Made in Frame: Hereditary
There’s almost nothing typical about Hereditary, Ari Aster’s feature-film directorial debut. Yes, it’s marketed as a horror film, but it defies easy categorization, bucking the genre norms both in terms of its content—and in Aster’s approach to the overall production.
In this installment of “Made in Frame,” we spoke with editors Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston about their unique experience creating what publications like Rolling Stone and The Independent UK are calling “a modern horror classic,” joining the ranks of films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.
According to IMDb, Hereditary’s production budget was a mere $10 million, and it’s already grossed over $48 million worldwide. When you consider that most of the big summer movies have budgets somewhere between five and fifteen times that (or more, in the case of a tent-pole film like Jurassic World – Fallen Kingdom), the studio placed a smart bet on the young writer-director. During Ari’s master’s program at AFI (American Film Institute), he’d previously directed a number of shorts that had played at festivals like SXSW and Sundance, and had garnered quite a lot of attention—and a fair amount of controversy due to their provocative, and sometimes even shocking, themes. Shooting took place in Utah, with a brutal 32-day schedule that commenced in late May 2017 and wrapped in July. Editorial was based in New York and lasted until January 2018—wrapping just in the nick of time for the film to be submitted to Sundance, where it earned considerable buzz.
So far, that all sounds pretty standard. It’s no secret that lower budget horror flicks often yield a high return on investment compared to other types of films.
Hereditary was shot on Arri Alexas at 3.5K, 23.98 fps, and edited on Avid at 1920 x 1080 using DNx36 (a very common codec choice among feature film editors). Luc explained that the footage from Salt Lake City was processed using ((Radar)) DIT’s mobile service to create the proxies and make sure that the metadata carried over to them properly. After that, they were sent to New York, where the cutting room was set up at Harbor Picture Company.
The Editorial Team
If Jen’s name seems familiar, it’s because she’s an experienced dramatic film editor who’s collaborated frequently with Noah Baumbach on films like Mistress America and Frances Ha, and with Kenneth Lonergan on Manchester By The Sea, for which she received a BAFTA nomination for best editing.
“When my agent called me about this film,” Jen says, “my first question was why they were interested in working with me. I’ve never cut a horror film—I don’t even particularly like horror films.”
It’s a fair question. Most directors want to hire people who have proven expertise in the genre they’re working in. But, her agent explained, this wasn’t your everyday horror film. In fact, the director specifically didn’t want a horror editor, because as he saw it, although it was intended to be a horror movie, the heart of it centered around the family drama.
Her agent convinced her to talk with Ari. Jen asked him, point blank, why he wanted to work with her. It turned out that he was a fan of Lonergan’s and of Manchester by the Sea.
“He’s obviously a serious filmmaker and an incredibly intelligent person,” she says. “He loved a lot of the movies and the directors I loved, too. He told me that what he was really after was someone who was experienced with drama and performance, and assured me that he didn’t want to structure this film the way most horror movies are. He was completely against the ‘jump-scare’ device.”
Anyone who has watched American horror movies knows that the quietest moments are generally punctuated with sudden spill-your-popcorn and grab-your-armrest (or companion’s arm) scares. Hereditary has almost none of those, but that doesn’t mean it’s not plenty scary.
“Also, to be perfectly candid,” Jen says, “I was pregnant. And I was looking for a movie to do before having the baby, but some shows wouldn’t want to have to deal with that—which they’re allowed to not want to deal with in a freelance industry. So I thought about it and decided to give it a shot.”
Jen knew that collaborating with a first-time director could be intense, and was still a little nervous about taking on the project. That’s when she pitched the idea of bringing Luc on. He’d been her assistant on one of Noah Baumbach’s films and she thought he’d be exactly the right fit.
“I told him, at the beginning of the job, that I was pregnant and this film was going to be a challenge, and that I wanted him to work alongside me as much as possible. And then I had to get Ari on board because he didn’t know Luc, but he ended up loving working with him as much as I do.”
Luc was most attracted to the project based on the fact that Ari specifically chose a non-horror editor. “It was really telling,” he says. “With that approach, I thought we’d end up with a pretty unique result. And because Jen is such an accomplished dramatic editor, it wouldn’t be like just working on a horror film.”
Hiring an editing team who weren’t horror editors was only the beginning of the many unconventional approaches Ari took in the making of Hereditary.
