As with most people, writer/director Ari Aster came crashing into our world with his debut feature film, HEREDITARY. The movie instantly became one of the most talked about horror films of the year, with many praising Aster’s masterful directing in portraying grief and trauma. Shortly after the release of HEREDITARY, it was announced that Aster would start filming his sophomore film MIDSOMMAR, a folk-horror tale centered around the destruction of a relationship against the backdrop of a Swedish cult.
For the release of MIDSOMMAR, I had the immense pleasure of speaking to one of my favorite directors about his latest film. Soft-spoken and kind, Aster graciously took the time to speak to me about MIDSOMMAR where we discussed everything from the inception of the story and the wonderfully weird illustrations to the mysterious Oracle and his symbolic representation.
I can’t tell you how excited I am to speak to you today about your latest film! To start things off, can you talk a little bit about MIDSOMMAR and how the story came about?
Ari Aster: Thank you. It came about because I was going through a breakup and wanted to write a breakup movie. I typically find genre framework to be pretty liberating in that it gives you a structure to tell a potentially personal story. The folk horror genre felt like the perfect framework for the story I wanted to tell, especially when you’re telling these very personal stories. Making a genre film is kind of helpful in that, it forces you to find the catharsis in whatever story you’re telling. This movie was definitely one that’s kind of working towards this big, grand catharsis. If I’m playing with the genre at all it’s that the men are living in a folk horror movie and the woman is living in a wishful film and fantasy. So that’s the twist I guess, it’s that we are actually watching a fairytale because we are aligned with the woman at the center of this elaborate wishful film and fantasy.
The production design of this film is astounding. In regards to all the illustrations we see throughout the film, was that something that you came up with or were those illustrations that you found through your research?
Ari Aster: The concepts behind all the drawings, those are mine, but the drawings/paintings were provided by different artists. The opening mural is by a brilliant contemporary artist named Mu Pan. The murals in the main house and in Siv’s house were provided primarily by a Swedish artist named Ragnar Persson, and that’s including the tapestry with the Midsummer Romance. But [all the artwork] was kind of dictated by me and every piece of art had been thoroughly considered and worked out.
You’ve done two films back-to-back in a very short amount of time with HEREDITARY coming out in 2018 and now MIDSOMMAR in 2019. How long had you been working on the idea for MIDSOMMAR?
Ari Aster: I wrote [MIDSOMMAR] about four years ago and then the production designer, a Swedish man named Henrik Svensson who is a really brilliant guy, he and I had a dialogue going for years. He was building this look book that he was sending to me and then I was sending him back [with] notes and images. He was compiling this look book that was comprised of references from both of us. By the time we got the green light to make the film, we had the design pretty much worked out. The artists we hadn’t yet commissioned but we knew what we would be commissioning them to do, it’s all very thoroughly mapped out. I’m actually a visual artist and I draw and I probably would have loved to have done [the artwork] if I had any time. I’m really, really pleased with the work that these artists did, they really, really came to the table. I was able to provide a couple of drawings for HEREDITARY so some of that stuff is from me, but nothing in this one, unfortunately.
Visually, HEREDITARY is much darker than MIDSOMMAR, but MIDSOMMAR is a lot funnier and gives you a false sense of comfort due to the majority of the film being in the daylight. Did you want to surprise people and separate the look and feel of this film from HEREDITARY?
Ari Aster: Not consciously, if anything I was kind of worried about how closely connected they were. I dived right into [MIDSOMMAR] from HEREDITARY, so I had no time to really think or drive myself crazy with people’s expectations. If anything, I just wanted to make the best version of this movie. Most of what I do is darkly comedic and I even find a lot of HEREDITARY to be very funny, but it’s probably the grimmest thing I’ve done. I have like 11 screenplays that I’ve written and HEREDITARY was one of those and it was definitely the most humorless of them all. However, there are things in HEREDITARY that tickle me but I have a very gallows sense of humor.
Though the main focal point of this film is on Dani and Christian, I found the storyline of Ruben, the Oracle, to be quite mysterious, albeit slightly vague. Was there more to him that maybe didn’t make it into the film?
Ari Aster: Yes, the original cut was 3 hours and 40 minutes, but with Ruben’s character we definitely kept as much as we felt necessary because, for me, he’s more symbolic then he is even a character. There are politics woven into the periphery of this film – we’re talking about contemporary Sweden, we’re talking about Swedish history, especially during the Second World War and European history in general, and again, America is not exempt from the kind of thing I’m talking about. So Ruben is sort of articulation of those ideas. I’m reluctant to expand too much further but there is stuff to say about racism and xenophobia. Even if you look at the visitors and how they’re used or not used, how they’re either discarded or used before being discarded. There is intention behind even the casting of our visitors.
That is a perfect segue into my last question which is in regards to the casting. How did you go about casting for the roles and did you have specific people in mind?
Ari Aster: I had people in mind but we auditioned [almost] everybody. There were a few people that we didn’t audition that we gave the part to immediately, but it was a very long drawn out process. We had a Swedish casting director who I was working with separately and we had an American casting director, Jessica Kelly, who was also my casting director on HEREDITARY, and we had a lot of people reading for most of the parts. It was an intense search, [but] it wasn’t that long because we couldn’t go that long, we had two months of pre-production to build the entire village from scratch and find the cast. It was really about as punishing as a pre-production process can get. I’m very, very pleased with the cast we ended up with, especially Florence Pugh who I think really did a beautiful job.