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Midsommar and Hereditary director Ari Aster confesses to being a nervous wreck while answering Letterboxd members’ questions about pagan rituals, grotesque imagery and psychedelic drugs.
“The best filmmaking is mischief-making.” —⁠Ari Aster
It’s crazy to think that only two years ago, Ari Aster was just another New York filmmaker with a few shorts under his belt. But by this time last year, his debut feature, the Toni Collette-starring Hereditary, had taken out the title of most popular film on Letterboxd for the month of June, and ended the year as our Highest Rated Horror for 2018.
Not that he had a moment to enjoy it. Last August, while Hereditary was still in cinemas, Aster was already in Hungary (standing in for Sweden) filming his new horror, Midsommar, with Florence Pugh in the lead role. It was an assignment from a Swedish production company that he almost refused, until he saw it as an opportunity to process the break-up he was going through at the time.
In an insanely tight turnaround, Midsommar is out less than a year since it was shot, and feedback for the film on Letterboxd is largely positive. Midsommar “manages to be the perfect rom-com and the most mesmerizing horror film of the year,” according to Owen, and the film proves to SilentDawn that “Aster is a capable craftsman and an auteur with many dastardly thoughts on his mind”. Laura declares: “Nobody makes me feel as icky, awful, and downright dreadful as Ari Aster, and for that, I’m very, very grateful.”
It’s safe to say that Aster is a Letterboxd MVP, so we thought it only fair to invite you to submit your questions for our interview with him. Ever the optimists, you pitched us well over a hundred, so Jack Moulton got the tough job: whittling, coalescing and combining your thoughts, tucking them in among a few of our own, and putting them to a guy who has “more fun talking about other movies than talking about my own”.
One thing we didn’t ask? The most popular question of all: “Ari, are you okay?” The better question, after watching his films, is: are we okay?
You wrote both Hereditary and Midsommar while you were in a personal crisis, and you consider that writing was your remedy. Do you think you can make great art—to explore the depths of existential questions—when you’re more comfortable and content? Or is suffering the root of your success?
Ari Aster: I’m sure I can. I’ve written a lot of films when I’ve been more comfortable and content. The two short films that I made first were written in that place. I’m a filmmaker who likes conflict, which is not unique to me of course, but I do have a dark side and I go there in my writing.
I’m also someone who believes the best filmmaking is mischief-making and I’m always trying to come from a place of mischief as a writer. But, whether I’m going through a crisis or writing in a more or less relaxed state, I’m also a very neurotic guy. Even when there’s relative peace in my life, I’m kind of a nervous wreck.
That’s relatable. Grief is a catalyst for both films, and both Toni Collette and Florence Pugh’s big scenes of anguish are really the most horrifying parts of the films, because they’re so raw. AlecDouglas asks: what is your approach to directing actors’ performances? More specifically, can you talk about how you prepared each actress for these gut-wrenching moments.
A lot of that was laid out in the script as clearly as I could. Beyond the script, it was just a matter of talking through the material with them and explaining what I felt was needed. Luckily both actresses are extraordinary artists who knew exactly what was necessary and were fully committed. They gave themselves to the material in a very generous way and were prepared to dive in headlong.
Chris Flores, Timur Dzhambinov and Kahlen all asked about your obsession with mutilated heads and/or skull trauma.
I grew up loving horror films and subjected myself to a lot of grotesque imagery. I’ve always had a feeling for the macabre. There are a lot of images that traumatized me and I’m sure that they lingered in my mind in a way that conditioned me to pursue images like that and come up with them myself. In all of my stories, the imagery comes after the ideas and characters, so it tends to fall in line with the story. In some cases it does come first, but it’s very hard to trace any of that to any origin.
Several people, including Mark and MrJoshua, would like to know how many of the pagan rituals and artwork in Midsommar are legitimate, and how many were invented by you.
Most of the rituals are references in one way or another to actual traditions and laid out in pre-existing folklore, but I did take a lot of liberties from there. So there are certain things in the film that are pure invention and there’s certain things that are absolutely pulled from reality. The pubic hair in the food and the menstrual blood in the drink, for instance, is tied to my actual research.
Scott Stamper, Sam Sellers-King and Ash were interested in your obsession with cults, or, as Deryn asks: “Ari Aster what the fuc— okay, what is it with you and pagan cult-themed horror movies?”
I don’t know if I have an obsession. It just so happens that the first two movies that I got made featured cults. They’re also both films that are very much about family and are asking questions about the families you’re born into, surrogate families, and the families you find. So for both films it made sense. A cult is a very useful metaphor when you’re digging into material.
