Brow Beat

Director Ari Aster on Midsommar’s Inspirations and Why He Hates Talking About His Movies

Midsommar
Midsommar.
A24

Midsommar, Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary, is the season’s most anticipated horror movie—which is a little complicated, given that its creator prefers to describe it as a “breakup movie” and it often plays like a particularly dark comedy. The film follows an American couple, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) who take a trip to the Swedish countryside just as their relationship is unraveling. They do not find good things there. The film’s gory fusion of Nordic folklore, bad boyfriends, and backwoods psychedelics will leave some viewers feeling more clobbered than a sacrificial pagan on the wrong side of a wooden hammer.

We asked Aster about the many, many things going on in his sophomore feature—and why he doesn’t really want to talk about any of those things at all. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. It also contains mild spoilers for Midsommar.

Jeffrey Bloomer: I talked to you when Hereditary came out, and I saw you at a Q&A the other day, and I am sure of one thing: You really hate talking about your movies.

Ari Aster: I mean, no, I don’t like it. I always feel like I’m navigating a minefield, and I’m wondering what I’m going to regret saying and how it’s going to be, like, translated. I much prefer talking about other people’s movies. I’m a big cinephile, so that’s probably the easiest way to get me to open up about whatever I’m doing. Obviously, I’m just excited about different traditions and how I might be in dialogue with one or another.

I was thinking maybe it was because you don’t want to dictate what your movies are about. They are full of detail, obvious and not, so there’s a temptation to ask you what this is, or what that means. Does that play any part in it?

Absolutely. Yeah. I’m careful about what information is in the film and how much emphasis I put on different pieces of information. And then that can be kind of destroyed by an answer I might give if a person is reading the interview. I feel like I do what I can to make the movie be its own experience that’s saying whatever it’s saying. If you catch it, you catch it. If you don’t, you don’t.

But I’m also somebody who reads interviews with all my favorite filmmakers, and I’m somebody who sees the value in it, because I grew up reading and listening to interviews with the people whom I admired. And so I feel both honored to be asked questions and very reluctant to give answers.

What’s your patience level for people who watch movies looking for hidden clues or Easter eggs everywhere, whether or not they’re there? Your movies do seem to have their share of cryptic texture, like all the foreshadowing images on the walls in Midsommar.

Well, I definitely want to make films that encourage people to look closely and that reward an active engagement. I don’t know if I would say there are Easter eggs in the film so much as I’ve kind of buried details that are close enough to the surface that they’re there to be seen—if you see them, if you’re looking around—that hopefully give the film deeper thematic resonance. There are a lot of, like, prophetic images in the [Midsommar] house where it’s like, “OK, if you’re really looking around, you can see what’s going to happen to this guy, and what’s going to happen to this guy.” The whole story is a kind of telegraphed on the walls. For me, that was fun, even more so than with Hereditary, because this is a film where people walk in knowing what’s going to happen. The folk-horror genre, if you have any history watching these films, you know where it’s going. The fun for me of this film, if there is any fun in watching it, is not in the narrative surprises, because for me, everything’s telegraphed. It’s about getting to the place that you know you’re going.

You’ve talked a lot about how your movies are sort of mythology soup: You pick and choose different things and change them in a way that makes it sort of pointless to chase the actual origins too much. Why do you favor that approach over something like what Robert Eggers (The Witch) does: meticulous researching his myths?

Well, mostly because I think I’m trying to maintain a balance between research and invention in these last two films in ways that don’t actually connect to anything else I’m planning on doing. But yeah, I guess nothing is really sacrosanct for me. I know that with Hereditary, I just didn’t want to do the devil because that’s been played out. There was no reason for me to be reverent about it or reverential because I’m a Jew, so for me, it’s about, what can I do to enhance the story and give it the best legs to stand on?

Are you annoyed that people now are going to be looking for all of these Swedish texts and trying to explain that the decisions you made in this movie were based on mythology?

It’s just funny. No, I think I provide just enough food to allow people to go down that road if they want to. I guess, more than anything, I just like the idea of people having just enough to scour the frame for whatever they might be missing. I like to, over the course of the film, kind of train people to not just watch it passively.

