The plot of A24’s Beau Is Afraid is a rather straightforward one. But unlike some of director Ari Aster’s other films, Beau Is Afraid leaves many of the questions it poses very unanswered and made all the more perplexing by the way the story comes to a close. Even now, production designer Fiona Crombie doesn’t entirely know what all was going through Aster’s head when the ideas that inspired Beau Is Afraid first came to him. But from the moment she first sat down to read the movie’s script, she knew that whatever the film was going to end up being, she wanted to be a part of it.
As a film that often feels something like a twisted and disturbing dream about a man who’s deeply unwell, there are a variety of different ways to interpret Beau Is Afraid and its depiction of a man struggling with the twin monsters of anxiety and an overbearing mother. At times, the film plays like an experimental, artful thriller about a man traveling through a war-torn world, while other scenes unfold like moments from a quiet drama, and you can never be quite sure which tone it’s going to strike next.
When we spoke with Crombie recently ahead of Beau Is Afraid’s wide release, she said that unpredictable quality was a big part of what drew her to the project. More than that, though, she also thinks not exactly knowing what’s going to happen next in Beau Is Afraid is a key part of experiencing the movie the way it should be.
This post includes major spoilers for Beau Is Afraid, so proceed with caution if you’ve not yet seen it.
Joaquin Phoenix and Ari Aster. Image: A24
Early reactions to the film have been so polarized, and I’m very curious to hear from you. As a filmgoer, how would you describe Beau Is Afraid, and then how would you describe it from a production design perspective?
Fiona Crombie: I always thought it would be polarizing. Always. I knew it on the page. The thing that I love about the film is that it’s like nothing I’d ever seen, it’s like nothing I had ever read, and it’s playing with form, you know? It’s trying something intimate that I hadn’t ever come across, which is why I wanted to be part of it. I want to work with people who are prepared to go out there and try something risky, and that’s very much what Ari did. From a production design point of view, it was a gift because it’s these very distinct episodes. Chapters with an episodic quality to them. So, I could present very complete worlds, and then you walk away; you leave them. I really relished doing that, like really building those worlds and then moving on.
Describing it … I mean, I think it’s really funny. To be really honest, I’ve only seen a rough cut on my laptop, so I have yet to have the full experience, and I doubt that I’ll ever have the full experience because, once you’ve been inside it, there’s no reveal. So I’ll never be able to read or receive it the way that somebody that goes in not knowing [can].
It’s interesting to hear you describe the film’s scenes as “episodic” because that’s exactly it — it feels like we’re seeing chapters from Beau’s life, but it all fits together so seamlessly. What were some of the larger feelings you wanted to define specific scenes?
FC: Generally, I wanted to create a sense of place, for sure. Like, you should know where you are — not necessarily in a naturalistic way, or hopefully you’re not going “oh, I’ve been to a place just like that” when we’re looking at Beau’s block. But I wanted people to have a real sense about where he is placed at any given moment, and obviously, there is real unease throughout the film. I think there’s unease in the therapist’s office, even with all of the kind of zen set dressing we did. I think what we kind of ended up doing was we sort of looked to push everything a percentage so that just starts to inch out of feeling naturalistic — it’s very heightened.
Was there a specific moment where you wanted the off-ness of things to kick in?
FC: I don’t know at what point in the film you clock that something’s off. I came to the script completely cold, and I didn’t know what I was getting. But I remember it was only when I got through the therapist bit and was getting into some of the apartment stuff where I went, “Oh, okay. This isn’t your everyday movie.” That put me to thinking maybe, with this film, when you’re watching this unfold, it should be the same kind of feeling. You go through this therapist scene, and you’re like, “Well this is a bit… unusual,” and then you get onto the street and you’re like, “Oooh. Now I see.”
There’s this distinct vibrance and tidiness to the film’s scenes set in Beau’s past that contrast so sharply with the muteness and chaos of the present, especially on his block before he really sort of sets out on his adventure. What aspects of Beau’s mental states were you trying to convey through the production design? Obviously, we get the sense that the movie is presenting us with this reality that’s not necessarily grounded for us. But for Bo, it’s all so real, right? Nothing exactly seems out of the ordinary for him. It’s all just sort of something that he’s very connected to.
FC: So, this is me speaking to my interpretation and not necessarily Ari’s thinking. That scene, in my mind, speaks to how Mona’s made everything around Beau as psychologically unbearable as possible so that he feels like he has to go home. His block’s just the worst place. It’s relentlessly aggressive like with the people on the street or, visually, with things he reads on the walls. It’s just relentlessly aggressive, and he’ll get to a point where he will go, “I just can’t cope. I’ll just go home.” That was what I was going for — how would you, as this very demented mother, force your child to come back to you?
What about the movie’s scenes in the past? It’s all so dreamlike, and there’s this glowy quality to it that almost makes it seem fantastical in a way that’s distinct from the present. Everything feels kind of like it’s in its place and where it should be. But it’s also obvious that Beau and Mona aren’t in the healthiest kind of mental space on this cruise ship decked out with all of these bright oranges and yellows, with everyone around them leading these seemingly happy lives. What sort of ideas were you trying to convey about the world around Beau and Mona in the past?
FC: The way that we shot that, actually, was on a virtual production, so it immediately has this artificiality to it. It’s almost kind of like a cartoon, and at one point, I was just like, “How is this going to work for us?” But eventually, we realized that no, this is actually very good for us because it’s a very distinct look that separates itself from the rest of the film, and it becomes this capsule memory space for Beau that is really vivid. In a way, these memories on that cruise ship are from one of the best times from his childhood. He had autonomy, he discovered Elaine, and very briefly, he had a singular experience for himself, and then obviously it all shifts.
I was really blown away by the imaginativeness of the stage play and the words that Beau stumbles upon and becomes a part of. I wasn’t expecting to see experimental theater come to life. What all went into making that sequence come together the way that it did?
FC: One of the things about Ari, I think he secretly loves theater. He really wanted it to be practical and real, and so that was an actual — like we built the theater. It was all practical effects. The turning trees? I had model made them, actually, before I even went to Canada, and then I came up with this idea of how they would all turn to change the seasons and then little leaves or snowflakes would fall. All of that happened, and we had a team of eight theater technicians who came and rehearsed in that forest, so the whole thing was all done live in that location. I’ve got a video on my phone somewhere of us rehearsing the whole thing. We could have cheated like a million different times and in different ways. There’s so many ways you could have cut it to make things easier, but we didn’t because it was like a little theater show, and we loved that.
I don’t know that there’s a right way to say this, but we have to talk about the penis monster in the attic.
FC: [laughing] Oh, yeah.
Again, there’s going to be a lot of debate about what certain things in the movie are and what they mean, so I’m curious to hear from you — to your mind, what is the thing in the attic in both a literal and metaphorical sense?
FC: Gosh, I don’t even know. I guess it’s his greatest fear. I mean, I don’t think it’s his father, or at least I don’t think it’s only his father, if that makes sense. But it’s like the thing that he’s been made to be afraid of his entire life…. yeah, I guess that’s what it is. You probably know that Ari drew the monster years ago, and he’s had that drawing this whole time. I went along for this ride, and it was a long ride for me. I just went, “Okay, cool. That’s what you want? Let’s go for it.”