A Conversation with Ari Aster
By Michael Koresky
Ari Aster’s cinema may always return to the family, but it’s never asking for your love. After three audacious features, it’s become clear that he isn’t doing something so pedestrian as merely subverting conventions of the American nuclear unit; instead, he’s finding endless ways to poke holes in our ideas about family, whether birth or chosen. In Hereditary, a long dormant generational curse destroys a seemingly stable suburban clan, leading to a supernatural reunion in which everything falls, oddly, right into place—catharsis through bloodletting. In Midsommar, a young woman, upended by horrifying tragedy, finds something like unconditional support and kinship in the arms of a new community. Now in Beau Is Afraid, a middle-aged man (played by a painfully, persuasively inward Joaquin Phoenix) incapacitated by mother love, takes a kaleidoscopic back-to-the-womb journey through a series of escalating and absurd variations on the idea of family. All prove false and terrifying in one way or another, milestones on the way to a self-reckoning that would be tragic if it weren’t so funny.
As Beau Is Afraid unfolds, one might constantly wonder just how much we’re meant to be taking it seriously—and whatever seriously means. An arrow through the heart-on-its-sleeve 21st century, the film exists in some enormously uncomfortable intersection of grotesque melodrama, dark comedy, and “hero’s journey” epic, taking the piss out of each genre while also encouraging pure emotional investment in these forms. More than in his other films, Beau revels in the highly relatable derangement of contemporary living—the sense that anything you do, anything you say, and any way you try to tiptoe your way through a treacherous world will always bring you back to your own psychotic square one. The environment Aster creates is both entirely unreal and steeped in recognizable melancholy.
The film offers a jokingly huge conceit, splattered on a pleasingly gigantic canvas (especially in its IMAX format), and will surely turn Aster’s fans on as much as it will annoy his detractors. For my part, he has finally wedded his maximalist instincts to a particularly Jewish-American brand of paranoia, and the movie had me chortling in pleasure through nearly every one of its 179 fleet minutes. Lovingly detailed, Beau Is Afraid is inherently contradictory: confident, muscular cinema about emotional atrophy and living with profound insecurity. I sat down with Ari in a bustling East Village cafe, where, over the sounds of clanging coffee filters and hissing steamers, we discussed his latest film, beloved inspirations, and the terror of putting things out in the world.
RS: I’m often alienated by other people’s responses to your movies as “perverse” or “weird.” I just find them emotionally clear and totally relatable. Even Beau himself.
AA: I hadn’t even considered that anybody would not relate to Beau. For me Beau is designed to function as a surrogate. I just see him as a very sensitive person who’s very heavily weighed down by ambivalence, which is something I sure understand.
RS: And which many of our classical heroes understand.
AA: Yes of course. I mean, there are obviously a lot of literary allusions. I don’t know which literary hero you’re referring to, whether it’s Josef K, or…
RS: The film feels like it connects almost jokingly huge literary antecedents, say Hamlet or Oedipus, to something particularly 20th century Jewish. It feels like some sort of 21st-century maximalist spectacle version of Phillip Roth or Saul Bellow. Are you influenced by that particular kind of Jewish paranoia?
AA: Of course. I remember I was challenged to come up with sound bites for the film, so one I came up with and didn’t use was “It’s like that movie Like Mike, but if instead of Michael Jordan’s sneakers he finds Phillip Roth’s house-slippers.” I mean, Roth is incredible, his gift was staggering. I really don’t know how he did it. He was so prolific, and even the way his chapters are structured. It’s very athletic, and the way he’s bouncing backward and forward, it’s amazing.
RS: There’s a central, conceptual contradiction in your work: you’re making movies that take place in very tiny emotional crawlspaces, but which are painted on very large canvases. I’m interested, now that you’ve made three features and many shorts, what your cinema is doing and why it’s eliciting such strong responses on both sides.
