If this year's Sundance Film Festival had one across-the-board sensation, it was Hereditary, a devastating workout of supernatural horror that wrecked audiences and dominated social media. We caught up with its New York City-based filmmaker, Ari Aster, making his feature debut at age 31.
Ari, where does your connection to horror movies begin? When I was 12 or 13, I was obsessed with them. Like, really obsessed. I had this binder filled with images that I'd printed up from the internet—an image of Pinhead or something from Carrie. I'm baffled by what I was even doing, because I never referred to it. It was just this compulsive amassing.
It paid off. As a grown-up, what films do you like? I've always had a taste for the subversive. There are a few horror films that I love, like Rosemary's Baby. Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now was a huge reference for us. I see Hereditary as a spiritual sibling, since it's really about grief. A meditation on grief.
Is that what the genre is missing: serious domestic depth? Maybe. There are so many films that work as roller-coaster rides and, at the end, everything's OK and you go home. I was very clear with my crew: let's not talk about this as a horror film. This is a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare. We watched a few Mike Leigh films – he's probably my favourite filmmaker. All or Nothing and Secrets and Lies. I was like, let's watch vividly realised family dramas.
Hereditary is your first feature. What was it like directing Toni Collette into a maternal frenzy? It was definitely nerve-wracking and a learning curve, although in this case, it was a huge relief to learn to that I was working with people who obviously have the chops. What I'm asking from the actors is difficult. It's emotionally athletic – pummelling, even.
The buzz out of Sundance wasn't just huge – people were using phrases like "a horror landmark" and "a new Exorcist." How does that make you feel? I'm worried about what I'm going to do next! [Laughs] The hyperbole has been fun to soak in. I think that's probably not healthy. I wasn't aiming to make a horror landmark – I was aiming to make a horror film that that I would like. Because I haven't liked any in a long time.