Ti West, who broke onto the indie horror scene with 2009’s House Of The Devil, which he wrote and directed, belongs to an elite fraternity of filmmakers. Thus far, in fact, a fraternity of one: filmmakers who have punched me in the face.
We met at a Fantastic Fest eight or nine years ago, when West was scheduled for an exhibition boxing match against Drafthouse founder Tim League, and discovered that we were both, for lack of a better term, MMA dorks. He invited me to the kickboxing gym where he trains the next time I was in LA, and we sparred a little. (I’d like to think I hit him in the face a few times too). He’s made three or four films since then, including X, an acclaimed (94% on RottenTomatoes) horror film about a 1970s porn crew who run into trouble at an isolated farmhouse, released in March. Now, barely four months later, he has another movie hitting theaters, Pearl, a prequel to X, also distributed by A24.
With Mia Goth reprising her role (she played both porn starlet and weird old woman in X), Pearl takes place in 1918, in the wake of the Spanish flu pandemic (timely!). Pearl and Maxine from X were always meant to be two sides of the same coin (hence being played by the same actress), and if Maxine was inspired by the glow of Hollywood to make porn in X, Pearl yearns for the stardom of a different era. Pearl exists, then, partly as its titular character’s technicolor fever dream, allowing West to go wild with stylistic homage, a textural 180 from X despite being shot on essentially the same set in New Zealand.
Despite West being a filmmaker and me being a film critic, probably 90% of our conversations over the years been about MMA. Interviewing him about movies always feels a little like we’re playacting the roles of “professional.” The upside is that I feel like I get more of sense of what it’s actually like to make movies from West than I do from most filmmakers and actors making the rounds — who have been doing essentially the same interviews for entire days where the questions and answers mostly stay the same and only the interviewers’ faces change.
And it’s an interesting niche Ti West now inhabits. He’s become something of a low-budget James Cameron. In the midst of promoting Pearl, which he shot almost back to back with X, he’s gotten the greenlight on Maxxxine, an 80s-set sequel to X, turning it all into a full-fledged franchise. It’s a position unique probably only to him at this point, the auteur of a horror franchise as prolific as Insidious but with the arthouse cachet of A24. I was curious how he felt about finding this privileged lane of the entertainment business, and the insane amount of work that must come with it. And who better to try to explain that to than someone you’ve punched in the face?
X is sort of a horror movie about porn and then this is kind of a prequel without the porn. Did you ever worry the audience was going to be like, “Hey, man, where’s the porn?”
Porn is obviously a part of X for sure, but I always thought of X as more of an entrepreneurial thing about these young people who are like, “Oh, our way into the film business is via porn. We can become our own stars and we can pay for our own movie and we can use our own talent and we can distribute it ourselves.” And it always felt like that was their outsider’s way into the film business.
Horror and porn have always had a sort of symbiotic relationship of being like that in the movie business. You could, especially in the seventies, independently forge your own path. And so that was a movie about people who were affected by filmmaking in some way. And then Pearl, she’s just being affected by filmmaking in a more wondrous, ambitious, dream kind of way. The glitz and glamor of a life that you get from being a dancer or being in the movies. Just trying to show a different kind of cinema and a different way into it. But I mean, Pearl does get to see a little bit of porn.
In X it seems like their jumping-off point is that they think they found a really good location to make their movie. That seems like part of your own process in the movies that you’ve made.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, when you’re making low-budget movies, whatever you can get out of what you have is a major tool in a way. So for me, certainly with making low-budget horror movies for many years, it was always like– I think there’s a line X where they first get to the farm and RJ is like, “It’s going to add a lot of production value!” And that’s the kind of dumb stuff I say, when I’m going around looking for places. “Like, oh, this is going to be great. This is going to make the movie seem big.” And it’s really just a field that we have.
I think when I talked to you about maybe In A Valley of Violence, that was part of the jumping-off point, was that you had a really good location for it.
Yeah. I knew about a location in New Mexico that was a Western town. I knew what was there. So if I write something that made sense in the town that was already there, we’d have to augment it, but we don’t have to build it. And in many ways that’s how Pearl came together, was we built this barn for X and we built the bunk house and we changed so much of the infrastructure of the location that we were shooting in, and I was like, well, why would we just tear this down? We can just paint it bright red and now it’s a new movie.
What was the turnaround like between this one and X?
There really wasn’t much turnaround. They said we were going to make X, and we were going to make it in New Zealand because it was peak COVID and it was safe to make the movie there. I felt like, “Well, we’re going to New Zealand and we have all these visas, we have this crew and we have the cast, and we’re building all of these locations, it’d be a shame to just finish the movie, tear it all down and go home. Maybe we can make two movies.” But a sequel to X didn’t really make sense because I didn’t want to make a movie where more people showed up at the same farm and terror ensures, so, the only thing that made sense to use all the same stuff was to go backwards.
So once we shot X, we knew we were making Pearl. When we finished shooting X, it was about three weeks in between the two movies, which was a frantic month of putting up wallpaper and painting things and trying to get all kinds of different period props in there. It was wild. It was a really unique experience. I was there for 13 months. I went there thinking I was going to be there for three, four months if I wanted to do some tourism. And then it was 13 months because I ended up doing all the post-production there.
How much fun is it to shoot gore as a horror filmmaker?
