Film

Ari Aster Wants 'Midsommar' to Be Your Favorite Breakup Movie

We spoke to the film's director about how relationships can be a source for horror.

by Noel Ransome
Jul 2 2019, 2:54pm

Image courtesy A24

Like last year's Hereditary, Midsommar is being hailed as a masterpiece. Earlier this month, Jordan Peele, director of Get Out and Us, went as far as to call it "an ascension of horror." IndieWire critic David Ehrlich claimed that Midsommar would do for Swedish pagan rituals what Psycho did for showers. But try asking Ari Aster, the film's provocative director, himself about Midsommar's nightmarish inspiration, and he'll mention something everyday.

"Midsommar for me was my breakup movie—it felt as big, consuming, and cataclysmic as breakups tend to feel," he told VICE. "It's not the end of the world, but in a way it is."

There's been something disturbingly just-the-wrong-side-of relatable about Aster's works since his rise. His short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011) was an incest horror drama that explored the "What if…?" of a father sexually abused by his son. His follow-up Munchausen (2013) explored the bizarre lengths an overprotective mother would go to keep her son within arms' reach. And while Hereditary dipped into the supernatural as it touched on the ways that grief can destroy a family, Midsommar borrows that framing and applies it to a romantic relationship.

Florence Pugh stars as Dani, a psychology student who experiences the devastating loss of her family. To add to the misery, her relationship with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) isn't going so well. They're on the verge of a breakup, and the idea of a retreat to Sweden with Christian and his boys seems like a solution to forget old wounds. But in regular twisted Aster style, what begins as a midsummer celebration with hallucinogenic drugs and beer turns into something bizarre.

VICE recently spoke with Aster and Jack Reynor, co-star of Midsommar, about the specific shades of feeling that made Midsommar what it became.

VICE: What disturbed me the most about this film was how alien everything felt. From the environment, customs and rituals that had little explanation. What did you really want audiences to feel with Midsommar?
Ari Aster: I can't say that I had a specific objective, but I did want to create as immersive of an experience as I could. If anything, I wanted the audience to walk out feeling confused about what they were feeling. The movie is designed to ramp up to a crescendo and a certain catharsis, and I was hoping that it played as cathartic in a way that audiences would have to wrestle with afterward.

Jordan Peele stated that Midsommar felt like elevated horror⁠—almost like a new genre entirely. Jack, I'm curious about your thoughts because I doubt you've experienced anything like this.
Jack Reynor: Definitely not, and it's an incredibly unique piece of work, and Ari is an exceptional director. I was blown away when I read his script. I felt like it was going to be such an affront to the audience. It would confuse and challenge people. As an actor, that's what you want. In my case, Hereditary hadn't come out yet, I only had his short films for reference, and I could see that he was obviously a very cultured and skillful filmmaker. When we sat down, we talked and laid out this insane vision, and everything felt so exciting from there. We went over what we loved in terms of filmmakers and names like Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell. There's something in all of those filmmakers that's felt in his shorts, and a lot of that is present in Midsommar. It was amazing to see a film that operated on that sophisticated level.

I spoke to Alex Wolff from Hereditary last year where he talked about experiencing PTSD after the film. Given Aster’s reputation, I gotta wonder what you expected personally.
Reynor: (laughs) I read what he said in that piece, so I knew that I needed to prepare myself. It was a pretty difficult role to occupy. It was demanding emotionally and physically, and I was coming off the back of a six-month TV shoot. By the nature of its intensity, I was aware that when you take on an Ari Aster role, you're in for a challenge.

I've never been on a project where I had to keep a close eye on my mental health, and that meant, okay, we're not drinking during the week, we're not eating trash, we're going to eat good food, and we're going to read something. We're going to get eight hours of sleep every single night, and we're going to hit the gym every day with real discipline—exactly like a monk. For me, it was separating myself from the intensity of the project when I wasn't on set. I had to check out of that mental space because you can't sustain that and stay sane.

