Hereditary: The Power of the First & Last Image
This week we’ll be talking about Hereditary written and directed by Ari Aster.
I want to start by talking about the first image of this film. So, if you’re worried about spoilers, we will get to some spoilers later, but you can listen to the beginning of this podcast without concern.
The first image of Hereditary is the most important image of Hereditary.
That’s because the first image of any screenplay is the most important image of the film.
It’s the most important image of your film creatively. It’s the most important image of your film structurally and it’s the most important image of your film commercially. So, it’s actually the most important image on three different levels.
I want to talk about how the first image functions on each of these levels. We’re going to start on the most external and then we’re going to work down to the most connected.
Externally, as a commercial device, the first image is the most important image of your film because the first image is the only image that everybody is actually going to read.
When your producer or agent or manager flips the script of the first page and takes a look, it’s actually that line that makes them decide, “You know what, I’m going to send this one out for coverage,” or, “Maybe I’ll read this myself.”
Similarly, if you think about the math of being a coverage reader, you as a consumer are likely going to pay about $150 for coverage, but they’re actually getting paid $50 a script. And, if you think of what it would take you to write a logline, a commentary, and a summary of a film, you’ll realize that if they were actually carefully reading each film, and carefully writing summaries, log lines and commentaries, that they would be working for about 32 cents an hour.
So that’s not possible. You can’t eat from that. Which means that coverage readers need to choose which scripts they’re going to fully read and which scripts they’re going to skim. And that’s true for festival readers and readers who read for production companies. They actually can’t afford to read every single script carefully.
And even if the economic reason for skimming didn’t exist, there’s an emotional reason that’s even more powerful, which is that almost everything they read is bad.
If you’re a coverage reader and you read a thousand screenplays and one of them is producible, you had a pretty good year.
Most of the scripts they’re reading—and I’m not talking about scripts by student writers or beginning writers or amateur writers, I’m talking about scripts by professional writers with agents—most of what they read isn’t just bad, it’s actually un-producible.
Many of these professional writers are just slamming out ideas, playing within a formula, trying to get something to throw against the wall to see if it sticks, rather than doing the real work of carefully mining their subconscious for the real story they want to tell.
The downside of that is that there’s a lot of bad stuff that you’ve got to cut through in order to get your script noticed.
The good thing about that is that if you start to learn some of the things we talk about here, and you start to do this real work, your script really will stand out from the pack.
And that starts with the very first image.
If you’ve got a great first image in your screenplay, it will actually change the whole perspective of the person reading.
It will stop them from saying, “Oh… another bad script, okay let’s see if I can get through this,” and it will start them saying, “Oh wow! This is actually kind of cool!”
Because the secret of every coverage reader is that even though they dread reading another bad script, they’re desperately hoping to find that diamond in the rough.
So that first image is your place commercially to say, “You know what, pay attention. This one is going to be cool.”
I actually learned this lesson doing Off-Off Broadway theatre. If you’ve ever been to an Off-Off Broadway theatre piece, you probably went there supporting a friend. You didn’t go thinking, “Hmm, Off-Off Broadway theatre. I bet I’m going to have a great entertaining experience.” You probably went going, “Oh God, Jimmy is in another play. I hope it isn’t terrible so I don’t have to confront him afterwards, but I’m going to show up and I’m going to support him.”
And so, as a producer of Off-Off Broadway and Off-Broadway Theater, I knew that my audience was going to come in often feeling like they were doing charity. And that isn’t where you want someone coming in, just like if you’re working with a coverage reader you don’t want them coming in expecting to slog through another bad script by an amateur writer.
So, what I used to do—most Off-Off Broadway black box theatres don’t have a curtain—so what I used to do was invest real money in the set. I had a wonderful set designer, Niluka Hotaling, and we knew that as the audience filed in, their expectation was that they were going to see a bunch of tables and chairs and maybe some black boxes. And instead they would walk in and see a set that looked like it could be on a Broadway show.
Even though it cost me—Niluka was amazing and it cost me a few extra thousand dollars to do that that other Off-Off Broadway plays weren’t spending—the effect on the audience was huge. Because as they sat there waiting for the play to start, they realized, “Oh, maybe I’m going to see something entertaining, maybe I’m going to see something actually good.”
Their entire expectation changed, and by changing their expectations, I actually could change their experience of the play, just like when you’re really excited to go see a film it changes your experience.
So, from a commercial perspective your first image is the most important image, the first line of action is the most important line.
But, it’s also the most important image and the most important line from an artistic perspective.
