Horror maestro Ari Aster: “I make each film as though I won’t make another”

Hollywood's new king of terror breaks down his frighteningly fast rise – and looks to a less-scary future

Ari Aster is very good at making people feel uncomfortable. In the hit horror movies he’s directed so far, Hereditary and Midsommar, the central characters look like they’re in permanent shock. They shuffle around slowly, the camera snapping between wide-eyed close-ups as they battle nightmares confined to their own minds. The effect is that the scares end up being a lot more relatable. Few of us have fought monsters, but we’re all frighteningly familiar with existential dread. “The idea is to thrust you into the character’s overwhelming experience of the world,” says Aster, “to do something that is jarring.”

Aster’s new film, Beau Is Afraid, is very jarring. Starring Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix as an anxiety ridden, middle-aged man to whom terrible, often bizarre things happen – GBH, home invasion, a deeply scarring encounter with the 16-foot penis monster in his mum’s attic – Aster’s third outing is his most abrasive yet. The opening scene alone might tip a nervous person over the edge. It’s shot from the point of view of a baby being born, and plays out like the cinematic equivalent of a migraine – all throbbing bass and unpleasant, distorted visuals. As the sequence reaches its climax, everything crescendos to an unbearable din. It’s horrible to watch, so naturally Aster is very happy with it.

“‘Beau Is Afraid’ is love it or hate it”

“There’s a violence to that scene”, he tells us over double espresso macchiatos in a swanky London hotel suite, “but then the question is, how do you [keep] hitting those same buttons without it feeling redundant? How do you [make it] change tone and rhythm? I think it demands that the viewer be limber and open, you know, to kind of give themselves to the film.”

Clearly not everyone has, because Beau Is Afraid already stirred up a mixed reaction in the States when it was released there last month. The three-hour runtime, eccentric plot and opaque storytelling – Beau is running for his life through some woods one moment, transformed into a stop-motion animated troubadour the next – have left some casual cinemagoers cold. If you look on Twitter, you’ll find people complaining that it “messed up my head” and “made no sense”. Others call it “deeply personal, constantly challenging,” and a “masterpiece”. Aster says he knew his surrealist odyssey was “a love it or hate it film”, but he also never set out to alienate anyone. It’s just his natural instinct to make things that are “divisive”.

Perhaps Aster is so good at making uncomfortable art because he himself is often uncomfortable. One of the things that most upsets him, he tells us during our interview, is being interviewed. “The whole thing is a minefield… I regret things I’ve said and then I’ll see things show up as headlines that weren’t done in good faith.” As a result, he picks his words extremely carefully throughout our time together, sometimes leaving as much as 30 seconds of silence between answers. “It’s a gauntlet, and so I avoid answering personal questions about my life.”

Ari Aster
Ari Aster on set with Joaquin Phoenix for ‘Beau Is Afraid’. CREDIT: A24

Aster’s life is actually pretty well documented. He was born in New York to a poet mother and jazz musician father. At six, the family moved to Chester, in the UK, with the aim of setting up a jazz club. He remembers “feeling at home there” but in the end the jazz club never opened and, three years later, they moved back across the Atlantic to Santa Fe in New Mexico. It was there that he discovered movies, falling in love with Tim Burton’s 1992 blockbuster Batman Returns – and renting dark cinematic treats like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange at the video store. He was a shy kid with a stutter, but dreamed of marshalling actors for the big movie ideas he couldn’t make at home. “I knew I didn’t have the actors or the lighting equipment,” he told The Guardian in 2019. “It was maybe indicative of a larger arrogance.”

In 2010, he arrived at film school. Accepted into the prestigious AFI Conservatory – alumni include Darren Aronofsky and Andrea Arnold – Aster quickly made a name for himself with his deliberately provocative shorts about taboo subjects. Incest drama The Strange Thing About The Johnsons, which tells the story of a son who sexually abuses his dad, was originally Aster’s 30-minute thesis submission. After it leaked on YouTube though, the response was so extreme that it went viral. As with his later films, comments ranged from the critically effusive to the downright disgusted. Aster finds the feedback difficult to ignore. “I don’t google myself,” he says, ”but when a film comes out and you’ve put a lot of love, a lot of time into it, there is a curiosity as to how people will receive it. It’s very hard not to peek.” After that, and despite his initial brush with fame, Aster continued beavering away on his short film projects for several years. It wasn’t until 2018 that his first full-length film, for the respected arthouse studio A24, came out.

