Cinema’s ongoing golden age of horror is a lot more exciting these days thanks to writer-director Ari Aster, who’s become one of the most renowned contemporary auteurs of the genre after Hereditary and Midsommar, a familial supernatural saga and a relationship thriller that unspools inside a cult, respectively. Except, Aster’s latest—Beau Is Afraid, starring an anxiety-ridden Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role—leans closer to a dark comedy, one that feels like a plunge into someone’s painful memories or into the distant echoes of Aster’s own subconscious.
Rich with mythological references, Freudian concerns and multiple surreal, ambitiously designed chapters, Beau Is Afraid is an epic exercise on guilt and grief, told through what must be the longest imaginable journey ever taken to a funeral. Also, it’s often both very funny and dread-inducing in alternating doses. And like Aster’s former two films, Beau Is Afraid has mothers and family on its mind. A lot.
Here, Ari Aster talks more about his third movie and the pop culture he’s been consuming lately in his Culture Diet:
You had the idea for Beau Is Afraid even before Hereditary and Midsommar. Why was this the right time for it?
I've always wanted to make it. And of all the things that I was working on before Hereditary, it was the one that reflected me the most. I would've made it first if I could've gotten the money, and that would've been a shame because I never would've had the resources to make it in the right way. It was just a different film at that point. If I made Hereditary now, it would be a different film. The first iteration of Beau was more cartoonish and arguably funnier, because it was really only concerned with being funny. That was the one thing that was on my mind when I was writing it.
I went back to the script after Midsommar and realized that there were a lot of gags and ideas that I really loved, but they didn't feel fully cooked. And as episodic as the film is now, it was even more episodic at that stage. It was a good time to just meditate on the script because COVID and lockdown happened. It was a movie that I swam around in and it ballooned.
Since you mentioned the humor in it, comedy and sadness go really hand-in-hand here. And your previous films have hints of those extremes too—horror and humor coexist.
I don't know that I have anything to say about why those things go hand-in-hand, but I just agree with you. For me, the funniest jokes tend to be either the saddest or the most upsetting. I don't know. I guess that's gallows humor, right?
You also continue the themes of guilt, grief and family here. Mothers are very central to your stories.
I guess it's just in me. I don't pull up a chair and think like, "Okay, what's the theme?" Gradually, that kind of becomes clear, but it's not usually the impetus behind something, like, "I want to make a film about guilt." It sort of dawned on me, "Oh, all these ideas are all collecting around this thing." For me, it was really about ambivalence. A comedy about ambivalence.
Beau Is Afraid is your biggest scoped film to date. Every chapter is so meticulously realized with a strong sense of place. What was your collaboration like with production designer Fiona Crombie?
She’s really wonderful. The worlds were all kind of set in the script, so we knew that we would be building a stage in the woods. And we knew pretty early on that we would be building Beau's apartment, the corridors in Beau's apartment building, the elevator and the lobby downstairs from scratch. There was a period during which I thought we might actually build his entire block, but we did not have the money to do that. So we put up facades on an existing city block, or really two city blocks in Montreal.
One of the great joys of making this film was that it was an invented world. And so the task was to go into the details as deep as possible. With a couple of exceptions, every poster you see on the walls or in the streets was made from scratch. Those things were basically just [making] me laugh, so that was a really fun distraction in pre-production; to keep adding to this list of names for products, bands, fake movies, advertisements, buildings. Most of these things will never be seen; you’d have to pause and enlarge the image. One of the nice things about this film coming out in IMAX is that you can actually see some of those things that are otherwise not quite discernible. We did put so much work into not just creating these background details and these little sight gags, but also pushing them so far into the background that they're really almost designed to just give the viewer the feeling that the world goes deep. Cartoonists call it chicken fat, that excess of detail.
The Wolf House was among my favorites the year it came out and I was so thrilled to see that you’ve worked with its creators [Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León] for the animated segment of Beau Is Afraid. Why was animation the right medium for that offshoot?
I didn't know that it was going to be animated right away. Basically, the scene is a character kind of being hypnotized and stepping into a play. And so the idea originally was just to do a lot of stagecraft and have it be very artificial, working with a lot of flats and this kind of world that revolves around him as if [he’s] on a stage.
And then it occurred to me that it would be fun to still work with stagecraft, but have that world be interacting with these animated elements. I remembered having seen this brilliant Chilean stop-motion monstrosity that was really one of the most amazing things that I had ever seen. It had some obvious antecedents, like [Jan] Švankmajer and [Ladislas] Starevich, but it's completely singular. There's nothing else that's ever been made that's like The Wolf House.
So once I remembered that, I thought, "Oh, we have to try for them. But I know that they're artists and that they might bristle against the idea of taking direction and working within these confinements.” But they were willing to do it. I came to them with this shot list and storyboards, because it was important that sequence be cohesive with the rest of the film. It really required that we work together very closely. And there's a lot of trial and error. I think I drove them nuts, because they would come to me with these beautiful things that ultimately just were clashing a little bit too much with the aesthetics of the rest of the film. But it was a really fun sandbox to play in with them. I love them, and I would love to work with them again. They're not only wonderful artists, [but also] really sweet people.
So let’s now move on to the Culture Diet questions. Do you watch episodic TV, and if so, what are the shows that keep you up at night?
I really love I Think You Should Leave. I'm watching Succession just like everybody else. One show that I miss is The Knick. I thought that was incredible.
What was the last movie you watched in a movie theater?
I don't even know if I'm allowed to say, because I saw something that hasn't been released yet. So I'll tell you what I saw before that. The new Hong Sang-soo film, Walk Up, which is so great. He's so great.
What are the books that are on your bedside table right now?
I'm reading [a few] books, but two of them, I just don't even want to say because they're kind of obvious about this film I'm planning to make. The others are Clarissa by Samuel Richardson and Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess.
Are the two you can’t mention for research about the Western that you’ve mentioned elsewhere you’d be working on?
I don’t know.
You definitely can’t say?
I've already said too much. And believe me, I've been made to regret it.
Alright. So, what is the first thing you do when you wake up?
I immediately go get coffee.
Is there a young or up-and-coming artist that you're excited about?
There's a young Russian filmmaker named Kantemir Balagov who I think is brilliant. Especially with everything that's happening, I feel like he's struggling a lot right now. So I'm happy to name him.
I know this is an evolving list for everyone, but what are some of your top films right now?
Playtime [Jacques Tati]. And Silence by Martin Scorsese.
During a recent screening of Beau Is Afraid, you also mentioned Songs from the Second Floor.
I know, but Playtime is so similar to it. So I want to give you something different. But you know how I feel about Songs from the Second Floor. It is the greatest. I could also say 8 ½ [Federico Fellini], Cries and Whispers [Ingmar Bergman], L'Argent [Robert Bresson]. So many that I could say. It’s hard, it’s very hard.