How Joaquin Phoenix and Ari Aster Created Their New and Incredibly Strange A24 Film ‘Beau is Afraid’

Complex spoke with director Ari Aster and Joaquin Phoenix to talk about the freedom they found in making their ambitious new A24 film, 'Beau is Afraid.'

Ari Aster Joaquin Phoenix Beau is Afraid A24 Interview
A24 Films

Image via A24 Films

Ari Aster Joaquin Phoenix Beau is Afraid A24 Interview

Ari Aster doesn’t want for ambition. After helming two towering entries into the horror genre with the hauntingly demonic family drama Hereditary and folk day terror Midsommar, you wouldn’t blame someone like Aster for parlaying his indie bonafides into a splashy franchise project or simply taking a break.

And yet, Beau is Afraid sees the director reject any notion of settling or compromising. His third film unequivocally goes for broke, seemingly filled to the brim with every idea he’s ever conceived onto the screen.

“This one just was always special to me,” Aster tells Complex during a roundtable discussion about the film that included other outlets. “It was just a world that I loved, and that world kind of gave me license to throw in ideas and set pieces that just wouldn’t fit in any other context.”

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The narrative circumstances surrounding Aster’s newfound world are relatively straightforward: Our titular scaredy cat Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), sets out on a journey to visit his mother (Patti LuPone, but played by Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks) on the anniversary of his father’s death. The story unfolds across distinctive landscapes: A war zone of a city reflective of every conservative’s metropolitan nightmare, a stereotypically quaint suburban home owned by a doting Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane, a forest home to a traveling theater troupe, and a ritzy (yet menacing) home worthy of an Architectural Digest cover.

But in the fashion of The Odyssey or even The Lord of the Rings (name-checked by Aster in interviews leading up to the film’s release), Beau’s journey along the way is anything but normal. As in most travelogs, the full extent of his adventure is better left experienced. Each specific segment of the story is chock-full of ideas that could easily sustain their own films.

The protagonist’s fear has manifested in big and small ways over the movie’s three-hour runtime. The mysteriously abrupt death of his father imbues Beau with lingering existential angst, while smaller threats—like a poisonous brown recluse spider who’s recently taken up residence in his apartment building—linger on the periphery. Everything is out to get Beau right down to his new medication, which his therapist insists must be taken with water. Aster infuses the film with a darkly comedic tone that quickly proves Beau’s anxieties as largely self-imposed and trite—but that doesn’t stop him or Phoenix from playing it all as deathly serious.

Ari Aster Joaquin Phoenix Beau is Afraid A24 Interview

“The script was wholly original, and that’s always exciting, right? I think I’m always looking for something that feels unique,” Phoenix tells reporters. “But really, it was the conversations with Ari that made the difference between me doing it or not.” Phoenix went on to further state that he and Aster spoke “every day” for “four days in a row or something.” The Oscar-winning performer is absolutely committed in his dedication to playing Beau, and in fact, the movie hinges on Phoenix’s ability to bring the character to life and be the grounding force in the surreality of it all.

Ari Aster Joaquin Phoenix Beau is Afraid A24 Interview

That’s something Aster himself acknowledged when he told Complex that if he hadn’t previously made Midsommar and Hereditary, he wouldn’t be in a position where he’d have the ability to get someone like Phoenix for this role. “It happened the way it was supposed to,” he says. While Beau’s apprehension is palpably present—it’s right there in the title, after all—it is guilt that hangs over the film like an albatross. As in Hereditary, Beau digs deep into the idea of motherhood but filters it through Beau’s singularly fearful perspective.

In this regard, Aster posits a meaty idea about what children do or don’t owe their parents and what it costs to try and define life on their own terms. “I know that’s a preoccupation for me,” Aster says to reporters of his familial fascination. “But it feels, to me, like the obvious place to start and end.” With so much trauma lingering over Beau’s life, the question becomes more about whether or not he can succeed in carving out a life for himself. The answer, like much of the film, is a reflection of Aster’s unique perspective.

Ari Aster Joaquin Phoenix Beau is Afraid A24 Interview
Ari Aster Joaquin Phoenix Beau is Afraid A24 Interview

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