With the one-two punch of 2018's Hereditary — a family drama about demonic possession — and 2019's Midsommar — a Scandinavian folk nightmare about the worst (or best?) breakup ever — Ari Aster proved himself to be one of the most renowned horror auteurs working today. Following the release of Midsommar, did the filmmaker fear being pigeonholed to the genre?
"Uhhh," he considers, then decides: "No. Because I was able to make this!"
This is Beau Is Afraid, Aster's first film to not be classified as horror — although there is plenty in it that will keep you up at night. The movie centers on an anxiety-ridden middle-aged man, Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), as he grapples with a lifetime of mommy issues. (Beau's mother, Mona Wasserman, is alternately played by Zoe Lister-Jones and Patti LuPone). So, what genre is Beau Is Afraid, exactly?
"I don't know what it is," Aster says, appearing anxious —fittingly enough — about his word choice. "I think if it belongs to a tradition, I guess it's that of the picaresque. I wanted to make something that was funny and sad, how's that?"
Beau Is Afraid is also Aster's biggest movie yet (and A24's most expensive to date). The nearly three-hour-long Homeric odyssey follows Beau as he attempts to return to home to see his mother, who may or may not be dead. Along the way, he is hit by a truck, kidnapped, framed for murder, adopted into a theatre troupe, and encounters a giant penis monster. It is unlike anything you've seen at the movies this year, and as such, is also Aster's most divisive film yet. Some people love it. Some hate it. But either way, it is causing a reaction.
"I mean, that's all you can hope for is that people react, right?" Aster says. "If anything, I'm still getting a sense of the lay of the land. But we always knew that it would be divisive. All I can say is I love the film and I'm very proud of it, and so I'm very happy it's finally out in the world."
A.frame: This was a script you wrote before Hereditary and Midsommar, but when did you actually write that first draft?
I probably wrote the first draft 10, 11 years ago, and it was both very different and essentially, at the heart, the same. I kind of left it alone for many, many years, and then after Midsommar, I decided that I wanted to go back to it and reread it. And a lot of it really still made me laugh! And then I had a lot of new ideas. I took a lot of things out, changed a lot of things. It was a good time to just sit with the film because it was lockdown, and I took that time to swim around in the movie. I really do hope that it's a film that viewers can swim in.
At that time, what were the first kernels of ideas that coalesced into Beau Is Afraid?
It was an anxiety comedy, and it belonged to a world. It was a world that I just knew. It's hard to explain, and it's all a matter of tone. I just wanted to live in whatever that world was and build it out. I guess it's a world in which all of your worst fears do manifest. Well, I mean, a lot of them are mine. A lot of them are things that I hope are universal, and not just specific to me. But who knows?
When you returned to it all those years later, what were some of those new elements you brought? Or in what ways did the script evolve?
I think it got sadder. I think it sort of deconstructs itself even more by the end. I wrote it before I wrote Hereditary and Midsommar, and I felt like going to Beau after those almost meant a new thing. It meant something else, because I was returning to themes that I had already played with. But it felt to me like, "Okay, if I'm going to do this, then I need to blow it up." I need to stick dynamite into whatever that was and have this really be the end of a road. So in some ways, it does feel like the third of a trilogy I didn't realize I was making.
In terms of those themes, mothers and relationships with mothers are central to this movie as they were to Hereditary, albeit in very different ways. How do you see these two movies in relationship with one another?
They're about parents and children, yeah. It feels like such a loaded relationship. It's where we come from, and it's, like, the idea of being attached to somebody by an umbilical cord and having that be snipped. But you're still always attached. It's kind of impossible to detach, even if you do. And so to me, there's a lot to mine there. I'm not even speaking personally, you know what I mean? It just feels to me a deep well. I mean, my mother is nothing like Mona.
What was the character description for Beau on the page?
I'm sure it was something about him being very tight. He's a bundle of nerves. Something in that realm.
Do you remember the moment of realizing, "Maybe that could be Joaquin Phoenix"?
That was pretty long after I had written it, but I'd always wanted to work with Joaquin. When it came time to really think about who could play Beau, it felt like, "Oh, we have to try Joaquin first." If anything, there are very few actors who are that vulnerable, who are that physically and emotionally committed, and I also just figured he had a great sense of humor. I think he's so funny in The Master. I think he's been so funny in so many films, but especially, I remembered what he did in I'm Still Here, which I thought was not only a brilliant comic performance but a really amazing and suicidal gesture. What he was doing with his own name was, to me, kind of heroic and dangerous. I remember seeing that and thinking, "I want to work with this guy." Whatever is driving him to do this feels to me like that's the impulse and the gesture of a real artist.
Did you pitch him the movie, or did you just send him the script to read?
Send him the script, had him read it, and then we talked a lot for a long time. We got along very well immediately. It was a courtship where he was trying to decide whether he wanted to do it, and I think he does that on everything, because if he takes on a film, it means he's going to be committing himself body and soul. So, I don't think it even suggests a reluctance or a hesitation about the project, it's just he knows that it's going to take over his whole life, and at the time, he had a newborn. And I think as the process went on, we just learned more and more that we really worked in the same way.
What way is that?
He's somebody who needs to investigate everything and keep mining, and that was something that I found to be very useful and good. I think the film grew for both of us in the process. But he's also somebody who has a real seriousness of purpose while also there's a real feeling of lightness and there's a real humor about the works, honestly.
Were there movies that you watched while you were prepping for this, or that you told Joaquin or your other actors kind of to watch as reference?
There were certain things I used as references for certain elements, just because I thought that the philosophy behind whatever those things were was useful. Like, when I was thinking about background actors and populating the world with as many distinctive people as possible, I watched Playtime [Jacques Tati's 1967 comedy], and I had my assistant directors watch Playtime just for inspiration. There were some stylistic references that I gave the animators of the play sequence that felt, to me, like the right inspiration. But I didn't give the actors any references. No, no.
After 10 or so years, what did it feel like to be in pre-production and working with your department heads and bringing this world that you had conceived to life? And then to step on set and see it for yourself?
It was a thrill. It was a thrill and really, a common refrain on that set was, "I can't believe we're actually making this." So, it was very joyful in that sense. It really felt like we were given the opportunity to just make something with real freedom, and that's a beautiful thing. I'm very grateful that we were able to make this film this way. From very early on, I knew that this was one that I just couldn't compromise on.
When people leave theater and call their moms, what do you hope they say?
"Are you mad at me?"
I assume your own mother has seen the movie by now. What did she think of it?
Well, again, she's absolutely not Mona. I think she loves the film!