Ari Aster – Midsommar

September 3, 2019 by  
Filed under Interviews

From Joni Mitchell to Taylor Swift, it’s no surprise when a musician writes a song about a breakup to help them find closure. Filmmakers, however, rarely get the opportunity to share their experiences of a failed relationship unless they are, well, actually making a movie that includes a failed relationship.

Such is the case for writer/director Ari Aster (Hereditary) with his second feature film Midsommar, an abstract exploration of the end of a relationship he experienced five years ago. The horror film, which is much more symbolic in nature than an average “breakup movie,” follows a troubled couple (Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor) during a trip with friends to Sweden to attend a fabled mid-summer festival. The festival, which only occurs every 90 years, turns out to be operated by a pagan cult.

During an interview this past weekend, Aster and I talked about his intention in writing a breakup movie like Midsommar, his frustration with some mainstream horror and why he’d rather leave interpretation to the audience.

You’ve been open in recent weeks about how you wrote the script for Midsommar after experiencing a breakup. Was there something specific you wanted to say about the kind of pain you went through during that time?

Yeah, I went looking to do a breakup movie that felt as big as a breakup feels. From anyone else’s perspective, it’s a minor enough event. If it was a relationship with any real consequence, then a breakup can be cataclysmic and turn your life upside down and almost feel like a death. I wanted to make a big, operatic breakup movie that felt and played as consequential as the end of a relationship feels to the parties involved.

Without revealing too much information, does this person you experienced the breakup with know you’ve written a movie based on it?

I don’t know. I imagine they might have some idea. I can’t imagine they’d be happy about it. But it’s not about them or the relationship itself. It was written as I was piecing through the ruins of that relationship.

When you write something as twisted as Hereditary and Midsommar, do you find that people tend to think the person creating the stories must also be twisted? I’ve talked to horror directors in the past that think it’s difficult sometimes for people to separate the creator from the material?

Yeah, but that’s an occupational hazard. I’ve made peace with it.

Some of the imagery in both Hereditary and Midsommar stays with you long after the credits roll. Is that a goal as a horror director?

Yeah, if you make a horror movie, why not try to make an impression on people? I have my own taste. I’m not somebody who’s into jump scares. I feel like everything we see day to day is infused with dread. I enjoy building suspense and also creating a mood. I’m somebody who is more affected by images and ideas than I am by jolts.

That must be frustrating, especially since those are the kinds of horror movies mainstream audiences flock to the most.

They kind of irritate me. It’s just a matter of taste. I just don’t watch them. That kind of filmmaking is frustrating to me, but I also don’t do it or watch them. I watch all sorts of movies and I hope to make all sorts of movies. [Hereditary and Midsommar] are just my contribution to the horror genre.

Do you mind explaining to people what your movies are about or would you rather them come up with their own meanings and ideas?

I’m a pretty firm believer that what’s in the film is what you need to know. I’m happy to answer people’s questions to a point and I’m honored that people want to talk to me in the first place. I’m very fortunate to be making these films, but ultimately, I’d rather not explain anything. I’m more than happy to talk about influences and what drives certain things and give some insight into what inspired me to dive into this work, but I try not to be too insufferable in my explanations.

Looking to the future, what kinds of films would you like to make – if not horror?

I’d love to play in every genre. I love romantic comedies. I love Westerns. I love musicals. I love sci-fi. I try to come to everything from a place of character. That’s my way in. Genre filmmaking offers you a structure and a framework. From there, you can play around and find a way to add your signature.

Mike Cahill – I, Origins

August 8, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the indie sci-fi drama “I, Origins,” a follow up to his amazing 2011 indie sci-fi drama “Another Earth,” director/writer Mike Cahill, 35, explores the idea of discrediting the existence of God through scientific experimentation and also examines the possibility that reincarnation can occur in the afterlife. Actors Michael Pitt and Brit Marling play Ian and Karen, microbiologists whose research of the human eye leads them to the groundbreaking findings.

During an interview with Cahill, we talked about why religious beliefs (or lack thereof) didn’t factor into his screenplay, whether science and spirituality can co-exist in this day and age, and if Cahill is someone who believes in the existence of a soul mate.

In the film, Ian and Karen are looking for evidence of something that will ultimately prove God does not exist. Can you talk about how your own personal religious beliefs, if at all, played a part in developing a script that tackles these complex themes?

