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How the ‘Family Drama’ Hereditary Turned Into One of the Year’s Scariest Films

“I was looking to make a family tragedy that curdled into a nightmare,” said director Ari Aster about his harrowing feature debut.

Growing up, Ari Aster was obsessed with horror films, especially those with psychological elements that linger beneath the surface.

So while Aster labels his feature filmmaking debut a “family drama,” he definitely wants Hereditary to scare you, too. Just ask those who were on set.

“There’s no way to go through the things I go through in this movie without going home and feeling a little sick to your stomach,” said actor Alex Wolff. “I was pretty seriously affected. I felt shaken to the core the entire way through.”

The film opens with miniatures modeler Annie (Toni Collette) grieving the death of her elderly mother. Slowly, she begins to uncover clues to a possible secret life with sinister consequences for her family, including her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), emotionally withdrawn son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and socially awkward daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro).

As the resulting terror spirals out of control, a tragedy fractures the family even further as Annie comes to grips with a troubling ancestry she can’t escape.

“I was looking to make a family tragedy that curdled into a nightmare,” Aster said during the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin. ‘This is a film about a family breaking down in communication — people who are isolated from each other in their own home. The horror sort of grows from that dynamic.”

The film marks an expressive big-screen debut for the diminutive Shapiro, 15, who previously starred in the title role of the Tony-winning Matilda: The Musical on Broadway. In terms of creepy kids within the horror genre, Charlie might rank alongside Rhoda from The Bad Seed or the Grady twins from The Shining.

“My character was very different from anything I’ve ever done,” Shapiro said. “She’s very disconnected from the world. It took me a while to figure out how I was going to do that correctly.”

Wolff (Patriots Day) said he enjoyed exploring the power dynamics within a family haunted by past secrets but unsure how to confront them — particularly the volatile interaction between mother and son.

“Peter and Annie have a really unique relationship, where right off the jump you know something is going on,” Wolff said. “It doesn’t feel like an angsty teen thing, but it feels like there’s trauma between them.”

Much of the film takes place inside the family house, the interiors for which were built in Utah, where most of the production took place. Some of the plot twists dictated construction specifics that aren’t usually accounted for.

“We had to build everything on a stage. We had to design everything well in advance,” Aster said. “We could build something that catered to the way I wanted to shoot the film.”

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