6 Filmmaking Tips from Ari Aster

The filmmaker behind 'Hereditary' and 'Midsommar' gives his take on storyboarding, editing, and why shooting coverage is overrated.
Ari Aster Midsommar

After nearly a decade of making shorts including the minor internet sensation The Strange Thing About The Johnsons, AFI Conservatory trained filmmaker Ari Aster made his feature film debut in 2018 with smash Sundance hit Hereditary, a slow-burn horror about grief and family ties that proved to be a runaway critical and commercial success. He followed up with sophomore effort Midsommar just a year later, a similarly unsettling marriage of folk horror and breakup film featuring a young American couple on the fritz attending a midsummer festival in a secluded Swedish village. Released to overwhelming praise for star Florence Pugh‘s performance and Aster’s almost hypnotic aesthetic sensibilities, his second feature vanquished potential concerns of the dreaded sophomore slump. Aster might still be in the early days of his filmmaking career, but with the technical skill and daring storytelling sensibilities already demonstrated, he’s a star on the rise and already has plenty of great filmmaking advice to give. Here are six of his best tips:

The Storyboard Is Your MVP

In the vast majority of interviews with Aster, you will encounter him talking about his storyboards. For him, making comprehensive storyboards is a key part of the filmmaking process—and something that should be done early. As he told Collider in June 2018, he always storyboards the entire movie and then goes through the entire thing with various department heads, not because he isn’t open to suggestions or collaboration, but because it ensures that everybody is on the same page moving forward:

“I compose the shot list, then I take my DP and my production designer through it, and there’s a dialogue that happens, too. And often we find things that are better than what I had devised. But the big thing is that I want to take them through my shot list before I even talk to them so that we all have the same movie in our head. And that way, when we do begin a dialogue, the dialogue is about the same movie. We’re not working towards two different aesthetics. It’s very clear what we’re making. And here’s the style, and here’s what we’re going for.”

Embrace Genre

A self-described “genre filmmaker,” Aster has discussed what he sees as the merits of genre filmmaking in many, many, many interviews. From a “filmmaking advice” perspective, one of the most compelling cases he’s given in favor of making genre content is the way built-in audiences for genre content can turn hard-to-market premises—such as the bleak exploration of family trauma that is Hereditary—into highly commercial content, as he explained in an interview for Swiss television program Kinowetter:

“I love the horror genre because it allows the storyteller to take a story that’s more uncompromising and bleak and push it through this filter that sort of renders stuff that would ordinarily be a deterrent to an audience, like ‘oh it’s hopeless’ or ‘it’s fatalistic’ or ‘it’s nihilistic’ and then suddenly those things become virtues in this other space. I think it allows filmmakers to tell stories that would otherwise be too punishing for an audience and then somehow still be able to call it commercial.”

You can watch the full interview below; the featured quote begins at 1:05:

Coverage is Overrated

For those unfamiliar, “coverage” refers to a typical filmmaking technique in which various takes of the same scene are filmed from several angles, usually including a wide “master shot,” and then the specifics of which angles will actually make it into the finished cut of the film is decided during editing. Aster is generally not a fan of this approach, much preferring to go in knowing exactly what shot he wants in the final cut and just getting that on the day of shooting, and made a compelling argument for his way of doing things in a July 2019 interview with Filmmaker magazine:

There are some scenes I don’t want to shoot any coverage for because I don’t want to lean into anything. I want to make sure that I get what I need in camera on the day. So I do a lot of long takes, and there are a lot of scenes that I do in an unbroken master. I’ve found those actually to be easier than when I’m getting coverage. When you’re getting coverage you’re not sure how things are going to cut together or how they’re going to play, but when you shoot an entire scene in one extended, unbroken take, you see what you have on set — you see it in the monitor and know whether you have it or not.”

You’ll Never Make the Movie in Your Head

While making a film is fundamentally about bringing a vision in one’s head to life, it’s a process that necessarily involves a lot of painful compromises, and that’s an important truth to recognize and make peace with. While it may not be the most uplifting lesson, it’s an important one nonetheless, as Aster explained in a July 2019 Vulture interview:

“Making films for me is just like this horribly prolonged grieving process of having to make compromises. Sometimes they’re small, sometimes they’re huge. In shooting, you’re racing. Like, if you get stuck on one shot, then you’re compromising all the other shots you could do that day. So you can get it as close to perfect as you can. And then some shots you have to move on and you didn’t get it the way you wanted. And that’s a tiny tragedy, and then you carry that weight to the next one. And so, all of a sudden, instead of being excited about the next shot, you feel doomed. And then it becomes this thing where it’s like, ‘Okay, I need to be happy with the next shot because I need that energy to take to the next one.’ Because I am running low on morale. And so, it gets to the point where you just are begging, to whatever higher power is up there, to just give you something to be proud of by the end of the day. It’s rough because this is a dream come true. I’m so lucky to be doing this. But it’s so exhausting that you forget to appreciate it immediately. So you’re being dragged through this thing that you’ve always wanted. And then at the end, it’s like you regret not being more present for it. So you go and do it again and then you realize there is no being [present]. It is survival. It goes from this dreamlike situation to this nightmare-survival situation. And you have got to find some way to mediate between the two.”

The Movie Tells You What It Wants in the Edit

As reported in several interviews, the original cut of Hereditary was over three hours long and featured a lot more family drama and build-up before getting into the more supernatural horror content. In an hour-long Q&A regarding Hereditary at New York’s Lincoln Center back in June 2019, Aster elaborated on his experience editing the film, and his comments included this A+ advice:

“I really wanted it to be a slow build that like slowly, slowly, slowly ramps up, and ultimately the movie tells you what it wants in the edit, and either you listen to that or you don’t, to your peril. And it took me a while to give in and prioritize pacing over preciousness, and, you know, loving this shot and not wanting to let it go, or knowing this helps [that] later, but ultimately hurts pacing and hurts rhythm. Now the ramp up is much more accelerated, and everything we did lose was ultimately in the service of character development. All the horror stuff is there, none of that left because it was all essential to the story. It’s funny, because things that felt necessary in the script suddenly feel tacked on in a cut when you have actors imbuing these things into their performance.”

You can watch the full Q&A below; the featured quote begins at 6:09:

You’re Going to Start Off Derivative (And That’s Okay)

Like many of the most exciting filmmakers, Aster has gotten considerable praise for his distinctive style and storytelling sensibility, which blends familiar tropes with bold narrative choices. But even he didn’t start off that way. As he told The Arizona Republic in an interview published July 2019, starting off by echoing your favorite filmmakers is a natural part of the process:

“As you’re making short films and learning how to do it, you rip everybody off and make extremely derivative work and find what works for you and what doesn’t. After a while, you forget about who you’re copying and you find your own style, which ends up being a Frankenstein’s monster of all the things that you loved growing up and all the things you connected with.”

What We Learned

At just 31 and with two features under his belt, Ari Aster is just getting started. But the blend of arthouse sensibility and highly commercial genre components displayed in both his features and his shorts has made him one of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers working today. While there are many different lessons to be gleaned from Aster’s filmography, perhaps the biggest takeaway is that, with the help of some clever narrative choices, daring personal stories can also have commercial appeal—and that the quickest way to an audience’s heart (and wallet) might just be to scare the bejeezus out of them.

Ciara Wardlow: Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.