Joaquin Phoenix Ari Aster Beau Is Afraid

Ari Aster told us about shooting his new film Beau Is Afraid in Montreal

Joaquin Phoenix stars in the latest film by the acclaimed director of Hereditary and Midsommar, a fantastical odyssey that departs from expectations.

With his latest film, Beau Is Afraid, Ari Aster departs from expectations. Joaquin Phoenix stars as the titular Beau in a fantastical odyssey about a man trying to get home to his mother. He suffers many trials and tribulations as he stumbles through the world, encountering many strange characters: a maniacal veteran suffering from PTSD, a swarm of zombie-like destitutes, a forest-dwelling theatrical troupe and a long-lost love. Though certainly horrific, Beau Is Afraid can better be understood as an epic portrait of a scared man than an outright horror film. 

While shot in Montreal, in the height of summer, Beau Is Afraid is set in a kind of nowhere land, as if Oz (of The Wizard of Oz) and Synecdoche, New York had an unholy child. The film exists in a heightened realm where emotional truth takes precedence over fact. As if caught in an eternal nightmare, Beau’s simple trajectory from point A to point B is riddled with distractions and obstacles. 

What does it mean to navigate the world while living in fear? How does it shape and limit you? Though grounded in gentle desperation, Phoenix as Beau doesn’t represent a real individual as much as the idea of one. Like the world he finds himself in, wrought with strangeness and artifice, Beau’s experience is informed almost unilaterally by his fear, instilled in him from a young age by his overbearing mother. Aster, a cinephile who loves films like Playtime and Vertigo (both chosen on his Sight and Sound ballot), reveals a filmmaker obsessed with how unreality and artifice can arrive at fundamental truths about human nature and filmmaking itself. 

In Montreal for a local premiere of Beau Is Afraid, Ari Aster spoke with us about the influence of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin and shooting in Montreal. 

Justine Smith: One thing I really loved about Beau is Afraid is that during the first part, outside of Beau’s apartment, you’re shooting on a part of Ste-Catherine Street East with these really prominent potholes. It might sound strange, but I feel that it contributes a lot of atmosphere to the film, along with the other set dressing the team is doing. The film isn’t supposed to be set in Montreal, but in New York, I think?

Ari Aster: It’s not really (New York), it’s just a “city.” Not to drain the romance out of it but shooting on location is so much about getting close enough to what you’re looking for because you’re never going to get the exact thing. Those are things you kinda get saddled with, and you need to live with them. Often, they become the things you love the most, because it adds so much texture. Montreal is such a beautiful place, and we were shooting here during the summer. It was especially vibrant and fun to be here while we were making the film. The world that Beau is in is totally invented, a heightened kind of funhouse mirror of the real world. If anything, those details help ground them a bit further. 

Beau Is Afraid Ari Aster Montreal
Ari Aster told us about shooting his new film Beau Is Afraid in Montreal

JS: I noticed you’ve programmed a series at the Lincoln Film Centre in New York and included two films by Guy Maddin. What about his work interests you? 

Ari Aster: His work is very important to me. When I was a kid, it was a really seismic discovery for me when I first found his films. When I was in film school and experimenting with short films, trying to find my own style, I was chasing him for a long time. I found what he was doing to be so delightful. I made a couple of shorts in undergrad when I was like 17, they were just total Maddin ripoffs. The film I programmed at the Lincoln Centre was Cowards Bend the Knee, that’s the first of a sort of unofficial trilogy called the “Me” trilogy. The second film is Brand Upon the Brain, which is also brilliant, and the third is My Winnipeg. But Cowards Bend the Knee is really fascinating for being a fictional autobiography where nothing is overtly true but it’s all emotionally true. It makes me think of Fernando Pessoa and his Book of Disquiet, which he called a Factless Autobiography. 

Guy Maddin is remarkable, if only for the fact that he invented a style and has a signature that’s entirely his own, which is a very, very, very hard thing to do. There are only a few filmmakers I can point to who have a completely singular personal style, and he’s one of them.

Beau Is Afraid Montreal
Beau Is Afraid

About 10 years ago, he started working with these two brothers, Galen and Evan Johnson, who are these young and also really brilliant guys — I don’t know how they found each other because they have basically the same sensibility, the same kind of intelligence and humour. The stuff they’ve been making is really amazing, radical and totally delightful, especially the film they made called The Green Fog. The other film I programmed was called Stump the Guesser, which is from the second phase of Guy’s career, where he’s working with Evan and Galen Johnson. That short played before Cowards Bend the Knee. They made this film called The Forbidden Room as well, which they made after doing these short pieces, the Seances. [Part of the Seances project was shot in Montreal at the PHI Centre].

When I was a kid, Careful was especially important to me, (particularly) what he was doing with artifice. The films are both very warm and very alienating. It’s a really fascinating mix of sweetness and total falseness. Anyway, I could talk about him for a long time, but I love Guy Maddin, and I’ve become friends with him and the Johnson Brothers, and I really love them. 

JS: I find it interesting that you bring up Fernando Pessoa because he’s also working with the multiplicity of identity with his heteronyms — these separate characters and identities he published different works under. 

Ari Aster: There were four main ones, but (there were many more). Some only wrote one poem. He had a friendship, or a weird relationship, with Aleister Crowley as well. He’s really incredible and playful. I always think about the heteronyms because I feel all people have multiple selves, and there’s something very honest about what he’s doing. ■

Beau Is Afraid (directed by Ari Aster)

Beau Is Afraid opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 21.

For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.