AA: I don’t know. It’s very hard to speculate about. But I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t aware that I was despised in certain circles, and what’s a little tricky about that is that those people tend to have the same taste as me. I’ll see, oh this person hates me, but loves all the filmmakers I love and hates all the same filmmakers I hate. So, there’s the sense of “what have I done to alienate this person who I otherwise agree with?”
RS: Well, that also makes sense because cinephiles hate themselves most of the time. Or we should!
AA: I heard somebody say that they resented me for starting this wave of, like, trauma porn, and to be honest, I’m so annoyed by that wave. A lot of people are annoyed by this idea of “elevated horror,” whatever the hell that means. I never coined that phrase, I never used that phrase. And even when it was thrown at me, I bristled. I consider myself a genre filmmaker. I love horror films. There’s no part of me that feels superior to the genre, and I feel that all the people I know who have been tagged as “elevated horror” filmmakers—nobody agrees with that term.
RS: I want to talk about production design. I know from the beginning, from Hereditary, you’re very involved in the design of the film and everything is created for the most part. Is there anything in this movie that existed before production, or are these all created worlds?
AA: The structures of the mother’s house and the suburban house with Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, those houses existed, and then we decorated them from there.
RS: The mother’s house wasn’t built for the movie?
AA: That wasn’t built for the movie, although for a long time the plan was to build it, but we didn’t have the budget for it. And then we couldn’t find a location that worked so we went back to the plan that we were going to build, but we had to keep scouting just in case. So we were already kind of designing that space to be built, when we came upon that house, and it was a miracle.
RS: Interior and exterior existed as they appear in the movie?
AA: Yes, but the attic was built on a stage. And then the very final sequence was created from scratch in CG. We built the stage in the forest. The entire play sequence that he enters, all those sets were built on a stage and then were animated on top of. Beau’s apartment was built on a stage, the halls were built on a stage, the elevator was built on a stage. On the city streets, those were facades we put on top of buildings that were already there in Montreal. Except for the band posters in Nathan’s—the dead son’s—room, which are actual bands, everything was created from scratch. Every poster, every sign, every product. I was very distracted in preproduction coming up with the stupidest names for everything. It was very fun.
RS: People talk about “obsession or attention to detail,” but that stuff just sounds really like a good time.
AA: I just wanted to pack this thing with as many little jokes and sight gags as possible. It’s one reason I hope people see this film in IMAX. I got kind of sad in postproduction editing the film because I like to shoot things very wide, and I realized so many of these details would get lost. Nobody will see that poster, nobody will see that sign, even though we put so much time into it. And when I saw it in IMAX when we were converting it, all of a sudden I could see every sign, and it really encourages the viewer to search the frame. And I think it promotes a different kind of engagement with the film. I was actually surprised by how exciting it was for me.
RS: Why was the decision made to convert it to IMAX?
AA: A24 asked if I would be interested in that. I didn’t know it was an option. I didn’t know if it would work, and watching it converting over to IMAX, I realized that it needed a screen that big. I always feel disappointed by the size of the screen when I go into the theater. As obnoxious as it sounds, I feel I make films to be projected on the biggest screen possible. This film is designed to be kind of swum around in. It becomes a trance film at certain points, especially in the cruise and in the play scenes. And I do think that in IMAX it’s easier to be enveloped in the whole thing.
RS: I think it’s unusual for a comedy to also have the shape of a trance film. It’s difficult to pull off tonally. I can think of After Hours, perhaps, I can think of A Serious Man, perhaps. But even those films don’t go so big; they remain wonderfully small.
AA: And you know how much I love those two films, and anyone who sees this film will see that I love After Hours. It hadn’t even occurred to me until we were making the film, and I was like “Oh, shit, yeah this first sequence...”
RS: Well, you’re dealing with Job—speaking of the original Jewish guy having a bad day. Also, this makes me think of Uncut Gems, a film I admire. But all those movies that I’ve mentioned—A Serious Man, Uncut Gems, After Hours—exist in a relatively realist realm, even if they push against the boundaries of it. Whereas your film just goes full-bore surrealist. How do you know when you’ve gone too far, and how can you tell yourself not to care?