For one, the production was primarily a single-camera shoot with only a few instances of two-camera coverage for select setups. That meant that in many cases, whole scenes were shot sequentially without reverse angles or B-roll.
For another, on the first day of the project, Ari presented the editors with a detailed shot list to use as a roadmap for the assembly. Certainly many directors have completely storyboarded films before shooting (Hitchcock was famous for it), but it takes a lot of confidence for a director to be that clear on how the film should go together—especially when it’s the director’s first feature and is essentially a drama rather than a highly-choreographed action film.
“It was like he already had the whole movie edited in his head,” Luc says. “Obviously because he wrote it he had a clear idea of how he wanted it to go together, but his shot list was amazingly exhaustive.”
Because the dailies were processed in Utah, the editors were working a day behind the production. They followed Ari’s roadmap to assemble sequences, and used Frame.io to send the work-in-progress to him on location.
According to Luc, Ari loved using Frame.io. “It was just so easy and intuitive for him to use, and he preferred Frame.io over all of the other workflows we tried.”
After shooting wrapped, the two editors had a week to finish up the first assembly, with Jen cutting the first three reels (what Luc calls the more dramatic part) and Luc doing the second three (what he refers to as the more traditional horror parts). At that point, the running time was a hefty 2:45:00.
And that’s when things started to really get unorthodox.
Ari flew to New York and stayed there throughout the entire editing phase to, in Luc’s words, direct the cut. “He was there almost every day, for the entire day, working with us in a highly collaborative way.”
The first order of business was to go through the editors’ first-pass assembly. Typically, the first assembly gets cut down significantly after the director has a chance to evaluate it. But not on this film.
“I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen this before, but the director’s assembly actually got longer,” Luc said. “By the time we finished that pass, the running time was three hours.”
Which was, of course, too long for most mainstream movies.
Letting it Breathe
When you watch the film, you see just how crucial the pacing is in terms of storytelling. The family at the center of it experiences more than its share of tragedy, the kind that isolates the individuals and can fray even the tightest ties that bind families together. Seeing them processing their horror and grief, and getting a feel for the strain it takes to communicate among themselves—or to hold back from speaking the unspeakable—is part of what draws the viewer into the complicated world Ari has created.
“He was really insistent on letting the dramatic parts of the film breathe,” Jen explained.
As a viewer who has watched most of the most iconic horror films of the last century, I kept waiting for the jump-scares that would typically follow such long shots. But they never happened. Instead, the first act of the film plays like a straight family drama, albeit with one member who is a rather unusual young girl obsessed with making creepy drawings in the notebook she carries with her wherever she goes and crafting puppets using parts of dead birds and pieces of found objects.
The mother (who is grappling with the recent death of her own mother) meticulously recreates miniature versions of significant life moments in diorama form, a nod both to the “like mother, like daughter” idea central to a film called “Hereditary,” but also as a kind of metaphor for her desire to compartmentalize these events and the resulting grief.
Killing Your Darlings
No, not the characters (although there’s some of that), but the precious scenes that Ari shot and had to eliminate.
The term auteur refers to a director who has total control of all aspects of the film—the “author” of the movie. Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) and Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, to which Hereditary nods in clever ways) are both considered auteurs, and Ari proved himself a budding one in his all-encompassing approach to this film and his uncompromising vision for it. Which is why, when it came to cutting the movie from three hours to a 127- minute theatrical release, the process was harder than most.
As Jen explains, because the shots were so carefully mapped out, and because many of them were shot with the one-camera setup, if a scene didn’t quite come together as planned, it was exponentially more difficult to wrestle it into working.
“In a way,” Jen says, “the best planning in shooting doesn’t necessarily make for the easiest editing.”
Both editors describe how much discussion was involved in deciding how and what to cut. “We had a board with frames from the shots and there were times when the three of us would spend days not even doing any actual cutting—we’d just rearrange the frames and talk about how to best cut from a story perspective.”
Jen wasn’t used to having a director present for the duration of the process. “I’ve worked a lot with Kenny (Lonergan) and Noah (Baumbach) and we have the kind of relationship where we know each other and I understand their vision and they kind of let me work. But I get why Ari was so hands-on—it’s his first big movie, there’s a lot at stake, this is his big opportunity.
