Ari Aster’s directorial film debut, Hereditary, invited audiences into the home of the Graham family as its members spiraled deep into the dark corners of grief, loss, and depravity. His sophomore film, Midsommar, lures similar themes out of the shadows into the bright, sunny landscape of Sweden where a lovelorn couple attend a symbolically sinister festival. In order to capture the proper tone of juxtaposition and deeper themes within the film, folklore, and cultural traditions, Aster paired up with Swedish production designer Henrik Svensson.
A prolific musician and artist, Svensson’s extensive research and meticulous design methods enhance the characters’ pain, beliefs, and motives. An impressive first feature film as production designer, I spoke with Svensson to unveil his inspirations and design choices that made the village of Hårga a place you should think twice before visiting.
How did you come on board for Midsommar and initially connect with Ari Aster?
Due to some health issues in 2014, I had a lot of spare time and I thought if I couldn’t work anyway, I might as well do some pro bono stuff. I was secretly interested in working on a new project of one Swedish director I really liked; this was a few years into the future, and the idea was to put in some before anyone knew, to make it easier to jump in later. A cunning coup, I thought. When I was at the office getting the script for that film I also got the treatment for Midsommar, paired with an inquiry about whether I would consider helping with some research. I thought, sure, but I wasn’t all that hooked.
Some time later they [B-Reel Films] read this script from a young dude from America and thought it would be worth trying to get him write the script for this project. The script in hand was ’Hereditary’ and shortly after Ari came to Sweden and we did some initial interviews with a few folklorists. We went to museums, took a few road trips, saw a few shows, went to dinners. I found it extremely easy to connect with Ari, and begun to think we were on to something here. A few months later he came back and we actually spent midsommar (the holiday) together. That day was colder than Christmas Eve the same year, and everything felt very much upside down on a personal level, but we had a nice time at my dad’s home in the countryside, and not so nice times at a couple of other places later. The days after we went to Hälsingland. All this time, I got more and more into this originally presented idea, and right after this, Ari went home and wrote Midsommar in no time — that’s when I knew we had it.
Dani’s past seems to be strongly associated with the color yellow. It’s exhibited in the decor of her parents’ house, the flowers leading into Hårga, and the pyramid shaped temple. I also noticed blue is a prominent color within the community in terms of artwork and clothing. Can you elaborate on your use of color theory and symbolism within the film?
I did a draft for a color synopsis of the film early on, for how I thought the movie should feel. Like a color score, with the main vibe and the arches of the characters and settings. I of course had one foot in with Goethe, since we already kind of traveled that road in visiting the anthroposophists in Sweden, one foot in with Plutchik, to get some structure in it; but eventually it went more and more freestyle, even if the first draft still really stands when I look at it today. The yellow flowers and the yellow of the house is actually in the script. More and more things along the way made me want to make the yellow and the blue our signs of death — our bad signs; The main reason being it is the colors of the Swedish flag, and I wanted to make the point of how wrong nationalism is. Additionally, of course what the colors ’normally’ represent, symbolically and physically. I wanted to do something that hits you physically on every level. But mostly in a subtle way, work with dynamics, dial it down to save it for where it really hurts.
What were your architectural influences for each of the buildings in Hårga?
First and foremost the actual traditions in Hälsingland, but on steroids. Mix in some influences from the anthroposophists, some old fashioned imagination and there you have it. I always started with the shape of the land. I wanted it shaped like a symbol, so that even if you don’t understand the meaning of the symbol you should feel the weight of it. My ambition was to have the village as a clear symbol when seen from above, and also if you were to zoom out, the symbol would continue in the neighboring forests, mountains, lakes and even villages. Hårga would be the center of this world.
Early influences of this was the anthroposophical movement, and this was kind of my take on it. The yellow temple is the only one that is ’newly built,’ I imagine the next-newest built house being about a hundred years old, so they used both traditional hårgan techniques and contemporary materials, such as industrial wood and screws. It’s important to be aware of the fact that these people are timeless; They live today and they use whatever equipment they feel serve their purposes best, whether it is using horses or tractors, old or new machines, barefoot or sneakers, and so on. There are limits to their principles.
There’s an abundance of flowers used throughout the film. Dani’s parents have floral patterns on the walls and her apartment has several plants. Of course, there’s also the traditional use of the maypole, flower crowns, and floral embroidery on a lot of the clothing. Can you talk about the themes or meaning behind the use of flowers and plants, and how you incorporated them into the set design to enhance the characters and their story?
Plants and flowers can be an easy comfort. A quick fix. If everything else in life sucks you still can get instant feedback from your plants if you treat them well. We also have very clear signs of malfunction if we see plants that reflect the inner state of its owner.
For me, Dani always felt a strong connection to nature. Obviously the Hårgans have that too. The flora is extremely important, both from an aesthetic perspective, a historical perspective and a spiritual. From the agriculture of Hårga and general use of their land and its prerequisites, to the use of entheogens. For the symbolism, the fertility worshipping not the least, everything is taken from that. The official flower of the county of Hälsingland is linen/flax. One of the typical sidings in the murals are those of flax, very similar to many of the motives in the Arts and Crafts movement, whose wallpapers inspired the home of Dani’s family.
