.

When I was a kid, there were a few films that really horrified me, that wanted to insinuate themselves into my consciousness. Having rediscovered some of them, many are a lot campier than I remembered, like Carrie, for instance, which I saw again recently. It's still disturbing but ultimately I see it as a very sad, somewhat campy horror-comedy. But when I was a kid, there was nothing funny about it. It really bothered me.

Then there was a film by director Peter Greenaway called The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which isn't technically a horror film but, again, it really bothered me.

That's a very disturbing film!

It's very disturbing, very joyless and extremely misanthropic. It's a film that drips with this hatred not just for human beings but also the human body. Greenaway's obsessed with decay in a way that really stuck with me.

So, I realised that when I see a horror film, I'm not necessarily hoping that I'll be left deeply disturbed, because some films are just sadistic and make me feel sick. I don't want that, but what I do want is films that haunt me, that linger, that don't let me off the hook. I want films that will stay with me.

With this film, Hereditary, I had to investigate my own fears, and what I'm afraid of. And I realised the things I'm afraid of are the things that have no remedy. What do you do with a fear of death? You either come to terms with it, or you don't. What do you do with fears of abandonment? Well, it can and likely will happen, and you'll be lucky if it doesn't.

Also, the suspicion that you don't really know the people that you're closest to. Well, I've got news for you: we don't really understand the sum total of anybody else's experience. We can be as honest with each other as we possibly can and build trust, and that's the beauty of being human. Just the ability to have relationships affords the opportunity to build something rich and sustaining.

So, for me, this film was a chance to attack those fears, while at the same time making something that served the genre in a satisfying way.

When I was watching the film, I got the impression it can be read as a dysfunctional domestic drama of spiralling madness, out of which the horror emerges. What led to the decision to root the terror in the family unit?

Well, even when I was pitching this film, I wasn't describing it as a horror film so much as a family tragedy that degenerates into a nightmare, in the same way that life can itself feel like a nightmare when things fall apart. For me, I wanted to make a film that functioned first as a vivid family drama, before I attended to the horror elements. Because I'm never affected by anything unless I'm invested in the people.

I've said this before but I feel, in a way, the film owes more to the domestic melodrama than the horror film, in that it's about suffering and people's pain. It wants us to take that pain seriously and it aims to honour these extreme emotions by being, texturally and tonally, as big and extreme as the emotions themselves. The film mirrors the experience of these emotions in terms of its presentation.

So, there's an emotional truth to what's being depicted?

Exactly. I aimed to make a film that was sympathetically attached to the emotions of these people. So, again, in that way, it's very melodramatic, in the traditional sense of 'melos' being music and 'drama' being dramatic. Then you also have this expressionistic element where the film's visual and physical environment is mirroring the themes and feelings inherent in the story.

You mentioned there the visual language of the movie, which is very elegant and composed. How much of a challenge was it to fight against that predisposition towards jump scares and excess in many modern horrors?

That was easy just because I don't like that aesthetic, the jumpy, handheld, slapdash approach. I love a film with energy, but I'm always more impressed by movies that manage to be poised and controlled, yet also energetic. I love the films of Martin Scorsese for that reason. He's always been a filmmaker who's so controlled and so precise, yet his films are so alive.

So, it wasn't a case of how do I address this lack in the genre. That said, I don't think it's a consistent lack within horror. As an example of how masterful this genre can be, I'd say I don't know of a better directed film than Rosemary's Baby.

As for Hereditary, it is in my style. I don't talk to anybody in the crew until I've shot listed the entire film, which means I sit down with the script and visualise the movie. I imagine what the blocking will be, what the shots will be and then I sit down with my cinematographer and production designer, Pawel Pogorzelski and Grace Yun, respectively. It was the first time we had all worked together and it was great.

We then run through all the shots in the movie that are in my head, it takes about three weeks, and then we all have the same movie in our heads. Then a dialogue can begin as to how we can improve upon it. But we're able to have a very effective dialogue because we're talking about a movie, not a script, that we've already played through our heads.

In this case, it became pretty apparent we wouldn't be able to find a house that would accommodate our needs so we built everything on a stage. The entire interior of the house was built from scratch, all three floors, including the attic. Also, everything to do with the treehouse was built from scratch.=

Toni Collette gives an extraordinary performance in this film as the increasingly persecuted Annie. We all know she's a terrific actress anyway, so did you cast her knowing she was capable of the physical and emotional demands of the role?

Yeah, she's always struck me as one of our most reliable actresses. I've loved her since Muriel's Wedding, but I was aware she'd never been given the opportunity to tear apart the scenery in this way before. But she's one of those actresses whose ability is never in doubt. There's never a question of can she do it. Of course she can. Then the question becomes, will she?

She accepted the role and attached herself to the film, and it's what got the movie going. It pushed the train on to the tracks and gave it momentum. I'm very grateful to her for the performance she gave, but I'm doubly grateful to her for really making the movie happen, which is what occurs when a performer attaches him or herself to a first-time filmmaker.

Finally, and also on the acting front, Milly Shapiro gives an extraordinary performance in this as Charlie. It's certainly going to go down as one of the all-time-great demonic children performances. How closely did you work with her on the character's physical presence and mannerisms, like the creepy tongue clicking?

Well, the tongue clicking that you hear throughout the movie was in the script. That took, like, two seconds to get down. But although this is Milly's first film, either short or feature, let's not forget she's a Tony award-winning actress for playing Matilda on Broadway. So, in that sense, she's already a veteran.

I worked with her but, ultimately, she brought so much to the part herself. She's an incredibly intuitive, mature and insightful actress, and so, ultimately, she took what was on the page and ran with it. She created something that nobody else could have done. I was surprised by what Charlie became in her hands. It would be disingenuous for me to take credit for what Milly does here. She is remarkable.

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