Visually, the heavenly setting fits into how you describe this film as being about codependency. A relationship can seem beautiful to one person even if it's inherently toxic. What’s the challenge in making all this beauty come off as disturbing?
Aster: The real challenge for me came in how I could make it feel lived-in while avoiding the camp that comes with movies like this. How could I avoid the impression that I was giving nods to other films where it was just a village of ominous figures with false smiles, ushering characters to their doom? I tried to make this a place where you could be indoctrinated as you watched. A place where you could find yourself at home, because ultimately, that's what a group like this can be to others—a potential home to anyone seeking a home. Scene by scene, I was always interested in making sure that each of these Swedish characters never felt like one-dimensional creepy cult members. For me, that would have been the worst-case scenario.

But what made you go from thinking about a thing like dysfunctional relationships to the twisted material in Midsommar?
Aster: It starts with the fact that I'm a massive fan of melodrama. I'm drawn to it because it forces a filmmaker to make the landscape of a film as severe as the feelings of its characters. It's tied to expressionism, where the point is to tie an emotional experience with the physical reality of what's being presented. I looked to match the exterior to the interior. Midsommar for me was my breakup movie that felt as big, consuming, and cataclysmic as breakups tend to feel. It's not the end of the world, but in a way it is. You build your life around a person, and all of a sudden, you find yourself in this very existential situation where you're alone again. You have to look at your situation head-on, and face the fact that all of us are alone by nature. It's why we put so much energy into our relationships—because it's a distraction from the fact of our aloneness.

That sounds deeply personal. Did you see your own story through that relationship dynamic?
Aster: I've been in both shoes before. I've clung to people who are less invested in the relationship than I am, and I've wanted to leave something but been afraid to hurt the other person, so I understand that feeling. But for me, it was crucial for this place in Midsommar to have a vibrant sense of history with a deep well of tradition that you could stand in, which would feel real and tangible. At the same time, the residents who existed in that space would be there to fulfill a need, much like a relationship.

And that concept is undeniably creepy at times, but it's also a surprisingly funny movie. Why introduce comedy into a film like this?
Reynor: When Ari and I sat with each other, we both had some serious admiration for this great British satirist, Chris Morris. His work challenged the audience, it was divisive, and when my friends would watch it, only half of them would laugh while some would wonder what the fuck I was showing them. I believe that humor operates in a similar space. It serves as a device to challenge the audience to see what they're willing to be on board with. It develops your feelings, and it was interesting for both of us to observe who laughed. It almost says something about the audience as much as it does about Midsommar.

So what do you think it says when people can laugh during some terrible moments in a movie like Midsommar? Because at times, I couldn't laugh.
Reynor: I think it says something about the nature of our reactionary response and how that has changed over the last 15 or 20 years with the advent of social media and connectivity. We're so quick to engage with things and leave them within the same breath. I also think laughing is a coping mechanism. We laugh when we're scared and when we see things that we haven't built enough of a support structure to handle. It's immediately apparent in the audience with Midsommar.

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Image courtesy of A24.

You're a cinephile first and foremost, Ari, so if there were a list of films to watch to understand the craziness of Midsommar, what would that list look like?
Aster: I could point you to different folk horror movies, but if anything, they were only reference points for me as a kid, and I never returned to them. On a technical front, I thought of the color films of Powell and Pressburger, but if I'm honest, I was actually looking at breakup movies when I came up with Midsommar. It's how I view this film, like a fairy-tale breakup movie.

My favorite is still Modern Romance (1981), which I thought about within the context of Midsommar. Whenever I go through a breakup, I run to that. There are a lot of other movies that do that for me as well, like Scenes from a Marriage (1974), which I've gone also gone to when I was going through it. There's also a documentary by Allan King called A Married Couple (1969) which is amazing in the way it chronicles a relationship falling apart. This is all to say that I wanted to make a film that people would go to after a breakup. I want it to exist in a space where you go through this bad something, and now it's time to watch Midsommar.

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