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‘Midsommar’ Director Ari Aster on How a Bad Breakup Inspired His Horror Movie

Indie films are having a tough time at this summer’s box office, but A24 hopes that Ari Aster’s folk horror movie “Midsommar” changes that. Last summer, Aster’s feature debut “Hereditary,” starring Toni Collette and Ann Dowd, raked in over $44 million domestically for the boutique distributor on a $10 million budget. On July 3, Aster is back with his frightening sophomore outing.

Midsommar” stars Florence Pugh as a grief-stricken heroine named Dani, who is grappling with a flailing relationship with her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Will Poulter (“We’re the Millers”) and William Jackson Harper (“The Good Place”) round out the cast as friends who travel with the couple to the fictional Swedish town of Hårga. Aster described the genre as “folk horror,” hearkening back to films like “The Wicker Man” and more recently “The Witch” that deal with storylines and influences of pagan traditions.

Aster, who both wrote and directed “Midsommar,” talked to Variety about his new film.

What initially sparked the idea for “Midsommar?”
I was sort of going through a breakup at the time and piecing through the ruins of a failed relationship. I’d wanted to write [a breakup movie] before, but I could never find an angle that felt interesting and didn’t feel like a mopey, kitchen sink drama. But then I was approached by a Swedish production company that read “Hereditary,” and they said that they wanted me to write a folk horror film set in Sweden. We found that the framework of the folk horror movie was kind of perfect for a story about a relationship ending.

Why are you drawn to broken relationships and broken families? 
It’s fodder for good drama. Family dynamics — I could say that they’re my whole career and could have plenty to talk about.

The film was based in Sweden, but you filmed in Hungary. Why did you choose to shoot there? 
Because it would have been extremely expensive to shoot in Sweden. It’s one of the most expensive places to shoot in the world, I’d venture to guess. I don’t get a lot of coverage, so I need to really, really have time to rehearse and practice each shot because the blocking is often complicated between the actors and the camera movement that is sort of revolving around them. It’s the kind of thing that really needs a lot of time to set up.

What inspired the production design?
We found a field 30 minutes outside of Budapest and then we had just over two months to build Hårga [the fictional village], which was 10 buildings, some of which are three stories tall. We needed to cultivate the field, which when we found it was nothing but very tall, wild grass. We were inspired by hälsingegårds [farms] in Northern Sweden that we visited in doing research and a lot of those very old houses, centuries old, had paintings all over the walls of each room. The murals and the paintings in our film are inspired by that.

What were the challenges of shooting complex set-ups like the dollhouse scenes in“Hereditary” and the aerial and upside-down shots in”Midsommar”? 
The more complicated the shot, the more challenges you run into, but I guess that’s, for me, a thrill in surmounting those challenges. I definitely enjoy long takes where the smallest mistake or the smallest error could ruin the take and you have to start over. Part of the reason for that is because it’s so exciting when you finally get the take that works. There’s something very, very gratifying about seeing that on your monitor and knowing what you have. When you get a lot of coverage, you don’t really need to know exactly what you’ve gotten from the scene until you’re in the editing room and you put it together. There’s something very exciting about knowing exactly what you have on set and being able to go home with that feeling that night. It gives you a boost for the next day.

There’s some trust that the viewers feel for Dani and lack of trust for other characters. Why is this important?
I imagine anyone with the vaguest understanding of the folk horror genre, I’m sure they’re not trusting the community very much. I put a lot of work into not making them mustache-twirling villains who are, like, winking at the audience. It’s a breakup movie, but we are aligned with Dani. That makes Christian the antagonist. The relationship is falling apart. We’re with one party that kind of puts us on the defensive as far as the other party is concerned. It’s important to me that both of them feel relatable and people might be able to see themselves in both the characters.

What do you hope that the audience takes away from the film?
I hope that people are moved and transported and are maybe even a little bit confused.

Any other movies in the works?
I have a couple of scripts that I want to make next. I’m just wrestling with which one to do, and then I’m gonna polish that up and get ready to do that hopefully next year.

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