Hereditary is being touted as one of the scariest new movies out there, on a par with Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist. In theaters now, Hereditary tells the story of one family’s increasingly terrifying discoveries about their ancestry after the matriarch passes away. Sinister and creepy, it even affected usually hardened film critics at SXSW. What follows is a transcript of the press round table after the movie’s premier where these same journalists questioned filmmaker Ari Aster and actors Millie Shapiro and Alex Wolff.
You’ve all come from projects that dealt with dysfunction – Matilda, My Friend Dahmer and now Hereditary. Can you talk about taking on characters where there is a lack of communication, and the disconnect, and how it plays into this film?
Millie: It was interesting, because while Matilda did come from a dysfunctional family, in Hereditary the family is trying to act like there’s nothing wrong. That was very interesting in the script and the story in general. My character was very different from anything I’ve ever done before, so that was a lot of fun to do. Especially as my character does not really communicate much, she’s very disconnected from the world. It took me awhile to figure out how I was going to do that correctly. Ari helped with that, and once I figured it out it really helped with the family dynamic.
Alex: A lack of communication can be a source of a lot of interest to a lot of people, because I think if you’re going to do a movie about involving family, really, lack of communication is an everyday thing. So If there’s been a theme of lack of communication in any of the things I’ve done, it would just be that they’re good. And anything that’s good or great, especially in this movie, involves a lack of communication. One of the big problems with big blockbuster movies is that everyone says the plot, and there are the perfect moments, then they say this and that, but in real life it’s all muddled and you know, people are saying one thing but there’s really a bunch of other stuff going on. Like fights where a person puts down his cup of water is really a fight about one person cheating on another ten years ago. I think that’s what life is. So if that’s been theme, it’s because life.
But he really mastered it in the dialogue, especially between Peter and Annie. It’s really a unique relationship, where right off the jump you know something’s going on there. But you don’t feel like Peter’s an angsty teen thing, it feels like there’s trauma between them.
When it comes to the aspect of dysfunction and communications, cause you said that this is based more in a family drama rather than a horror film. So in the bedroom no ordinary people, was there anything to that?
Ari: Yes, this is a movie about a family breaking down, and communication breaking down, and these people that are isolated from each other in their own home, and the horror grows out of that dynamic. So it was very important to me to attend to the family drama before even thinking about how we were going to execute the horror elements.
Can you talk about the use of humor in the movie? Yes it was incredibly scary, but it was also funny at times. How did you balance those things?
Ari: I hope that it’s funny at times. I can’t imagine making a film with no humor. It’s an instinct thing – how far you can go without breaking the spell. I think a lot of the humor sometimes comes from just how far the movie goes. There’s less of a tether than there seems to be.
There’s a lot of disturbing imagery in this, the kind that – I suffer from sleep paralysis, I don’t know if you saw that documentary.
Ari: The Nightmare?
Yes, The Nightmare. So, whenever I see something that’s very disturbing, it makes me feel like I’ve fallen into the sunken place, and so there’s this one…I don’t want to spoil the fun of this movie and what shot it is, but it involves a certain person hitting their head against something very fast…is there any imagery, whether it’s a film or a piece of art that has caused that effect for each of you?
Ari: I used to be obsessed with horror films. I’m not so much anymore, but growing up there were a few films that traumatized me asa a kid. One isn’t officially designated a horror film. It’s Peter Greenway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which I think is a pretty evil movie…I mean I don’t know, maybe Peter Green is an evil person (laughs) and that film is filled with images that really bothered me…stayed with me…A big part of it wasn’t just what the images were, but the artifice of the filmmaking. There is something upsetting about artifice. Peter Greenway is someone who uses all these alienating Brechtian devices, and yet the imagery is very immediate and upsetting. Also it was one of the first films I’d ever seen that felt like it was made by an authentic misanthrope..like somebody that really hated people. I hated what that movie made me feel. I saw it when I was way too young. Who knows what that says about me that I now want to produce that same effect, but I was thinking about Peter Greenway a lot when it came to the more upsetting imagery in the film.
Greenway told me he based that play on Tis A Pity She’s A Whore, by John Ford. And..the knife in the cheek.
Ari: Oh yeah, the knife in the cheek, the corpse at the end that looks like a roasted turkey. The corpse that’s being stuffed with pages from The French Revolution and then Helen Mirren lying in bed with this corpse because she’s in such denial, and just talking to him. It’s awful stuff.
