NEW YORK – There are “call your mom” movies. And then there’s “Beau Is Afraid.”
While some films inspire nostalgia for family and childhood, Joaquin Phoenix’s new dark comedy is a long, strange trip about mothers and the kids who disappoint them. For writer/director Ari Aster, the biggest compliment from people who see “Beau” is that they feel inspired to text their parents afterward out of pure panic.
“I’ve heard a couple times that it’s activated a lot of guilt in people,” Aster says. “I think that’s great.”
USA TODAY sat down with Phoenix and Aster to chat about the surreal horror-adventure film (now in theaters).
‘Beau Is Afraid’ review:Joaquin Phoenix’s bonkers hero quest is the mother of all guilt trips
Ari Aster wanted to make himself laugh with bleak ‘Beau Is Afraid’
“Beau” follows a timid middle-aged man (Phoenix) who suffers from extreme anxiety and rarely leaves his dilapidated, crime-riddled apartment building. But when he learns his mom (Patti LuPone) was involved in a tragic chandelier accident, Beau warily ventures out to go see her. On his odyssey, he encounters bizarre obstacles such as a hippie theater troupe, a sinister suburban family, and at one point, a giant penis monster.
Aster wrote a version of the script roughly 12 years ago but didn’t have the finances to make it at the time. After the success of his horror movies “Hereditary” (2018) and “Midsommar” (2019), he decided to revisit the story, which finds humor in its increasing absurdity.
“This character came from my guts,” Aster says. “Really, I was just trying to make myself laugh. I wanted to make something funny and sad.”
He eventually reached out to Phoenix, who was largely unfamiliar with Aster’s work.
“My nephew tried to get me to watch ‘Hereditary’ and I thought it was too scary,” Phoenix, 48, says. He also caught a few minutes of “Midsommar.” “I was shocked by what I was seeing. I just thought the filmmaking was unbelievable, like, ‘What is this movie? Who is this person?’ “
But Phoenix wasn’t initially on board for “Beau” when Aster got in touch. He feared it might be too close to other projects he’s done before, having played grueling roles in “Joker,” “The Master” and “You Were Never Really Here.” Even after he signed on and arrived at the film’s set in Montreal, the Oscar winner still didn’t totally understand it.
“I don’t think there was ever a moment where I was like, ‘I get this and know what it is and know what I want to do.’ I don’t think I ever had that,” Phoenix says. But through their conversations, “I just thought, ‘I like talking to Ari and I want to keep talking to him. I could spend a few months with this guy.’ I could tell that he cared deeply about work but he was also funny.”
Joaquin Phoenix says reports of his injuries during the movie shoot are wildly exaggerated
Like the burning bear in “Midsommar” and the surprise decapitation in “Hereditary,” “Beau” is chock-full of deliciously demented moments. There’s a hilariously squirmy sex scene featuring an inspired Mariah Carey needle drop. (“It wasn’t cheap,” Aster says, but “that is a perfect pop song.”) Then there’s the chaotic first 30 minutes, where addicts, looters and naked serial killers run free on a comically hellish city block. (“I was like, ‘How densely can I pack this with little visual jokes?’ “)
Stories of Phoenix’s intensity on the set have made headlines in recent weeks after Aster revealed at a post-screening Q&A that the actor fainted once while shooting a particularly draining moment with LuPone. He also finished another scene with a shard of glass stuck in his side.
“They all sound stupid,” says Phoenix, clarifying that it was breakaway glass, made from a combination of sugar, water and corn syrup. It’s used in film stunts because it shatters easily and doesn’t harm actors.
“You just do whatever work you do on a movie and then that’s it,” Phoenix says. “And hopefully, something happens that’s uncomfortable if you could be so lucky. But the thing about the glass was that it was fake. It just so happened that on the last take, this one tiny piece happened to survive and I landed on it” after running through a breakaway glass door.
“Just to be clear,” Aster says with a grin, “Joaquin did it to himself.”