AA: You probably know this as a writer, but usually the things that stay and don’t fall away are the things that feel inspired. It comes to you in a moment; they don’t come, like, sitting and trying to find something. It’s usually when you’re walking around and something hits you. So it’s not like you decided, through your good judgment. It’s usually that something just strikes you and excites you. Writing for me is usually very depressing for a long time because you’ll have all these things that function as devices since you need to get from A to B to C. Because I worked on this one for so long, any of the things that felt like devices were eventually replaced by something that struck me as being right. If something made me laugh, or struck me as being funny or struck me as being exciting, it made it in. So, it was joyful in that way. I thought a lot about Playtime, where no background actor is too small to not be given all the attention in the world.
There’s this thing that in comics is called “chicken fat,” which are just the details that litter a frame. I got that term from Dan Clowes. I did not know it beforehand, but I’ve been obsessed with it since. I love “chicken fat,” and the reason I love that is because I feel that as a viewer, when you start noticing those details and the love and attention that went into those details, you start to feel respected. And when you feel respected as a spectator, you start to respect what you’re watching. I feel that so much of what I watch just feels so arbitrary. And I really resent that in art, the feeling of something being arbitrary. And so, like, I always loved The Simpsons for its “chicken fat,” especially when it started, like its first ten years.
RS: Yeah, when every line, every cut, every image in the frame is funny.
AA: Yeah, it was remarkably sustained inspiration in the early Simpsons. And I mentioned Dan Clowes, and he was hugely important to me growing up. Eightball is for me without question one of the most important works of art of the twentieth century. And it was certainly on my mind at different points when I was making this.
RS: Does that mean you were thinking in terms of graphic novel framing? It is such a different form.
AA: It’s just the attitude of Eightball. It’s so deeply literary and allusive in really fascinating ways, but at the same time just totally original and so personal and funny and kaleidoscopic. I don’t think I had encountered anything that struck me on that deep a level when I first discovered it. It really shocked me, and I identified so intensely with its humor and its point of view, not to mention the art. I remember when I first started reading Eightball I thought, I want to make movies that feel like this. Especially the stupider stories, like Needledick the Bug Fucker or The Happy Fisherman.
RS: I think one of the most irritating “discourses” is about movies’ running times. It’s horrible and reductive. If you care about a movie’s running time before seeing it or if you talk about it as a fixed thing rather than whatever exists within those minutes, you’re not engaging with the art. I’m much more interested in pacing and form. At what point do you realize how vast a canvas you’re painting on? Did you always see this as epic?
AA: At first, I saw it as deliberately episodic. Almost like a meander. When I get excited about this movie, it’s usually about the shape. Because it doesn’t really feel like other movies to me. As a narrative it reaches an emotional peak about two hours in, near the end of the forest section, and once it’s over there’s about an hour left. You reach a certain height and it’s kind of an artificial height because it’s happening in someone’s head and it’s not real. And then from there it’s kind of like descending into a wallow. When I’m watching it, I always get a little giddy knowing there’s an hour left.
RS: Well, you put someone on a hero’s journey, and then you nest a journey within a journey. There are things to be resolved, but they just don’t resolve in a way that one might expect. There’s a perverseness to it, yet it doesn’t feel like you’re doing it for the sake of perversity.
AA: I do feel like it is an expression of something true in me, I don’t know. For whatever it’s worth I’m being honest here. [laughs] I’m being as honest as I can be. I’m sure I’m in a lot of denial as well. Who the hell knows?
RS: Since we’re talking about the pivot point after this emotional crescendo, I’m very interested in the duration of the shot of the reunion, not to give things away. It’s a very long take, a very emotional shot, and it pushes things to a point where, for me, it was saying if you were taking this seriously, now you really can’t—but then it pushes further so that you start taking it seriously again. How long is that shot, and at what point did you know you were going to linger on it for so long?
