Ari Aster may only be two features deep into his directing career, but his skills have already left a significant impact on the industry. While Hereditary and Midsommar are completely different films, what they share in common are intricately-constructed and beautifully shot sequences that rattle the movie-goer brain. They’re stunning to see on the big screen, and were clearly a challenge to bring to life during production.
The style creates an interesting domino effect, as the more complicated a setup is, the more planning and preparation is required, and the more planning and preparation that is required means that the actors need to be all the more precise in their performances. It was something that I had the chance to discuss with Ari Aster and the Midsommar cast late last month, and you can watch our conversation below:
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ari Aster, Jack Raynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, and Vilhelm Blomgren at the Los Angeles press day for Midsommar, and one question that I brought into both rooms was about how the detail-oriented nature of the filmmaking influenced the actors in their approach and performances. What I learned is that Aster’s style definitely had a unique effect, but in addition to being restrictive, it also had a certain freeing quality as well.
Discussing how he puts his movies together, Ari Aster explained that it is very early on that he gains a total vision of what he wants his films to look like, and that means coming to set each day with a set shot list and a plan to get everything that he needs. Part of it is admittedly about money, as he doesn’t want to waste resources on material that he doesn’t wind up using, but what’s more important is the fact he doesn’t fully trust himself as an improviser – particularly when on-set and simultaneously juggling 20 different problems. Said the filmmaker,
It's just a matter of sticking to the plan - mostly because I just can't think on set. I can rely on my instincts, but it's so stressful that it's the least creative time possible for me. I don't know how actors do it because it is so stressful, and you do need to be very present. And I find that it's almost impossible to be totally present on my own end. It's always exciting when actors find ways to not be constrained by this extremely anal retentive way of working. Luckily, Jack [Raynor] and Florence [Pugh] and Will [Jackson Harper] and Will [Poulter], and Vilhelm [Blomgren] were just really game, and they're all just really tremendous actors. So I was very lucky.
Working with a director who knows exactly what they want can be a blessing for an actor, as it makes it that much easier to trust in their vision for the totality of the project. There is also the risk that it can be creatively stifling, however, and that was a razor-thin line that was walked in the making of Midsommar. At the end of the day, though, the balance that was struck was one the performers could fully appreciate.
According to William Jackson Harper, not every single scene was treated with exactly the same level of intensity and detail – but what was common throughout the process was everybody working towards the same goal:
It depends on what's happening. He's got a very, very distinct visual vocabulary and, we all want that to happen, you know? And so there's times where we needed to just be where we needed to be in order to make things look the way they needed to look. And then sometimes we really get to chop it up in a scene. There's a lot of both - a lot of very, very strict, very specific stuff, and a lot of stuff that was very wide open.
With his director sitting right next to him, Jack Raynor noted that Ari Aster’s particular approach was something to which the cast needed to adjust from the very first day, with the preparation for each scene being different than past projects. While in most cases the actors have the ability to move around and find what works for them personally, that wasn’t really in the plans for the making of Midsommar.
Raynor said that the making of the movie forced him to work outside his comfort zone, and made the actors prepare differently than they otherwise would, saying,
With this, every shot was so meticulously designed that we [needed] to rehearse the blocking and know where we [were] going to stand first before we [started] to really rehearse the performances and see what [we were] going to do - which can be tough from an acting perspective.
Interestingly, though, it was through this process that Jack Raynor did eventually find a special kind of way to contribute his own ideas to the mix. Specifically, each different take would give him the chance to try something new within the parameters of what Ari Aster needed for his vision:
Fairly quickly we realized that to do that, and to have those long takes, gives you an opportunity to tweak and alter your performance as much as you want every time. You can do something completely different every time. So there's actually also a real freedom, and there's something quite liberating, even though the blocking might be quite constraining. Ultimately I think that it makes for just spectacular cinematography - really, really beautiful, refined camerawork.
What’s particularly funny, though, is that it seems not everybody was playing by the same rules. According to Vilhem Blomgren, the Swedish actors on set were apparently functioning with a bit more personal agency – which makes sense when you consider that Midsommar is meant to be a cinematic experience that that audiences into their world. Said Blomgren,
I felt like I was given a lot of space to do my own thing, and I think that was his strategy with all the Swedes - we had to do our own like impulses. So he left me and I think the other Swedes pretty much to be ourselves.
Midsommar is Ari Aster’s follow-up to the 2018 hit Hereditary, and centers on a young woman (Florence Pugh) who travels to Sweden with her boyfriend (Jack Raynor) and his friends (William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, and Vilhelm Blomgren) to experience a special festival that only happens every 90 years. Unfortunately, not only is she carrying a great deal of emotional baggage with her on the trip due to a recent tragedy, but the festivities aren’t at all what they are expecting.