One of the heaviest moments in Hereditary, the debut horror film from Ari Aster, doesn’t feature any horror at all. With the family quietly seated around the dinner table, Toni Collette’s eerily expressive Annie finally bursts at the dinner table, shouting, “Nobody admits anything they’ve done!”
This is a recurring theme in the 31-year-old director’s oeuvre, where shorts like The Strange Thing About The Johnsons (2011) and Munchausen (2013) follow families torn apart by self-destructive individuals. Aster amps up those sensibilities tenfold In Hereditary, in which a death in a family beckons a darkness that’s secretly haunted them for years.
It’s not all arguments over the dinner table, though. Hereditary uses family drama as the backdrop for some seriously scary scenes, including one shocking moment early on that the director says he labored over to get just right. But before we could get to that, we had to ask how Aster came up with the idea for Hereditary in the first place.
Minor spoilers for Hereditary ahead.
Aster tells Inverse that his buzz-generating horror film isn’t directly inspired by any one real story or influenced by any one horror film (though, as a self-professed cinephile, he welcomes comparisons).
“The beauty of horror is that you can take personal materials and themes and feelings you wanna work through, and push it through the genre filter and out comes a work of invention,” he says.
Based on what transpires in Hereditary, one can only speculate what seriously dark shit the 31-year-old director is trying to work through. He later notes there were “a lot of difficult things” in making his movie, but doesn’t divulge any specifics. Twice during our chat, when I ask about specific things in the movie, he responds after careful consideration: “I’d rather leave that to audiences.”
But Aster did talk openly about other things in his movie, such as a few key moments that made audiences in my screening squirm, and just where in the literal hell the film’s true villain came in during the writing stages.
You’ve spoken to other outlets about your cinematic influences, but did you have any real world stories that led you to make Hereditary?
Yes and no. The feelings behind the film are very personal. When I watch the film I often remember certain times in my life based on the mood. But ultimately the story and the characters are inventions.
I wanted to avoid the devil, it’s been done so many times. So I researched, looked for a demon in demonology and Paimon struck me as one that made sense. I have no ties to the occult and I’ve heard from a few sources that even Paimon is passé and obvious among occultists. Ultimately Paimon was a product of me — he came in pretty late and I just needed a name in mythology.
Mental illness plays a role in the film. It’s sometimes explicit, other times implicit. What should audiences know about these characters and their conditions?
It very much is in the text of the film. It’s talked about explicitly. There is also the narrative trajectory that the family may be following each other into madness. Annie is designed to strike one as an unreliable protagonist whose point of view may not be reliable, but I prefer to leave that to audiences.
Can you talk a bit about specific film influences that had an effect on your direction in Hereditary?
My love of building sets, Powell and Pressburger are important filmmakers to me, what they did with color and production design and even just matte paintings is remarkable. Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg is an influence more tonally than what he does technically. He’s a brilliant editor who was a cinematographer before he became a director. He became brutal with the treatment of the image, about how he juxtaposed images and developed this editing technique that psychically connected images in a fascinating way.
I would say Roman Polanski, Federico Fellini are filmmakers I love, for their blocking and the way they move the camera in relation to the blocking. I love their long takes, which are so alive and they’re really masters of adjustment and adjusting the camera in ways that are invisible but athletic. And there are a lot of other people. None of us work in a vacuum and I certainly have no problem citing my influences.
In some ways they’re explicit in Hereditary, and part of the joy in making a genre film is finding ways to breathe new life into a dead horse, investigating what makes a cliché interesting and how you revitalize things that have well-trodden territory.
What was the hardest scene to shoot in the movie?
The most nerve-wracking was the driving sequence. There were so many moving parts. You’ve got a dummy you’ve gotta peg at the right angle and a stunt driver whose job is to hit a bullseye, and if he doesn’t then you’re fucked.
That accident begins the misery for this family. How did you pull it off on set?
By planning ahead as much as possible. Just a lot of coverage, because you need it to work and you don’t know if it’ll work.
It made so many people in my theater squirm.
Anybody who’s seen Hereditary understands that I clearly have no problem with excess. People will either be able to go with that or not, but the film aims to reach pretty operatic heights.
Hereditary is in theates now.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.