You’ve said the basic idea for the movie actually came from some Swedes?

This Swedish production company came to me with a one-page kind of outline, not even really an outline as much as a concept, which is basically—they had read Hereditary, and they said, we’d love for you to do what you did with Hereditary with the “Americans going to a foreign country and getting killed” genre. And we’d like you to do it in Sweden.

… why would they want that?

Ha, well, it was some producers who liked the horror genre and they wanted to do one that was tied to Sweden. It wasn’t like—Sweden didn’t reach out to me saying, “Hey, I really want to prevent people from coming over here. Can you incentivize people to stay put if they’re not from Sweden?” Anyway, it didn’t sound great to me. I didn’t really want to make my own Hostel or anything like that. But from there, I took it and ran with it.

You’ve said you essentially took the concept and turned it into a particularly warped breakup movie.

I was going through a breakup at the time. I wanted to write a breakup movie after the last one I had been in, and I just didn’t have it. I couldn’t connect the dots while I was really in the shit. You know what I mean? And another [breakup] happened and I decided, OK, I’m going to think about this for like a day. And if I don’t come up with something, I’ll just pass. I was in this position where I wasn’t able to find the outlet for it—it was a particularly painful breakup. And I thought about it for a day, and I found a way to marry a very personal breakup movie with the folk-horror subgenre. This was four years ago.

The movie seemed particularly angry at male behavior at times, and since you talked about it being very personal, should we … glean anything from that?

I’m hoping that viewers can relate to both characters, because I feel like we’ve all been in a position where we are being broken up with and we don’t want to be, when we are more invested than our partner. And we’ve all been in the position where we want to get out of something and we don’t want to hurt the other person. And that’s why so many relationships kind of linger when they should be ending. When I wrote [Midsommar], I was putting myself especially into Dani. So I see a lot of myself in Dani. I also see parts of myself in Christian. I see parts of myself in all these characters, I guess. But I guess I’m trying to do something where the audience is especially in Dani’s point of view. They’re definitely sided with Dani, and they’re seeing things from her perspective. Then by the end, I’m hoping that what happens is not so cut-and-dry—it should be cathartic, because you’re tied to her, and it should also be complicated. Hopefully it’s funny, because the punishment is so much worse than the crime.

That’s true. There’s much more emphasis on male humiliation in a way that felt pointed to me, especially since I, at least, expected worse things for Dani in a movie like this.

Well, that’s certainly something that was on my mind, and yeah, [Christian] is totally stripped down and he’s exploited by this community and these women, and that was certainly something that felt like it was necessary to do, but also just as you’d find in those films that humiliate women, it should feel like it goes beyond what’s reasonable.

The orgy scene you’re describing, toward the end, is particularly bizarre because everyone seems at a loss for how to react, and so many people are laughing—

It’s extremely awkward and uncomfortable. It’s an absurd scene. I hope it’s also beautiful. I mean, the hope is that people will not know quite how to react. And laughter is like, I think, pretty appropriate for that scene.

When the woman comes up behind Christian and starts, er, helping him, it got a huge laugh. Which was … not my immediate reaction.

There’s definitely no correct response.

Have you had particularly bad experiences with psychedelics? Because the bad trips in this movie—

Yeah, I’ve had very bad experiences before. I had good experiences that then led to bad experiences, and then I stopped doing them altogether.

I can see why! On that note, when you always talk about how personal your movies are—Hereditary and Midsommar, so far—I worry a little about you. You’re only 32. Have you had a particularly hard go of it?

I’ve had very hard things happen to me in my life and bad things happen to my loved ones especially. But I’m a genre fan and I’m also somebody who feels like lightning. There’s that saying, right? Life is suffering. I agree with that, and I think it’s therapeutic to give expression to that. And then at the same time, I think there’s something freeing about, like, finding the catharsis in whatever story you’re telling, even if you’re telling a very painful story. When I was a kid, I loved horror movies and I always wanted to go somewhere extreme. There’s still this, like, perverse little kid, and he is excited by the idea of scandalizing people. And then there’s also this high-minded side of me that wants to do it in the most elegant way possible. That’s where this comes from.