Some people don’t want there to be a dick monster up in that attic. Some people wish I didn’t do that.
There’s a thing to note about Ari Aster: asking him to explain his movies is never a winning idea. And thank goodness for that. The filmmaker is known to work highly intuitively, so while his films seem to beg for a closer inspection, ultimately, they tend to defy explanation. That makes his films less locked into one way of thinking about them—less obviously “about” any one thing in particular. Audiences are free to feel their way through his movies, as Aster does in creating them.
The brains behind Hereditary and a most ill-advised date movie, Midsommar, is known for horror, yet he finds the latter comical. An uncommonly unsettling horror that stays with you long after it’s over, the former, a film about a miserable family, featuring two beheadings and a sobbing Toni Collette scaling the walls like Spidey, was the perfect debut for Aster. It was the perfect debut for any director. Racking up $82 million on a $10 million 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. With indie smash Midsommar, Aster also cemented his reputation with critics, who had started lauding him as the next David Lynch. With his latest, the dark humor is much more conspicuous and Aster is ready to make audiences laugh, even if just a little bit.
Beau is Afraid had been rattling around Aster’s head for the best part of a decade. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as an anxiety-ridden, middle-aged man with serious arrested development and grappling with a lifetime of mommy issues. (Beau’s mother is alternately played by Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti LuPone). An oppressive presence even from the other end of a phone, when Beau misses a flight to visit her, who may or may not be dead, he’s sent hurtling on an Oedipal odyssey through space and time full of horrors, old and new. Along the way, he’s hit by a truck, kidnapped, framed for murder, adopted into a theatre troupe, and encounters a giant penis monster. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen at the movies this year, and as such, it’s also the auteur’s most polarizing film to date.
The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea runs from June 29 – July 9.
Martin Scorsese recently singled you out as “one of the most extraordinary new voices in cinema,” and went so far as to compare Beau Is Afraid to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, in talking about a divisiveness at the time of its immediate release and, hopefully, then going on to becoming like not only one of his greatest films, but one of the greatest films ever made.
It’s a great honor.
Bong Joon-ho also called you one of the the most extraordinary—
Okay, we gotta stop this. [laughs]
You have your deep appreciations as well. It’s no secret you’re a big fan of Korean cinema.
I do love Korean cinema, and I’m very happy to be here because I do feel that some of the best films in the world are coming out of Korea. And that’s been the case for a long time. There are so many Korean films that mean a lot to me, that I feel are, especially on a tonal level, very ahead of their time. I’m talking about films like Obaltan and the films of Kim Ki-young. I mean, I don’t want to speak too broadly or generally because one thing that I love about Korean cinema is that it has produced such different artists, right? So when I talk about what I love about Korean cinema, do I talk about what I love about Park Chan-wook or Na Hong-jin or Bong Joon-ho or Hong Sang-soo or Lee Chang-dong or Jang Joon-hwan? I can keep going.
You just got back from having lunch with Lee Chang-dong. These are your contemporaries.
On the topic of him, I will just say that I think he’s one of the great filmmakers working right now. He’s someone who really respects mystery. He’s a real poet of the mundane. Also, his films are very structurally brilliant in sneaky ways. They seem simple, when in fact, they’re labyrinthine. His films pose questions that then lead to more questions. He’s also, in a kind of sneaky way, a maker of melodramas. His films are melodramatic, but they are subtle enough that it gets complicated. And I think the word melodrama tends to be used in a derogatory sense to belittle certain films that maybe are over the top, but that term comes from melos, right? It means music. I think his films are already beautiful music anyway. So that’s just another thing I do love about Korean cinema: it’s embracing of melodrama. And its humor. There’s something about Korean humor that is pretty indelible, and it’s very specific to this place. I think it has a lot to do with you guys having a painful history. I think you find humor in the macabre and in darkness, and that’s very beautiful. I’m a big fan of Korean cinema and I connect to the work that’s coming from here.
You once said it’s possible to argue Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure is the greatest film ever made.
Every day I say that some movie is the best film ever made. [laughs] That’s a great one, though. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is great. Really great. You know what film of his is great that I don’t think gets enough love? And it’s not a horror film: Tokyo Sonata. That’s a really special, very strange, and very funny domestic melodrama. It’s a dark comedy. It’s kind of impossible to categorize. That’s another film that people like. And Pulse. And Cure. I recommend everyone looks up Tokyo Sonata.
In terms of films that influenced you on Beau Is Afraid specifically, you previously referenced Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor and Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life.
I mean, Songs from the Second Floor is the greatest. If people aren’t familiar with Roy Andersson’s work, they should seek it out. He’s amazing. I don’t know if you have time for me to get into him right now, but there’s just nobody like him. His films take years to make because he builds everything on a stage from scratch. If I had to liken him to anybody, I might point to Jacques Tati, and especially his film Playtime. There’s a sad and almost apocalyptic humor in his works that is really beautiful. And just visually speaking, there’s nothing that compares to what he does.
I think a lot of people would describe your films in that same manner.