A very important department was greenery. Feels like I’m saying that about everything, but greenery is often taken for granted — put some bushes in the background or whatever — but this film really stood and fell with greenery. It was a struggle because I had such a detailed list of what species I needed growing in the area, flowers, fruits and berries, trees and so on, an area in the wrong climate zone and wrong season. As always, you need to turn failure around, and here are some of those turned into stylistic statements.
I also noticed a lot of foreshadowing hidden in the paintings on the walls of Dani’s apartment and the barn where the young community members sleep. Where did you draw artistic inspiration from for the paintings on the wall of the barn as well as the panel in the very beginning of the film? Who was the artist that painted them?
The basic influence of the paintings in the film is mainly the actual murals of Hälsingland, and the notion of how easy it would be to tweak this already creepy style to a creepiness more to our liking.
These kind of paintings have since the 1500s become a more common, more or less permanent wall decoration in houses built only for celebrations, weddings and stuff like that, on the Hälsinge farmsteads. The painters at this time were mostly self taught and unknown. The motives were sometimes biblical, sometimes just party scenes with the participants dressed up in the fashion of the time. The purpose was mainly to just brag and beat the farms of the neighboring county, Dalarna. For this very same reason the houses in Hälsingland were often bigger than common houses of the time.
Swedish artist Ragnar Persson did the houses. Taiwanese Brooklyn-based Mu Pan did the opening panel.
The community’s beliefs seem to have a mix of influences ranging from late medieval superstition, Mormonism, Wontanism, Sun King mythology, Amish Anabaptism, fertility rites, and spiritualism. Can you talk about the religious and cultural beliefs that were referenced in the film and how you conveyed those through production design?
Very tricky question. From where I stand, I dislike all modern use of religion. It’s like soccer and the World Cup, or whatever else sport to me. Misguided energy and resources, that we instead could save ourselves, our neighbors and the planet with. I hope that this shines through a bit in Hårga. How poor Ruben is being used and haphazardly ’interpreted’ into something he didn’t say.
We talked about how the philosophical and mystical grounds of the Hårgan community got established as a trade route circa 900-1100. The meeting of different cultures and religions – early Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and forgotten religions, as well as the basics of wordless, affective communication by means of necessity. The collective subconscious is very important here. That’s much of what’s Hårga is all about.
For me, I think I had a less analytical approach to the work, once the actual designing phase started. I had a couple of years of research behind me, but once committing to next stage I made myself forget all of that that wasn’t already in my bones. My days of thinking was over for this time, and then it was all gut feeling.
Runes were used throughout the film in both set design and costume design. Can you discuss the specific intention of the symbols, their placement, and meaning within pivotal scenes? For example, the two runes in the maypole and those mentioned on the stone covered in blood. I believe the table was also set up in the shape of a rune as well, but I’m not entirely sure.
You got it. All the meals, except the last one, had the tables set up as runes. More or less everything in the village is either a part of something runic or has something runic to it.
The runes are made-up modifications of symbols mainly from the elder futhark, with ’’our’’ interpretation a bit different. I’m not sure if this is making any sense now, but for example we have a rune for ’’cultivation of art, soul and craft’’ that is very prominent in the film. The entire village is built in that shape, including all the houses, fields and gardens, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t shine through. Our rune for ’’healing and cure’’ was also a big one.
The stones, and all of the other older stones on the mountain, bare the names of their ’owners’. The runic names for the Hårgans consists of combinations of runes. One to five runes, depending of age. The newborns have one, the elders have five. Each rune stands for different aspects of the bearer, such as temperament and purpose. Dani’s name, that is on her dress, consists of the Hårgan runes for ’’crisis/death’’ and ’’helplessness/innocence.’”
The Hårgan runic alphabet consists of 16 runes. Eight positive ones, four unbalanced ones and four really bad ones.
Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s use of color and light is so eerily gorgeous in the film, and there’s nowhere for horror to hide in the shadows. How was it working with him? Also, how did you amplify the cinematography through production design and use light in your favor?
Pawel is the man. I can’t say enough good things about that guy. He was a beacon in the night and a teddy bear on my pillow. Hadn’t survived without him.
Obviously my work is nothing without the proper use of light, so that is one of the things I have to think about early on. What kind of light do we need here, and how do we get it? A clear example with Pawel is the house of Siv. We wanted to maximize the wall space to get as many murals in as possible. To have regular windows would have obstructed the murals, not only space wise but also created problems with back lighting. Pawel suggested skylight windows. I just couldn’t get that to work, in the universe I was reaching for, but eventually we went for it anyway, the very very strange exterior of a house became a part of Siv’s character, and it was a great call.
There are a lot of beautiful aerial shots in the film and fantastic use of symmetrical framing. Can you talk about how you incorporated framing and symmetry into the production design?
Symmetry was really fundamental. The framing also, of course, and I had a great time when given the possibility of really designing for a frame, which I normally miss. Sacred geometry was important. The great influence of the anthroposophical art and architecture and the backbone of the honeycomb pattern are two examples.
Henrik, is there anything you’d like to specifically talk about or add that I didn’t mention?
While we are on the topic of the honeycomb: an interesting fact that I’m sure maybe only two or three people know about is that Hårga is based on the bee society. The infrastructure with the drones, in our case pilgrims, the youth, the workers, the elders and the queen. How we divided the ages and purposes of the inhabitants. The gatekeepers at the door, the welcome committee, the ’eye’ that IS the very door.
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