Writer/director Ari Aster stunned horror fans in June 2018 with his feature debut, Hereditary, a genuinely unnerving and frightening film that fused a dysfunctional family drama with a dread-soaked take on supernatural possession. But even before cameras rolled on Hereditary (which struck a nerve with general audiences as well, becoming the highest grossing film ever released by indie A24), Aster had been working on a project broader in scope but no less disturbing.
That film, Midsommar, is out now and finds Aster channeling yet more raw emotional territory — this time the slow-motion catastrophe of a painful breakup — through the lens of folk horror, a subgenre distinguished by its exploration of folklore and legend, its pastoral, secluded settings and the often shocking ritual and sexual violence that occurs in them.
The center of the film is Dani (Florence Pugh), a student racked by horrific personal tragedy and the decay of her relationship with her obliging but emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). When Christian and several friends depart on a trip to rural Sweden to attend a festival that occurs once every 90 years, Dani invites herself along — and the entire group soon find themselves trapped in a sun-drenched nightmare from which they seemingly cannot escape.
Filmed in Hungary — where Aster and his crew built the village of the reclusive Swedish tribe known as the Harga — Midsommar is brimming with visceral, unforgettable imagery, provocative ideas about religion, femininity and tradition, and pulsing psychological undercurrents, all within a 140-minute frame that can be described as not just folk horror, but epic horror. Aster is nothing if not ambitious with his horror films, a subject that came up when we spoke with him shortly before Midsommar opened.
Den of Geek: You’ve said recently that this was inspired by a breakup. By placing something like that in horror movie terms, what can you say about that sort of situation that otherwise maybe doesn’t get said in a routine type of drama?
Ari Aster: Well, I’m a very big fan of melodrama, the operative word being, melos, like drama as music. And I love melodrama because it encourages the writer to essentially make the material as big as the emotions being felt by the characters. And so, with this film, I was very excited making this big operatic breakup movie that is as big as a breakup often feels, and a breakup can often feel pretty apocalyptic. It can feel like the end of the world. Not that the world ends in Midsommar, but I’m always excited about finding a way to work a story up to a crescendo, and try to end at the highest peak. So that, I guess, was the goal, to make a breakup movie that is as big as a breakup feels.
And how did that dovetail with the concept of the Harga?
A Swedish production company approached me, because they had read Hereditary. This was before I had made Hereditary. They wanted to do a Swedish folk horror film about Americans visiting a village in northern Sweden for midsommar, and one by one being sacrificed and killed. At first, I wasn’t particularly interested in that. But at the time, I was going through a breakup, and I was looking for a way to write my breakup movie in a way that wasn’t just a kitchen sink, typical breakup film. And I found way to marry the breakup movie to the folk horror genre. Luckily, the company wanted me to run with it and do whatever I wanted with it, and they gave me total freedom. I was able to then go out and make something very personal and write something that was mine.
What was your familiarity with the folk horror genre itself? The Wicker Man is the benchmark, but there are also films like Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General…
I’m very familiar with the touchstones. Those are the three titles that I would probably go to first, so you beat me to it. But for me, the fun of working in a subgenre like that is that the rules are very clear. If anybody’s seen The Wicker Man, or if they’ve even heard of The Wicker Man, and they’re approaching this film knowing that it’s in the same tradition, people know that the visitors are likely going to be sacrificed. So for me, that’s the least interesting thing to deal with, because it’s inevitable, and there’s a contract between me and the audience that at the very least, that’s going to happen.
So for me, the fun is in, how do we get there, and how do we get there in a way that feels satisfying, but also that feels emotionally surprising. So I would say that what distinguished my approach to this was that it was clear for me that I was always writing a fairy tale and a perverse wish fulfillment fantasy. If you look at the movie from the perspective of the two British people (who visit the village), and Christian and his male friends, then this is a folk horror film. But if you look at it from Dani’s perspective, then this is something else. It’s really more of a fairytale.
One aspect of folk horror that you’ve retained is that there’s something genuinely disturbing about the way that terrible things happen in that brilliant daylight among the beautiful trees and flowers. Was that something that stylistically you were very conscious of wanting to do?
Yeah, absolutely. That was certainly conscious, and we were very excited about making an idyllic horror film and something that was pastoral and very appealing to look at. And I mean, whether you’re making a film in total darkness, or in blistering daylight, the goal is always to make something beautiful. So the process of making this film was not so different than the process of making, for instance, Hereditary. But what did distinguish the experience was that we were outside, chasing the sun. Shooting outside is very, very difficult and problematic, because you’re counting on weather to be on your side, which is nothing to bet your life on. And then the sun might be out for one moment, and then there’s a cloud that’s coming, and that’s going to cover the sun for 30 minutes, so for 30 minutes, you can’t shoot.
Beyond that, continuity is an issue, because where the sun is at the beginning of the day, is not where it ends up at the end of the day. So shadows are changing. And so, logistically, that was the most notable shift for me, was just the hassle of dealing with outdoor shooting.
The village you built is so immersive and detailed.
That was very important to me. We built the entire village from scratch. We even had to cultivate that entire field, which, when we found it, was very wild. While I was finishing Hereditary, I had to create the entire shot list for the film, because before we could go scouting, I needed to know what the geography of the village needed to be, and exactly how I planned on shooting this in order to know basically how to stretch the dollar as far as I could, as efficiently as possible. So while I was in post-production on Hereditary, I was designing the shot list for Midsommar. I always do the shot list before I even talk to my cinematographer or my production designer, because I feel like I need to know what the movie is before I can lay it out for them. Then a dialogue begins and it evolves from there.
But it was definitely a very intense sprint. I landed in Hungary for pre-production, which was June 9th, and Hereditary came out on June 8th. So I jumped from Hereditary press to pre-production on Midsommar. We had two months to actually build the village and be ready to shoot, so it was about as accelerated as this kind of thing can possibly be.
How did you find all the people to play the villagers?
We had a casting director in Sweden who was helping us find that cast. A lot of those actors are highly esteemed actors in Sweden. I think the process of shooting the film was very painful for them, because on most days they were relegated to the background. Each of them had one or two scenes to themselves, and they are all incredible actors, really, really brilliant veteran actors. So we were extremely lucky to have them, and they were extremely patient with us. But yeah, I mean, I hope they’re pleased with the film, because they really gave a lot to it.
You’ve now made two very ambitious and very different films in the horror genre, but I also remember you saying when we spoke last year that you have other types of movies you want to make. Nevertheless, do you think you still have an affinity for this genre and could possibly come back to it?
Yeah, I love the horror genre. I consider myself to be a genre filmmaker, so I definitely feel at home in the horror genre. I’m just excited about engaging with other genres as well. I’m even a fan of the romantic comedy, or the musical. I’m eager to just play in a bunch of different sandboxes. But I do plan to come back to horror eventually, I just don’t know when that will be.
Midsommar is out in theaters now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye