We worked to create a “slow film” aesthetic, with distinct moments where it broke from the rules. Paul planned to use boredom and duration as the method, with longer takes, less dialogue, static camera, and silence. So there was pressure to get the imagery right, knowing the viewer will be faced with the same composition for a long time. I wanted the overarching mood to feel isolating and at times uneasy. It was all about cutting out the noise, staying within palette, keeping the elements simple and balanced to sustain the focus on Toller’s existential journey. – Grace Yun on First Reformed
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Released by A24 to high praise, both Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017) find their emotional tethering in key central performances. In Hereditary, Toni Collette plays Annie, a mother caught between despondency, howling defensiveness, and terror, while First Reformed features Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller, a priest struggling to find his place in the church and the greater world.
Both films are bleak portraits of prolonged mental collapse. Their characters try and fail to enact change, but every activity – whether small and passive, like riding a bike, or grand and direct, like altering the course of a family’s destiny – meets with futility. There’s an intimacy in all the darkness. though, in watching these characters attempt to persevere. Both movies are built on sand, with a series of small tremors building toward seismic tragedies.
The films also share a creative duo – Olga Mill, costume designer, and Grace Yun, production designer. Below, we discuss clerical clothing, designing cults, and eyeball lamps.
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So, first off, Olga, could you tell me about your work on Beach Rats? I loved that movie.
Thanks, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! When I first read Beach Rats, I connected to it right away because I grew up in South Brooklyn. I thought Eliza evoked something visceral about that environment. Helene and Eliza were working to capture how a man’s body moves through space in this world, so a lot of my choices were about getting out of the way. For this story, the costumes needed to be at a whisper rather than shouting at the audience. We wanted the guys to evoke the feeling of a wolf pack; that’s why they are dressed so similarly sometimes. It was interesting to work with a combination of actors and non-actors and achieve a unified look. Three of the guys were from the neighborhood, so they were a great resource and inspiration. Harris Dickinson, who is British, was really committed to authentically portraying Frankie. I wanted to aid him as much as possible. We used the clothes to help him bridge that cultural divide. As soon as he put on a pair of basketball shorts, high-top sneakers, and the baseball hat. his whole center of gravity changed. That was a fun transformation to usher along.
How did you begin your work on Hereditary and First Reformed?
I always start a project by making an initial look book or collage; interestingly, it has nothing to do with clothing. It’s usually a collection of images that evoke my own emotional response to the text. For me it’s really a way to set aside time to reflect on a script, but I can’t just sit at my desk staring out into space, so it gives me something to do with my eyes and hands while I mentally chew over the story. From there it’s a lot of conversations. I think getting as much face time in with your collaborators in the primary stages of prep is super important. That way when things get busier and more hectic, you know that you are all building up from the same foundation.
For First Reformed, how much research went into Reverend Toller’s clerical clothing?
I did a ton of research because I was not raised in the church, so that whole world was very new to me. My strategy for research is usually to find an expert on the subject and make friends. I look for visual references and do a lot of reading on my own; but I always assume that someone has spent their whole life on the subject so they will always know more than what I can learn in a few weeks. I connected with a few clergy members that were generous enough to share their time with me. I initially assumed that there were very strict rules, but the more I talked directly to priests, especially in the First Reformed Church, I was surprised to learn that there is a lot of room for interpretation and self-expression. The choice to then have Toller in a traditional cassock and collar reflects his respect for the institution and its history. It’s a surrendering gesture to have him choose to wear a uniform. I found a First Reformed Church in Park Slope where Grace Yun (the production designer) and I went to a Sunday service. We also went to a service at the Christian Cultural Center to get a feel for what a more modern, larger congregation is like. Both experiences were really beautiful and gave me a great deal of respect for carving out that time every week to connect spiritually to your community. For me the first-hand research was super inspiring. Paul [Schrader] was also a great resource because he has such a strong religious background and had a very clear vision for Toller. I worked with the folks at Duffy & Quinn; they are a retailer and manufacturer of church apparel based here in New York. They not only built Toller’s cassock and stole but helped answer all kinds of questions I had along the way.
Visually, Toller’s stole seemed mimicked by his scarf when outside the church, and his black sweaters often had necklines similar to his priestly attire. Was there an idea that Toller should look like a pastor whether inside or outside the church?
Yes, I’m glad that came across. We wanted to echo his clerical silhouette throughout the film. After losing his son, he is no longer a father or a husband, so his identity as a priest is all he has left, in a way. The scarf, coat, and high necklines were all meant to reflect that. A big reference that Paul had for Toller was Claude Laydu in Diary of a Country Priest, especially the length of his coat, and I’m glad we stuck to it. It was difficult to find a men’s coat that felt like it belonged in the modern world, did not call too much attention to itself but went down to the calves. Once we found it, I added a vent in the back so that it would move more when the wind blew. I looked for ways to get a visual sense of how nature leaves its impression on us, so we painted salt stains on Toller’s shoes, pants, and edges of that coat. The salt stains are also an inevitable side effect of East Coast winters, but I always loved how painterly and organic the stains are.
First Reformed is often bleak, in the extreme. Did this affect your use of colors?
Yes, it’s an entirely desaturated world. That was the path Paul set us on. I looked at shades of stone and dirt, natural elements that were void of color and then tried to replicate them through fabrics. Grace and I were very strict with the color palette in order to stay true to Paul’s vision. Working within such a tight palette can be a practical challenge, but I think it really pays off. We made sure all of our background actors didn’t deviate from the plan, so we always had a stock of browns and grays to pull from. My whole crew was great about policing the color, making sure nothing snuck into a frame. We allowed Mary’s wardrobe to have subtle hints of purples and blues but all very dimmed down. It was a way to elevate her.
Correct me if I’m wrong but Amanda Seyfried’s Mary does not change sweaters until her husband’s suicide. And then, throughout most of the movie, she is in a series of grey sweaters and coats, culminating with her amazing hooded coat during the funeral.
I looked at a lot of religious artwork in general but specifically depictions of the Virgin Mary for Amanda’s character; that is what sparked the idea for the hooded coat. The drape around her face was a way to achieve a slightly biblical silhouette through a current garment. We see Mary mostly at home or inside the First Reformed Church; I wanted it to feel like the outside world was invading those spaces, so we kept her bundled up as if there was a permanent draft running through the house. To accommodate Mary’s pregnancy we went the DIY route. There is such a huge maternity market, but we avoided all of that. Mary felt like a woman who would improvise rather than buying a whole new wardrobe for her pregnancy, so we made it a point to shop only in regular stores. I kept her closet small so that pieces can repeat and give a realistic sense of the young couple’s life. It was fun to work with Amanda, who was pregnant herself during filming. We tried to find comfortable looks that fit the character as well as the whole world.
Could you tell me a little about Reverend Jeffers’ suits?
Jeffers represented Abundant Life, which existed in contrast to the First Reformed Church. I wanted his suits to be sleek and modern without being ostentatious. We worked on really tailoring them for Cedric. I was conservative with his ties, making sure they were not too bold with oversized knots; that always reads as peacocking, and Jeffers was more about leadership rather than vanity.
How did the design of the suicide vest come about?
The suicide vest had a long evolution process. It started with doing a lot of research that I worried would put me on some kind of FBI watch list. Grace and I collaborated on the style and technical challenge of making sure it actually made sense. For me the big question was what the base garment should be. Originally we tried a military or tackle vest, which is what I saw in most of my research. That did not quite feel right for Michael; the military look was too intentional, so I started looking at camping and general outdoor gear. That is where we found the vest that you see in the film. It felt wholesome, which was a more interesting juxtaposition to the explosives. I liked the idea that this was something Michael or Mary purchased with a very different, much more hopeful intention than what we saw it being used for. The high neckline allowed me to add a light color ribbing around the neck that speaks to Toller’s priest collar. Once that was settled, we sent it out to a place called Rocks and Jeans in New York that does a great job at aging and distressing clothing. Grace and I continued to add layers of dirt and wear and tear. We worked together to understand the mechanics of the wiring and eventually reached out to The Specialists, a local prop fabricator, for the finishing details on the explosives and detonator.
For something like Hereditary, does the genre of horror influence your art?
I approached Hereditary like a family drama more than a horror film. I wanted each character to be very grounded in reality so that we have something to unravel. The family conflicts and dynamics that Ari wrote in the script are so juicy, I tried to focus on that as the guiding light for the design. I think that makes the movie scarier; it gives the audience an entry point to be able to relate with the characters. They should look like your neighbors and your own family, opening up the possibility that this can happen anywhere, to anyone. Of course, with stunts and blood there are technical problems to solve, but at least you are able to find the character first.
Could you tell me about Charlie’s design?
Thank you! I thought of Charlie’s clothing as a security blanket for her. Some of Charlie’s behavior is compulsive and repetitive, so I wanted her clothing to reflect that. Since there were only a few pieces that we ever see her in, I wanted each one to be special. Charlie is very insular, preferring to hide from the world, and clothing can be a great tool for that. She is someone who carries a lot of things with her; she is constantly working on her figurines or sketching, so her wardrobe needed to accommodate that. That is where the silhouette of an oversized hoodie came from. The rust color ties into the fire motif we used for the cult; and once we settled on that sweatshirt, both Grace Yun and I decided to keep that color away from everyone else. We miraculously found that sweatshirt at a goodwill. Heather Gaiter, who was our fantastic assistant costume designer, went out hunting and came back with exactly what I had described, and it was already beautifully worn in. The challenge was then to recreate it so that we had the multiples necessary for the stunt work. Aron Swenson was amazing and managed to color match the sweatshirt by dyeing white ones.
I’d like to know about Annie’s clothing.
The anchor for Annie’s identity was that she is an artist, but I wanted to take down the stereotype of the eccentric artist. I looked at a lot of photographs of artists in their studios, specifically women. So much of their clothing was just utilitarian; not everyone can be Frida Kahlo. Annie’s medium is very tedious and requires a lot of painstaking work, so I also gave her the hand brace and magnifying glasses as armor, thinking of an artist going to work as going into battle. Toni was great about exploring these ideas without any element of vanity. Outside the workshop her clothing is generally very simple and practical, but all of it has an effortless style. As her sanity appears to be fractured, her look starts to echo a patient in a mental hospital, loose and institutional.
What was your process on designing Paimon’s cult?
Grace, Ari, and I collaborated a lot on trying to unlock what the visual language of the cult would be. A big idea that Ari responded to right away was to have the cult members be naked for the final ceremony. I thought that seeing them totally exposed would be more shocking than anything we could have designed. By using their bodies, it allows the audience to imagine the potential of anyone around them to be transformed into an agent of fear. It also tied into the idea of shedding an identity, offering yourself up as a sacrifice to something larger. I watched Legends of the Witch, a great documentary about cult ceremonies and rituals. I also found a website that had a message board where people shared their experiences of actually trying to invoke Paimon. We pulled from that but also wanted to create our own rituals and symbols. We needed to show the hierarchy inside the cult. By having Joan be the only member that is not nude, it gave her a position of power. We built her dress out of muslin, and Grace incorporated the fabric into the production design as well. Overall, creating a new mythology was a big challenge but also left a lot of room for exploration.
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Grace, I suppose a good place to start would be, how did you get involved with First Reformed and Hereditary? You were also the production designer on Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog, right?
Yes, I met Paul through a mutual friend who recommended me for Dog Eat Dog. As someone relatively new to designing features, I’ll always be grateful he took a chance on me. For First Reformed, Paul emailed the script early on and described the specific style of the film. I was very happy to work together again and explore a strict aesthetic.
The script for Hereditary came through my agent. The horror was there on multiple levels; it read like a psychological drama amplified by a supernatural narrative. Felt pretty wild to me. When I met with Ari, I knew it would be an exciting project to tackle.
First Reformed was filmed in Academy ratio. Does this change your approach to design? The squared exterior of the First Reformed Church looks so beautiful in that aspect ratio.
Yes, I think it’s important to pay attention to aspect ratio; it informs the composition within it. Working in Academy ratio brings focus to what’s central in the frame; it makes the world feel closed-in, zeroed in to Toller’s perspective. I kept that in mind when scouting locations, thinking about what would exist inside the frame and what would exist outside of it. For instance, the exterior church location was on a hill surrounded by suburban homes. The aspect ratio granted compositions that isolated the church and cemetery grounds.
The film is so sparse and clean – most locations are adorned simply, little is out of place, wall outlets and radiators are painted to match the wall color.
We worked to create a “slow film” aesthetic, with distinct moments where it broke from the rules. Paul planned to use boredom and duration as the method, with longer takes, less dialogue, static camera, and silence. So there was pressure to get the imagery right, knowing the viewer will be faced with the same composition for a long time. I wanted the overarching mood to feel isolating and at times uneasy. It was all about cutting out the noise, staying within palette, keeping the elements simple and balanced to sustain the focus on Toller’s existential journey.
How’d the production decide upon those two specific churches? They seem to be opposites not just in scale but in color – Toller’s church has cooler tones while Jeffers’ is warmer, if I remember correctly.
You’re right, Abundant Life is meant to feel warmer, distinct from First Reformed’s whites and blues. There’s even a difference in temperature: Olga Mill had First Reformed parishioners in their coats, whereas the youth group in Abundant Life wore T-shirts. We wanted Abundant Life to feel communal, lively by comparison, to reflect the type of contemporary church that functions like a small college. We scouted churches with facilities that serviced a large congregation. In the end we found a church that had about 60 percent of what we needed and reshaped several spaces to create the rest.
The church for First Reformed needed to feel like a relic from Colonial times, with history and simple architecture, but also feel kinda stale in order to be the “souvenir shop” reliant on Abundant Life. The church we found was established during late Colonial Period; it retained original features and fit so well with the design and color palette. The exterior church and interior sanctuary were the same location, but the parsonage interior was a different location.
