Ari Aster may not be a name you immediately recognize, but it’s likely one you’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future. The New York native began his career with a handful of short films, most notably 2011’s The Strange Truth about the Johnsons, which touched on themes of sexual abuse and family dysfunction and set off heated discussions in the independent film world.
Last week, he unleashed his first feature-length film, Hereditary, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year to rave reviews and became Certified Fresh upon its release. It’s a tense, slow-burning horror film dressed in the trappings of a family drama, infused with dread and punctuated by shocking moments that are equal parts terrifying and disturbing, and it’s marked Aster as a talent to watch. He spoke with us about his Five Favorite Films, and considering the technical skill on display in Hereditary, it wasn’t surprising to learn that he counts some classics among his influences. Read on for Ari Aster’s Five Favorite Films.
I guess I’ll have to start with Songs from the Second Floor, which is a film by Roy Andersson, who is a brilliant Swedish filmmaker who basically… He made a feature in the ’70s called A Swedish Love Story that is a really wonderful, strange, funny, acerbic commentary on Sweden that became this huge hit. I think it was the biggest hit ever in Sweden. And then he delved into making commercials for a long time, and he developed this new style over the course of something like 300, 400, 500 commercials. Then, in the early 2000s, he came out with this film that took him several years to make called Songs from the Second Floor, which is like a parody of obsessive perfectionism. He’s very similar Jacques Tati in that he works primarily with stationary wide shots, and he’s always building sets. All of the sets in his films are built from scratch, and the reason his films take so long to make is because each each vignette is one shot, and the set for that shot tends to take a month to build.
There’s just like these gorgeous paintings, and there’s this really singular, dark, dry, sad wit driving everything he does. Since Songs from the Second Floor he’s come out with two other films that play like spiritual sequels, You the Living and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which I think you can see on Netflix. But Songs from the Second Floor remains the most perfect of the films, in my opinion.
You talk about the way those sets were built, and I’m wondering if that inspired the way you shot Hereditary, considering you built that house on a set as well.
Absolutely. I love working on sets, and I love the artifice of sets that are built on a stage. I’ve always loved playing with artifice in that way, and I really tried to find a way to put a Powell and Pressburger film on this list for that reason, because I just love what they were able to do on stages. For the same reason, that’s why I love Roy Andersson.
I guess the next one would be Fanny & Alexander. I had to put a Bergman on here, and I really struggled to choose between Fanny & Alexander and Cries and Whispers, especially because Cries and Whispers was a film that I screened for the crew of Hereditary. But the television version of Fanny & Alexander, which is five hours long, strikes me as the greatest of the Bergman films. It just has everything. It’s got his humor. It has his sense of wonder and it’s so dreamlike and so gorgeous. The performances are so incredible. It’s so sprawling. Then it gets incredibly bleak when the father dies and the children are shipped off to live with the bishop, who is one of the great forbidding Bergman villains, but that’s just a film I love and adore.
Number three is 8 1/2. I feel like this is not particularly original of me, but this film probably has the most athletic blocking and camerawork that I had seen in any film. A lot of my favorite filmmakers have stolen from this film — you know, the filming from Fellini in general, but especially this film. I’ve already started stealing from him, but filmmakers like Scorsese and Polanski — so much of their technique is derived from really just the playfulness of this film in particular, and whenever I want to inspire myself to play with the camera and to play with blocking and to try to go a little bit further, I’ll watch 8 1/2.
I guess the next one would be Naked, by Mike Leigh. Mike Leigh might be my favorite living filmmaker. A lot has been said about his working method, you know. He spends about six months with his actors basically finding the characters and improvising and building these relationships. Then after that, he’ll go off and write a script based on the improvisations that took place over those six months. It results in some of the most vivid character work I’ve ever seen. The relationships in his films are so rich, and you just feel so much history there. That’s because the history has really been built. It really exists.
But what people don’t really talk much about is just how wonderful a craftsman he is. His films are gorgeous and they’re beautifully made. I mean, his work with Dick Pope is just incredible, and they’re all so impeccably structured. So, I just think he’s made so many masterpieces. I toggled between Naked and Topsy-Turvy and Secrets and Lies being my favorite. But right now, Naked is the one that is coming to me.
I read that you also screened All or Nothing for the Hereditary crew.
I did screen All or Nothing for the crew for Hereditary, which is another film I just adore. It’s one of his bleaker family dramas. It ends on a bittersweet note. It’s a very tender film, but it’s also deeply sorrowful. It struck me as a kind of a perfect movie to watch before we made Hereditary.
My final choice. This is really tough. Part of me wanted to say Dogville. Part of me wanted to say The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. And then part of me wanted to say Rosemary’s Baby. But I realized that I had to put an early Scorsese in there. I had a hard time choosing between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but I think it’s got to be Taxi Driver. I mean, from Bernard Hermann’s score to what Scorsese does with the camera with Michael Chapman. Yeah, it’s just like this sickly fever dream that captures a New York that I never got to see, but it just feels like New York to me. You know, the way that he kind of wrangled all of these very important influences that have nothing to do with one another. Like, there’s a lot of Bresson in there, but then there’s also Max Ophüls and there’s Fellini and there’s Cassavetes. You know, you see so many sources, but together they’ve become singularly Scorsese. I could put any number of Scorsese films in here. I could put Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, The King of Comedy, but right now this strikes me as like his toughest and most perfect film.
Also, Bernard Hermann’s score is so persistent and so pervasive, it feels like a total montage, because that score is so driving. I’m not sure if there is another Scorsese film whose score is so integral. I mean, Cape Fear‘s score is all over it, but Taxi Driver is like top to bottom just Bernard Hermann music.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: I understand that Hereditary was, at least in part, inspired by a difficult time in your own family’s life. Did that make it harder to work on this film, or was it more therapeutic?
Ari Aster: Well, the wonderful thing about the horror genre is that you can take personal feelings and material that’s touchier, and you can push it through this filter, and out comes something else. So, I was able to kind of exorcise certain feelings without actually having to put myself on the slab or put anybody else in my life on the slab.
RT: What film do you think people would be the most surprised to hear was an influence on Hereditary?
Aster: Let me think for just a second. I can say that my prime reference with Pawel Pogorzelski, my cinematographer, as far as lighting was concerned was Kieslowski’s Red. We were talking a lot about Kieslowski’s Red when we were talking lighting, and that kind of become our most important reference, lighting-wise.
Hereditary is playing in theaters everywhere now.