Artistically, what the first image of your screenplay does is set the rules of the world for both you and your audience.
It sets the tone of the world, it sets the feeling of the script, it creates a window through which your audience can experience the story of your film—through which they can interpret it.
And it also creates a window through which you can interpret it.
It creates a feeling in you you can return to which can guide you as you write things—as you wonder, “Should I put this in or take things out?” It creates a feeling, a mise-en-scène, an atmosphere that shows you what this movie wants to be.
You can think of it like this, if you’ve ever had one of those terrible dreams where you are off to a job interview and you realize, “Oh my God, I’m not wearing pants!” If you’ve ever had that dream, you know why that dream is so terrifying.
That dream is so terrifying because you know that once they see you like that, there’s going to be no recovery. You know that that first image, the way you come in, whether you’re wearing a beautiful suit or whether you’re wearing a worn out pair of track pants, is going to change the way they experience you and the way they interpret everything.
And it’s going to change also the way you feel about yourself in that meeting.
So artistically, the first image of your film gives you a window into the world of your movie, and reminds you what your movie is supposed to be, and how it’s supposed to work. It points towards the themes of your movie and the things that really matter.
And what’s cool is that, oftentimes, when you first start writing, you aren’t fully aware of your themes.
But, simply by pushing on that first image until you find something you haven’t seen in a movie before—until you find something unexpected, and fresh, and new—you’ll start to learn, just through the action of closing your eyes and looking or pushing on that image, what your movie is really about.
So, the first image of your screenplay is incredibly important commercially, and the first image is incredibly important artistically. But the first image is also incredibly important structurally.
In fact, everything structurally in your film is going to build from that very first image.
In a well-structured film, if you take the first image and the last image of the film and you put them together, it should tell you the journey of the characters, at least metaphorically.
You should feel the journey of the character just by looking at that first image and that last image. So, let’s talk for a moment about the first image of Hereditary.
The first image of Hereditary could very well have been a cliché one.
In fact, we start out and we’re in a scene that’s very familiar if we’re used to horror movies: we’re in a creepy room and a kind of creepy house, and that creepy room is filled with dioramas, and there’s creepy music playing, and we’re kind of drifting with the camera among these dioramas.
And, if we watch a lot of horror movies we already recognize this image. We’ve seen this image in other films.
In fact, if you listen to my podcast on Annabelle: Creation you know this is essentially the first image of Annabelle: Creation: we’re in a creepy doll show filled with creepy dolls and a creepy doll’s eye.
And that isn’t the only film that has done this; there are many horror movies that have done this.
So the good thing is that this familiar image is dropping us into a genre that we understand. We immediately know, “I get it. I’m in a horror movie. I get it. Dioramas are creepy.”
And, what a lot of us might do when we realize, “Oh my God, I’ve written a cliché image,” is freak out. We might think, “Oh my God, cut it, cut it, I’m wrong, I’m wrong, it’s a mistake!”
What great writers do, instead of throwing out that image, is look closer and keep looking closer, until they find something that they didn’t expect.
And what happens in Hereditary is that we get closer and closer and closer to one diorama, and that diorama is a boy’s room. And as we get closer and closer, we see the image of a teenage boy lying in a bed. And as we get closer, and closer, and closer, that image in the bed starts to move until the diorama has filled the whole frame and that teenage boy becomes the real boy Peter, played by Alex Wolff. And we’re suddenly launched into the world of the movie.
And what this image does, it starts us in a genre world that we understand, and BANG!!! Right there on the first page it’s already turned inside out for us. It’s already surprised our expectation, set us in a world and then given it a little twist.
But it’s also opened us up to the themes of Hereditary; it’s opened us up to the theme of not being in control of your own fate. It opens us up to the theme of being subject to forces beyond our control. It opens us up to the theme of the things that we inherit from our parents—because it’s the mother who makes these dioramas, and her mother, the grandmother of the family, who may have set this whole horrific process into motion.
It opens us up to the theme about the pressure between fate and everyone’s desire not to be responsible for their actions. The desire to believe that there’s a fate that we can’t escape, and the internal knowledge that we may be to blame even though we don’t know what we’re to blame for—that neither we nor anybody else ever wants to admit what they’ve done.
So that one image actually opens us up to the whole world of the movie.
Now, as I was mentioning, the first image and the last image should tell the whole story of the film and it doesn’t have to be in a literal way it can be in a metaphorical way.
So, let’s talk about some other examples because I don’t want to spoil Hereditary for those of you who haven’t seen it. But if we think of some other examples, Little Miss Sunshine, a very different kind of movie, has the first image of the little girl waving at the television screen, waving at the Miss America on the television screen.
And in that very first image you already understand her desire because Olive doesn’t look like a future Miss America, and in that very first image we already know the problem of the movie: that this little girl who doesn’t have a chance is going to go off and try to win the Little Miss Sunshine contest.
And if you think of the last image of the movie, the whole family dancing together with her on the stage, you realize that you see the whole journey of the film, which is that by losing, each of these characters will actually win. By accepting that they’re losers, each of these family members will actually go on a journey that takes them to a place of winning.
If you think of the structure of Little Miss Sunshine, the whole structure is suggested by those two images: the first image and the last.
The structure of Little Miss Sunshine—and if you want a breakdown of that structure, I have a great Little Miss Sunshine Seven Act Structure Seminar—is that every single one of those characters has a way that they think that they’re going to become a winner, and by the end of the movie each of those characters finds a different way of confronting that they’re a loser that they’re never going to win.
And, ultimately, the structure of that film is that by recognizing you’re never going to win, by recognizing the loser in yourself, you actually become a winner—that this family will actually come to win together.
It also moves from one image of one little lone girl to an image of a united family. So, you can see the whole structure right in those two images.
Let’s talk about a more serious film: The Godfather.
Now, I’m going to simplify this a little bit by coming in on the first image of Michael, although I have a Godfather Seven Act Structure Lecture as well where you can see how this works with Vito. But, I’m going to talk about the first image of Michael, because it will be clearer for everybody.
Michael is at his sister’s wedding with Kay. His sister, of course, is marrying Carlo. He’s telling the story of Luca Brasi and Kay is a little freaked out because Luca Brasi is a creepy person. And Michael says, “That’s my family, Kay. Not me.”
So that’s the first image of Michael Corleone—he’s a guy who shows up late for the wedding, he’s the golden child in a very dark family, and he’s the one who is saying, “Look Kay, that’s my family. Not me. I’m different from these people.”
And if you think of the last scene in The Godfather, all the elements grow out of that first scene with Michael. Because Michael has killed Carlo and Kay is demanding, “Michael, tell me the truth, tell me, did you kill him?”
And Michael, after insisting she should never talk to him about his business, finally says, “Okay Kay this one time you can ask me.” And she says, “Did you do it?” And he says, “No.”
And if you think of the final image of The Godfather, there’s a man kissing Michael’s ring and the door is shut on Kay’s face.
And so if you think of that journey from “it’s my family, not me” to the door being shut on Kay’s face, you can see the entire journey, and even Carlo’s wedding ends up influencing where the movie goes.
In other words, simply by really honing in on the first image of your film and the first image of your main character, you can start to project everywhere you need to go in your film.
You can start to say, “Hey, if this is true, what else is true?” You can also start to think, “What are some images I might see along the way?”
So, if he’s going to start saying, “it’s my family, not me,” and he’s going to end with the door being shut on Kay, well then there are going to be some scenes in between.
There might be the scene where he says to his father, “I’m with you now.”
There might be the scene where he reconnects with Kay and tells her the family is going to be legit.
There might be the scene where he and Kay are out to dinner, where he snuck off with the woman he’s in love with rather than being at his father’s side, and where he finds out that there was an attempt on his father’s life while he wasn’t around.
And notice I didn’t give you those images in chronological order, because oftentimes those images don’t come to us in chronological order; rather, they come by saying, “If this first image is true, what would be very different from that? What would be something far away from that? What would be another ‘riff’ on that theme or those elements or that moment?”
And simply by projecting those images, we can start to tell ourselves the structure of our film, even if we don’t know exactly what happens, even if we’re at the early stages, even if, as often happens, what we think is the end actually ends up becoming the middle.
So, this is a generative, organic way of thinking about structure. And of course in my Write Your Screenplay Classes I get much deeper into this to teach you how to actually build a seven act structure for your own movie.
To get to my next point, I’m going to have to give you some spoilers.
So if you haven’t seen Hereditary yet, I highly recommend that you stop this podcast, go see the film, and then come back and listen to the end.
So, what’s the last image of Hereditary?
Well, it is Peter standing among a cult of people who seem to have come from nowhere. All these naked people, worshipping him with this look of confusion on his face, crowned with a crown that he doesn’t seem to understand, and possessed, we believe, or at least told he’s possessed, by the spirit of his sister and of the demon Paimon.
