This story contains mild spoilers for the film Midsommar.
Ari Aster is not afraid to talk about how personal his filmmaking is. Maybe he should be; anyone who’s seen his debut feature Hereditary, and its follow-up, Midsommar (which opens in theaters today), might expect the director to be as bleak and bizarre as his creations. But though Aster has described the harrowing Hereditary as a family drama pulled from feelings about his own life, and Midsommar as a breakup movie written in the throes of heartbreak, he’s chipper and thoughtful in person, the kind of artist whose dark side seems to reside entirely within his art.
Midsommar is not as straightforward a piece of horror as Hereditary was, but it’s still a distressing work, following Dani (Florence Pugh), her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), and other unwitting Americans as they visit a Swedish commune that has planned a secretive, deadly celebration. I talked to Aster about his fondness for blending genres, the respective canons of breakup films and daytime horror, and whether he’ll venture into some new niche for his next project. This interview has been edited.
David Sims: You’ve called Midsommar a breakup movie and a personal one, but I assume you’re pouring more of yourself into the female protagonist than into her boyfriend?
Ari Aster: I’m putting myself into Dani, primarily. But I think we’ve all been on either side [of a breakup].
Sims: Going on a crazy vacation to shake things up is a thing a lot of 20-somethings do.
Aster: And it’s always the perfect remedy; it fixes everything. Just like having a baby if the marriage is in trouble. Perfect idea! No consequences in that!
Sims: You made this film very quickly after Hereditary. Is Midsommar something you’ve always been working on, or was it more of a thunderbolt?
Aster: I usually find that writing comes easiest to me when I’m in a crisis. It becomes a tool for digging myself out of the crisis. Or at least navigating it. Otherwise, I’m just torturing myself. You always want to write a breakup movie when you’re in a breakup, and every time I’d been in one, I’d thought, “I want to write about this, but I’m not inspired. I just wanna die.” And so, this time I just happened to find the way in. You find yourself parsing through the ruins, blaming yourself, blaming the other person, working through these things.
Sims: And turning it into a script.
Aster: The first version of this script was twice as long and had way more, the kind of thing you hand off to any responsible reader who says, “You’ve said this already.” Then you shape it. The first cut of this movie was three hours and 40 minutes; there are plenty more little moments that weren’t necessary, but I would have been very happy to include. I would say this was, for me, a way of making a breakup movie and having fun with clichés and tropes that are inherent to two different genres, doing something that’s simultaneously absurdist and nakedly vulnerable. It’s folk horror, but being given to you with the trajectory of a high-school comedy. It’s about a girl who everyone knows is with the wrong guy, and the right guy is under her nose.
Sims: In terms of folk horror, it’s obvious what’s happening the whole time, and everyone’s basically up front about it. Anytime any of the Americans ask any of the village members a question, they basically just tell them the truth.
Aster: Yes! As they say, “It strips you of your defenses and opens you.”
Sims: You’ve also kind of made a slasher movie with no kills. You don’t really see the murders, but they’re all getting picked off, one by one. They just walk off into the woods.
Aster: I’m not here to subvert the [horror] genre, but at the same time, we all know what’s going to happen. So it’s not that interesting. If anything, I respect you as a viewer—you know they’re all going to be killed—so that’s not where the surprises are going to be, and that’s not where the joy is going to be. Don’t come to me for the movie with the most inventive kills. That’s not where my interests lie. At the same time, there’s a certain sort of joy to be had in making something where everyone knows where you’re going. How do we get there in a way that’s emotionally surprising, as opposed to a left turn in the plot? How do we stay on course, move toward something inevitable, and hopefully have an experience?
Sims: Midsommar is also a piece of daytime horror, like The Wicker Man. The fact that it’s all in bright sunlight contributes to that obviousness. Everything is being illuminated for them, but the characters are so in their own heads and on their own journeys. Were there other daytime-horror movies you thought about?
Aster: Not really. Our references were like, [the British filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger]—I talked to my cinematographer about them. A real three-strip Technicolor look, like Black Narcissus, and The Tales of Hoffmann. And we were talking more about breakup movies than horror movies, like Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance. If Midsommar works beyond my wildest dreams, it would be something you go to after a breakup. Like, every time after a breakup, I watch Modern Romance. On Hereditary, the movies we watched [during filming] weren’t horror movies, and on Midsommar too. I love horror—Hereditary was absolutely a horror film, I wouldn’t argue against that. This film is adjacent to horror; I wouldn’t call it a horror film. I think of it as a fairy tale with horror elements.
Sims: It’s less intensely frightening than Hereditary. But it’s still wrenching!
Aster: I hope it’s wrenching and funny. And I hope you’re laughing at the end! Best-case scenario, you’re laughing at the end, and the laughs catch in your throat a little. You get so lost in the making of a film; I certainly will never be able to watch it with fresh eyes. So much of it is by the seat of your pants.
Sims: I look at this thing as a critic; I see it as a finished product that’s been made precisely, for me to pick apart and analyze, whereas I’m sure you look at it and think, I took a scene out here, or Here’s where the light was weird that day, and we could only do three takes.
Aster: You try your best through every step of the process to hide those seams and make everything cohere. Hopefully it does; I’ll never know if it did. What I can say is that I love movies, I love genre, and I always find the most exciting way into any given genre is sideways. I typically like to think outside of the genre I’m dealing in. That’s why we weren’t watching any horror movies for Midsommar. We were watching Powell and Pressburger, watching breakup movies. On Hereditary, we screened a movie for the cast and crew every week, but on Midsommar, we had two months to build this entire village, and so there was not enough time to do anything. We only got one screening in—McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Sims: A frontier-town movie.
Aster: Exactly. I thought that would just be inspiring because they built a village for that movie, and that’s what our crew was doing at the time. And because of the way that all of the peripheral characters are just as important in any given scene as the main characters. Again, the first cut of Midsommar was almost an hour and a half longer, so there’s a lot more of the village in that cut, because when you have to cut it down, that ends up becoming the stuff you could cut without losing anything from the story at the center. The original cut of this film is more meandering, in a way that I liked. It almost plays for a while as an anthropological study of this place, where we just live there for a while. Anyone there for the genre, for the action, would just be suffocating.
Sims: As viewers, we are always going to be with the newcomers, though; it’s nice in that the village always feels a little inscrutable and alien. For the paintings and the lore [in the movie], were you drafting from reality?
Aster: I did a lot of research and deep dives into so many corners, from Swedish tradition to different midsummer traditions around the world, into folklore, Norse mythology. I drew liberally from all of them, and most of it is imagination from there. It’s a total mélange. And I had a lot of fun putting prophetic images on the wall, where everything that’s going to happen is there, and if you go back, then you can sort of see what connects to what. I like doing that only because I imagine that it encourages a more active engagement on the part of the viewer.
Sims: And it helps it feel like a real place, beyond a simple murder town.
Aster: Hopefully, the details are rich, and there’s a logic behind everything the villagers are doing, and they’re not just lawless pagans. At the same time, they’re also adhering to laws that are very particular to this film, and they exist solely to satisfy Dani’s particular needs. They are perfect for Dani right now. It’s a wish-fulfillment film in a way—she loses a family and gains one.
Sims: Are you going to make more horror movies?
Aster: I love genre movies. I want to be playing in different genres.
Sims: Make a space movie!
Aster: I have a sci-fi film! I’m very excited about it and would love to make it. It would be very expensive and not exactly mainstream. I’ve got a Western; I’ve got an absurdist dark comedy. I really want to find a way to make a musical, in the same way that for a long time I wanted to make a breakup movie, and I didn’t have it in me. I’m hoping for some inspiration.