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Anatomy of a Murder(s): Creating the Cinematic Scares of ‘Hereditary’

"I wanted the film to belong to an older tradition of horror films that take their time and are about something."

Hereditary is the most emotionally devastating horror movie I’ve seen in ages. Or maybe it’s the scariest family drama I’ve seen in ages,” says Justin Chang. “The sensationally talented writer-director Ari Aster knows that what upsets us and what terrifies us are often one and the same. His masterful debut feature will tie your stomach in knots even before all hell breaks loose.” To read the full article, click here

The film’s “deliberate way of letting events unfold with minimal exposition and marinating everything in an overall sense of dread brings to mind arthouse films (Aster is as likely to namecheck luminaries like Nic Roeg, Peter Greenaway and Swedish absurdist Roy Andersson as he is, say, Cronenberg, when asked about the movie’s influences),” explains David Fear. “Still, eerie tracking shots or not, it isn’t strictly art-horror. The movie features a séance, a figure scurrying along walls and someone maniacally sawing off their own head, all scenes grotesque, gonzo and tense enough to hold their own against your best-in-show Blumhouse productions—but it’s not an old-school splatter flick or a Conjuring knock-off, either.

“And though Aster’s film fits in nicely with the current wave of independent movies about things that go bump in your psyche (The Witch, The Babadook),” Fear continues, “you’d probably have to go back to something like The Exorcist or The Shining—movies that took their time to both scare and unnerve you; that earned their way toward going full-tilt bats**t—to find something to tonally compare it to.” To read the full article, click here

“You have two camps,” Aster tells Bryan Bishop. “One is horror films that are essentially roller-coaster rides, that are there to just give people a series of jolts, and then let them go home and get on with their life. Then there are others that are maybe more existential in nature and are really trying to play with very serious fears and engaging with them on a serious level. Those are the ones that I’m interested in watching, and those are the films I’m interested in making.” To read the full article, click here

“I wanted the film to belong to an older tradition of horror films that take their time and are about something,” Aster tells Matthew Jacobs. “There are so many horror films that have, at the center, a couple going through grief, but it feels like that is just a device to get to the scary stuff, as opposed to the scary stuff really growing out of the situation. I just knew I wanted to make a film that was about suffering.”

“When I was screening films for the crew, there were very few horror movies that I actually screened,” Aster tells Emily Buder. “I did screen Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now, because the film does pay indirect homage to both. But I was mostly screening family dramas for [the crew]. I showed a couple films by Mike Leigh, who is probably my favorite filmmaker. We watched All Or Nothing and Secrets and Lies. We watched Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata, which is his mother-daughter film. And this, in the end, is very much a mother-daughter film. We also watched The Ice Storm and In the Bedroom. To read the full interview, click here.

“I really love Roman Polanski and what he does with blocking and camera movement,” Aster explains to Sam Fragoso. “I’m obsessed with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; their worlds are probably my favorite worlds in cinema. Just what they do with matte paintings—it’s a style of filmmaking that doesn’t really exist anymore, although I love the idea of trying to bring it back as much as I can. I certainly love building sets on stages and working that way, and I’m always thinking about Powell and Pressburger’s films. As far as Federico Fellini is concerned, in 8½ the blocking and the camera movement are ecstatic. It’s an ecstatic camera.” To read the full article, click here.

“To diagram the film’s thriller-friendly aesthetics and atmosphere, reports Matthew Jacobs, “Aster wrote a 130-page breakdown, shot by shot: where the camera would go in relation to the actors, how he’d pull off complex stunts, how the music functioned. Because it would cost too much to displace an actual family and redecorate their elegant house, the crew built sets on a Utah soundstage that became a makeshift home last summer. For the most part, it didn’t even have ceilings.” To read the full article, click here.

In terms of the creating the visuals, Aster explains that he and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski  “talked a lot about wanting to be very bold with the negative space in the film. I think a lot of people have fear over how dark you can go [with your cinematography] without losing the image. We wanted to really push that as far as we could go and be ballsy about it. I think most of the frightening images in the film happen in low light or darkness or shadow.

“Typically, the way we work is that I’m in charge of camera movement and composition, and Pawel’s in charge of lighting,” Aster continues. “And so I’ll often give him references for lighting, but I like to mostly leave him alone. We’ll talk about tone and I’ll point out, ‘For moonlight, look at this film’ or ‘For twilight, look at this film,’ and ‘For lamp light, let’s talk about this.'” To read the full interview, click here.

“Drama was definitely the way I approached my cinematography and the lighting, Pogorzelski says.”But knowing that we’re playing in a horror genre allows me to push that a little bit more. I knew that the audience would forgive if I started going with harder lighting, and a bit more expression as the events move forward in the third act. I definitely did play with that, but it was always grounded in the reality.” To read the full interview, click here.

“Our prime reference for the quality of light in this film was actually in Kieślowski’s Red,” Aster recalls.  “It’s not a likely reference, but it really struck us as the right way to go here, especially with the palette of the house.

“We talked a lot about Polanski as far as camera movement was concerned. We actually talked a lot about Fellini as far as blocking is concerned—8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits were important references, camera-wise.” To read the full interview, click here