It’s much more fun to watch than it is to do because to do it is just really technical. You’re just so nervous that it’s not going to work. So you’re either fussing with a tube and blood and it’s not working right and you’re just frustrated and you’re running over time or it’s like, you get one chance with it because you only have one of these things. If we’re going to throw a model T into the water, you got to get it on that first try because doing it twice is going to be a real hassle.
And so it’s very stressful and sort of tedious, but it is the stuff that when all put together, you never see any of that in so it is the most fun to see. I mean, the scene where she attacked [redacted for spoiler] with the axe, that’s one take. It’s very hard and they’re running full speed and it was a camera on a crane, on a Porsche that had to go up and it was just like, we have to do this and then a whole bunch of other shit today, but this has got to be great. That was hard to choreograph and hard to do. It turned out how I’d hoped, but it was definitely nerve-wracking.
Do you have any super specific pet peeves when you’re watching other people’s movies, about how certain gore should look? Where you’re like, “Oh, come on that blood’s too light or that’s not what guts should look like!”
I have it with CGI. I’m not like, “You should never use CGI,” but when you use CGI for gore stuff, what it’s great for is like, “Oh man, this is the best take we have, and you can see the tube.” Well, with CGI, you can take the tube out and that’s a great tool. But now it’s so much easier, to put everything from squib hits from people getting shot or stabbed or whatever, this sort of CGI blood in. And no matter what you do, it just doesn’t look right. Because it’s not really there. And there’s something that’s not as visceral about it. And part of what you’re trying to do is sell something that’s kind of gross or at least gives you a reaction. I tend to just see CGI stuff and just go “Well, there’s some CGI,” rather than be like, he got shot, and that really kicks me out of it. It’s become so prevalent for obvious reasons, it’s just much faster, but it doesn’t really feel the same.
When you’re designing all your FX and stuff like that, what’s the pettiest reason you’ve ever had to make a prop guy or an FX guy redo a thing? Do you ever end up putting something in the movie just because you feel too bad about having them remake it again?
It’s probably happened. Off the top of my head I can’t think of… I mean, there’s probably certainly times where you’re like, I don’t love this, but don’t want to break someone’s heart over it and let’s find a way to do it. But yeah, I’m pretty obsessive in prep, so I try to get ahead of all that. And most of those tech scenarios happen prior to making a movie where you’re in the office and you’re like, I’m going to have to tell this person that we got to redo this and that’s going to be brutal, but that’s also just part of it, you know.
Do you have to get yourself into a mindset where you can forgive yourself for being super anal and critical and meticulous about that stuff in order to get it done right?
It just kind of comes with the territory. Making a movie is just really traumatic. It’s a series of mistakes and failures that you’re trying desperately to hold off and they keep encroaching upon you. So for me personally, I have to be very meticulous and I have to be very planned and have to be expecting everything to go wrong so that when it does, rather than be devastated by it, I have the backup plan ready to go. I go in as a pessimist and hopefully I’m pleasantly surprised throughout the day. That’s the way that I approach it because it’s so unlikely that any of the stuff would ever work well, for instance, throwing a model T into the water or an alligator that was practical, that was on a winch that had a moving tail and all this stuff. It’s like, all these parts in theory should work, but when the time comes to do it, if it doesn’t work, it’s a real hassle to fix. And you’re just desperately trying to get it. There’s no shortage of times on a film set where you’re off by yourself in the corner, just sitting on the ground, thinking like, “Oh God, how am I going to fix this?”
I’ve read that there are two types of filmmakers, where some really enjoy the pre-production process, and then the actual production process is just a nightmare for them. And then other types where the production part is their favorite part, where they get to feel like they’re doing and playing around and it’s the writing that’s like pulling teeth.
Whatever I’m not doing at the time is the one I like. So if I’m writing, I’m like, “Oh, if only we were just on set.” And if I’m on set, I’m like, “If only I could be back writing.” Or editing, same thing. But I think that at the end of the day, being on set is the most fun because at least it’s social. Whereas for me, because I write and edit also, those are very lonely journeys. Especially editing, because you’ve just had this really interesting experience with a large group of people that you’ve become very close with, and then they all go off to their lives and you go into a room and continue doing the same thing, and now you’re faced with all of the shortcomings and things and trying to deal with that. That’s just kind of psychologically draining in general. This is kind of why I say making a movie is traumatic, is it does kick your ass for the year you work on it, but this comes with the territory.
When you’re editing, do you have any strategies for tricking yourself into feeling like you’re watching something for the first time like the audience would be and not the 15,000th time or whatever it actually is for you?
I don’t. But when I was in New Zealand, James Cameron was there doing Avatar. And I heard from someone — this may not be true, but I heard it from someone — that once he feels pretty good about a cut of the movie, he flips it in the edit so that the screen is a mirror image of itself. So now everything that was on the left is now on the right and he watches it that way, because there are things in the frame that when you flip it, you have to see the movie like it’s the first time because your eyes don’t have a habitual nature of where to be. I don’t know if he actually does that or if it’s just a story that I heard. So anyway, I tried it and it does kind of do that. It’s weird also because you’re sort of jarred by it, but that was something that I learned for the first time after seven or eight movies or whatever. Other than that, if you watch it with people, you can feel it. They don’t have to say anything, you can feel it when it’s not working and you can feel it when it’s working and that’s kind of the best way to do it.