My personal beliefs are not at stake, so they’re entirely different from what’s going on in the film. But I did want to tell a story about scientists and their relationship with the metaphysical and the divine or the idea of spirits. I think we get bogged down in words and language and semantics. I felt really compelled in trying to tell a story where the words of any religion or spiritual movements are not used. The words we use in the film are scientific. The approach that Karen and Ian use is scientific. They are looking for numerical proof and for the science to make sense when it comes to these very peculiar events that are taking place.

When you say you didn’t want the story to be bogged down by semantics, do you mean you didn’t want to use terms like atheism or agnosticism and specifically define who these characters are in that aspect?

Exactly! There is a lot of baggage in those words. There is a lot of baggage in any word associated in favor of any particular religion or belief system. For example, a lot of people say this movie is about reincarnation, but the term reincarnation is never spoken in the film even once. That was done on purpose. There is one moment where Karen asks, “What if the eyes are really the window to the soul?” She alludes to that cliché, poetic statement that has been around for centuries. Ian quickly jumps on her for saying the word “soul.” Even the characters are moving against preexisting terminology that has a lot of connotation and looking at pure testable things like memory and phobia. The rest of it is left up to the audience to input their selves into the narrative and give it meaning.

I really do hope people are able to come into a film like this with an open mind, especially if they’re automatically turned off by themes that conflict with their personal beliefs.

Given the opportunity, I think anyone who decides to sit down and watch this film will learn very quickly that it is not one that takes sides. The film is very respectful to all beliefs. If you go to the DVD stores, [“I, Origins”] is not going to be listed under religious-themed films. It’s a sci-fi movie that exists in the realm of speculative fiction. This is a narrative that hopefully inspires you to look closer into someone’s eyes and think, “What if this were possible?”

On that note, do you think science and spirituality can co-exist? I mean, people love it when they can watch Bill Nye debate Ken Ham because they are on such opposite ends of the spectrum and can root for one of them based on what they believe themselves.

I think it is so unquestionable that they can co-exist! That is articulated in one particular scene in the movie where Sofi goes into the laboratory and talks about the worm. Worms are the key to understanding that spirituality and science can co-exist. She uses Ian’s experiments to shed light on this very particular thing, which is that there are worms that have two senses and he modifies them to have three. That is something that is taking place in laboratories right now. It is reality. Until that moment, the worm only knew things through smell and touch. It had no access to the world of light. They didn’t have the capability or the sensorial ability to even know about it. Yet light influences things that they smell and touch. That is very similar to how the world beyond our five senses works. We really should have six or seven or eight. There are realms that we can’t touch. We are feeling the ashes of that through coincidences and through familiarity when we meet a person for the first time. Things happen to us in domains that we don’t have sensorial access to that have their own metaphysics. It is beyond our tangible, touchable, testable scientific or experimental method to understand. Once you wrap your head around that concept, everyone is like, “Oh, man, now that’s peaceful!”

The film asks interesting questions about how people are romantically connected on a deeper level.  Are you someone who believes in the idea of a soul mate? Or do you think it would be virtually impossible to find that person, assuming he or she exists, among the billions of people living on this earth?

Do I believe in soul mates? I would say yes. I think my wife is that to me. I don’t mean it in a Valentine’s Day card sort of way. When I met my wife, I felt like I had known her for 3,000 years. It was literally instant. From the moment we met to this day, I haven’t spent a single day away from her. We have this weird, very amazing connection that I can’t explain. I want to understand those deeply connected feelings you have with another person that feels beyond, “Oh, we have the same interests. You like that music? I like that music, too.” It’s not that. It’s something more. [“I, Origins”] attempts to explain or at least gives some narrative to that. “Soul mate” is such a loaded term, but familiarity and peacefulness with a person is not common with everyone you meet. That should be acknowledged.

I read in another interview that you are thinking about writing a sequel to this film. You don’t strike me at all as a sequel-making kind of director, especially since this film and “Another Earth” allow audiences to decide for themselves what happens next. I love when films cut to black and everything is still open ended.

Yeah, so do I.

So, why make a sequel? Are you going to answer some of those questions left open ended in “I, Origins” for us?

It would be a totally different story that takes place 20 years in the future. As an audience member, you own the ending of this film. Your interpretation is the ownership of it. I would explore something else that is deeply human and deeply personal. The idea in a nutshell is exploring our subconscious triggers – the things that are embedded inside our subconscious that we don’t necessarily have access to. I’d use this sci-fi concept as a metaphor for that and how we block out our traumatic past. It’s a totally rich, wonderful universe to explore.

James D. Solomon – The Conspirator

April 29, 2011 by  
Filed under Interviews

Imagine writing and researching on a single topic for an entire 18 years. That’s one major thesis paper we’re talking about there.

