A Nice Jewish Boy: Ari Aster on Beau Is Afraid and godlike moms

Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is afraid in Beau Is Afraid.
Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is afraid in Beau Is Afraid.

With his Freudian odyssey Beau Is Afraid reaching cinemas across the world, horror auteur Ari Aster lifts the hood on his personal sense of humor, discreet Jewish identity and the movie that started it all for him.

I think the way to watch the film is to be open and to be limber, because the film does keep changing shape and pivoting, and that’s very much by design; it demands you go with the flow.

—⁠Ari Aster

Beau Is Afraid director Ari Aster hardly needs an introduction anymore, but I’m not sure the filmmaker would be too happy about that. The writer and director of breakout hit Hereditary and follow-up Scandi freakout Midsommar won over a whole new generation of cinephiles with what they dubbed “elevated horror”, whether Aster wanted that label or not. So his third feature might seem a little different—a three-hour odyssey in which Beau, a deeply pathetic Jewish man, tries horribly to visit his overbearing mother Mona (Patti LuPone)—even though for Aster, ‘different’ is who he’s always wanted to be.

Case in point: Wes rated Beau Is Afraid 4.5-out-of-five stars on Letterboxd back in April, as the film first reached US theaters. He wrote: “a three-hour odyssey made for absolutely no one but the director. Now that’s what I’m talking about.” It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what we mean by cinema that only serves its maker, but Beau certainly speaks to the potential vulnerability, indulgence and somehow also liberating fun that comes with putting yourself on the line. Be that on a dangerous sidewalk, in an editing room or your mother’s very threatening house.

A lot of it is silly, but it’s also never unserious: how could it be with a generation-defying Joaquin Phoenix as Beau? The very real actor Armen Nahapetian also plays Beau as a teen (more on him soon) and a staggering ensemble cast surrounds him, including Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Parker Posey, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Richard Kind, Hayley Squires and Patti LuPone. Trying to describe any one character relationship would be futile, and not too fun. It’s best, for many reasons, to just go with it.

“Never have I seen a movie leave the audience so confused,” Evil Björk writes. “I watched this in a sold out IMAX showing, and when the movie ended more than half of the audience was standing around confused and not sure what to do. It was surreal and a completely appropriate reaction to such a unique movie.”

The best thing, perhaps, is to just lean into that confusion and enjoy sitting with it. (Calm, after an Ari Aster movie? We did it, Joe!). The second best thing might be to seek a handful of answers from Aster himself. So we gave that a go, too.

Phoenix and Ari Aster (with green juice in hand) on set.
Phoenix and Ari Aster (with green juice in hand) on set.

I knew to not expect anything going into Beau Is Afraid. But what I didn’t expect was the stretch in the middle where I felt really calm. You’ve talked about this film being more “you”. Did you feel more relaxed making it because of that? Or did that make everything a bit more wound up as well?
Ari Aster: There’s so much of my humor in the film, and I was able to make this in total freedom. The nature of the film—it being a picaresque, it being a totally invented world—allowed me to work in a very liberated way. Every gesture of the film felt like it was coming from an uninhibited, totally intuitive place. I assume the sequence where you felt calm is the interlude in the forest.

Yeah, the whole play he’s walking through. It felt like, ‘I don’t care where he goes, I’m enjoying walking around too.’
I think that’s correct. I think the way to watch the film is to be open and to be limber, because the film does keep changing shape and pivoting, and that’s very much by design: it demands you go with the flow.

The calm before the fully Freudian storm.
The calm before the fully Freudian storm.

You’ve mentioned your sense of humor. Beau is funny in a very different way to your other features, but it reminds me of Everything Everywhere All at Once in terms of the gross-out comedy being embraced by characters alongside the theme of unfulfilled potential—something funny but also terrifying. Was there any apprehension in terms of the things you might find funny, that other people might not?
That’s always the problem or the pleasure of comedy, right? It’s a very subjective thing. What one person finds funny another person doesn’t, and there’s nothing I can really do about that. Because the minute you start hedging in that way, and assuming certain things to maybe include for imaginary audience members, I don’t know what you're doing. It feels like a very impersonal way of working.