“Sometimes Ari fought us hard about a particular scene, and to his credit he was often right, but sometimes he wasn’t,” Jen adds. “It was challenging and frustrating, but ultimately it ended up being great because there was so much conversation that we had to really think through why this particular scene should (or shouldn’t) stay. We had to really earn every decision and justify it in terms of serving the story.”
It’s one of the reasons Jen was so glad to have Luc as a partner. “Because it was so intense, it was great to have Luc participating in the idea process. It was hard, but it was also fun.”
Frame.io and the rest of the process
Meanwhile, there were the rest of the post-production functions in progress. With Ari so physically present in the cutting room, he needed a way to review and communicate with the other departments.
“We used Frame.io pretty much every day,” Luc says. “We needed a way to shuttle things back and forth between us and the other departments, and so it was basically our media shuttle. We used it for all the turnovers—sound, music, VFX, DI—literally for every turnover.”
Atypically, Hereditary isn’t heavy on visual effects, leaving more to the viewer’s imagination than most modern horror movies—yet another reason why there was so much emphasis on cutting for the drama and the tension. But the VFX shots that are in the film, created by Brainstorm Digital, are complex. For example, the opening shot of the movie, a seamless pullback through a window into the interior of one of the mother’s miniature houses which resolves into the live action bedroom of the son, illustrates how exact the choreography between the live plate and the CG re-creation were. It’s no wonder that there had to be numerous exchanges between Brainstorm and the editors.
And no surprise that Ari was always anxious to see updated cuts. “If he was at home, if we did something over the weekend, or anything new came in while he wasn’t there, he didn’t want to wait to see it, so we’d send it to him using Frame.io,” Luc says. “He also found that being able to draw on the individual frames was very helpful.”
Film industry jobs aren’t inherited
Just as Ari earned his way to directing his first feature, Luc earned his way into his first feature job as a fully fledged editor. Initially, he came on as Jen’s first assistant, but she always had the intention of making him a co-editor. Because she was pregnant and planned to step away from the project in October, she needed Luc to be able to make her departure a smooth one, and enthusiastically talks about how he did all the right things to earn her support.
“The thing that was so amazing about Luc,” Jen says, “is that he never shirked his assistant responsibilities, even when he was also cutting at first. I’ve had assistants in the past that I’ve tried to get to cut, but it didn’t go that well because they don’t want to do the assistant work anymore.”
In fact, for much of the early part of the process, Luc did double duty. Jen laughs, “There were times when I would want to give him a scene and he’d be like, ‘I can’t…I have to do this visual effects turnover,’ and I’d be like, ‘Ugh!’ But that’s all to Luc’s credit, and is so much of why I wanted to help him. He was such a hard worker.”
Take note aspiring editors. Always do the best job in the position for which you’ve been hired, first and foremost.
Luc, for instance, credits Jen for his success. “I want to be very adamant about how much I owe to Jen. She took a chance on me and I owe her my career because she gave me this amazing opportunity.” He’s hesitant to give his own advice to others, but as I prod him a little he offers this up. “Cut everything you can,” he says. “Even if you won’t make a lot of money, do it. And if you’re on a project and, say, you’re done with an assembly or a turnover and you have a little time, practice cutting on the dailies. Try putting sequences together, even if you don’t show them to anyone. It’s important to do that kind of stuff, because if you do get the opportunity, you want to be ready.”
That’s what he did as Jen’s assistant and he found her willingness to give him advice and insights invaluable. When I ask him if he can talk about the biggest thing he’s learned from working with her, he answers, “Oh, man…there’s so much,” He becomes flustered when trying to identify specifics. “She would just really take the time with me to go through my work and give me comments.” He also points out how much he learned from working one-on-one with Ari after Jen left the project. “He’s an amazing guy to work with. He cares so much about the work and had such a strong sense of what he was trying to achieve.”
Given Jen’s experience working with top directors on award-winning dramas, I can’t let her get away without asking if she has insights into the editorial process, or any insights she came away with after working on Hereditary.
“I think the law I live by is that I don’t live by any laws. When I first started out I thought I would have rules that would work, but then I would get anxious when they didn’t. And every film is different and needs something different. So now I just try to throw myself into the material and get passionate about it.”
Happily, Ari’s love of careful planning and his instinct to hire an editor who adapts to whatever is thrown at her, culminated in a result that was, by all measures, a success. He’s working on his next project already, and it’s probably safe to say that it will carry many of the marks of a young auteur.
Photography by Erik Teng.