There’s one scene in Hereditary that’s more shocking, traumatic, and terrible than all the rest. And it turns out it wasn’t any more fun to shoot than it is to watch–at least for one of the actors involved. If you haven’t seen Hereditary, stop reading now!
We’re talking, of course, about the scene involving Alex Wolff’s character Peter and Milly Shapiro’s Charlie in the car. Charlie is having an allergy attack, and Peter, stoned out of his mind, is barreling down the highway, racing to the hospital. It’s the end result of a long series of setups and misdirects throughout the movie, and it goes miles more horribly wrong than you could possibly expect. Wolff said it was “not that fun” to shoot, and as he elaborated, that turned out to be an understatement.
“It was just an upsetting scene to shoot, and hard,” Wolff told GameSpot during a recent interview. “But I am proud of it…I feel super lucky to be a part of it, and it was an amazing experience, but yeah, that was probably the hardest scene I’ve had to shoot of everything I’ve ever done.”
It’s not hard to see why. Peter has just sucked down a massive bong rip, so Wolff had to act both stoned and panicky when his sister’s throat started closing. The scene’s intensity rockets through the roof as it becomes harder and harder for her to breathe. When it’s finally over, the complex blend of terror, disbelief, denial, and shock are evident on the actor’s face.
“Alex is pretty method. He’s like, in it, so I think for him it probably was [traumatic]. He really went there. I was worried about him,” said writer and director Ari Aster. “I felt like half my job that day was just to take care of him…he went to a very dark place for that scene.”
Milly Shapiro arguably had it even tougher, as she had to act like she was choking, fingers clawing at her throat, emitting guttural noises while sucking in every molecule of oxygen she could manage–all while maintaining the generally strange aura of her character underneath. But surprisingly, Shapiro said it was another fun day on set.
“For me it was really fun, because I got to do kind of my own stunt and I got to hang out of a car, which is always a really fun thing to do,” the actress told GameSpot. “I was tethered in, so it was safe.”
For inspiration, she drew on a real life allergy attack she had when she was younger. “Everyone was really great with helping me through it, and Alex was really great, because he was so into it that it really helped me get to that point of acting,” she said. “And Ari helped me work out what I was going to do–how I was going to react physically, how the character would react mentally.”
“Milly is very–she jumps in and out [of character],” Aster said. “For an actress her age, she’s staggeringly disciplined. She’s amazing.”
The scene is shocking for so many reasons. From a narrative standpoint, it’s just about the most unexpected thing that could happen. Hereditary has been marketed as a movie about the grandmother’s death; most viewers probably didn’t expect the little girl to die too, and especially not in the first act. And even if you picked up on the hints about her nut allergy early on, there’s no way you expected her to be decapitated by a telephone pole on the side of the road.
“I was really nervous about filming it, because it is such an important part of the movie…It’s such a turning point, and it changes everything about the story, and you really need to affect audiences,” Shapiro said. “The way it’s set up, you think that Charlie’s going to be alive through the whole thing…It’s just so confusing, because it’s not expected at all.”
As writer and director, Aster knew exactly what he was doing. “Of course the allergy, in that sense, is misdirection, and it’s a sort of red herring, and it is playing with expectation,” he said. “Because we’ve set it up through the first act, where it’s like, ‘OK, we get it, she’s got an allergy, something’s going to happen there.’ So you’re looking directly at it when it’s coming, because you’re waiting for something to be satisfied that’s been thoroughly set up. And then, this thing.
“I wanted that left turn that happens to be less of a left turn than, like, a chute that opens up underneath you and drops you into a new movie, where you realize, ‘Oh, I’m not in control of this experience. This isn’t safe.'”
But it’s not just the twist–even taken completely out of context, Charlie’s death scene would be incredibly shocking. Even in horror movies, it’s uncommon to see young characters die, especially in so gruesome a way. By extension, the idea of showing the child’s disfigured, bloody, decomposing head by the roadside in broad daylight is basically unheard of.
“I was worried about, like, how much are we going to show?” Wolff said. “And actually, Ari being like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna show everything, and we’re gonna make it really upsetting,’ I was like, ‘Well, OK.’ I mean, there’s something about that, that you go, ‘Alright, that that’s what this movie is, we’re gonna really go for it,’ you know? There’s something about him not pussyfooting around it.”
“I thought that was kind of awesome,” he continued. “I completely trust Ari. I think he’s a genius.”
“There is a mean-spiritedness to the film,” Aster explained, somewhat proudly. “I hope it takes its time to develop these people. We cut out 30 scenes, so we took more time originally to develop these people. But then, you know, it turns out that we’ve developed these people so that you’re invested in them, so that when these things happen…they really feel like betrayals.”