The risk of making a film like this is that you’ll alienate people, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. Drawing a line in the sand necessarily divides some hypothetical audience; it’s the product of doing something specific. But I also feel like that’s the only way to do anything. The word “universal” is maybe a contradiction.

I find the idea of universality fascinating—specifically when it comes to mothers. In Beau, Mona is a very Jewish mother, but also not very religious, and those are always the best Jewish characters. You see it and you feel it, and you know she’s a Jewish mother and that it’s a very specific anxiety and claustrophobia they pass down to us.
The idea was not even to have her be a Jewish mother, but to be the Jewish mother: the most monstrous embodiment of the thing you fear your mother becoming. There’s something very Jewish about the idea of the mother replacing God. It’s a very hard thing to talk about—as you say, if you know, you know—but I’m gratified to hear that.

@letterboxd Beau Is Afraid star @armiepcharmie tells us his “stress dream” 🐺 #fyp #letterboxd #foryou #filmtok #beauisafraid #a24 ♬ original sound - Letterboxd

Let’s talk craft a little bit. There’s been noise around the casting of Armen Nahapetian as a younger version of Joaquin Phoenix’s Beau, with folks thinking he could even be AI. In your mind, was the goal to find a perfect resemblance and have the physical proximity do much of the work in the character’s performance?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I saw Armen and found the resemblance uncanny. I frankly hate when you cast child actors to play a younger version of another actor and they don’t look anything alike; I think that’s always a distraction.

I paid special attention to Armen from the beginning because of that, but I thought he actually really understood the script. From the beginning, there was this locked-in, very tense, uncomfortable, dead-eyed thing that was really good for Beau. It was a relief when he landed in our inboxes.

I want to talk about another cast member, Stephen McKinley Henderson, who plays a therapist beautifully. I’m guessing you cast him after seeing him play a priest beautifully in fellow A24 joint Lady Bird, right?
I had seen him in Lady Bird; I’d seen him in plenty of things. I’ve wanted to work with him for a long, long time. Once it occurred to me that he could play the therapist, it was kind of done at that point. He’s so warm. He’s from the theater, he’s done Lear, he’s a very, very serious actor. He actually came up with Patti LuPone, so they knew each other already. I can’t wait to work with him again; I need to find something for him, because he’s a pretty singular presence.

Your relationship with Joaquin feels so singular. It taps into a different side of his performances, which are already so far-reaching. Was there anything in his back catalog that spoke to the kind of pathetic energy you needed here? That channeled that desperation and paranoia that Beau needs?
I remember seeing To Die For when I was really young and thinking, ‘Who is this guy? He’s amazing.’ I think of his performances in James Gray’s Two Lovers and The Immigrant. I think of him in The Master.

But the big one for me was I’m Still Here. I thought that was just one of the best comic performances I had ever seen. What he was doing with his name struck me as the gesture of a real artist, really kind of suicidal. It’s something that he does day to day: once something becomes dead or rote, he throws it away and he needs to start over. He needs the work to be approached like a process of constant discovery.

The Academy Award-winning actor consistently finds new, nightmarish ground to break.
The Academy Award-winning actor consistently finds new, nightmarish ground to break.

If you had to program Beau Is Afraid as a double feature, what would the second title be?
I kind of did this in New York at the Lincoln Center; they had me curate a collection of titles as companion pieces. Some of those were The Birds, Johnny Guitar, Wake in Fright, Cowards Bend The Knee, The River. One that didn’t get programmed but which would work would be Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! and Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death.

I watched Defending Your Life a couple of weeks ago and feel like it could fit the season as another pretty good Jewish existential odyssey…
Absolutely, that was in there too. Albert Brooks is a hero.

Finally, what was the first film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
Seeing GoodFellas was really big for me. I remember there being a “before” and “after” that film. Before that, I wanted to be an actor when I was very young because those are the people I see. I remember seeing that film and thinking, ‘Oh, shit, there’s something going on here. Why does this film feel different from other films?’ That was the one.

Beau Is Afraid is in UK cinemas now via Sony Pictures, and will be available on digital in the US at a later date from A24.

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