So where we actually build to is this look of total confusion on a boy’s face. And we pull back out and we see that this too is a diorama!
This image of this confused boy being worshipped by these naked people is also living in a little box just like all of mom’s other dioramas.
So, we’re actually going from a boy in a bed in a diorama to a boy being worshipped as king in a diorama.
Ari Aster has a very literal interpretation of what this structure is. What Ari Aster says is that this is the story of a bunch of sacrificial lambs, told from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs, who actually have no control over their fate and no idea what’s actually happening.
In Ari Aster’s mind, what’s happened is very simple: grandma wanted to bring back the spirit of Paimon. She first tried to do it with Annie’s brother, who killed himself because his mom was trying to “put people into him.” And everyone dismissed it as schizophrenia when really horrible things were happening.
And Annie was forced by her mother to give birth, but wouldn’t give her mother the boy, even though Paimon likes the boy form. So instead, she eventually acquiesced and allowed Charlie, her daughter, to be given over to the mother.
And from Ari Aster’s perspective, Charlie was a demon from the very beginning. She was Paimon from the very start. She was born Paimon, yet another sacrificial lamb who had no control over her fate. And that explains all of Charlie’s weird behaviors.
And even Charlie’s death was orchestrated, in Ari Aster’s mind, by the cult. That’s why the cult’s symbol was on that telephone pole.
So everything has been orchestrated by this cult, and all these things that the family is blaming themselves for and each other for—all these things that look like mental illness—are simply a bunch of people who are subject to a fate that they don’t understand, who are being manipulated by things that they don’t understand.
Ari Aster has a very literal explanation of this. And, in fact, if you think of that very last sequence, up until the moment where Peter as Paimon is revealed and worshipped, there’s a moment where you feel like the script really has gone off-the-rails a little bit, where we’ve gone from really complicated family horror into more familiar gory horror conventions—until we get that little twist at the end where we realize once again that we’re in a diorama.
And most people have loved Hereditary, but those who haven’t loved Hereditary have mostly pointed to that off-the-rails ending—that feeling, “Oh, I thought I was watching something really complicated and then I ended up with something that’s much more literal horror.”
But Ari Aster has also suggested that this movie is about something much more.
To quote Aster, “That last scene where Peter is made to be a vessel or the host of this demonic entity, that’s literally what’s happening. And at the same time, there’s a metaphor there, because the film is very much about trauma and how trauma can just totally transform a person.”
And this is the really cool thing about building with images. Sometimes your movie starts to tell you something that you didn’t even realize it was about.
Sometimes you have this very literal, very clear, very simple, very orderly, very conscious-mind sense of what you think happens, but simply by looking deeply at your first image and last image, you realize that, while that stuff is happening, there’s something much more important happening underneath the surface.
Because what’s haunting about Hereditary isn’t all that off-the-rails horror genre stuff in that final sequence. What’s haunting about Hereditary is that last image of this confused demon boy king.
It’s about this child who is living in his mom’s dioramas, trying to make sense of the trauma of mental illness—whether it’s his grandma’s mental illness or his mother’s mental illness—of a world where no one wants to claim responsibility for what they’ve done, where everyone wants to believe that there are these alternate forces, that it isn’t their fault, that they’re simply the sacrificial lambs for forces that they don’t understand.
And that final confused image, and the complication of that image, is so much more interesting than what Aster says he’s building.
Because it’s that image that you can’t totally resolve in your mind. It’s that image that keeps you wondering, “Did all this just happen or did something more happen? Am I watching a story about the horror of a demonic cult resurrecting a demon? Or am I watching a movie about the horror of families not connecting, of a mother who can’t forgive her son for a horrible action, of mental illness that may or may not be passed down that hereditary line?”
It raises the question, “Can I believe the reality that I was taught or is there some other reality? Can I trust the person that I became or am I the product of the forces of my childhood?”
And this is the really cool thing about writing. Our conscious minds can build our plots and can build clear story structure and clear journeys for our characters.
But when we allow ourselves to really step into our images, oftentimes what gets revealed to us is more than we could ever consciously put on the page.
Even if we have a very literal view, simply by stepping into the actual images that we see, feel, and hear, the specificity of those first and last images—not only of the movie but of each act or each scene—tells an even deeper story artistically, structurally and commercially.
We can start to tell a story that goes beyond even what we planned to tell. We can tell a story that goes beyond the limits of our conscious mind, and into that complicated subconscious where the real truth lies.
*Edited for length and clarity