I’m sure he’s an influence on me. I mean, he is an influence on me. But nobody can really do what Roy Andersson does because he’s set up a system of working that is so unique, where he has a team of artists. He’s made something like 500 commercials and they all have the Roy Andersson touch: a visual style that’s so unique to him. There are imitators, but there’s only one Roy Andersson. For him, a single feature really does take several years to make, and it’s just constant work because one shot can take a month to build. It’s one shot per scene. It’s setting up a camera and building a world around it. You know, there’s a lot of people who see a beautiful frame in a movie and say, “Oh, it’s like a painting.” But with Roy Andersson, it really is like a painting.
And these are really early influences for you. These are movies that you watched as a kid?
Yeah. I saw a lot of films with my mom growing up. She’s a poet, and she has very good taste, a very discerning taste. Albert Brooks is one of her favorite filmmakers so she turned me on to him very young. Defending Your Life, a film that she loves, is now one of my favorite films. I don’t know what to say about Albert Brooks except that he’s one of the great comic filmmakers. Brilliant writer. So funny. He’s also really brilliant at building scenes. He made perfect, generously long scenes, especially early in his career. Films like Lost in America and Modern Romance. Often, his scenes will go on for over ten minutes. They’re very full, and almost Kubrickian in their patience.
You made the short film, Beau, after you had left AFI. I’m guessing that was a starting point.
I guess Beau Is Afraid began with that short, and that was just a film I had made with friends in my apartment before I had to move out. I didn’t know that it would turn into anything. But the idea of somebody leaving their key in the door, then having to run back into the house to grab something before going on a trip and coming back to find the key missing, stayed with me as an interesting catalyst for some sort of adventure. From there, I wrote a full-length script and tried to get that made into a film. I hadn’t made a feature yet, and I couldn’t get the money for it because it was too expensive and it was too weird. So I put it in the drawer. I tried to get a couple of other movies made, but didn’t get those made either. Eventually, I made Hereditary and Midsommar. After that, Beau was just a world that I wanted to return to. And I just wanted to make a comedy.
Your brand of comedy. After picking up that script again, how much of it did you change?
There were things that I still loved about it. The DNA didn’t change. The movie is what it is. It was maybe even a little bit more stupid when I picked it back up, if you can believe it. [laughs] There were just things that maybe didn’t work for me as much as other things, so I took about a year to rewrite the script and kind of swim around in it. And it was easy to do that, or rather, I had time to do that because there was a pandemic. There are certain sections of the film that were new and weren’t in the original script. But everything in the city is pretty much exactly as it was.
Which sections were new?
The play and the tribunal at the end of the film. I think the cruise ship was largely new.
Did you have actors in mind when writing it?
I kept thinking Joaquin Phoenix would be great in this, but I didn’t know if he would say yes. The hope was to go to him. I mean, the hope was that he would say yes, but I had already gotten my head around: “Let’s send it to him, have him reject it, and then figure out who else to go to.”
What was his initial response?
His response was something like, “I just won the Oscar. Why the fuck would I do this?” [laughs] We talked for a long time. We found that we really liked each other and had a very similar sense of humor. We also had a very similar attitude towards our work. We got pretty close and it was, for me, the best experience I’ve ever had working with an actor. It really was a wonderful experience.
Because he is so good, and because he has a reputation, everyone wants to know his process.
He’s somebody who likes to read over the script and talk things through. So we would sit and read together, and if any questions came up, we would talk through them. He likes to investigate things. Because his performances are so alive and he seems so present in his films, I thought that maybe he needed everything to be spontaneous and that he wouldn’t want to rehearse. My expectation was that he’d only be able to do something once. What I discovered was that he’s a very technical actor who does really figure things out long in advance. He does like to rehearse, and he is able to do things that look totally spontaneous many times over. Once it starts to lose life, though, he has to stop doing whatever that thing is and find a new way in. He’s an actor who can’t do anything that feels false. If something feels false to him, he will just stop. His body will not allow him to move forward. And that’s a very useful thing because you don’t want your actor doing anything false. I think he’s uniquely unwilling to keep moving forward on a path doesn’t feel honest to him.
You are a precise filmmaker. Does that create conflict when you have someone like Joaquin?