For screenwriter James D. Solomon, his 18 years of hard work has cumulated into “The Conspirator,” a historical film that tells the little-known true story behind the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

As the first film released by the American Film Company, a production house committed to creating historically accurate American films, “The Conspirator” stars Robin Wright (“Nine Lives”) as Mary Surratt, a boarding house owner and the lone female convicted and executed for taking part in a conspiracy to kill Lincoln. James McAvoy (“Atonement”) plays Fredrick Aiken, a young lawyer who reluctantly defends Surratt for the crimes she is accused.

During an interview with me, Solomon discussed the responsibility he feels telling this story and where the truth really lies in a historical event that took place almost 150 years ago.

You’ve been working on this film for 18 years. Do you remember what interested you about this story back when you started writing it in 1993?

Everyone thinks they know the story of the Lincoln assassination, but it turns out most of us don’t. When I started this in 1993, I had no idea there were multiple attacks the night Lincoln was assassinated. I don’t think many people do. That’s what first caught my attention. What sustained my interest after many rewrites is this extraordinary mother and son story. That story is what fascinated me. I think “The Conspirator” is one of the most remarkable American stories hardly known.

Were you already a history buff going into this project? Did you think a film like this would only resonate with people who had an interest in the topic?

I think this is an extraordinary human story set against the backdrop of one of the most tactful moments in American history. I think that makes it a timeless and riveting story. I don’t see it limited to history buffs in any respect. I approached it as a journalist. I knew long ago I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I started working in news rooms when I was in high school. The change for me was that when I started I was reporting on a story that happened 130 something years ago – now 146 years ago.

I can’t even imagine how much research you’ve done over the last 18 years. Can you talk a little about that?

I looked at as many primary sources as possible. There are press accounts. There are some first-person accounts of what took place, but it’s limited. Then I looked at diaries of individuals who were in similar circumstances whether it was a union officer or a woman who ran a boarding house. I did not show a draft to anyone for three years as I researched and wrote and rewrote. This was a story no one knows wrapped in a story everyone knows.

Did you feel any responsibility in telling this story as accurately as possible?

I did. It’s an important story, so I was very careful in researching and portraying events as they occurred. First and foremost, history is not a progression of events. History is people – mothers, sons, elected officials – caught up in moments sometimes beyond their control and making decisions. To me, that is a very relatable story.

Was there ever a point during your research when you came across contradictory information? If so, how did you decide what to include and what not to include in the script?

That’s a very good question. Let’s just take for example Mary Surratt’s guilt. When I first started this script back in 1993, the portrayals of Mary were that she was a martyr, that she didn’t know what took place at the boarding house, and that she was innocent. More recently, the portrayals of her are that she certainly was part of some conspiracy and may have very well known about the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln.  Now, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The facts both camps have used to determine guilt or innocence have not changed a great deal over the years. The testimony hasn’t changed. Fundamentally, many of the facts are still the same, but those interpreting the facts have a different point of view. As scholarship increases and more people become interested in this subject, there will be facts that are unearthed. That will increase and expand our understanding of these circumstances and of the context.

I know there were many advisors who came on board to help with the film. How were they able to add any authenticity to the script based on their expertise?

They provided us with very helpful insights. One of the advisors was retired Col. Fred Borch. There is a line in the script where Fredrick Aiken says to his mates as he is considering whether or not to apply for a rite of Habeas Corpus, “If John Wilkes Booth were tried in this way it would be wrong.” That line actually comes from Fred. It’s something Aiken would have said. There’s no way I could know if that was really said because there’s no transcript, but it is consistent with what Aiken’s approach is and helps us understand just how unfair this trial was. My goal was always not only to faithfully portray the facts as we knew them, but the emotional truth behind them. I spent an enormous amount of time working on that.

Did you worry conservatives would scream propaganda because of director Robert Redford’s liberal political stance in his own life?

Let me answer it this way: If someone told me it was going to take 18 years to get my movie made, but that Robert Redford was going to direct it and that James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Huston, Justin Long, and this extraordinary cast were going to star in it, I would have signed up for that.

I’m looking forward to seeing more projects from the American Film Company, but do you think the majority of moviegoers feel like me? With the stresses of everyday life, do you think people care about history?

I do think people care a great deal about history, but their history. The more we connect emotionally with our past and the more relatable the individuals are, the more it resonates with us. When it’s events and not people it’s harder and more abstract. In “The Conspirator,” I wrote about a moment in time and in the center I found an extraordinary human story.