The polluted bay funeral sequence is so visually different from the rest of the film. Could you tell me a little about its conception?
It was scripted that Michael’s funeral would take place in a polluted area, originally on dilapidated factory grounds. We wanted a distinct image of what Michael’s character was fighting against, what made him fall into despair and ultimately end his life. The ship graveyard felt like the right visual, a reminder of what we hardly think about: what happens to things after they lose utility? It’s a place that sticks with Toller, and we see it again during the magical mystery tour.
I’d like to know about Toller’s bathroom – it’s so worn.
We wanted the parsonage to take on a quality of practicality as well as history. The downstairs has ornate details to indicate a time it was presentable, whereas the living quarters are for use only. The wear and utility of the bathroom are meant to show the lack of importance Toller assigns to his own living space. All the funding goes toward the church.
Also, I’d feel bad if I didn’t mention the eye lamp in Mary’s living room.
I really enjoyed adding that piece. It started from a conversation Paul and I had during preproduction: the surprise of walking into someone’s home and seeing a random, unusual object. With that idea applied to this world, it became an eye. The lamp is meant to be conspicuous, but its significance is left to the audience.
Could you take me through Hereditary’s preproduction process? It seems like a research-heavy project.
Yes, it was! So much to explore. Getting to know the characters and the family dynamic, both in their regular lives and the nightmare destined for them, was a main focus from the start. A lot of research was done to develop Annie’s world: the Graham House, her artwork, Charlie’s artwork, the family dynamic, her psychological history. And Ellen’s secret life: I delved into texts and imagery from demonology, pagan rituals, Judeo-Christian art, sacred geometry, herbalism . . . and more on Paimon characteristics and symbolism. This helped inform the design and practices of the cult.
There were multiple running conversations not only with Ari Aster, Pawel (Pogorzelski, director of photography), Olga, and my team, but also the miniaturist, special effects (most FX were practical), stunts, fabricators (Charlie’s figurines, Paimon jewelry and books, Ellen’s needlework, stained glass, etc.). I felt like I needed to be wide awake at all times to tackle the challenge.
Do you find that you work differently on a horror film or that your eye changes to suit the genre?
A genre film allows you to play in an arena that’s a step outside naturalism. Surreal elements are not usually questioned. The atmosphere becomes a big part of propelling the narrative. But ultimately I think each script and director require different approaches; they dictate unique needs. My usual way in is to suss out what’s the primary driving force in the script; what is this film really about? Kind of getting to the soul of the narrative that structures everything else. From here you hope the design establishes the film’s own definition of what an object or color, etc., signifies.
Hereditary’s home feels like a lived-in home, not a spooky horror movie set. Was it a location you found or a set you built from the ground up?
The exterior house was a location, with the exterior treehouse built and installed on location. The entire interior of the Graham house was built on a stage, along with the attic and interior treehouses (there were two sizes). The dimensions of the build and flow of the rooms was designed to function with Ari’s meticulous shot list.
Ari and I wanted the Graham house to carry the idea of the family being trapped inside a doll house and also feel like a real home to the characters. The house interior drew from American Craftsman style that inherently feels warm and inviting. The decor is meant to show Annie’s taste for vintage and antiques but also a practical side that shops at box stores. The house also needed an ominous darkness to help the horror play out. So I chose a dark, saturated color palette and drew out irregularly shaped rooms.
I love old folios and books in horror movies. How did Paimon’s book come to be?
Books are definitely a fun prop to play with. I had to think about its purpose, history, and consumption. The concept behind it was that it’s a working text, continuously being edited and expanded. The cult members compiled information through the years from various different authors, ancient tomes, prophesy, etc. We wanted it to look like the book had been written, copied, and bound by the cult members themselves, over the generations. That’s why the book itself doesn’t look like it’s falling apart from age; it’s something that’s continuously reissued (like key religious texts). So in a lot of ways the process of us putting it together was following the concept.
What was the process on the manufacture of Annie’s miniatures?
We worked with a miniaturist who was already attached to the project before I was brought on. He did a tremendous job building them in a tight prep schedule. The biggest challenge was that his studio was in Canada, while we were prepping in Utah. So I wasn’t able to visit and see progress, discuss what’s working or not. Ari and I had frequent meetings discussing the look and meaning of each piece, including ones that represented Annie’s previous collection shown in the foyer of the house. One was a house with padlocked doors and windows; the other was three stacked homes from different eras sinking into dirt, continuing the themes of a cursed fate.
The trickiest miniature was the replica of the Graham house. It was a puzzle of function for story and camera: fitting the exterior location of the house with the layout of the build interior while also providing access for the camera to specific rooms and making sure it gave interesting compositions for specific shots. The result is an illogical stacking and orientation of rooms that hopefully felt cohesive and understandable.