For a story like this, I'm always curious what the first scrap of the idea was. Was it an image or an emotion?
Aster: There were definitely images -- some I can't say because they're spoilers. But something happens 30 minutes in and that was probably the first thing that occurred to me and then there's a sequence near the end of the film where the son and the mother are alone in the house, and those images were definitely seeds. I usually approach anything I'm making by beginning with set-pieces. I think in set-pieces and then I fill it in. But I knew I wanted to make a family tragedy, and I wanted to make a film about grief and trauma and about how those things can be totally corrosive to a family unit. There is this tradition, especially American family dramas that deal with crisis, where the family experiences a crisis and things get very, very bumpy, but in the end they're brought closer together. I just think that's not always how it happens. Sometimes, disaster strikes and people are taken down.
I knew I wanted to make a film that was about that but where the movie collapses under its own weight, where the fabric of the film tears open and it becomes a literal nightmare. It takes on this nightmare logic. Life can often feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes and -- again, in true melodramatic fashion -- the movie aims to honor those feelings by letting them dictate what's happening. It's a film that aims to be as big and as grotesque and as extreme as what these people are feeling.
The ending veers into the extremes in a big way. What type of research did you do into the occult and how did you go about looking into that type of material?
Aster: One source leads to another. You start with the obvious things like you look up Anton LaVey and Aleister Crowley, and then it gets very disturbing. I'm not tied in any way to the occult, so the research was disturbing, but I knew that I had to go there and I knew that I wanted the ritual elements of the film, which are held at a distance and you only get pieces of them, I knew I wanted them to be rooted in something real. I was lead to witchcraft manuals that are instructing people on how to cast spells and this and that.
That, if anything, was disturbing because I knew there were people who read this and were using them for ill ends. There are love spells in these books but there are also sickness spells. It started to really disturb me when the stuff I was reading was not poetic but just very clinical and instructional. Do this, do this, do this, and then this is the result. It just reminds you that there are Machiavellian forces in the world and even if you don't believe in the occult and even if you're not a superstitious person, there's nothing scarier then what people can do to each other.