By Thomas Page, CNN
Ari Aster would rather you didn’t read this.
Speaking to CNN on a video call in the lead up to the release of his three-hour tantric Freud-gasm of a movie, he said the best way to prime audiences for the experience is to not prime them at all.
“Best case: They don’t know anything,” he said. “Take it in with no concept as to what it might be. Not having seen this interview would be great. Not having seen any of the marketing materials or watch(ed) the trailer.”
Ouch. But reader, hold on a second.
Kudos to Aster. Asking audiences to head to the cinema blind for an original movie is a tough sell these days; we live in an era of rampant IP, where familiarity is part of the appeal for many. Whether audiences’ faith in Aster will be repaid is a matter of taste. But before distributor A24 starts sweating over the director’s publicity-averse tactics, it should probably remember its own faith in a sprawling project with ambitions far eclipsing Aster’s previous films. (The director, meanwhile, should be consoled that the film’s marketing only shows a glimpse of the madness within.)
“Beau Is Afraid” stars Joaquin Phoenix as a middle-aged man with serious arrested development, in thrall to his mother (Patti LuPone). An oppressive presence even from the other end of a phone, when Beau’s misses a flight to visit her, he’s sent hurtling on an Oedipal odyssey through space and time full of horrors old and new. It’s a “Bohemian Rhapsody” for mommy issues, and very funny it is too.
“How did I sell it (to the studio)? I don’t know,” the director said. “I think at one point I said it’s like a video game, if your character can’t do anything and none of the buttons work.”
The film had been rattling around Aster’s head for the best part of a decade. “It was always this receptacle for the stupidest ideas that came to me, and the things that made me laugh,” he explained.
“The first version of it was probably the funniest — only concerned with being funny. Then when I went back to it a few years ago and read over it again, I had all these news ideas … hopefully it deepened and got a little sadder. And bigger — the scale kind of mushroomed.”
“Beau’s” hefty runtime has raised eyebrows (“A film can be 80 minutes long and feel endless, and I’ve seen three-hour films that I didn’t want to end — I don’t know where this one lands,” Aster offered) and some early viewers have left theaters with questions about what they just watched. How does he feel about the gripe that storytelling should be straightforward to consume?
“I don’t know,” he said, grimacing slightly. “I’m so bored by so much of what I see, because it feels so familiar and so rote and so formulaic. I’m just trying to make something that I would want to see — something that would be gratifying to me as a viewer.”
What Aster is unequivocal about is his affection for Phoenix.
“I think he’s one of the best actors in the world,” he said. “I loved him so much in (James Gray’s) ‘Two Lovers’ and (Paul Thomas Anderson’s) ‘The Master.’ But I really had something of an epiphany when I watched ‘I’m Still Here.'”
(For those who don’t recall, for a time the world thought Phoenix had abandoned acting for a career in rap, making a series of baffling public appearances. It was, it transpired, a stunt and the foundation for Casey Affleck’s 2010 mockumentary.)
“I think (it’s) a magnificent performance,” Aster continued, “so funny and really alienating in a way that I found so exciting. What he was not only willing to do as an actor, but what he was willing to do with his own name struck me as so ballsy and kind of sick. There’s something sick about that gesture that really resonated with me.”
“I needed somebody who was going to go really deep into himself and do something very, very exposed,” he added. “I needed those eye, you know?”
There have been reports the duo will re-team on a Western (“I regret having ever said anything to that effect,” Aster commented), which begs the question, is the recent horror and horror-adjacent director thinking of branching out?
“I would love to do so many things. I want to make a sci-fi film. I want to make a musical,” he said, before trailing off.
At least one of us is imagining what an Ari Aster musical might look like. If it happens, don’t expect him to want you to know anything about it.
“Beau Is Afraid” is released in select cinemas in the US on April 14, and nationwide on April 21.
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