What Ari Aster’s 2011 Short Reveals About “Beau Afraid”

The short – now deleted from the internet – tells us a lot about Ari Aster’s early life and the neurotic humor that shaped Beau is scared.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Warning: This post spoils many plot details of handsome is scared.

Beau and his many fears have been with Ari Aster for over a decade. The same year the future darling A24 graduated from the AFI Conservatory, he directed the short film beautiful (2011), which had a series of subtitles, “Can’t—won’t—shouldn’t—sleep.” In 6 minutes and 22 precise seconds, the short film was based on a simple and anxiety-provoking premise: what if someone you don’t know has the keys to your apartment?

beautiful was written in a hurry. Aster recently told Collider that the script was a “slapped thing,” created after he realized he could use the empty shell of his graduate apartment as a setting for a few days before moving out. He uploaded the short to his Vimeo account, where it remained virtually unnoticed for several years. (This video and all mirrored versions that appeared on YouTube after Aster rose to fame have since disappeared from everywhere except internet archives. A now-defunct YouTube upload states, “This video contains content from A24 Vobile, who blocked it for copyright reasons.”) But Beau’s name stuck with him, and the short became the seed for a storyline called handsome is scared.

The first draft of handsome is scared was completed in 2014, long before Aster’s feature debut, Hereditary. In an interview with QG, Aster called his pivot to horror “a cynical decision that ended up producing a rather personal film” – he figured it would be easier to get funding for it than for a wildly stuffed Freudian comedy dick jokes. (The strategy paid off: Hereditary made $82 million at the worldwide box office on a budget of $10 million.) His next film, mid summer, in addition to the uncomfortable “Am I supposed to be laughing right now?” the humor of his early works. And this sensitivity returns at full speed in handsome is scared.

Aster’s knack for manipulating gruesome situations to comedic effect also shines through in the beautiful short. His version of the character lives in a run-down duplex with only a mattress on the floor, bare walls, and piles of unpacked moving boxes. There are signs that he’s an anxious person: we see shelves of pill bottles and a night light he grabs and throws into a suitcase he’s packing in the opening scene. Just as Beau is about to leave, he realizes he’s forgotten his dental floss and heads back upstairs, leaving the front door open behind him. When he returns, his keys and suitcase are gone.

Beau is confused – then scared when, moments later, a man in a down jacket (played by Aster himself) walks past Beau’s door with a bag of trash and spits out a hostile, “You’re screwed, mate!” We learn that Beau was on his way to the airport to visit his mother when the incident happened. He would as come visit, he tells her on the phone, but he can’t close his apartment without his keys, and he’s afraid to leave the place unlocked. Beau tries to sleep but is kept awake all night by the noise of his neighbors fighting and a possum-like creature creeping in and out of his sliding patio door.

At the end of the film, Beau is screaming, the man who broke into his house is bleeding, and an enigmatic and seemingly omnipotent creature called Kolgaan, Key Collector – revealed here as a pair of hairy hands smoking a cigar on a pile of stolen keys — triumphed. It’s a weird and funny short, taking a common fear among city dwellers (namely, the intrusion of outside chaos into our personal spaces) and turning it into fodder for bizarre comedy. Unfortunately, Kolgaan is unable to Beau is scared, but the first half of the short, until the opossum enters the narrative, appears in the feature almost verbatim.

The role of Beau was originated by Billy Mayo, a character actor who starred in Aster’s AFI thesis project, The weird thing about the Johnsons. (It features the most twisted family dynamic in all of Aster’s work, which is saying a lot: a mother turns a blind eye to her son’s sexual abuse of his father.) A 2014 feature film project by handsome is scared clarifies on its front page that Beau is black, and Aster has said in interviews that he probably would have chosen Mayo as the lead had he succeeded in making handsome is scared as his first feature film. (Mayo died in 2019 at the age of 51.) Looking at the character through this lens changes the context of some scenes: a cop staring at a black man and immediately pulling his gun plays out differently than this cop doing the same thing at a white guy, in this case, the eventual handsome is scared star, Joaquin Phoenix.

The Freudian mummy issues that dominate the 2023 version are subtle in the short and far more evident in the 2014 draft of handsome is scared, which Aster reworked into its final form in his East Village apartment during the early days of COVID-19. In the original script, Beau finds his keys on the counter of his mother’s house in the final pages, revealing Beau’s journey as a trap Loretta Wilmington (renamed Mona Wasserman in the final film) has set for her son. One aspect of this test was left out of the final film for good reason: in the 2014 script, Beau’s mother’s lawyer tells him over the phone that he missed his mother’s funeral and shouldn’t not bother to go home. In the 2023 version, the lawyer says they’re all waiting for it, a choice that builds narrative momentum rather than leveling it.

A monster penis in the attic appears in both versions of the feature film’s script, but the theatrical release ends on a different note. Instead of floating through a stadium where he is publicly humiliated for his many failures as a son and a human, Beau eventually settles for a rowboat, which is filled with food, water, and a copy of War and peace — that is, until a cruise ship on which Michelle Obama leads an aerobics class for overweight kids passes by.

Another major difference between the 2014 and 2023 versions of handsome is scared is that the group Beau stumbles upon while fleeing through the woods in the middle of the film in the previous storyline is more of a caring community than the last group of traveling comedians. They are still called the Orphans of the Forest, but rather than putting on pieces that emphasize the film’s narrative parallels with those of Homer Odyssey, they hypnotize Beau and turn him into Manchurian Candidate-style sleeper assassin programmed to kill the former First Lady on sight.

The 2014 script repeatedly mentions news stories airing in the background that depict the murders of various celebrities – Bruce Springsteen, Bob Balaban, rolling stone film critic Peter Travers — by a sinister bunch who scribble a single word at every crime scene, à la Manson Family: Orphan. In this storyline, the orphans are led by an elderly mystic named Yesekov who communicates with Beau telepathically before shitting his pants and dying.

The youthful humor, you may realize, is the most recognizable element of Aster’s early work to return with rage handsome is scared. (Just check TDF really works, a short Aster made for Funny or Die in 2011 advertising a fake product called Tino’s Dick Fart.) And his 2014 screenplay is 119 pages, which under the one-page-per-minute writing rule puts out a full hour of less than the final product. There is less development of certain elements in this version – Beau’s childhood cruise with his mother is entirely absent, for example. But Beau’s massive balls? Yeah, those are in there. Of the many absurd details that have survived beautifulfrom a six-minute short to a 119-page script to a 180-minute feature, these can be the most psychologically revealing.

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