Director Jonathan Levine used Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” as inspiration for “Nine Perfect Strangers.”
Levine studied the scene in which Dani (Pugh) trips on magic mushrooms, watching it “over and over.”
He also found inspiration in movies like “Black Swan” and “Get Out.”
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Before director Jonathan Levine began work on “Nine Perfect Strangers,” he dedicated hours to researching on-screen drug trips. He wanted his depiction to feel seismic, challenging, and, he told Insider, just a little bit funny.
Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” (2019), a dark fairy-tale film about American graduate students that unwittingly become enmeshed in a sinister Swedish cult, proved the ultimate reference point for the Hulu series, which follows nine individuals that microdose psilocybin during their stay at a holistic wellness retreat.
“‘Midsommar,’ we certainly ripped off a lot,” Levine told Insider, pausing to note that the director behind the A24 film is “so talented.”
In “Midsommar,” the details of the students’ sun-drenched Scandinavian vacation become hazy after they ingest psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, and drink hallucinogenic tea. Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski implemented specific visuals to bring viewers along for the trip. The colors in the film are vibrant and the later scenes are shot using a wide lens to create more depth, the collaborators told IndieWire.
“A lot of the look and a lot of the compositions [of ‘Midsommar’] were big references for us,” Levine said of “Nine Perfect Strangers.”
One scene of “Midsommar,” in particular, resonated with Levine: Shortly after Dani (Florence Pugh), a young woman grieving the recent loss of her family, doses psilocybin en route to the Swedish village, she grows captivated by the countryside surrounding her. Hallucinations, such as grass growing out of her hand and pulsating trees, entrance her. But when one of her friends mentions the word “family,” Dani’s mind is flooded with thoughts of her parents’ deaths. She frantically flees into the forest.
“That scene where Florence Pugh starts to trip… I watched that over and over again,” the “Nine Perfect Strangers” director said as he considered ways to bring the characters from Liane Moriarty’s 2018 novel to the screen.
It wasn’t just about accurately capturing the reality of a hallucinogenic trip for Levine, but rather portraying a “parallel reality,” telling Insider that he was drawn to “movies where reality is questioned.”
Other films – like “Black Swan,” “Three Women,” “Black Narcissus,” and “Get Out” – shaped his vision as well, he said. And as he conducted his research and reflected on his own personal experiences, he realized that balancing the eight-episode show’s tone would be the key.
“It’s the fact that it can be simultaneously horrific and funny at the same time, which is something I actually have experienced myself on mushrooms, just the sheer weight of what you’re doing makes things either hilarious or incredibly challenging,” he said.
Levine previously included drug-trip scenes in his films “The Night Before” (2015) and “Long Shot” (2019) but said “Nine Perfect Strangers” was his “most challenging balancing act ever.” With nine individuals taking hallucinogens over a sustained period of time while each working through their own individual traumas, the format posed an initial challenge.
“At the end of the day, the only way I could wrap my head around it was to make it about the people,” Levine told Insider.
He went on: “As fun as it is for me to put on a wide-angle lens on the camera and do a Steadicam move, it’s the characters and our empathy for them that really grounds it and carries us through the whole thing.”
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