Indie distributor A24 rarely leads a marketing push with awards at the fore. After all, movies like Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina,” Lenny Abrahamson’s unsettling adaptation “Room” and Barry Jenkins’ micro-budgeted intersectionality drama “Moonlight” don’t exactly scream “Oscar!” from the outset. But the New York-based company nevertheless found an awards-season stride with those films and more.
The plan with “Hereditary,” Ari Aster’s terrifying Sundance entry that has been hailed as a new generation’s “Exorcist,” is to launch the film on June 7 as a summer horror movie, seek out its audience, and if all the pieces fall into place, establish the foundation for a campaign in the fall. With a stack of glowing critical notices already fanning the flames, and on the heels of a year that saw genre embraced by the Motion Picture Academy in interesting ways — from best picture victor “The Shape of Water” to somber superhero entry “Logan” to zeitgeist-tapping satire “Get Out” — it’s easy to see how something like this could find its mark.
And there is a lot to work with here. Aster’s craft — it’s a debut feature — is impeccable. His short films impressed A24 brass so much they opted to make the film with him, as they did Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night,” Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” and Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” as well as Robert Eggers’ upcoming “The Witch” follow-up, “The Lighthouse.” The company was fully invested from the beginning and came to Park City in January ready to flaunt a new artist’s compelling vision.
The focus will likely shift, however, to Toni Collette’s shattering portrayal of a woman besieged by an heirloom-like evil. It will no doubt remain one of the superlative performances of 2018, and for a beloved, yet somehow undervalued actress whose only Oscar nomination to date came for another horror film (1999’s “The Sixth Sense”), getting out there early makes all the sense in the world.
To that end, a new television spot for “Hereditary” stops short of asking for voters’ “consideration,” but showered with pull quotes that set Collette’s performance up as a can’t-miss event, and being built around a key sequence that sends sparks flying, it’s clearly designed to plant those seeds.
Aster says the role Collette tackled needed total commitment. “In a way, it’s almost unfair to ask what I wanted of anybody,” the 31-year-old writer-director says. “I basically wanted a kamikaze performance. I wanted somebody to jump off the deep end. From the beginning, Annie is a deeply tortured character, and then she’s just thrown into hell. I needed somebody who was willing to go all the way, and Toni really did.”
Aster marveled at Collette’s discipline, her lack of ego, and how game she was to dive into his pitch-dark vision. He had never seen her tackle something so primal before, yet when her name came up, he says it felt like a no-brainer. “She’s such a chameleon and so reliable as an actress,” he says.
And the dinner table sequence featured in the new spot? Everyone on set was steeling themselves for its moment in the production schedule, and on the day, Aster says you could hear a pin drop. “It is the heart of the film,” he says. “I tend to get very stressed out on days like that because I want to make sure the actors are totally comfortable and that the environment is bending to them and whatever they need, but you also feel when you’re on the set with Toni that she doesn’t necessarily need that. After take one it was very clear that I had it, and I was just going to have fun from there and be a fan and watch her go and greedily gather up my options for the cut.”
By the way, Collette’s isn’t the only performance worth pitching for awards notices. The whole ensemble delivers, but 20-year-old Alex Wolff’s (“Patriots Day,” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”) supporting work in particular really stands out. It all depends on what kind of a foothold the film can maintain in release.
Ultimately, Aster’s film promises to be an interesting arrow in A24’s quiver this season. The slate hasn’t filled out yet — at this point last year the distributor still had not acquired eventual Oscar players “The Disaster Artist,” “The Florida Project” and “Lady Bird” — but there are a few options already on the table. Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” featuring one of Ethan Hawke’s finest performances to date, hits theaters next month. Around the same time, David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” follow-up “Under the Silver Lake” will bow at the Cannes Film Festival. Jonah Hill’s directorial debut “Mid ’90s” will also be released this fall.
But for an ever-evolving Academy, “Hereditary” is the true X-factor here.
Check out the new TV spot above.