In Midsommar — my sophomore feature about a codependent couple whose doomed fate leads them to a nightmarish summer solstice celebration among an ancestral Swedish cult called the Hårga — there are two movies happening at the same time, from beginning to end.
The first movie is a folk horror film, and that’s the sort of movie our male characters are living in. The second is a wish-fulfillment fantasy—a modern fairy tale that our leading lady Dani (Florence Pugh) is inadvertently taken through.
Our first major set piece, introduced halfway through the film, is significant in the context of each of these “two movies.” The scene depicts ättestupa—a ritual in which every elder of the Hårga, having reached the age of 72, commits suicide by cliff-jumping as the rest of the members watch from the valley below. Dani’s boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friend Josh (William Jackson Harper) are both anthropology PhD students, and once they witness this shocking ritual, they enter into a competition to do their respective theses on the Hårga. They see this moment as an opportunity to advance their academic careers, so the worse their time at the midsummer festival gets, the more exciting it becomes. For Dani, seeing the ritual forces her to relive the trauma she endures at the outset of the film, when her sister and parents die tragically in a murder-suicide. And as one of the members of the Hårga explains the philosophy and motives behind the ritual, Dani begins to reframe her perspective on what happened to her and her family.
Ramping Up Tension
Scouting for this sequence proved to be a difficult task. We saw every possible location in Hungary throughout pre-production, looking for a valley that would include some sort of cliff top, but this was the one location we could never find. We finally found one that would’ve been great… if only there was a peak from which our stunt actors could jump.
The problem was that although our hilltop was high enough that it could kill somebody, it still wasn’t visually impressive. We realized that in order to make this work, we were going to have to build a 30-foot green screen ramp, which we would later replace with a CG mountaintop in post-production. It also became clear that building this ramp was going to cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars, so a lot of our budget went toward reinforcing it. But green-screening the ramp was worth the investment, as it was crucial in giving our FX artists something they could easily cut out in post.
When it comes to stunts, something can always go wrong, so you try to take as many precautions as you can. For certain shots, we minimized risk by avoiding having our stunt actors jump simply for our main actors’ benefit when it wasn’t required. In these instances, I would clap my clapboard in order to give our main actors the correct timing of the jump—at which point they would react.
When it came time to get more complicated shots of the sequence, the ramp also enabled our main actors to react to something real, since we could now shoot our stunt actors— not dummies—jumping off of it on wires. Of course, we spent a lot of our budget making all of this achievable, so it was ultimately very safe. But actually, our main actors did step up to the precipice, too… again, on wires, but it was very brave of them. (I could’ve done it in solidarity, but I didn’t.)
Here Comes the Sun
The biggest challenge of the ättestupa scene—of the entire shoot, in fact—was maintaining continuity. Since every shot of the scene is sequenced, we needed to make sure that even though we were jumping around our shot list, we were shooting directionally. First, you’re shooting shot one, then shot 24, and then shot 43—in that order, because that’s where the sun is as you’re relying heavily on the weather with an outdoor shoot.
Asking your actors to be able to compartmentalize a scene that’s broken up into so many parts is always tough. On some days, you’re shooting 10 scenes in one day and you don’t have time to linger. On other days, you’re shooting one scene over the course of the entire day and in the beginning, the sun and shadows are over here, and by the end, they’re over there. There’s no hope of evading 100 percent of continuity lapses if you’re shooting on a tight schedule outdoors every day. A cloud might come in as you’re shooting a scene, and it might be a tiny cloud, but if it’s coming toward the sun, you have to get what you can before the cloud hits that sun, and then you stop until the cloud has passed through. You might stop for an hour and 20 minutes, but it’s necessary in order to get your shots to match.
Setting Houses in Order
In your planning, you should shot list in a way that anticipates these problems. To develop a clear vision of the movie in my head, I always write my shot list on my own before I talk to anybody in the crew. Then I walk my DP (Pawel Pogorzelski) and my production designer (Henrik Svensson) through the entire list so they can begin to see the same movie in their heads, and from there we can build a dialogue. This approach was absolutely necessary on Midsommar: I needed Henrik to be able to envision the geography of the Hårga houses so that we could construct their world from scratch.
Whether it’s the miniature dollhouses of Hereditary or the Hårga village of Midsommar, I somehow put myself in the position of having to build complex sets in a short period of time—perhaps just to remove years from my life. Henrik had to simply trust me as to why certain rooms were positioned in the houses, and we had two months to build all the sets and cultivate the land on our Hungarian field location. Henrik did an amazing job, which was helped by a shot list method that my production designer on Hereditary, Grace Yun, introduced to us after she had used it while working on Paul Schrader’s films.
Grace suggested that we do it on a dry erase board, drawing up the blocking of our characters and a game plan for each scene—essentially an overhead view of our space. In this overview, you might have a circle that represents a character with the number one next to it and an arrow that points to where the character moves from his or her initial spot, with the number two next to that spot. In any given scene, one or more characters might move up to 20 times. You’ll also have a little box icon that represents the camera and arrows pointing to where it will move—again, both marked by number.
We only managed to plot out about half of the shot list before we were scheduled to shoot, so I made sure to walk Henrik and Pawel through the whole list each night before the next shoot day. We didn’t always have a chance to discuss these read-throughs at length, so Pawel went out to spend three full days in the fields, watching where the sun began and where it traveled, considering when we would need to get each shot. Shooting for days in the pure, white, hot, chalky outdoors with sunlight so utterly blinding you can’t keep your eyes open, our cast and crew and I thought we were going crazy. We had no idea if the film would even be coherent by the end, and we were relieved that it is. MM
–As told to Caleb Hammond
Midsommar opened in theaters July 3, 2019, courtesy of A24. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2019 issue. Featured Image: Writer-director Ari Aster (L) and DP Pawel Pogorzelski (R) planned Midsommar‘s crazed cliff-jumping scene with meticulous shot-listing.