AA: Well, it was originally about four-and-a-half minutes, and then I think we broke into it a little to go back to the narrator on the stage. So, I think now it’s about three minutes. But yes, that probably is my favorite thing in the movie, personally. Cause then you also go into the mother telling the bedtime story, which is a very long shot as well.
RS: This might sound weird, but the shots of the mother in the bedroom with the bedtime story reminded me of E.T. The weird, nested Peter Pan story in E.T., which is one of my favorite passages in any Spielberg film.
AA: Oh yeah, totally. That’s so interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. That is very eerie in E.T., when she’s like “I believe, I believe.”
RS: And E.T. and Elliott are kind of watching.
AA: And they’re mesmerized.
RS: It’s the same scene when Elliott cuts his finger and you see the close-up of the blood dripping on the saw blade.
AA: It’s amazing. And the mother, through the story, is mesmerizing her daughter. It’s like witchcraft. I see what you mean. I shouldn’t get too far into it, but I hope that the effect of that part of the movie—both his reunion and the memory—feels very uncanny. It’s also the most emotionally raw that we ever see Beau, but he’s in ridiculous old-age makeup, and he looks like a prospector, and his reunion is with three people that don’t exist. So I wanted it to feel very emotionally true, but it’s not, and it’s the deepest we get into him, because we’re in his heart, so it’s very real for him—so the closest we ever get to him is the falsest we ever are.
RS: And then the rude awakening after that reverie is very rude. I’d like to talk about the lengthy sequence in the suburbs. This is the part of the movie that seems like it’s most engaging with a specific reality of American life: the fear of the suburban American goyim.
AA: Yes, of course. [laughs]
RS: So that’s why I think the casting of Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane is so spot-on. And the teenage girl, Kylie Rogers, is terrifying. I know the script was long-gestating, and you’ve been thinking about it for a long time. But I’m curious about that sequence as a representation of a kind of PTSD, heavily medicated America. Is that something that evolved over the years?
AA: The only thing that evolved was Toni, and the way she evolved was the way I pictured her in my head, because at first she was like a goth girl. And she went from being a goth to being a pink TikTok girl, who loves K-Pop.
RS: Does the family have a name?
AA: They’re the Stanwycks.
RS: Ah, so you have a little Sirkian melodrama in there. For me this is the scariest part of the movie. I can deal with the urban anxiety of the first section, and I can deal with the extreme Oedipal derangement of the last, but there’s something about the Stanwycks that I found guttingly terrifying. They’re purporting to be caring, which is maybe the scariest thing about them.
AA: They’re so not real. [laughs] They’re not real at all. Which is maybe what it is. And there’s such a falseness to it.
RS: We’re living in a moment, which must be terrifying for an artist, where everything is obsessed over by viewers, every tiny little element is immediate fodder for discourse. At a certain point, as a filmmaker you must have to put all that out of your head or you’ll never create anything genuine. Do you have to think about that shit while you’re making a movie or do you really just think, let the cards fall where they may?
AA: I try not to when I’m writing. When I’m making the film, even when I’m editing, I’m mostly able to, because the film hasn’t been subjected to any of that. But the problem is that when the film does get released it is instantly metabolized by the culture, and at first I don’t recognize what comes out, into what form it’s reduced. The bigger problem is that it’s not long before that is how I start to see the film. I’m sure this is the case for anybody who makes work, not just now. I mean I do feel the state of the internet, the state of press and media, is pretty horrendous, and I’m very depressed by it, especially right now, now that I have a film that’s being put through that machine.
RS: Me too. I feel like maybe it is particularly hard to accept for people who grew up in their own self-created emotional spaces, where they were able to appreciate art on their own terms. It’s increasingly difficult to do that. We can’t all be Thoreau; we have to engage with the world, especially if you’re a creator. But it also makes it hard to want to create something, because it becomes more grist for the mill.
AA: It’s a cliché, right, “It’s not mine anymore. It now belongs to the world.” Whatever. But the problem is I really hate the present culture. It’s not just this film. I feel very alienated by the state of the culture right now. I just wanted to make something that was funny and sad. That’s all I wanted to do.