Well, I decided early on that I wouldn’t impose blocking on him. The way I worked on my first two films is, I shot-listed the entire film. I mapped out not only every shot but the blocking of the actors, the staging of the actors in every shot. That was useful in terms of being efficient and making sure that there was no waste on those films. We built a lot of the locations. With Hereditary, for instance, that house was on a stage. We built it all from scratch. Only the exterior of the house had existed already. We built the treehouse from scratch. And that was a pretty low-budget film. We made it for around $5 million. With any walls that aren’t gonna be on camera, there’s no point in building those out and spending the money or time. In that sense, shot-listing can be very useful. But it does kind of lock you into a certain plan and I think that can be very hard on actors. Certain actors really like that and certain actors really hate it. When it became clear that I would be working with Joaquin, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to prescribe all the blocking before he and I had worked through the scenes first. So I did the thing that I usually do, which is shot-listing the entire movie, but I kept it to myself. And I really just did that so I would have a movie in my head: what the style of the film was and how I planned to shoot it. Then I’d go into each scene and kind of work through the blocking with him and let him find what felt right. You don’t do that on the small scenes where you know it’s not really up for debate what I give him a blocking for. It’s the big scenes where he’s working with another actor through something difficult where I really didn’t want to prescribe anything for. So I found that if I just let him do his thing, he often did what I expected him to do. But there were a couple of times where I kind of forgot and made the mistake of giving him blocking. I would just see it in his face where he’s like, “I’m not gonna do that now.” He might have done it if I didn’t say, “Let’s do this.” But because I did, it was out of the question for him. I found the experience working with him to be joyous. I found that I was able to pivot very easily and find new shots that would support the scene as blocked by him and me together.
When you reflect on this character you created, what observation comes to the fore?
I don’t know if he is ever actually able to communicate with other people. He’s not the most articulate character. I don’t think he understands himself well enough to really be able to articulate what he’s doing even. I think the most we learn about him is in the play. He’s entering the play, but really, we are entering him. We’re entering his longings and desires. That’s where he almost gets to know himself a little bit: see what life could be if he had more freedom. You know, I think we’re inside of him through the film so, hopefully, we understand him on a deeper level. If I’m talking about going as deep as his nervous system, we kind of know how the world feels to him.
Beyond Joaquin, everyone in the ensemble is uniformly great, like in all of your movies.
Great cast. I was very lucky to have the actors I had on this one. The movie is a comedy so it gave me the opportunity to work with a lot of comic actors like Parker Posey and Nathan Lane, and people from theatre. It was important to me to go to actors who were able to do larger-than-life things because the idea for the world of Beau was to be very artificial, heightened and extreme, but then for Beau himself to be very grounded. He is our surrogate through this world. So it was fun because the actors around Joaquin had license to do very big things. Patti LuPone is playing this nightmare-cartoon version of anybody’s worst fear of who their mother might actually be. Parker Posey is somebody I’ve wanted to work with my entire life. I was obsessed with her as a kid.
The things you made her do in this!
[laughs] I was totally in love with her as a kid. She’s so funny and great, and she just totally understood what the world of the film was and what the tone was. Amy Ryan is such a sweet person. She’s such a warm person. I feel like she brings so much to her character, Grace. Nathan Lane is very funny and just a great sport. Stephen McKinley Henderson as the therapist? That guy is so soulful and really funny. He also just really understood what the film was. I remember seeing him on the couch at the end of the film smiling at Beau as the betrayal is sinking in, and I couldn’t stop laughing. So it was joyful because I didn’t have to do much, you know what I mean?
I didn’t read up on any spoilers so I was pretty surprised by Bill Hader’s cameo.
I’m friends with Bill. Again, he’s just a great sport and so funny. We were shooting in Montreal, but Bill was in LA so we shot that entire scene in a single take many, many times. I would go back and forth between directing Joaquin and then running to a phone to talk to Bill between takes and just giving him notes. It’s very fun to give Bill notes because he’s always doing it right. You realize that you have a secret weapon with him. You can get variations on everything that is just inspired.
What did your mother make of Beau Is Afraid? I’m guessing that she watched it.
My mom likes Beau Is Afraid.
How do you feel about the ways in which your films are critiqued—and live outside of you?
Well, you know, everybody’s a critic. This one was very polarizing, more than I expected. I guess I should have expected it. It’s a long film. It’s a comedy and I think that’s already a polarizing thing because everybody finds different things funny. Some people don’t want there to be a dick monster up in that attic. Some people wish I didn’t do that. [laughs] Because it’s very stupid.
How did you arrive at the giant penis monster?
It’s stupid as hell, and that’s the idea. That came from a drawing I made. I sent that drawing to Steve Newburn, a prosthetics guy in Toronto. He made us the 15-foot giant dick, which was worth it just to have a bunch of professional craftspeople and actors have to stand up in an attic space for two days with this stupid puppet. On this thing, I was just trying to make myself laugh. So that could come from me just seeing something in my apartment and then thinking about all the ways that it could go wrong and then dramatizing that. With this film, I would say a lot of my inspiration just came from me being a nervous wreck and my imagination going to bad places naturally.
Suffice to say, you are happy with the film?
With this film in particular, I feel very protective. Because I love this film. I’m very proud of it, and it does feel very much like me. I feel like I’m really in this film. I would say that I expected it to be divisive, but I think it takes some time, no matter what, to get used to how your film is received because, before it comes out in the world, it’s kind of a pure thing. It’s just you working with people on this thing and it’s whatever it is until it goes out into the world. And then it starts being assessed and it gains a reputation. Whether it’s praise or criticism, it all kind of confuses your picture of what you think you’ve made. I always have to brace myself before things come out because I know that it’s gonna be difficult in one way or another. But, again, I’m very proud of the film and I hope you liked it. And tell your friends to see it in the theater—not on fucking Netflix!