An uncommonly unsettling horror that stays with you long after the credits roll, Hereditary was the perfect debut for Aster. It was the perfect debut for any director. Racking up $82million on a $10million budget, it became A24’s most successful release of all time – a record that was only broken last year by awards powerhouse Everything Everywhere All at Once. Aster followed it up in 2019 with another indie smash in Midsommar, and cemented his reputation with critics, who had started lauding him as the next David Lynch – a surrealist master for Gen Z.

‘Hereditary’ became indie studio A24’s highest grossing film of all time. Credit: A24

Aster isn’t Lynch though – and he doesn’t seem keen on the comparisons. “I think that some of [the comparisons] have felt, to me, lazy,” he says slowly. “There are two others that I’ve seen that I’d rather not say. They’re artists who are drawing from the same well, but they weren’t in my mind. They struck me as a little bit obvious, even though I didn’t see [the similarities] myself…” He tails off. “It’s not a defensive answer… but I feel that we end up metabolising the art that we love. It becomes just a part of our vocabulary.”

That ingrained distaste for the media circus is something he shares with Joaquin Phoenix, star of Beau Is Afraid. Phoenix’s press run-ins over the years are well-known. In 2019, he walked out of an interview for Joker when quizzed about the movie’s politics – and a grouchy appearance on Jimmy Fallon earlier this year led to rumours of a supposed feud. On-set he has a reputation for being difficult – sudden outbursts, exiting scenes without notice, he even once had a barney with Robert De Niro when he refused to turn up to a table read. What was Aster’s experience?

“I had the feeling that everything was going to be spontaneous,” he says. “That he’d only be able to do things once – and that he wouldn’t even know what he was gonna do.” In contrast, Phoenix came in over-prepared, pelting his director with questions about the script. “We often worked through the scene a lot before we shot it… He had a very strong idea of what he would do.” Aster sometimes tries to help his actors get into character by planning immersive exercises. On Midsommar, he made the central couple played by Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor take cooking classes together. With Phoenix, he says this wasn’t necessary. “Joaquin has such an intense work ethic that you don’t need to come up with these ideas… he’s already in a place of deep investigation.”

“Joaquin Phoenix has an intense work ethic”

Phoenix might not be as tricky as people say, or Aster could just be very good at getting big stars to do what he wants. His quiet demeanour doesn’t indicate a talent for persuasion, but the results speak for themselves. When we ask about the music in Beau Is Afraid, he tells us about picking Mariah Carey’s 1995 track ‘Always Be My Baby’ for a not-exactly-steamy sex scene in which somebody dies. It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect an R&B legend to want one of their biggest tunes associated with. “I wrote her a letter and didn’t hear for a little while,” remembers Aster. “Then it came back approved. I assumed that she was too busy to watch the scene because I figured that there might be more of a conversation… But I found out later that she had seen it and that she liked my letter. So all I can say is, you know, she seems cool.”

After Beau Is Afraid, Aster’s future seems clouded. Speculation swirls that he’s done with horror – and that he always intended to bow out after a trilogy. If you search on the internet, you’ll find articles claiming his next project is a Western, a sci-fi or even a “big Sirkian melodrama”. He won’t be drawn on it today – “if I give you one detail, it’s gonna be headlines and then I’ll be forced to make an announcement when I’m not ready” – but he does confirm one thing: it’s definitely a film. “I try to make each one as though I won’t make another,” he adds, “and hope that I’m still gonna be around.” You’d expect that he will be. We hope you’re sitting comfortably…

‘Beau Is Afraid’ is in UK cinemas from May 19

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