Since he was 12, Ari Aster has been a horror addict. He exhausted the horror section of every video store he could find, dreaming of making his own movies one day. Now, eight failed script attempts later, Aster has his monster.
, a supernatural horror film about a suburban family's descent into hell, is Aster's name-making entry into directing, a subject for which he achieved a Master of Fine Arts at the American Film Institute Conservatory in 2010.
Since graduating, the New Yorker has written and directed six short films, including the controversial The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, a viral hit with millions of YouTube views of its taboo subject.
Those eight feature screenplays, written in his school days and since, were "all of a similar scope to Hereditary," Aster says, but they belonged to a "trickier genre."
That genre, family drama, belonged to the independent filmmaking world, where few films are financed. So Aster shaped his idea into an all-out horror, drawing on traditional elements, including creepy children, violent deaths and evil curses, then playing with those expectations.
The Grahams, a mother, father, son and daughter, lose a grandmother at the beginning of the film. The supernatural mystery that follows sees their relationships strained and taken to taboo places, such as a mother fearing her son.
"I finally decided it would probably be easier to get a horror movie financed and that was an instinct that was ultimately validated," Aster says.
He spent four years honing his idea, then sent the first draft to his choice actress to play the lead role, Toni Collette. She read the script, loved it and invited Aster to lunch to discuss playing the part of Annie, a woman who must come to terms with the mother who continues to torment her beyond the grave.
"Toni Collette coming onboard was the thing that really made it real and got us rolling."
Less than a year after Collette came on board, the film went into production.
To write the character, Aster drew on his own past. "There's a lot of myself in her character. Ultimately there's a lot of myself in all the characters."
Annie explores her trauma, past and present, by creating scenes from her life in miniature form. But eventually they backfire, wearing her down mentally and physically as she becomes involved in the supernatural mystery.
The idea for miniatures had always "fascinated" Aster, as well as fulfilling the genre's creepy dollhouse aspect.
"It struck me as a solid metaphor for what the family's situation is in the film. They're ultimately people with no agency, no life and they come to resemble more and more the ultimate dollhouse, being manipulated by outside forces."
The ambitious opening shot of the film pans from a window to a miniature of a bedroom, slowly creeping in until the tiny boy (Alex Wolff) in the bed looks life-size and the tiny door springs open as the boy's father (Gabriel Byrne) walks in.
But an impressive scene like that and dozens of other miniatures presented more difficulties than Aster could have predicted.
"We knew that it was going to be tough and logistically challenging, but it went far beyond what we feared."
Aster had 32 days to shoot 156 scenes, with about an hour's worth of material ending up on the cutting room floor.
"We were really racing," he says. "Every day there's one setback or another."
Aster and his production team built the entire house on a soundstage in Carlson, Utah. The exterior of the house was an actual location, but everything inside was built from scratch. They worked with a miniaturist in Toronto named Steve Newburn, who replicated the house in miniature form. But he was replicating something that hadn't even been filmed yet.
"We had miniaturists coming in on the days that we were shooting them," Aster says. "Those days were pushed to the very end of the shoot."
Ultimately, though, Aster says the production was "blessed".
"We got everything we needed and things certainly came together well enough."
Next, Aster will stick to the horror genre, though he has an interest in "dark comedy".
For now, he's soaking in the positive response from early reviews, which has been both a "relief" and an "experience".
"I always knew that I was making a film that was potentially very alienating, so it's honestly been a surprise to see it be so widely embraced."
After so many years of hard work, Aster says, "It's already been a wonderful ride."
Hereditary creeps into cinemas June 8 in the US, June 7 in Australia and June 14 in the UK.
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