In Ari Aster’s new film “ Beau is Afraid,” Joaquin Phoenix plays an anxious man in a rotten world who goes on a wildly weird journey, both Homeric and Oedipal, to his mother’s home.
It’s theatrical and depraved and perhaps best left largely unexplained, at least until audiences get a chance to enter the debate. But on the eve of the film’s wide release Friday, Aster and Phoenix attempt to shed some light on “whatever this is,” male pattern baldness and things better left unsaid.
Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: What gave you the confidence to make “Beau” now?
ASTER: I’ve wanted to make it for a long time. I think I just felt that maybe I might actually be granted the green light now. And I was, which is still a surprise. I also just wanted to make something funny and sad.
AP: Joaquin, your schedule was already quite busy with Todd Phillips’ “Joker” sequel and Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” — why did you want to make time for this?
PHOENIX: That’s what I do. You always work it out. And I didn’t know what it would be, but in having conversations with Ari, I kept just being curious and I enjoyed talking to him. At some point it was like let’s just start shooting and see what happens. But I didn’t really have any expectations other than I thought that it would be challenging.
AP: I’m always reticent to ask about process, especially in a movie like this where maybe it’s better not to know.
PHOENIX: I don’t know the f——-g process either. It’s a mystery to me, but you just start. I mean, one of the first things that Ari and I did, we talked a great length about the hair. That was just our way in for whatever reason. So months in advance, like, like six months or something, Ari was in L.A. and we worked with someone in the hair department and we kind of just started playing with what look might work. Then we get into costumes and Ari had this great idea that Beau should have oversize clothing. And I just thought that was a great idea. I love things that are tactile that I can feel and put on. That starts having an effect on things. And then, I don’t know, we just talk endlessly. I don’t even remember what we talked about. Probably a lot about balding.
PHOENIX. And testicles.
ASTER: Well, yeah … We knew there was male pattern baldness. We just didn’t know to what extent. Like, is he, totally bald? What was the color of the hair, you know, if there is any.
AP: Who is Beau to you?
PHOENIX: He’s somebody who’s constantly being tested. It’s really about identifying his nature, like who he was because everything about the world is trying to get him to react. And there’s something so good about him in some way, and it’s something that’s not jaded. But he also doesn’t realize how absurd this world is. And what was really important to us is that I played it as straight as possible. These things, this danger really does exist. And he doesn’t ever really stop and say, hold on a sec, this is f——-g crazy. Something is going on, right? I just think that was really important in getting to what his true nature is, which is kind of what (his mother) Mona is trying to do. She kind of fears that genetically he has something … or, should I not?
ASTER: I guess maybe?
PHOENIX: I’ll just stop.
ASTER: No, no, no. Well, maybe.
PHOENIX: You’re right, never mind.
ASTER: It was very important that Beau be very, very real and whatever he is experiencing be very, very real. It’s a very heightened performance, but it’s also very grounded. That was really necessary because the world is so arch and almost cartoonishly malign. The world of Beau is supposed to be a mirror of this world, like it’s horrible in all the same ways but with the dial turned up. I think that would have been unbearable, especially at this length, if you didn’t have somebody that you could kind of hold onto somebody who is a very effective surrogate whoever the audience is. A lot of the conversations were about just making this guy real enough. How do we have this guy be of this world and at the same time be (five-second pause) uh, real and authentic.
PHOENIX: You see what I’m saying? This is what it was for a month leading up to shooting.
ASTER: Only, you know, mercifully no cameras for posterity.
AP: The world around Beau is wild, especially in the nightmarish city where he lives full of incredible vulgarity and depravity, from the graffiti to the store signs. I read Ari was the architect of a lot of those details.
PHOENIX: It’s very easy for him.
ASTER: That was just happening on automatic. Just bring a notepad, you know what I mean?
PHOENIX: Just talking, giving direction and then just, like, writing the most putrid thoughts.
ASTER: Because the world was invented, it gave me license to throw in things that make me laugh.
AP: People have made a big deal about this being the most expensive film A24 has made, which makes it seem like it’s some $200 million superhero movie when it’s really much more modest than that according to the reported numbers.
ASTER: What are the reported numbers?
AP: I read $35 million.
ASTER: That is right. It was my biggest budget. “Midsommar” was $10 million and “Hereditary” was $5 million. But this was a much, much bigger film. In some ways it kind of felt like we had the same kinds of resources for what we were trying to do, which means that, you know, we had to stretch every dollar. And if ever we fell behind on one day, it was very, very stressful because we would have to make up for another day, which was already packed with stuff we had to do. There were a lot of limitations. But those can be good. It puts you into problem solving mode. It’s hardest on the crew.
PHOENIX: You work on weekends, you work through lunches. There’s something in some way that’s great about it because it forces you to constantly focus on work. There’s no fat. There is no time to just relax. It probably creates an energy that the film captures.
AP: Before “Hereditary.” you said were feeling a little cynical about Hollywood. Has your perspective changed after your successes?
ASTER: I’m not sure what I said about Hollywood. Hollywood is …
PHOENIX: Hollywood is great.
ASTER: Yeah. Wait, Hollywood is hell on earth, what are we talking about? It’s the worst place in the world. But no, I love it. I’ve been very fortunate in that right out of the gate I had this relationship with A24. That’s been a really wonderful thing in my life. The fact that I was able to make whatever this thing is right now is pretty wonderful. I have no complaints. Was that a good answer?
PHOENIX: It was interesting.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.