Another common question: how much “research” —⁠personal or professional—did you do into psychedelic drugs?
When it comes to the psychedelic stuff, I didn’t really do research. I had taken psychedelics about ten years ago and I had some very bad trips when I was in college.
That counts as research.
Laura Valentina asks: which films inspired the look and feel of Midsommar? Can we ask you to also talk about cinematography influences?
For the tripping scenes, we weren’t looking at any influences. We didn’t want to do the 1960s and 1970s psychedelia that you might see in Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, or the films by Kenneth Anger. I love all those films and really enjoy them, but they’re dated due to that. If anything we just knew what we wanted to avoid.
For the cinematography in general, we were pursuing a three-strip Technicolor look. We were talking a lot about the color films of Powell and Pressburger and looking at older movies when we were color-correcting the film. When I was finishing Hereditary, I was working on a shot-list [for Midsommar], but it was a more accelerated process because of our extremely punishing and tight prep schedule. On Hereditary we did a lot of screenings for the crew of given movies that I thought would get people in the right mood, but we weren’t able to do that on this film.
You’ve mentioned this was a gruelling shoot on a tight timeframe, but Mariela and NineTailedFox would like to know what the most satisfying part of the production of Midsommar was for you?
It’s always satisfying when you have a good scene in the can and when you’re able to achieve certain things. Everyday there’s satisfying moments but it’s also loaded with little disappointments. You’re just always praying for something that will help move the shoot along and keep people’s spirits high. There were a lot of scenes that we were happy with so that’s always something to be grateful about.
Many in the Letterboxd community are raving about Midsommar’s stellar cast. Half the character work is achieved in those selections. Can you talk about where you first saw your actors and how you knew they were right for the roles?
For a lot of the parts we had people tape and send in auditions, so it’s really a matter of instinct and feeling these people fit. In the case of Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and Will Poulter, they were people who were at the top of our lists early on who we persisted on that they were right. It was a real joy to work with all of them. William Jackson Harper, too.
Florence Pugh can really do anything. She’s an incredible actress who’s wonderfully endowed with amazing talent. Will Poulter is a total professional and a brilliant actor. Vilhelm Blomgren was somebody we pulled on pretty late in the process and it was very exciting to find him and know we had our Pelle.
Bran asks: how different did Hereditary and Midsommar end up being from your initial ideas for them?
They changed in the sense that what we ended up shooting were a lot longer than we could keep them, so the movies were cut down a lot. I feel both films are pretty close to what I was imagining. Midsommar was more ambitious and so there were more compromises, which is just what happens. You’re chasing this thing and you get as close as you can to your vision.
So then, given that Midsommar was significantly cut down, we’ll jump to Joshua Booker’s question: what was the hardest stuff to cut?
There’s more rituals and we get to meet more people in the community to get a more nuanced view of them. There are more scenes between Dani and Christian so that their journey to that ending is a little bit more circuitous. There’s more of the thesis competition between Christian and Josh too, that originally had more body to it.
Right out of the gate your vision as a filmmaker feels fully formed. You’ve said that you intend to explore different genres. Do you want to continue working with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, and do you plan on exploring different styles?
I’m always interested in developing different styles but the style needs to fit the film. I’ve been working with Pawel for a long time—he’s one of my best friends and we understand how the other person works. We have a very satisfying shorthand and our own processes, which is great. I definitely plan on keeping on going with him.
Everybody wants to know whether you’ve ever written a script, or a scene, or a short, and then thought “I’ve gone too far”?
I admit have a problem with brevity. That’s maybe where I wonder if I’ve been a bit too indulgent, but not if I’ve gone too far with the taboos.
MaxT26 asks: do you think it’s important for modern horror films to push the boundaries in terms of being disturbing and creative? Related: Tobias Soar wonders what recent horror movies you’ve admired.
There’s a tradition in horror of confronting taboos and twisting the knife, so to speak. The Wailing is a film I absolutely loved and already has a place among my favorite horror movies. I would describe that as a masterpiece.
I’m excited by South Korean filmmakers in general, by the way they approach storytelling and juggling of tones. Their films defy categorization while also tempting it. Later this year, we’re all going to get The Lighthouse. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize that as a horror film but I’m excited for people to see it. I’m a big fan of Robert Eggers. I saw an early cut of it and it’s great.
You’ve mentioned building the script for Hereditary around the image of both Charlie and Annie’s deaths and the way they mirror each other. What image was your starting point for Midsommar?
Some of the final images were certainly the things that came to me first. In particular, it was the image of the wide-shot with Dani and the house burning behind her. The prologue of the film came to me pretty early on too.