Speaking of repeatedly hitting your head against something, can you talk about the physicality of that scene Alex?
Alex: We had a desk that was made of rubber, but repeatedly hitting your head against it hurts a lot, which I didn’t anticipate and I think it’s fair to say that I don’t like to fake doing stuff ever. I didn’t fake anything in the movie, and so I wanted to slam my head against the thing. So that’s just what we did. It just hurt a lot and that’s the end of it.
How important is the sound with this film, and making it as effective with the drama and the horror?
Alex: That scene in particular, the sound is cleverly manipulated.
Alex Wolff in Hereditary
Ari: The score is really going to town in that scene. Sound is really important in a horror film, especially because you are dealing with dread and anticipation…things happening off screen, and the power of suggestion. Very important, especially in scenes like that where you have an actor doing something violent. You make up for whatever they’re not doing, to break their nose with foley, tricks and sound.
That third act, where Toni Collette is hitting her head and you’re looking at him, you hear the bumps, it’s far worse than anything you can imagine. It was very effective.
What was the genesis of the film? Were you looking to make a family film with horror elements? Or a horror film that explored family dynamics?
Ari: I was looking to make a family tragedy that curdled into a nightmare. That was the goal. A family tragedy first, then it devolves into something operatic and awful.
Was there a specific incident that you came across that inspired the idea?
Could you talk about his relationship with his father? You hardly get a shot from his point of view until the seance, then it kind of sells this idea that he’s indirectly affected by all this that’s going on.
Ari: Right. He’s also the only person who…and I don’t want to give anything away…he’s the only person who’s not in a specific bloodline. So he’s a little bit more indirectly affected. I mean obviously he’s deeply affected, but he’s more disposable if you consider what’s happening in the periphery of the film. It becomes very clear by the end.
Toni Collette’s dinner scene was so emotionally intense, but then at a certain point, you cut to Gabriel Byrne, and you stay on him. Can you talk about that editorial choice?
Ari: He’s helpless, he’s at a loss, he’s just trying to keep the peace, and prevent his family from spiraling into total oblivion.
I mean I guess I was glad that you were holding on him for so long, because I was almost afraid to go back to her shot. I just had tears running out of my eyes from the intenseness. It wasn’t like I was crying, I was just tearing up, because it was so heavy.
Ari: Thank you. That is due to what Toni and Alex are doing in that scene. I couldn’t have asked for more committed performances. And they’re going to really ugly places to, so it’s a really scary place to go for an actor.
Alex: We shot dual cameras, it isn’t like we did her coverage and my coverage. We did it together, that’s why it feels so connected. I really like that scene because the explosions feel connected. You’ve seen those movies where each actor thinks it’s their explosion moment, but this power dynamic never got screwed up. I like the way Peter is just getting revved up and she slaps him down. That’s the whole dynamic of the movie, it’s the power thing. They’re just pushing each other until one explodes. It’s smart to do it like that.
You both inhabited the roles so well, I teared up because the pain is so effective. How did these roles affect you off screen?
Millie: It didn’t really affect me that much. I use an acting technique called the Stella Adler Method. It’s where you create the character, and when you are onstage or filming you are the character, when they say cut you’re not the character anymore. So it didn’t really affect me too much, but I know you (turns to Alex) have a different method than I do. It’s interesting to see how other people react, it’s really fascinating to watch.
Alex: Well, I don’t really have a method at all. I mean, she’s Stella, she’s won a Tony (referring to Millie). I was just looking to see what she was doing. With this movie in particular I just knew that there were so many rough places I had to go, I was just scared of half-assing it. There’s no way to do the things I do in this movie or go through the things I had to go through without going home and feeling a little sick to my stomach. So I was seriously affected, I didn’t feel that when they said “cut” it was over. I felt pretty much shaken to the core the entire way through. But now we’re here, so I made it out.
Now we’re shaken to the core (laughter). Alex, you’ve directed a film?
Alex: I just finished a week and a half ago .I directed and starred in it. That was the best experience, other than Hereditary. I’ve been working on it for five years. Wrote the script when I was fifteen, spent five years making it readable. When I was making it I called Ari and asked a thousand questions. It turned out to be super rewarding. I feel like being an actor is the best cheat sheet for making a movie, especially when you’re in it. I actually think it might be more difficult to direct when you’re not in it, because you’re on the ground with your troops. I felt like I was seeing everything that was going on, I was seeing if someone was nervous, or what they were doing, or if they were not fully there I could see it right in front of me. It was really special.